Hetairai: The Most Emancipated Class of Women in Ancient Athens?

The life of a woman in classical Athens (478-323 BC) was characterised by the absence of any civil rights and the limited number of tasks, regulated by the religious and social customs. The idea of the extreme limitation of freedom for the Athenian women is common in the scholarly tradition, however criticised by some scholars for its general categoricalness (Gomme, 1925; Cohen, 1989). Nevertheless, the social status of women in ancient Athens, regardless of the reasoning about the gradations of their unfreedom, is determined by the fact that they “belonged” to men (first to the father, and then to the husband), did not receive formal education, did not have the right to attend social events or participate in the political life of their state (Gould, 1980). Such was the reality of a woman born into the family of an Athenian citizen, but besides citizen women, foreigners (independent ones or daughters of metics) and slaves, there was another class - hetairai, who, judging by the sources, had more social freedom than their female contemporaries.

The word "hetaira" (ἑταίρα - "aitéra") in ancient Greek was used in the meaning of "girlfriend" or "companion". They were mostly highly educated women, capable of providing an excellent company to the men of the higher classes. As distinct from prostitutes also existent in Athenian society hetairai served their patrons both in the spheres of physical and intellectual needs. Despite the fact that the attention of the hetairai was a paid service, their friendship most likely could not be bought. Hetairai could choose their patron based on personal preferences, and some of them could form a monogamous union with a man. Hetairai were usually free foreigners (metics), who, according to the Athenian laws, could not become wives of the citizens. Their children also could not count on Athenian citizenship. Nevertheless, hetairai, unlike wives or concubines, led a relatively free lifestyle and had the right to attend social events, sport competitions and theatre performances. They, also the only class of women, were allowed to feast at the same table with men (Seltman, 1956).

"The Kaufmann Head", a Hellenistic copy of the Aphrodite of Cnidus by Praxiteles, 2nd c. CE (Laugier, 2021)

The geographical limitation of the study is determined by the specifics of the sources, which, as a rule, originate from ancient Athens and oppose the Athenian way of life as the norm to the very different Spartan reality. Thus, when it comes to the life and society, it is Athens that is taken as the basis for general ideas on the classical Greece (Murray, 1986). One must still understand that the vast Hellenistic world was diverse, therefore the topic under consideration is presented within the framework of the reality of ancient Athens of which we have enough information. In addition, vase painters from Athens, the prior centre for the manufacture of ceramics in the Classical period, left a large corpus of images that serve as one of the most important sources for the study of ancient Greek life (Boardman, 2001).

The late Archaic and Classical periods of ancient Greek art (c. 525-323 BCE) are seen as a transition in terms of depicting a woman: from a distant image of a goddess to the image of a real living person, as, for example, in the terracotta statuettes of the Hellenistic era (323-30 BCE), which could serve as the endpoint of the transition (Uhlenbrock et al., 1990). This trend is clearly expressed in the vase-painting of the late Archaic and Classical period, which tells in much detail, especially in comparison with other types of fine art of the period, about everyday life in Ancient Greece, including the life of women (Boardman, 2001). One of the significant examples of vase painting, that lifts the veil of secrecy over Athenian life, is the production of ca. 505 BCE, an Attic red-figure psykter (a bowl for cooling wine) depicting feasting hetairai by the vase painter Euphronios from the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (Peredolskaja, 1967).

Euphronios, Four Hetairai, ca. 505 BCE (Peredolskaja, 1967)

The iconography chosen by Euphronius for the psykter with hetairai is typical for depicting men, since symposiums (drinking parts of feasts) were considered in the Greek tradition to be male activities (Lissarrague, 1990). In addition, the everyday nudity of women was not typical of Athenian society and, apparently, the painter implied the presence of a man in the plot. One of the hetairai in the vase painting plays the traditional game for the symposia - kottabos, the essence of which was to throw a drop of wine from a cup at a certain target, dedicating her throw to a man named Leagros, as indicated by the inscription located next to her figure. Another hetaira is playing an aulos (double flute) displaying her musical training, which could serve as one of the signs of the certain level of education. Overall, the hetai (Peredolskaja, 1967)rai, depicted by a male painter, are portrayed without patronising and as a natural part of the male world.

