Greek Brothels Started at Home

We find out how life in the ancient Greek home wasn't just dinner and a game of Trivial Pursuit.....
30 August 2009

Interview with 

Dr Clare Kelly-Blazeby, University of Leeds


Diana -   It's now time to look into... well, another form of entertainment I guess.  As we go back in time to ancient Greece to learn about their brothels.  It seems that over 2000 years ago in a classical world, pubs, brothels, and prostitution existed as they do today, but not quite in the same capacity.  It turns out that charity was not the only thing to start at home but that brothels and drinking dens also occupied rooms of Greek houses.  Clare Kelly-Blazeby believes that rather than having separate buildings for such entertainments, instead the Greeks would host the fun in their own front room.

Clare -   Well, my research focuses on the archaeology of casual wine consumption in classical Greece.  So, the architecture and material culture of bars and other non-elite drinking contexts.  I couldn't understand why we unearthed so many drinking cups on excavations of classical sites that nobody was attributing them to tavernas.  You know, there was plenty of talk about rich or public and domestic or sympotic drinking.  These are usually always discussed, but bars weren't and I wanted to know why.  So, I identified buildings commonly, but perhaps mistakenly, identified as houses as likely candidates for bars.  So, I researched the published excavation report of these so-called houses, dating from the classical periods, and then carried out the analysis on the numbers and shapes of any excavated drinking pottery.

Courtesan and ClientDiana - What did you find?  What do you think was happening in the average home in ancient Greece?

Clare -   Well, I think there's an awful lot more trading commerce than we actually understand.  But the first thing I'd like to say is there was no such thing as an average home in ancient Greece.  Literary sources tend to deal with the elite.  So, it's the elites and citizens of their city like Athens, which therefore receive most of the attention.  Athens is an extraordinarily cosmopolitan city and what may be presumed to be the domestic arrangement of a native might not have worked for a foreigner.  And rooms and courtyards would have been use for commercial purposes of the household if they so wished, and space could be rented out to traders without the right or the financial resources to own a house of their own.  So, the use of houses is incredibly diverse in a classical world and I think we do them a great disservice by studying them and understanding them in a very restricted way that puts one nuclear family within four walls and calls it a house.

Diana -   I see.  So, there wasn't this idea that we have now where, you know, one person lives in this house or perhaps a family lives in this house and it's just theirs, no one else's.

Clare -   No.  I mean certainly, that would have existed.  But you know, there was far more diversity.  I mean, we know that there are apartment buildings in classical Greece as well.  Not everybody could afford or even had the right to own property, especially in Athens, but we know that Athens is full of overseas traders and so these people had to be making use of space somewhere.  And I think it's the houses that we should be looking at.

Diana -   So, all this was happening two and half thousand years ago, but why are activities like drinking, brothels and gambling so commonly grouped together and you know, why are they all seen as the seedier indulgences even then?

Clare -   Yes, undoubtedly.  They undoubtedly were and I think the key is alcohol.  Where there's alcohol, there's loss of inhibition and will power and the seedier and perhaps less reputable elements in society with no doubt have gathered where they could take more advantage and make most money.  It's a timeless concept really.

Diana -   Okay.  So could these domestic brothels and pubs, could they have been common elsewhere in the classical world, do you think?

Clare -   Yes, absolutely, absolutely.  I mean, I look at five different sites as part of my doctoral thesis and they're scattered all over Greece and I make a case for a building in the site called Olympus, which is in the north of Greece.  And then of course, Athens is then in the south.  But I think absolutely, yes, you would have found these buildings, these activities going on all over Greece and all over the Greek world, certainly.

Diana -   What about the Roman world as well?  Do you think they might have taken any of this on into their cities?

Clare -   For drinking and prostitution, unlike the Greek world, we have abundant information from the Roman world and anybody who's been to Pompeii will be more than familiar with what a Roman bar or a Roman brothel might look like.  So, yes certainly.  By the time they reach the Roman world, they become very, very distinct entities, and they're very clear to pick out on the archaeological record.  But that was one of the reasons why I was so interested in Greece because I couldn't understand why it wasn't so obvious in the Greek archaeological records.


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