Prostitution in Classical and Jewish Antiquity

    Talia Goldman

            Prostitution was a prevalent institution in the ancient world, but the perception of it varied between cultures.  References to prostitutes in ancient Jewish and ancient Greek and Roman sources that survive present two very different perspectives that reflect the relative values of each culture.  The evidence about prostitution sheds light not only upon the role and view of the prostitutes themselves, but also of the men who visited them.  In addition, perhaps the study of prostitution in the Greek and Roman world can shed light on the context and lives of many of the prostitutes mentioned in Jewish sources, since the two cultures certainly met and influenced each other.

            To a certain extent prostitutes were in a similar position as outsiders in ancient Jewish, Greek and Roman society.  But the case was much more extreme in Jewish society, for prostitutes would have been marginalized by law, as the Bible states “No Israelite woman shall be a prostitute”[1] (Deuteronomy 23.18), by tradition and faith, as well as by social structures.  This law is in direct opposition to Greek and Roman society, as far as can be seen from what little evidence survives of a legal code.  From the case against Neaera, a court case against a wealthy courtesan, it seems as though it was legal for a woman to sell herself and her daughters as prostitutes.  Apollodorus, whose account of the case has survived, explains that Nicarete, the owner of a brothel, “used to address them as daughters, so that she might exact the largest fee from those who wished to have dealings with them” (Apollodorus 19).  Thomas McGinn refers to a quotation from Seneca that mentions the practice in Rome of “personally handing over one’s children for the purpose of fornication” (McGinn 57).  And in Greece, As Debra Hamel points out in Trying Neaira, “Prostitution itself…was perfectly legal.  Indeed, prostitutes were taxed by the state in Athens, so little interest did the polis have in suppressing the industry.  Buying sex from prostitutes, then, was sanctioned by law” (Hamel 13). 

The impression that comes across from the range of evidence is that in Greek and Roman culture, the institution of prostitution was an accepted and almost expected part of society, although McGinn points out that it “was widespread but not universal” (McGinn 28).  In Jewish culture, it was not nearly so ideal to have prostitution, but since Jewish culture came into contact with other cultures and prostitution was part of the reality in antiquity, “the rabbis had to explain and somehow encompass [prostitution] within their moral framework” (Bronner 142).  Prostitution was not something that could be ignored entirely in the Bible and later Jewish texts, and “legislators of old realized the futility of trying to ban prostitution altogether, as it had always been an inseparable part of civilization” (Bar-Ilan, 132).  Although Jewish leaders were forced to accept the institution, prostitutes themselves “were on the lowliest social rung” according to Meir Bar-Ilan.  They were at least viewed as foreign, outsiders, as is indicated by a few stories referring to the prostitutes residing in towns by the sea, that is, on the outskirts of the country.  Prostitutes in the Greek and Roman world were also still the outsiders, despite the perfect legality of prostitution and despite the fact that “most Greek and Roman men considered the institution of prostitution essential to avoid the danger of their own wives’ and daughters’ seduction” (Davies 234).  Women who became prostitutes were certainly not the respectable and accepted members of society but in most cases were slaves or freed women without other means of supporting themselves (McGinn 60).

Regardless of the way in which the institution was viewed by the two cultures, the ancient sources more often include references to individual women who were prostitutes, and do not necessarily address the institution as a whole.  This provides a remarkable comparison between the depictions of prostitutes and the men who made use of their services.  Typically, individual prostitutes who were memorable enough to be mentioned in both Jewish and Greek or Roman sources were extravagant and extremely wealthy and beautiful, with wealthy patrons.  But one crucial difference that must be kept in mind in any comparison of the writings from these two cultures is that the very type of source that has survived from each differs from the other.  The Jewish sources were particularly chosen to be canonized and passed down as part of the body of Jewish literature, and are mostly anecdotal and intended to be didactic.  What remains from ancient Greece and Rome, on the other hand, has survived purely by chance, and does not seem for the most part to be didactic or moralistic in nature. 

