Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
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K. Kapparis, edition of March 22, 2003
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For less well-off women some of these parameters and moral standards were not applicable, as they often needed to work in harsh conditions in order to support their families. It would be easy for a financially comfortable matron to seek a respectable life away from the crowds, but the poor Athenian woman who had to sell vegetables in the market, just to take one example, spent the whole of her day talking to strange men. Dealing and trading in places where respectable women would not go might be a necessity for a poor woman, and a soft, pale, lady-like skin, fine jewelry and nice clothes would be dreams beyond her reach. If her husband was dead or away on military service and she had no rich relatives to support her, she would need to become the man and the woman of the household, feed her children, take care of their upbringing and face all the pressures that working single parents with a modest income had to face throughout history. Job opportunities for women were limited, and those that existed were to be found mainly in the health sector (nursing and midwifery), small businesses, petty trading, and small-scale manufacturing (Dem. 57.33-45). This is why some found it easier to follow the path of prostitution, if their looks allowed it, with its sudden rewards but also its many dangers. Male and female prostitution was permitted by Athenian law, and treated in a similar manner as other disreputable but necessary jobs, such as a sausage-seller or a worker in the public baths. Male prostitutes should refrain from advising the assembly, accept certain offices or serve as one of the nine archons (because of the extensive religious responsibilities of these offices), but otherwise they could live as they wished (Aeschin. 1.19-20). Brothels had to pay taxes, and operated under a fixed ceiling price. Most of the workers in brothels were slaves. Considering that they had a high turnover of low-class clientele, and little or no medical care, their life expectancy would be rather low, and the conditions of their lives often appalling. Free-lance prostitutes had a higher chance of a better life as they could make more money, regulate their working hours, and take control of their lives. High class prostitutes, the famous hetairai of the ancient world, lived a life of wealth and luxury while they were at their prime, and had a much better chance of finding someone willing to take them as concubines and allow them to live their mature years in respectability. Unlike most women in the ancient world these hetairai received an education intended to enhance their seductive prowess, were given long lessons on good social skills, and taught in a manner that would allow them to develop a charming personality (see Athenaios, book 13, and Dem. 59.18-40). It is perhaps an irony that those respectable matrons who scrupulously lived a life of virtue behind the walls of their household have been forgotten, while the often despised courtesans of Athens, Corinth, Megara, and Ionian Greece have secured a personal place in history. Some of these women played an important role at the side of influential men, while some others were the only women in the ancient world who were able and willing to live independently without a man at their side. If they were free-born or already liberated from slavery, they could put aside some of their earnings, amass a large fortune, and then spend it as they fancied, unfettered by the boundaries which respectable women had to observe. Lais, Neaira, Thais, Glykera, Gnathaina, Bacchis, Nannion, Nikarete of Megara and several others have become legends in their own right, and can be viewed as early representatives of feminist assertiveness and independent spirit.
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