Ancient and modern

The wily courtesans who won more respect than modern-day feminists

11 November 2017

9:00 AM

11 November 2017

9:00 AM

Some MPs have been exploiting their power by their sexual fumblings with the lower ranks. The result is that when the fumbled finally pluck up the courage to reveal all, or are eventually believed, the situation does no one any favours. It should all be quite different.

The MPs could up their game. As Rome’s finest love-poet Ovid made clear, sex was supposed to be fun, and mutual fun too. No one gets that from groping and lunging. His Ars Amatoria, decorated with amusingly ironical examples from the gods and heroes of ancient myth, offered top tips about how to find and keep a lover, even a married one. It was all in the thrill of the chase: staking out territory, patience, careful personal grooming, trips to theatres and games, elegant billets-doux, secret signs, subtle compliments, a degree of acting up, thoughtful gifts, careful risk-taking and, most of all, privacy.


If this is beyond MPs, the fumbled should put on a show of power of the sort enjoyed by the ancient courtesan. While the prostitute (pornê) simply exchanged money for sex — a wholly impersonal transaction — the educated, independent, tax-paying courtesan (hetaira) dealt in ‘gifts’ given by ‘friends’ who wanted to ‘benefit’ her, as one said to Socrates. This looked like a personal relationship — there was no ‘going rate’ for it — and it put the power in the woman’s hands. She could have as many lovers as she liked, playing one against the other, and offering or withdrawing her services as she saw fit. The whole point was her fickleness. It kept her ‘friends’ hungry — and, even better, intensely jealous.

Such relationships were the focus of most ancient love epigrams. Written by men, they depict a world of the slavishly love-struck, desperate for the commitment of their hetaira to them alone, fighting off her other lovers or singing tear-laden songs outside her locked doors.

These women were in charge. If feminism is about anything, it is imbuing women with a sense of self-worth that makes it quite clear that they will not be disrespected by anyone. It has clearly not delivered.

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