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Clever Marketing: Ancient Greek prostitutes wore sandals that printed a message in the ground reading, “Follow me”

Katie Vernon

Prostitution was and is part of almost all cultures around the world, ancient and modern.

The history of prostitution is a very complex one, and it cannot be simplified and understood only as the result of poor lifestyle choices or the product of unfortunate circumstances.

The earliest data on prostitution dates back to the days of the Sumerian culture in ancient Mesopotamia where the profession thrived along with the growth of the marketplaces that attracted the traders and sailors.

The Sumerian goddess Inanna, better known as Ishtar, one of the most prominent cults worshiped across the Middle East was, among other things, a patron of prostitutes and public houses.

A banquet musician reties her himation (long garment) as her client watches. Tondo from an Attic red-figured cup, c. 490 BC, British Museum.

A banquet musician reties her himation (long garment) as her client watches. Tondo from an Attic red-figured cup, c. 490 BC, British Museum.

Prostitution was also part of Ancient Greek society where it was reasonably accepted. Between the 8th and the 5th centuries BC, prostitution was legal in Athens, and like any other occupation, everyone in the business had to pay taxes on their income. There were two types of sex workers, pornai, and hetairai.

The word pornai can also be translated as “buyable,” and it is also the origin of the word “pornography” in the modern English language.

Courtesan and her client, Attican Pelike with red figures by Polygnotus, c. 430 BC, National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo by Marsyas CC BY-SA 2.5,

Courtesan and her client, Attican Pelike with red figures by Polygnotus, c. 430 BC, National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo by Marsyas CC BY-SA 2.5,

Pornai were the common prostitutes who worked in brothels and on the streets. They were often slaves or foreign women with limited rights but all of them had the opportunity to earn money by offering sex services.

The pornai mastered only one technique – to give sexual pleasure. The ones who worked on the streets had a very innovative marketing strategy to lure new clients to certain places in the city, wearing special sandals that left the message “follow me” on the ground.

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It is said that during the 6th century BC, Solon, an Athenian statesman and lawmaker, funded brothels that were filled with pornai. Since the profession was “democratized,” the slave women could buy their freedom, and most of them were staying in the business as “free agents.” The more ambitious ones opened their own brothels.

There were also male prostitutes called pornoi. They were typically clean and shaven, and although they did offer their services to women, primarily, the pornoi serviced older men.

Hetairai translates as “female companion.” The hetairai were beautiful, elegant, well educated, and often accomplished artists. Besides sexual services, they provided entertainment for men.

Visit to the hetaeras. Attic red-figure hydria.

Visit to the hetaeras. Attic red-figure hydria.

Hetairai were generally companions of men from the upper class. Sometimes they accompanied older men to drinking parties more often than their wives did; but mostly they served as “teachers” of sexual techniques to the younger ones.

In ancient Greece, it was expected for a man to get married only after he turned 30. Until then, they often enjoyed the company of the sex workers. Sometimes men kept to one concubine for a longer period, and sometimes they even got married. However, if such a marriage produced a child, it wasn’t recognized as a citizen. Therefore, unfortunately, infanticide was a common practice.

Two banqueters and a hetaera sitting on a klinê. Terracotta from Myrina, Mysia, c. 25 BC.

Two banqueters and a hetaera sitting on a klinê. Terracotta from Myrina, Mysia, c. 25 BC.

The thriving prostitution industry lured travelers to stay longer in Athens, but it gave the city a sense of infamy. Both locals and foreigners enjoyed the sexual services, as well as married men.

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Married women didn’t have much freedom, and they couldn’t do much about their husbands’ infidelity. There is evidence for at least one case where a woman in Athens filed for divorce, stating “involvement with a prostitute” as a reason.

Whereas the women involved in the prostitution business were more independent and had power over their lives. They earned money and could start their own business and decide what they wanted to do.