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In ancient Greece, hetaerae (singular //, plural //; in Greek ἑταῖραι, hetairai) were courtesans—highly educated, sophisticated companions. Despite the fact that most engaged in sexual relations with their patrons, hetaerae were not simple prostitutes.
In ancient Greek society, hetaerae were independent and sometimes influential women who were required to wear distinctive dresses and had to pay taxes. Mostly ex-slaves from other cities, these courtesans were renowned for their achievements in dance and music, as well as for their physical and intellectual talents. Unlike most other women in Greek society at the time, hetaerae were educated. Τhey were also the only women who actively took part in the symposia, where their opinion was welcomed and respected by men. Hetaerae should not be confused with pornai of the time, who sold sex by the act and worked on the streets or out of brothels. They were the only class of women in ancient Greece with access to and independent control over considerable amounts of money.
Plutarch's Life of Demetrius is our longest and most detailed surviving account of Demetrius I Poliorcetes. The biography reports that Demetrius displayed a great lack of commitment, making light of marriage by having many wives at one time and even slighting them by consorting with many freeborn women and many hetairai. Lamia, a famous early Hellenistic courtesan, was his favourite. Plutarch mentions her in the context of fourteen separate anecdotes. We know that Lamia was once a member of Ptolemy I Soter's entourage and was a flute player. How she came to be a musician for Ptolemy is not known. Many women who played musical instruments in ancient Greece were also involved in prostitution, but there is no evidence that Lamia was reputed to be a prostitute before her involvement with Demetrius. The hetairai involved with kings were noticeably monogamous. Polemon tells us that Lamia was the daughter of the Athenian citizen, Cleanor, and that she had built the stoa or art gallery at Sicyon as a benefaction to the people. Lamia not only was renowned for her beauty and charm but also possessed a great wit.
Among the most famous were Thargelia, a renowned Ionian hetaera of ancient times; Aspasia, companion of Pericles; Archeanassa, companion of Plato; the famous Neaira; Thaïs, a concubine of Ptolemy, who was one of the generals on the expeditions of Alexander the Great and later became king of Egypt; Lais of Corinth, the famed beauty who lived during the Peloponnesian War; Lais of Hyccara, a courtesan who is said to have provided her services to the philosopher Diogenes free of charge; and the famously beautiful Phryne, the model and muse of the sculptor Praxiteles.
In this same oration, Demosthenes mentions that Neaira's purchase price (both at her original purchase by Timanoridas of Corinth and Eucrates of Leucas and her own subsequent purchase of her freedom) was 30 minas. Since the mina was equal to 100 drachmae and the drachma can be thought of as equivalent to the daily wage of a skilled worker, this would make her purchase price over 8 years salary—obviously beyond the means of the average person.
The hetaera business had implications in fashion and taste beyond the realm of prostitution. As sex and sexuality in Greek culture evolved, courtesans were inclined to follow suit to stay fashionable and to keep up with business. The reverse is also true—as certain aspects of hetaera culture became popular, they would diffuse into everyday Greek life and fashion as well. For example, Athenian women seemed to have “learned to imitate the styles” of the prostitute. This included the removal of pubic hair, applying makeup, and adopting their style of dress.
The male form of the word, hetaeros (pl. hetaeroi), signified male companions in the sense of a business or political associate. Most famously, it referred to Alexander the Great's bodyguard cavalry unit (see Companion cavalry).
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