Another piece of evidence of what place hetairai occupied in the Athenian social structure, and how it was a different class from the prostitutes and citizen women, can serve as the following words attributed to the Pseudo-Demosthenes in the Apollodorus Against Neaera speech: “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households” (Demospenes 59.122, trans. Norman W. DeWitt & Norman J. DeWitt). As opposed to the "daily care" pleasure, provided by mistresses (in this case hetairai) must have been meant in a sense broader than just physical.

The cream of the Athenian intellectual society gathered in the homes of famous hetairai. These women could play music, knew poetry well, and could have a conversation on philosophical and political topics. In antiquity already, there was an opinion that the most remarkable hetairai had a considerable influence on the decisions of prominent political figures and, accordingly, on the course of events in the polis (Plutarch, Pericles 24).

Nicolas Monsiaux, The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia, 1801 (Kuznetsova et al., 1979)

Such was, perhaps the most famous in history, hetaira Aspasia, the so-called "wife" of the Athenian politician and general Pericles.

In the biography of Pericles, Plutarch gave a portrait of Aspasia, who appeared to be not only a beautiful woman, but also a woman with a "rare political wisdom” (Plutarch, Pericles 24. 3). Prominent political figures were looking for her companies, some brought their wives to listen to her speeches, and Socrates was a frequent guest in her house. It was assumed in the ancient times that the Athenian campaign against Samos, the enemy of Miletus, was carried out by Pericles under an influence of Aspasia who was a Milesian herself (Plutarch, Pericles 24).

Another example of a hetaira, who gained significant fame during her lifetime and preserved her place in history, is the muse of Praxiteles Phryne. We can judge her appearance from the surviving copies of the statue of the Aphrodite of Cnidus. The sculptor chose nude Phryne as a model for the statue of the goddess, which was unprecedented, and the result allegedly became an attraction not only for religious reason but also for inducing erotic fantasies in men (Lucian, Amores 15).

Jean Léon Gérôme, Phryne before the Areopagus, 1861 (Ackerman, 1986)

History preserves information about another evidence of Phryne’s exceptional appearance and fame. The trial for blasphemy against the hetaira, according to Athenaeus, finished with her being completely acquitted after exposing her breasts in front of the judges. The judges allegedly had a supersticious fear to sentence to death such a beautiful gods’ creation (Athenaeus 13 59).

The story of Phryne’s trial, as well as the speech “Against Neaera” mentioned above, form just an insignificant part of the corpus of known lawsuits against hetairai, who were subjected to them more than, for example, male metics. Hetairai along with social rights that allowed them to have access to the more open world of men, gave them more freedom of choice than to citizen women, and, also, together with the right to choose their representative in court, were under a constant threat of attacks from which women of other classes were protected. Hetairai were accused of sexual misbehaviour, of insulting the gods, of trying to marry a citizen and pretend to be a citizen women themselves (Kennedy, 2014). These facts demonstrate the ambivalence of the position of hetairai, since this evidence can act both as a consequence of the relatively more noticeable social role of a hetaira and as a proof of the total patriarchal control, which strictly limited the manifestations of freedom within the framework of the existing tradition.

Thus, one could argue about the relative emancipation of hetaerae only with an adjustment for an archaic worldview, which in many respects also formed a confusion of the concepts of a hetaira and a prostitute in the cursory knowledge of the subsequent generations (Miner, 2003).

The list of famous and influential hetairai can be significantly replenished. There are also many examples of the ambiguity of their position: these women could be simultaneously admired and accused of promiscuity, they could be patronised at the highest level, and they could be judged at a level comparable in severity to cases of the high political significance (Kennedy, 2014). However, the study tried to outline the figures of hetairai in the picture of the ancient Greek relationships, as well as to demonstrate the range of problems associated with the perception of hetairai both by their contemporaries and retrospectively.


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Visual sources

Euphronios, psykter with four hetaitai, ca. 505 BCE. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Retrieved from: https://hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/digital-collection/25.%20archaeological%20artifacts/289697?lng=en

Gérôme, J.L. (1861). Phryne before the Areopagus. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Retrieved from: https://online-sammlung.hamburger-kunsthalle.de/en/objekt/HK-1910/phryne-vor-den-richtern?term=phryne&context=default&position=0

"The Kaufmann Head", a Hellenistic copy of the Aphrodite of Cnidus by Praxiteles, 2nd c. CE. Louvre, Paris, France. Retrieved from: https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010277188

Monsiaux, N. (1801). The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia. Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Debate_Of_Socrates_And_Aspasia.jpg

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Eugenia Ivanova

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