The term “courteasan” - originated around 1500 - is referring literally to a woman of the court: well-educated, independents, eventually a trained artists or artisans of dance and singing, courtesans were women who were given luxuries and status in exchange for entertainment and companionship.
The ancient courtesan was a glorified high class escort of that time: intelligent, clever, with a lovely physique, skilled in the ways of companionship, educated on topics such as music and art.
In Renaissance Europe, she had an important role in high class society, sometimes taking the place of wives at social roles and usually enjoyed more freedom than was typical of women at the time.
Some of them were among the best-educated and most literate and cultured women of their time, with the ability to maintain elevated conversation about philosophical and intellectual issues in their “saloons”.
The modern escort is very similar to ancient courtesans: she‘s classy, educated, elegant, sophisticated, well-travelled, very discreet, dynamic, confident, integer and often more beautiful from the inside then the outside; she is a Lady and an entertainer capable to create a special connection with her client on different levels such as mental and emotional.
A charming woman, feminine, naturally elegant with an excellent education: generally she is from middle class or upper class, has enjoyed higher education and usually hold at least one master degree or even PhD.
Accustomed to luxury things, she loves the company of powerful, intelligent, elite gentlemen instead to be available only for one partner.
On the other side gentlemen of distinction and discernment generally are not looking for a quick encounter only to satisfy mostly physical needs: generally they seek a true companion, a real woman, an authentic person with whom have an experience, an intimate and romantic encounter which includes also intelligent conversation. And for this kind of men the elite escort is the perfect companion.
Indeed the high class escort is extremely selective as she is available only to a very restricted elite of gentlemen. She offers her “exclusivity”: for this reason it is custom to meet only a selected few regular clients and not see more than those.
About her appearance she looks very elegant, feminine and discreet, more conservative than sexy: always dressed appropriate for the situation. She takes very care of herself both physically (health and beauty) and mentally.
Her social etiquette is impeccable and she is able to sustain any conversation about current affairs, politics, art, history, general culture.
In the ancient Greece prostitution was at the same time very common and also an important and a big part of the economy particularly in Athens which gained notoriety just because of it: the city, thanks to his port, was visited by many businessmen like sailors, traders and merchants who arrived with their ships and needed for entertainment and companion.
Considering this big flow of tourists prostitution became an important “industry”: brothels owners and women self-employed played a fundamental role in the Greek economy growth during that time as they employed a big number of people.
So that, it was not clandestine but a legal activity and the brothels were not censured places but rather they were under state regulation.
In that time in Athens there were 4 types of prostitution:
The "pornai” were at the bottom of the hierarchy: they were usually slaves – foreigners or young girls abandoned by citizen parents - who worked in brothels situated in red-light areas of the city and received only a small part of the tarifs by their owners.
The famous lawmaker and statesman Solon created in Athens – for health reasons and also to contain adultery - a lot of state brothels which had fixed and regulated tarifs: to be accessible to all classes of men the prices were very low.
At the next higher level of hierarchy there were another type of prostitutes who were independent and worked in the street: these women often were pornai who bought their freedom.
They had to be registered and pay taxes, as well as state brothels, but being independent they could work in better conditions and earn more money.
At the top of hierarchy there were the Hetaira: highly educated woman who normally had long-term relationships with only a few men as clients, acting more as escorts and providing primarly companionship and intellectual stimulation. She was the typical independent and professional courtesan.
The Hetaira, were wealthy women who payed their taxes, they were protected and had an enviable position in the society: althought they were usually foreigners or freedwomen (sometimes slaves) their lifestyle was fashionable and better than that of others “normal” women who lived generally secluded.
Considering a society where the women and wifes from citizens families lived sequestred at home, the marriages often were made for any other reasons except love, it is easy to understand that the role and presence of these courtesans were necessary.
They were beautiful physically, but particularly highly educated and talented to entertain their clients: generally they were able to play musical instruments, speak in public and dance; they were cultured in different topics such as philosopy, history, art, literature and politics so that they could converse with any person intelligently.
Intelligents and refined these exclusive escorts were hired mainly for the stimulating company and friendship they offered to men in particular during symposium.
It seems – according to tradition – the wonderful woman painted in ‘Venus of Urbino' by Titian Vecellio in 1538 may have represented a Venetian courtesan.
Venice is a wonderful and unique Italian city which may be known for many things such as its streets of water and its gondolas, but centuries ago, it was famous for its courtesans (ancient escorts) so that during Venetian Republic it was known as the most libertine place in the world: in the 16th century the professionists were about 10 percent of the number of Venice's population.
The profession of the courtesans was tolerated by Serenissima and even supported for fear of homosexuality, also considering the enormous influx of businessmen or just tourists who came to town throughout the year, but their activities and behaviours were meticulously regulated: for example they were obliged to live in a suburb of Rialto called “Castelletto”.
The most wealthy courtesans at the top of the “escort” hierarchy, known for their beauty and sexual wiles as well as their intellect and wit, went to live in other areas of the city: often they owned buildings where they had a luxurious lifestyles of entertainment and fun.
