Brothels, Baths and Babes: Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land
By Claudine Dauphin
Classics Ireland, Vol. 3 (1996)
Introduction: Graeco-Roman domestic sexuality rested on a triad: the wife, the concubine and the courtesan. The fourth century BC Athenian orator Apollodoros made it very clear in his speech Against Neaira quoted by Demosthenes that ‘we have courtesans for pleasure, and concubines for the daily service of our bodies, but wives for the production of legitimate offspring and to have reliable guardians of our household property’. Whatever the reality of this domestic set-up in daily life in ancient Greece, this peculiar type of ‘ménage à trois’ pursued its course unhindered into the Roman period: monogamy de jure appears to have been very much a façade for polygamy de facto. The advent of Christianity upset this delicate equilibrium. By forbidding married men to have concubines on pain of corporal punishment, canon law elaborated at Church councils took away from this triangular system one of its three components. Henceforth, there remained only the wife and the courtesan.
If we are to believe the Lives of the holy monks of Byzantine Palestine, the Holy Land (in particular the Holy City of Jerusalem, the aim of pilgrimages at the very heart of Christianity) was replete with ‘abodes of lust’ and prostitutes tracked down the monks in their secluded caves near the River Jordan. Thus, we are faced with a paradox: the coexistence of holiness and debauchery, of Christian asceticism and lust. Lest we forget that virtue is meaningless without vice, that holiness cannot exist without lewdness, a fifth century AD Gnostic hymn from Nag-Hammadi in Middle Egypt proclaimed: ‘I am She whom one honours and disdains. / I am the Saint and the prostitute. / I am the virgin and the wife. / I am knowledge and I am ignorance. / I am strength and I am fear. / I am Godless and I am the Greatness of God’.