There are still, however, similarities in the status of the individual prostitutes mentioned, which can be seen in the following story about the courtesan Lais and the orator Demosthenes:

Sotion says “Lais, a Corinthian woman, earned a large income from her elegance and attractive beauty.  Rich men from all over Greece gathered frequently to see her.  No-one was admitted unless he gave her…an exorbitant amount.” He says that this is the source of the familiar Greek proverb, “The journey to Corinth isn’t for every man,” because anyone who could not pay Lais what she asked for traveled to Corinth in vain.  Sotion continues, “Demosthenes came to Lais secretly and asked her to give herself to him.  Lais asked for ten thousand drachmas.  Demosthenes was shocked…by the enormity of the cost.  He turned away and left, saying…‘For ten thousand drachmas, I won’t buy disappointment.’  (Aulus Gellius)

Lais was clearly extremely beautiful and influential, but she is brought under scrutiny for her extravagance and high prices.  The proverb and the quote from Demosthenes seem to indicate that this story is leaning toward the tendency of Jewish sources to provide some sort of lesson to the readers of the harlot tales.  In the Babylonian Talmud, canonized in the fifth century CE, but the written compilation of a longstanding Jewish oral tradition, “there are many anecdotes about prostitutes”, called aggadot. (Bar-Ilan 137).  One such story is:

They said of Rabbi Elazar ben Dordia that he did not leave one prostitute in the world that he did not come to.  One time he heard that there was a certain prostitute in a town by the sea who took a purse of dinars for her price.  He took a purse of dinars and went and crossed seven rivers to reach her.  When he arrived she breathed on him and said ‘Just as my breath cannot be returned to its place, so to Elazar ben Dordia will not be accepted in teshuva (repentance)’. (Tractate Avodah Zara 17a)[2]

The story continues to say that Elazar ben Dordia then went to a valley to pray to all the heavenly bodies for assistance, and they all reply to him that they need their prayers for their own repentance.  He eventually realizes that he is the only one who can repent for his own behavior and as he does complete teshuva, he dies and a voice comes out of heaven saying that his teshuva was accepted.  This source is comparable to the story of Lais and Demosthenes, in that the man who visits the expensive and beautiful prostitute ends up not actually following through with his visit, and a lesson is gained from the experience.  But the Talmudic tale is much more moralistic, and contains lessons of repentance and judgment on the men who visit prostitutes.

Many of the Talmudic stories focus more on the rabbinic view of men sleeping with prostitutes than on the prostitutes themselves.  One story of this nature goes as follows:

Once a certain student left his phylacteries in a hole that was near the public property, and a prostitute came along and took them.  She took them to the Beit Hamidrash (house of study) and said ‘See what so and so gave to me as my price!’  When the student heard this he went up to the roof and threw himself off and died. (Tractate Berachot 23a)

Although it is hard to determine conclusively the context for this story, one thing is clear—because of the immorality of sleeping with prostitutes in the Jewish tradition, the young student kills himself rather than be subjected to even the suspicion of such behavior.  In Greek and Roman society on the other hand, it was considered normal for men to visit prostitutes.  It was not seen as immoral at all, although “a man who was known habitually to consort with prostitutes could suffer contempt” (Davies 234).  In the case against Neaira, slurs were cast on some of the men who “kept her and lived with her in a most dissolute and reckless way” (Apollodorus 33).  Clearly within reason it was expected that men would satisfy their sexual appetites by seeing prostitutes, but “a man who visited prostitutes too frequently…might be despised for his lack of self-control” (Hamel 13).

            However not all Talmudic tales, or aggadot, indicate such a harsh attitude to men who visit prostitutes as does the one mentioned above.  In fact, some are quite positive in their view of both the men and the prostitutes themselves.

There was once a man who was particularly careful about the commandment of tzitzit (fringes).  He heard that there was a prostitute in a town by the sea who took four hundred gold coins as her price.  He sent to her four hundred gold coins and set a time to come to her.  When his time came, he went… She said ‘Let him come in’.  When he entered she had prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold…She went up and sat naked on the top bed.  As he was climbing up to sit with her, the four strings of his tzitzit smacked him in the face.  He fell…She came down and said ‘By the city of Rome, I will not let you rest until you tell me what blemish you saw on me.’  He said ‘I have never seen a more beautiful woman than you, but there is one commandment that God commanded us, and tzitzit is its name…Now the tzitzit are witnesses against me.’  She said to him ‘I will not let you rest until you tell me what your name is, the name of your city, the name of your teacher, and the name of the school in which you learned this Torah.’  He wrote it down…She got up and divided her possessions—one third for the government, one third for the poor, and one third she kept, including the sheets from the bed.  She came to the Beit Midrash (house of study) of Rabbi Chiya.  She said ‘Rabbi, command me and make me a convert.’  He said to her ‘My daughter, have you set your eyes on one of the students?’  She took out the paper and gave it to him.  He said ‘Go, and enjoy your purchase.’  Then, the sheets which she had spread for him in prohibition, she now spread for him lawfully. (Tractate Menachot, 44a)

