Hellenic Star 7/9/00, reprinted in Greek American Review and Athens News

Salamis, Tarts, Paedophilia and Pornikotelos
by Andrew Leech (aleech@ath.forthnet.gr)

According to contemporaries, Solon the Lawgiver established the first licensed brothels in Athens around 594 BC, but the reasons for this have rarely been properly examined. Lujo Bassermann (the Oldest Profession, New English Library, 1965) posits: “It is not yet quite clear why the Greeks threw themselves with such enthusiasm into the cult of prostitution ... it is certain, however, that the philosopher and legislator Solon first prescribed the brothel for Athenians in order to preserve them from homosexuality. It is equally certain no medicine was ever so delightfully swallowed.” However, this opinion is not accepted by all.

To understand Solon’s decision we must take into account the burgeoning rise of Athens, prior to the Golden Age, as a metropolis and Piraeus as a port which dramatically increased the number of transient visitors (sailors, tourists, merchants and immigrant job-seekers) - mostly men unable to satisfy sexual urges with friends or family. Though temple prostitution had flourished since around 2300 BC (spreading from Mesopotamia to other countries), and known as the cult of Aphrodite in Ancient Greece, where women generally offered themselves freely to comely passers-by, this relief was not commonly available to the poorer economic strata except at Corinth, where the famous Temple employed professional harlots for the needs of seamen.

It was against this social background that the Lawgiver established the first brothel in Athens (probably near the Kerameikos). Though the actual decree has not survived we, fortunately, have the testimony of contemporaries and their descendants, coupled with municipal and tax records.

Nikander of Colophon, a priest in the service of Apollo, categorically affirmed the event took place and  the words of the dramatist Philemon (361-263 BC) in his play, the Delphians, come to mind, in the scene where he addresses Solon“Thus didst thou become the benefactor of thy fellow citizens, believing that such an establishment would secure their health and peace of mind.The place was unquestionably necessary, too, in a city where the impetuous young could no longer restrain themselves from tempestuously yielding to the most potent of nature’s injunctions. Thou didst avert great mischief and inevitable disorder by installing women in certain houses.”  This evidence is further substantiated by Athenaeus in his fifteen volumes of quotations.

It must have been a very difficult decision. By going directly against the mores of his time Solon, doubtless, had to defend himself against misinterpretation in taking such initiative. One false step and he would have been covered with ridicule. On the other hand he also had to accept the fears of contemporary aristocratic Athenians “that the city’s restlessness represented a danger to decent womenfolk and well-behaved maidservants.” 

Solon acquired the first building (deikterio) in the name of the Municipality of Athens, then approached the Levantine slave-traders for a suitable supply of women ‘well instructed in the techniques of erotic cajolery.’ Entrance was fixed at one obol: the cost of a loaf of bread - an act that gained him the highest praise from supporters and voters!

Contrary to expectation there were no complaints from the female votaries of Aphrodite or the early, well placed hetairae who would have “scorned the Scythian watchmen or yokels who went to Solon’s building to fill the public purse.” The brothel later achieved great popularity among the well-heeled: an unexpected event that gave the girls a cachet that resulted in invitations to parties in smart society. Furthermore, legislation was enacted making brothels (like temples) inviolate; “no father could pursue a son, nor constable arrest a criminal” within one.

Salamis and the Tart

Taxation was introduced under the significant name of pornikotelos (or telos pornikon: Aeschines, 1, 188)and the rights of collection farmed out to individuals who paid the State a lump sum for its commutation and then energetically went about increasing their investment. The city of Athens devoted these profits solely to shipbuilding and armaments; and there is a cunning economic twist to the famous Battle of Salamis in that some of the ships were “paid for by the local tarts, rowed by their customers and commanded by their son” (the latter a reference to Themistocles, whose  mother was reputed to be a  deikteriada). After the battle Themistocles celebrated by harnessing the four most famous courtesans to a chariot that was pulled around the Kerameikos. One of these was Lamia the Elder who, later, endowed a famous picture gallery at Sicyon!

Though Herodotus tells us that Themistocles was solely responsible for financing the ships used at Salamis, this is not strictly true. The State of Athens had to finance shipbuilding and armaments out of taxation and it was here, in the pornikotelos, that the local tarts offered their share. The decision of Themistocles (10 years before the Battle of Salamis) to devote the profits from the Lavrion silver mines to constructing 200 ships for defence purposes (55% of the total fleet eventually involved) in no way detracts from the contributions of the tarts (who had been contributing for the previous 120 years) towards the remaining craft. I can well understand Herodotus not wanting to go into details - after all, he may not have considered the matter worthy enough for his grand opus - and other historians came later. It is a small point, but a cogent one, that Herodotus was only 4 years old at the Battle of Salamis and was unlikely to have been able to report on it accurately, even if he had been an eye witness. Aeschylus is the only contemporary who actually fought and whose writings survive. Thucydides was not born until about 15 years after and Plutarch arrived in AD 46.

After all, who is to say - following the parable of the straw that broke the camel’s back - at what exact point the Persians started retreating? Was it when one of their craft was rammed by a “Lavrion Silver Miner,” or did the pointed phallic shaft of a “Tart Special” send it to a muddy bottom?

Such statement, scurrilous and irreverent though it may appear, does not in the least detract from the naval Battle of Salamis being a master-stroke of military genius and a testament to the courage and bravery of the relatively untrained crews. Did the fact that some ancient “Sexy Sadie” help pay for warships , lessen the crews’ contribution and valour? Of course not, it’s just an extra titbit of social history: possibly a vignette of some of the women behind the men!

