BMCR 2022.08.21

Sexual labor in the Athenian courts

, Sexual labor in the Athenian courts. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021. Pp. 240 . ISBN 9781477324400 $55.00.

The title says it all. “Sexual Labor.” “In the Athenian Courts.”

In the Athenian Courts.” By reconstructing social history through analyses of entire speeches from the Athenian courts,Allison Glazebrook’s splendid and important book demonstrates how far scholarship on “Attic Oratory” has progressed from its original cardinal use as guidance to prose style[1] and from its more recent research role of providing unconnected snippets (or, in Glazebrook’s term, “specific tidbits”) illustrative of particular aspects of Greek history orculture. Glazebrook instead explores sexual labor principally through chapter-length explorations of five forensic presentations: two speeches that have been lately much parsed (Aeschines 1 and pseudo-Demosthenes 59) and three still seldom studied (Lysias 3 and 4, Isaios 6) –– augmented by occasional detailed attention to a few other orations, especially pseudo-Demosthenes 48 and Hypereides Against Athenogenes. By examining individual speeches “in depth,” uniting intensive analyses of single orations with a continuing comparative focus on a few key themes, Glazebrook succeeds in identifying certain “core masculine values” and the paid sexual behavior(s) (both male and female) that Athenians perceived as threatening to those virile values –– and to the patriarchal “democratic” polis controlled by its male citizens.

Information from the Athenian courts, of course, is not our only important source for knowledge of sexual labor in Attica. Glazebrook finds valuable evidence in authors such as Aristotle, Plato and Xenophon. Glazebrook also works with a wide variety of comic material, especially the plays of Aristophanes. She finds, however, that “oratory presents a picture of sex laborers very different from what appears in other genres, such as New Comedy and philosophy” (1), but never elucidates possible systemic reasons for this variance.

Glazebrook’s exploration, in fact, is somewhat constrained by an Athenian court system whose adversarial structure inherently evoked tendentious, and therefore, in some regards, intrinsically unreliable, presentations. Unfortunately, opponents’ responses –– theoretically key to an adversarial system’s attainment of truth and justice –– have not survived for any of the cases featured by Glazebrook. Moreover, modern scholars are in wild divergence on whether Athenian trials actually have anything to do with truth or even justice: some academics see Athenian private litigation, inter alia, as largely “theatre” or as a situs for the venting of elite social animosities, or as a manipulative conflict in which the party more skilled at distorting truth prevails.[2] Although Glazebrook provides a useful introduction containing basic information about Athenian litigation, including an allusion to “democratic Athens” and its law courts as a “performance culture” (166, n. 54), she never proposes a methodology through which forensic averments can be heuristically evaluated and never offers her own analysis of the proper evidentiary use of Athenian court material.

Sexual Labor.” These two words immediately proclaim Glazebrook’s determination to avoid both ameliorating and pejorative rubrics in her discussion of ancient commercial sex. Entirely eschewing terms like “prostitutes,” “courtesans,” or “whores,” Glazebrook chooses to write of “sexual laborers,” thus joining a recent academic trend away from moralistictreatments of erotic commerce in classical Greece. Glazebrook also rejects, however, use of the terms “sexual worker” or “sex worker,” presently the secular words du jour for those who think that providing sex for money should be seen as essentially a job like any other. For Glazebrook, denomination of Greek purveyors of eros as “sex workers” would erroneously “dilute the fact of enslavement as a crucial element of the ancient sexual market” (20). Glazebrook’s substitution of “sexual laborer” for “sexual worker” is consonant with her long-held belief that compulsion is a “centrally important” aspect of ancient prostitution.[3] But Glazebrook’s actual linguistic practice is far from monotonic. She terms brothel prostitutes “sex slaves,” but employs the somewhat euphemistic “sexual companions” for hetairai (whom some modern scholars do denominate as “courtesans”). And occasionally she opts simply for retaining Greek terminology, writing of pornos, pornê, paidiskê, pallakê, hetaira etc.