Not only does this story show a more lenient view of the man, who is allowed and even encouraged by his teacher to marry the prostitute, but it demonstrates the view that prostitutes are able to be redeemed.  This specific prostitute is given a more active role than many of the others, seeking out her own redemption, and Rabbi Chiya permits her to marry the student who inspired this change in her.  Usually, the prostitute in these types of stories is not “the heroine; she merely provides circumstantial background…there is no attempt to condone the behavior of the prostitutes” (Bar-Ilan 149).  But in light of the Jewish belief in the power of repentance, it seems appropriate that the rabbis included redemptive stories, with “hope for the harlot”, in their literature (Bronner 142).

            While this type of redemption is not typically found in Greek and Roman sources, there is one epigram by the female poet Nossis which is certainly moving in that direction.

Kallo dedicated her portrait in the house of golden

Aphrodite, the picture painted true to life.

How gentle her stance, see how her grace blossoms!

Greet her with joy, for she has a blameless life. (Nossis)

Marilyn Skinner points out in her article Nossis and Women’s Cult at Locri that this epigram seems to be describing a courtesan, not an ordinary young woman, “since Nossis makes a point of affirming that she bears no blame for her way of life”.  This does not reach the same redemptive quality as the Talmudic story that allows a prostitute to completely convert and leave her former lifestyle, presumably being entirely accepted into normative Jewish society.  But it is the only instance in Greek sources of a prostitute being considered “blameless”, and it is interesting to note that the author is a woman.  “Nossis’ warm eulogies of courtesans and their profession are unparalleled.”  Perhaps one can infer that women in ancient Greece and Rome held less contempt for women who for whatever reason were prostitutes than the men who wrote most of the literature.  “Nossis’ poems raise a question about the blurring of rigid caste distinctions between respectable and non-respectable women” (Skinner).  She may not have been able to entirely redeem the courtesans she admired, but at least her epigrams take a step toward bringing them in from the outskirts of society.

But in Jewish tradition, the theme of the ability of prostitutes to entirely repent and convert to Judaism begins far earlier than the Talmud, with one of the earliest stories involving a prostitute in Jewish texts, the biblical story in the book of Joshua. 

Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim, saying, “Go, reconnoiter the region of Jericho.” So they set out, and they came to the house of a harlot named Rahab and lodged there.  The king of Jericho was told, “Some men have come here tonight, Israelites, to spy out the country.”  The king of Jericho thereupon sent orders to Rahab: “Produce the men who came to you and entered your house, for they have to spy out the whole country.”  The woman, however, had taken the two men and hidden them…(Joshua 2.1-4)

The text continues to explain the deal that Rahab makes with the spies—in exchange for their lives she asks for a signal that will allow her family to escape unharmed when the Israelites attack Jericho.  Rahab and her household are indeed “spared by Joshua…and she dwelt among the Israelites” (Joshua 6.25).

The fact that Rahab’s house was in the wall of the city “suggests that she kept a house easily available to men going in and out of the city, in the outlying quarters away from the daily life of the respectable inhabitants of the town” (Bronner 148). This returns to the way in which prostitutes were the outsiders, the “other” in antiquity, no matter how necessary or inevitable their existence was.  Here Rahab is the heroine of the story, and is duly rewarded.  Her story has sometimes been read as a mere momentary spotlight for the prostitute, as by Phyllis Bird in “Prostitution in the Social World and Religious Rhetoric of Ancient Israel”.  She writes, “The valor and nobility exhibited by the prostitute does not change her status.  The harlot heroine remains a harlot.  She is lifted up for a moment into the spotlight by the storyteller, but her place remains in the shadows of Israelite society.” (Bird 49)  While this may be a good reading of these chapters of the Bible at first glance, to get the entire picture one must really take into account the rest of rabbinic tradition and literature.

