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  • Elite Citizen Women and the Origins of the Hetaira in Classical Athens
  • Rebecca Futo Kennedy (bio)


If you open the Liddell–Scott–Jones dictionary to look up the word hetaira, you find the definition “courtesan.” The recognizable English word provides a reassuring sense of comprehension, a sense that is un fortunately false. Greek does not always translate easily into English and often readers are compelled to examine cultural, political, or socio-historical contexts for a word before making a decision on how to translate it. Some words, therefore, have extensive entries in our dictionaries. Words that denote women’s social statuses, however, typically do not. Rather, LSJ, assuming that the social statuses of women are transparent and obvious, hides the complexities that surround the words applied to these women or how they are represented generally in image and text. When scholars see an image of a woman or read the name of a woman in a forum for public audiences, like comedy or oratory, they immediately make a series of assumptions about the woman’s identity, including her social position, occupation, and legal status. In images, a woman is immediately deemed a prostitute, if nude, or if dressed but playing a flute, or if handed a change purse.1 If pictured at a symposium, she is a hetaira. The term has a basic meaning of ‘companion’ (on analogy with hetairos)2 and is almost always, except in limited cases, translated as “courtesan.”3 Courtesan is itself a vague and culturally contingent word, especially in the nineteenth century when our lexicon was produced. According to LSJ, it is to be neither a common prostitute nor a married woman but something in between. How scholars have dealt with this ambiguity has varied, but interpretation has fallen strongly on the side of “closer to prostitute than to wife” and many scholars consider hetaira a synonym for prostitute, especially since they believe that only prostitutes attended symposia.4 The ancient sources, however, tell a different story from the narrative driven by these lexical assumptions. The term hetaira was used in archaic and classical Athens to designate both a status and a set of behaviors. For example, there is evidence that the status of hetaira designated a woman who could not, for a variety of reasons, contract a [End Page 61] formal marriage. This use of hetaira to designate marriageability occurs only in the fourth century.5 In the late sixth century, in Athens and in some Ionian Greek poleis, I will argue that the word hetaira designates not a status but a person associated with a set of behaviors typical of the sympotic culture of the Greek elite. When scholars collapse these historically distinct uses of the term hetaira, they imagine a social world based on a strict wife-whore dichotomy. The mechanical application of this dichotomy has created basic misunderstandings of the position of some women, particularly noncitizen women, in classical Athens.

The wife-whore dichotomy underlies many approaches to women in Athens and intersects with scholars’ use of the language of respectability. They typically label a woman as disreputable if she is named in the courts, on the comic stage, or appears on a sympotic imaged. It is a short step to labeling her a prostitute, which then is assumed to exclude her from the category of wife and citizen.6 Scholars identify this strong wife-whore dichotomy in a variety of ancient sources and claim that it is an unbreachable ideological barrier for the ancient Athenians. As Madeleine Henry writes, “Erotic pleasure and legitimate marriage are classified into categories of thought . . . which are firmly separated from one another.”7 This dichotomy exists in some of the language of Athenian orators and comedy. But not every woman in Athens was either a citizen wife or a foreign prostitute in reality (or even, I would argue, ideologically). Recent scholarship has questioned this dichotomy.8 Unfortunately, these discussions have frequently started from the assumption that noncitizen women were mostly sexual laborers. Because a ‘respectable woman’ was separated or secluded from civic life (except in religious contexts), these noncitizen women, who might appear in public, were ‘disreputable,’ that is, sexualized.9 This sequence of...


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