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  • Associating the Aulêtris:Flute Girls and Prostitutes in the Classical Greek Symposium
  • Max L. Goldman (bio)


Symposiasts in the late archaic Greek period began hiring trained female slaves to furnish musical entertainment.1 The profession grew so pervasive that the female aulos player, the aulêtris, came to seem as necessary to a proper party as wreaths and wine. While shopping for party supplies, for example, Theophrastus’s repulsive man hires some pipers. What is so repulsive? He shows off his supplies, makes indiscriminate invitations, and boasts at the barber’s and perfumer’s shops that he will get drunk.2 And how do the pipers fit? James Diggle (2004, 318–9) suggests that Mr. Repulsive, in addition to being a braggart, also offends when he insinuates that his guests can have sex with the women. Although I am not convinced that the neuter tauta includes the pipers with the other supplies, as Diggle infers, in any case the only sexual insinuation in the text would have to stem from the nature of the pipers themselves. Mr. Repulsive does not mention sex, but drunkenness. The question becomes, Must the female piper imply venal sex?

Recent scholarship has indeed emphasized the female piper’s sexual labor, even taking the word aulêtris as a synonym for prostitute.3 James Davidson (1997, 81) has influentially highlighted the sexual role of the female piper, one that not only has her regularly provide sex for the guests at the end of the symposium, but also imagines her soliciting men on the street. Many scholars follow Davidson to a greater or lesser degree.4 Matthew Dillon (2002, 183), for example, presumes that female pipers ended their performances by having sex with the guests. Warren Anderson (1994, 143) follows a similar assumption and unaccountably undresses them: “Auletrides, scantily clad young women, were paid to provide all-male gatherings of symposiasts with aulos music and fellation.” Marina Fischer (2013, 222) claims that entertainers provided “not only musical and acrobatic entertainment during banquets but also [End Page 29] engaged in sexual activities with the symposiasts (D. 59.33; Is. 3.13–17).” Fischer’s claim is particularly difficult to evaluate because neither passage cited mentions entertainers. Other scholars have underplayed the element of prostitution. Kenneth Dover (1968, 220) says that “it would be unfair to say” that slaves hired to entertain at the symposium “were necessarily prostitutes, although they could be prostituted.” Chester Starr (1978, 409) believes that the evidence does not allow us to imagine that the symposium with female entertainers “always, or even usually” resulted in orgies. Given the servile status of the aulêtris and her frequent presence among groups of carousing men, she was likely at times subject to prostitution. I have found no certain evidence, however, that she ever engaged in venal sex within the symposium and evidence for prostitution is slim and vague. What the evidence, written and visual, does reveal is that the female piper in classical Athens had a far more complex and nuanced set of associations than venal sex, and this raises important methodological questions for how we talk about slave women in classical Athens, the role of prostitution in our reconstructions, and the nature of the symposium.

We encounter female pipers at the center of intersecting Athenian discourses on sexuality, luxury, music, and gender. These discourses form the subject of the sections in this article. First, I briefly recount some evidence for female pipers outside of the symposium. I then treat evidence where she stands in synecdoche for the party itself, where she serves as an instrument of moral condemnation and where men eroticize her. Next, I examine her activities within the party, including evidence for how the prostitution may have worked. This examination raises questions about the life of the female piper. I limit my focus to the female performer in classical Athens, for as the postclassical period progressed, the status and role of performers appear to have changed sufficiently to require a separate treatment.5 It is impossible, however, to draw a sharp terminus for the classical period. In addition, a significant amount of evidence reaches us filtered through much later sources. The evidence...


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