Ancient and modern

What the ancients would have made of Virginia Giuffre

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

Virginia Giuffre may well be a heroine among all those abused in their youth. Ancient reactions compare interestingly with ours.

It would have been one thing had she been a high-class courtesan (hetaira), who was her own woman, dealing in ‘gifts’ from ‘friends’ who wanted to ‘benefit’ her, with no going rate of exchange. Fickle in granting her favours, she would have made herself available on her terms, to the fury of the males besieging her doors. The point is that she was in full control, and that was something that ancient males admired. Such women became rich and famous. The courtesan Nossis composed an epigram about Polyarchis who built a temple to Aphrodite on the proceeds of her ‘dazzling body’.


Giuffre, being pimped by Epstein and passed around ‘like a fruit platter’, was effectively a pornê (‘for sale’). Many ancients would have been outraged that her parents simply allowed this to happen. Others would have shrugged and said what many thought: women were sex-mad, and this proved it; she must have had a grand time flying around the world, having sex with the rich and royal, plus perks.

In either case, her actions would simply have confirmed the ancient belief that women needed protection, which it was the duty of the males of the family to provide: their failure to do so was a matter of deep shame. But the idea that her lovers were committing a crime and needed to fork out millions to pay her off would have struck them as utterly absurd anyway, especially since she had made the transition from pornêto respectable wife with children, an outcome that most women in that situation longed for.

Our culture sympathises with women in such situations, reaching for emotionally supportive terms such as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘exploited’ to explain behaviour and, by extension, understand it. Greeks did not deal in such vague, catch-all terms, and would have found it difficult to excuse Giuffre, let alone admire or even respect her: her past would not have been forgotten. Perhaps ‘pity’, but only if the case merited it, would have been the best Greeks could do.

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