“The Role of Sex in History”

Debbie says:

(Title taken from The Lion in Winter, line spoken by Eleanor of Aquitaine)

Just for fun on the long weekend, this article got me thinking about sex work in history. Dating from the 2nd century B.C.E. is

… a circular bathhouse measuring nearly 25 feet in diameter, at the center of which was a sauna. The chamber held as many as 25 separate baths. Adjacent to this room were two pools for hot and cold water and a rectangular hall. Several artifacts found in the hall—a red vessel with a phallic spout, a clay dildo, and an embossed glass vessel depicting Aphrodite—indicate it was probably a brothel. A door connected the bath and brothel so patrons could enjoy both. Dining was offered in a taverna on a level below. [Polyxeni] Veleni [of the Museum of Thessaloniki] believes the complex was part of a larger building, probably a gymnasium.

There are some indications (penis-shaped sculptures like this one) that the sex workers may have been male, but the sculptures could also be homages to the patrons.

The brothel site can be visited today as part of an adults-only museum in Thessaloniki, on the eastern coastline of Greece.

We say “brothel” and all kinds of things come to mind: for this Westernized reader, they include opulent accessories, aging madams with acerbic tongues and hearts of gold, female hookers on display like cars in a showroom, bouncers, slightly abashed and secretive customers. It seems likely that some of those things were not present at all when this establishment was running, and the others looked very different indeed.

As Annalee Newitz says at the link: “I love the idea that you could go work out, have dinner, soak in the tub, and then hire a sex worker to finish off the evening. The Greeks thought of everything.” That concept alone, working the brothel aspect of the business seamlessly into everything else it offered, is foreign to most of us. If you take it one step further, maybe the sex workers (male? female? who knows?) also had access to the gymnasium, the baths, and the taverna. Maybe whether or not someone was a sex worker or a customer shifted from day to day or month to month. Maybe people brought their families. Almost certainly, the gods were involved and invoked.

Would we even recognize it as a brothel?