History of the Athenian Brothel

Deikteriades were only allowed to go out at hours when no decent woman would be on the streets; and Solon, himself, specified certain garments and colours they had to wear. The brothels were, equally, unmistakably marked; not by red lights or large house numbers, but by a painted or carved Priapic emblem.

With the success of the first deikterio others followed in areas where they seemed likely to prosper. The merchandise grew more copious and the atmosphere more agreeable and in time a professional hierarchy developed: deikteriades (show girls), auletrides (flute players and dancers) and the hetairai (high class courtesans). According to Pierre Dufour: “the first were, so to speak, slaves in the world of prostitutes, the second their trainers and the third their sovereigns.”

Schools were opened for the training of prostitutes, such as that of Nikareta (whom we know of through a speech by Demosthenes) who taught the famous hetaira: Neaera. Although all graduates dreamed of eventually achieving the envied position of the successful hetaira, for most their degree unfortunately led them to the low class brothels of Piraeus or notorious Corinth (described by Pauly-Wissowas in the Encyclopaedia of Classical Antiquity as: “the most frequented city of prostitution in Greece”), eventual obscurity and oblivion.

Thus we see that the role played in antiquity of the humble Athenian brothel was not one that merely existed to contain a vice, but one that was successfully integrated by the contemporary politicians and administrators into a prominent guardian/social service role aimed at contributing towards ensuring the safety of the city of Athens.

Effect on paedophilia

However, a burning question that still remains, and has often been asked, is whether Solon’s prescription had any effect on paederasty or paedophilia; and for this we must return to history. “How widespread male prostitution was at Athens in Solon’s time” says Licht, “is clear from the fact this great statesman, poet and philosopher, not only forbade pederasty to slaves by legislation, since this freest manifestation of man’s self-determination was only permitted to free men, but laid under a penalty those who made a trade of their beauty” (Sexual life in Ancient Greece, Abbey Library, 1932, pp 436-7).  “It is to be feared,” says the orator Aeschines ( 4th cent BC, Contra Timarchum., 13, 138, 137), to whom we are largely indebted for our knowledge of these laws of Solon ... “that anyone who sells his body for money will also lightly sacrifice the common interests of the state.”

We could also consider Aristophanes (Plutos, 153) “And they say that the boys do this very thing, not for their lovers, but for money’s sake. Not the better sort, but the sodomites; for the better sort do not ask for money,” or the speech of Lysias (393 BC) written for an Athenian in love with a boy from Plateae, where it is related that a man hired a youth by contract for the purpose of using him in this way. That comely male prisoners of war were also sold to brothels is also documented. The best known example being Phaedo of Elis (Diogenes Laertes, ii, 105) with whom Socrates, on the day of his death, held the famous dialogue on the immortality of the soul. Phaedo had been sold to an Athens brothel, where Socrates made his acquaintance and induced one of his adherents to buy off. It is interesting that Phaedo, perhaps the most touching dialogue ever written by Plato was named after a young man who, only a short time before, was at the disposal of anyone who cared to pay for him! The comic poet Theopompos (4th cent BC: Schol. Pind., Pyth., 2, 75,  - in Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta, I, 740) also tells us that one of the best known boys’ brothels was on the rocky cone of Lycabettus. “On my rocky height boys willingly give themselves up to those of the same age and to others.” Today, the same rocky cone is crowned by a church.

However, despite Solon’s sexual prescription, the Ancient Greeks never gave up their love for young men. “Paedophilia was to the Greeks at first the most important way of bringing up the Greek youth. As the good mother and housewife was to them the ideal of the girl, so êáëïêÜãáèßá, the symmetrically harmonic development of body and soul, was that of the boy; and the most excellent way of approaching this ideal was the love of boys.” (Licht, p 441)

Plato wrote: “Since then Eros is acknowledged to be the oldest god, we owe to him the greatest blessings. For I cannot say what greater benefit can fall to the lot of a young man than the virtuous lover and to the lover than a beloved youth.” (Symposium, 178c) and in a fragment of his poetry Solon (fragment 44) compares the beauty of boys with the flowers of spring. It is interesting that Solon, who was himself homosexual (Aeschines, Tim., 138; Charicles, ii, 262 ff.) issued laws not only for the creation of brothels, but also for the regulation of pederasty; “providing that a slave might not have (sexual) connection with a free-born boy (though vice versa was allowable). This shows us 2 things: first that paedophilia was recognized in Athens by the legislator, and secondly, that the legislator did not consider the feeling of superiority of the freeborn to be diminished by intimate relations with slaves” (Licht p 452). However, these laws only affected Athenian full citizens; the great mass of ÎÝíïé (that is non-Athenian immigrants) had complete freedom in the matter! That these laws did not strike at the institution of paederastia, itself, is shown by the fact that the State taxed those who procured boys and youths as well as those who supplied women (Aeschines, Tim., 119).

However, it would be entirely wrong to assume that sensuality denoted the only (or at least the most important) element of the Hellenic love for boys. Quite the contrary is the case: everything that made Greece great, everything that created for the Greeks a civilization that will be admired as long as the world exists, had its root in the unexampled ethical valuation of the masculine character in public and private life where Eros was the principle not only of the sensual but also the ideal side of Greek paedophilia. Pederasty was never an alternative to marriage in Ancient Times; it was always viewed as a supplement.

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