Although some medieval commentators offered a “sanitized version” of Rahab, saying that she was an innkeeper or a perfumer and not a prostitute (Bronner 149), most sources in the Jewish tradition do not try to deny her profession.  One opinion expressed in the Talmud is that “There was no prince or ruler who had not slept with Rahab the prostitute” (Tractate Zevachim 116b).  Leila Leah Bronner explains that “Several Talmudic traditions hold that Rahab had played the harlot throughout the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert (she took up harlotry at the age of ten)” (Bronner 149).  But while they do not deny, and perhaps even exaggerate, Rahab’s experiences as a prostitute, they at the same time allow her an honored place in Jewish tradition.  In several sources “the rabbi’s tradition marries her to Joshua, the conquering hero…she becomes a progenitor of priests and prophets” (Bronner 149).  Her past as a harlot is not held against her, and is almost entirely forgotten once she converts to Judaism.

This complete redemption of individual prostitutes after repentance and conversion is perhaps indicative of the Jewish desire to believe fully in the power of repentance and change of behavior.  But no matter what the reason, the phenomenon of the rehabilitated prostitute is drastically different from the treatment of prostitutes in Greek sources, particularly as indicated by the case of Neaera.  Unlike Rahab, Neaera is not allowed to become part of the normative Greek society, although she tries.  The point of view expressed by Nossis in her epigrams is “refreshingly at odds with the prejudice expressed by Apollodorus in Against Neaera” (Skinner).  Unfortunately, however, Apollodorus’ speech is one of the main ancient sources regarding prostitutes, and seems to express a normal and accepted opinion held by the men of Greek society.  In a similar way to the Talmudic statements regarding Rahab’s prolific activity as a harlot, Apollodorus repeatedly mentions the sheer number of men who were customers of Neaera.  He says “On that occasion, many men made love to Neaera…including even some of Chabrias’ servants” (Apollodorus 33).  Her work as a prostitute is mentioned as an element of the disgrace associated with her, because she was excessive in her habits.  “She worked openly at Corinth as a prostitute, and became famous.  Among her lovers were Xenoclides the poet…” (Apollodorus 26).

However, much unlike Rahab, Neaera is never permitted to become a citizen and accepted member of Greek society.  Much of Apollodorus’ efforts in his speech go to proving her a foreigner and her children illegitimate citizens of Athens.  “I now desire to prove to you…that she is an alien,” he comments, and then later repeats “Let me put before you another piece of evidence…to prove that Neaera is a foreigner” (Apollodorus 49, 55).  This is the exact opposite of the rabbinic efforts to eliminate Rahab’s past and make her a character to be admired, emulated, a mother not of illegitimate children but of sages and prophets.  Even the fact that this case against Neaera occurs when she is an old women shows that the prejudice against prostitutes was great.  She had been living as a citizen for years, and at seventy years old, her past was dragged up to be used against her in court. 

This is a drastically different cultural value from the one found in rabbinic literature, which shows “a surprising degree of tolerance, not toward the institution but toward the women themselves and their potential rehabilitation” (Bronner 157).  Despite their male perspective, the rabbis were able to look past the profession of individual women, something that it seems only Nossis, our sole female source, achieved in the Greek and Roman world.  A main divergence between the values of these two cultures is in reference to the placement of value of society as compared to value of the individual.  While Greek and Roman society was prepared to encourage the institution at the expense of the individual, Jewish society was prepared to value the individual above all else.


Works Cited

Apollodorus, Against Neaera, 18-42, 45-60, 72-3, 78-9, 85-7, 110-14, 122. Trans. K. Freeman, (viewed 4/30/07)


Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 1.8. Trans. Neil Bernstein, (viewed 4/30/07)


Nossis, epigrams. Trans. Rayor, Diane J. Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.


Bar-Ilan, Meir. Some Jewish Women in Antiquity. Brown University: 1998.


Bird, Phyllis A. “Prostitution in the Social World and Religious Rhetoric of Ancient Israel”. Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World.  Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.


Bronner, Leila Leah. From Eve to Esther: Rabbinic Reconstructions of Biblical Women. Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.


Davies, Margaret. “On Prostitution.” The Bible in Human Society. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.


Hamel, Debra. Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan’s Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.


McGinn, Thomas A. J. The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World. University of Michigan Press: 2004.


Skinner, Marilyn. Nossis and Women’s Cult at Locri. (viewed 4/30/07)

[1] All Biblical quotations: translation by the Jewish Publication Society, Hebrew-English Tanakh

[2] All Talmudic sources: translation my own unless otherwise noted