Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

IN a recent Shared Opinion column (25 March), Frank Johnson concluded that a courtesan differed from a vice girl in two ways: a courtesan chose her clients, and then treated them not as clients, but as lovers. These are important distinctions, to which ancient Greek courtesans add their own interest.

A courtesan was a hetaira, whose basic meaning is `companion', while a prostitute was a pome, derived from a Greek word meaning `sell'. These terms give an important clue to one way in which these relationships were distinguished. The porne was bought for cash. In a comedy we learn of a scale of charges for her favours: `bent over' is cheapest (the man standing behind her), then `bent back' (she leans back against the man's chest), and the most expensive, `race-horse' (the woman sits on top of the man). The point about cash-transfer is that it defines a transaction as one that is by its very nature impersonal, done and dusted. We learn of one porne who was called Clepsydra, a water-clock functioning rather like a modern, sand-filled egg-timer. She stopped when the water-clock ran out.

But the hetaira dealt in gifts. These imply no going rate of exchange, even when the gifts consist of cash, and never lose the imprint of the giver. …

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