Although scholars generally have guessed (in the absence of preserved statistical evidence) that in classical antiquity men and women working as prostitutes were predominantly unfree, not all sexual laborers in this period were enslaved. Athenian literary sources recurrently tell of female prostitutes who had achieved extraordinary affluence –– the so-called “big earners” (megalomisthoi), “the wealthy, famous hetaeras of the law courts and the comic stage.”[4] In Roman times, high compensation and an early form of the “gig economy” (the possibility of working only part-time) “encouraged freeborn women and freedwomen to enter prostitution” and discouraged them from “leaving the profession.” [5] In fact, free women represent about 20% of the female practitioners memorialized in the brothel identified at Pompeii.[6]

Differentiation between free and enslaved sexual labor, however, is not an absolute determinant of the conditions under which prostitutes functioned at Athens. A prime contribution to our understanding of sexual labor at Athens is Glazebrook’s demonstration that even enslaved sexual laborers were sometimes far from powerless. Thus, the central personage in Lysias 4 is an enslaved erotic laborer who “emerges as a dangerous personality skilled in the manipulation of her clients” (22). Although two men struggle for her affection, the sole surviving litigation speech (presenting the position of only one antagonist) insists that her stratagems “undermine the masculinity (and therefore the social legitimacy) of the opponent who is overcome with desire for her” (27, 29). In [Demosthenes] 48, an enslaved female sexual laborer allegedly manipulates a previously highly-esteemed Athenian man, diminishing “his masculinity and social legitimacy” (30). In Isaios 6, a female sex slave, Alke, demonstrates her “possession of agency” (61) by purportedly taking control of a wealthy male citizen’s wealth and persona, causing him to abandon his wife and children. Not only does the slave exercise “power” over her sexual partner; she also induces other male citizens to “act under her guidance and work with her when they plot to rob (her client) of his property” (54). Indeed, allegedly “her behavior puts the polis at risk” (57). The polis is similarly threatened by the notorious (former) slave Neaira, the dominant character in [Demosthenes] 59. “Neaira’s story has a similar trajectory to the story of Alke” (69). She is a controlling personage, recurrently bending Athenian male citizens to her will, thereby “becom(ing) a threatening figure. . . a sex laborer (who) . . . corrupts the citizen body” (92).

Male prostitutes likewise might manifest an alarming hegemony –– dealing dismissively with their citizen lovers, undermining Athenian concepts of manliness (andreia) to such an extent as to constitute an existential “threat to the social fabric and to democracy more generally” (116). This menace is personified by the enslaved male sex laborer in Hypereides’s Against Athenogenes who–– because of a male citizen’s all-consuming passion for him –– is able “to set the terms for his (own) use” (98), including the freeing of himself and other members of his family from a third-party owner. In Aeschines 1, an alleged sex laborer is able to generate an unseemly struggle between a distinguished citizen and an affluent public slave, culminating in a physical altercation grossly violative of the fundamental Athenian masculine virtue of self-control (sophrosune). In Lysias 3, a male prostitute imperiously reacts to a client’s behavior “by refus(ing) to associate with” the male citizen who had treated him with disrespect (31). When two Athenians become enmeshed in litigation involving this young sexual laborer, the sole speech surviving from this case is replete with examples of the extreme extent to which the speaker’s opponent, smitten with the sex laborer, “appears to lack all control in his encounters with” the prostitute (113). But the speaker also behaves badly: he discloses “his opponent’s characterization of him as foolish in his behavior toward the youth” (3.31). Although the status of this prostitute –– free or enslaved? –– has been the subject of sustained and continuing scholarly dispute, his control over both his male citizen clients is grossly violative of Athenian andreia regardless of the sexual laborer’s own personal status.

Glazebrook’s demonstration of the potential power of even enslaved sex laborers in Athens is a signal example of the many insights found in this volume. Scholars of Athens, and academics pursuing gender and liberation studies, are alike now indebted to Allison Glazebrook for an outstanding book, well-organized, well-researched and well-written, offering a pioneering approach to the writing of social history.


[1] See M. Gagarin, Series Editor’s Introduction to the volumes of The Oratory of Classical Greece.

[2] See S. Humphreys, “Social Relations on Stage: Witnesses in Classical Athens,” in Oxford Readings in the Attic Orators, pp. 140–213 (Oxford 2007); D. Cohen, Law, Violence and Community in Classical Athens, pp. 70, 82 (Cambridge 1995); E. Harris, The Rule of Law in Action in Democratic Athens, pp. 12–13 (Oxford 2013).

[3] K. Kapparis, Prostitution in the Ancient Greece World, p. 21(Berlin/Boston 2018).

[4] L. McClure, Courtesans at Table: Gender and Greek Literary Culture in Athenaeus, p. 48 (London 2003).

[5] T. McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World: A Study of Social History and the Brothel, pp. 65, 71 (Ann Arbor 2004).

[6] S. Levin-Richardson, The Brothel of Pompeii: Sex, Class, and Gender at the Margins of Roman Society, p. 40 (Cambridge 2019).