In Venice there were two classes of courtesans: the Honest Courtesan and the Lower Courtesan or “cortigiana di Lume” who was a prostitute who lived in the Rialto suburb.
The honest courtesans were intelligent women with a life of luxury that was sustainded by one or more wealthy men: the women of this status came often from the middle-class such as patrician or merchant families.
Usually well-educated they were known to be capable of intellectual discussion and had a knowledge of art and literature often even more so than the average upper-class woman of the time: successful courtesans could have a life filled with parties and salons and have access to influential circles frequented by poets, politicians, artists, noblemen and merchants.
In such circles these cultured women had the power to influence their “elite clients”.
As they were respected for their knowledge on a variety of subjects, the government and the social structure of the city during that time was not immune to their influence: though in politics they did not have a vote but because of their cultured and educated status, their opinions were taken at a higher value than the wives of men in power.
In fact many married women of the time did not have the culture, knowledge and education that the most refined escorts had.
In ancient Rome the old profession could be considered the same than in Venice and both cities could be seen very “progressive”: it was legal and sex seen as a need so that Roman men of the high society could prostitutes without problems or disapproval under the condition they were moderated about the frequency.
Also in Rome there were women who could be comparable and very similar to Venice girls: charming and educated they were often welcome guests in parties of the elite society; and on the other side there were prostitutes of lower class working out of taverns or brothel or in rooms available for every man.
The difference between the two kind of professionists could also be seen about their appearence as the courtesans used to wear beautiful and luxury cloths of silk while the prostitutes of lower rank often were nude: this meant the slavery of the woman stripped of the ownership of own body and without a legal standing as a person.
The escort profession was regulated and the reason of that was to reinforce taxation: the women had to register themselves, giving their real name and the pseudonym with which they intended to work (once fixed it was impossible to change it or to remove remaining for all time), the age and place of birth.
Registered women were called “meretrices” and not registered were called “prostibulae”: the meretrices were professionists of medium-level while the others where of lower-level.
About the brothels the evidence of their existence come from literature and archaeological sources and there were a rich and different kinds as well. Large brothels were known as “lupanar”, a term that derives from “lupa” which means “prostitute” in that local area slang: usually very dirty with the typical smell of poorly ventilated rooms, they were not only places for “entertainment” as it was possible also to find beer and food.
As well as the typical brotherls there were also others locations where prostitutes could work as taverns, inns, lodging houses, cook shops, bakeries; they also could stay outside theaters to find men after the performance.
In the ancient period the prostitution in Japan was free and legal but in the 1617 passed a law restricting brothels to limited areas known as “pleasure quarters” situated on the suburbs of cities and among them the most famous were the Shimabara in Kyoto, the Shinmachi in Osaka, the Maruyama in Nagasaki and the Yoshiwara in Edo.
The creation of these red quarters was not for a public moral reason but rather for safety, considering that having a limited area allows better controls and to leave out undesiderable persons, and also for increase the taxation.
The professionists had the obligation to stay inside the “red area” and was not permitted them to go out and to leave it except for some and stricts circumstances that were severely controlled; but soon these red districts became independent small towns inside the cities managed completely by women and offering every kind of service and entertainment.
The Escorts of that period, who were not simple prostitute but educated and cultured women experts in the art of entertainment like the Hetaira in Greece or the Honest Courtesan in Venice, could be classified as follows: before 1750 at the top of hierarchy there was the Tayu, considered the exclusive and toplevel companion; then there was the Koshi, considered the second level; the Tsubone considered at medium-low level and finally the Hashi considered the lowest level.
After 1750 some aspect changed in the Japanese society: there was the decline of the Tayu and in her place the rise of a new figure of courtesan called “Oiran” who had a central role inside a new system of hierarchy.
This new figure was the top rank of companionship but inside the society there were other kind of professional escorts – which rank and status depended by such different factors as beauty, intelligence, education, personality - from the higher to the lower class as: Yobidashi chûsan, Chûsan, Tsukemawashi, Zashikimochi, Heyamochi, Shinzô and Kamuro.
The high level courtesans were available only by appointment and only for respectable men belonging to the high society such as nobles and rich merchants; at the opposite side the prostitutes of lower class – a lot of them were from China, Korea, India, Portugal – were available to meet a large number of anonymous men without appointment, working in small rooms, borthels or streets and some of them could be sold as sex-slaves on ships during travels.
The “Oiran” was the main and central figure of the prostitution system: a woman of very high standard who lived isolated inside her subculture called “Flower and Willow World” and because of that she could keep her manners and even language very formal; they were above all entertainers of prestige, educated about various skills such as the arts of sadō, who was the Japanese tea ceremony, Ikebana who was the ability of arranging flowers and calligrapy, the art to write with elegance.
To meet an Oiran was necessary from clients make a formal invitation. From the beginning of 18th century the presence of the Oiran was repleced by another kind of escort called “Geisha” of whom was the simple version.
The Geisha become very popular from the late of 18th century, replacing completely the Oiran, and their presence started to be required also outside the red district in different events although it was forbidden by the government with the risk to be arrested; but, because of their increased popularity the government was forced to approve new laws which allow them to work outside the quarters, providing only companionship so that were forbidden sexual performances.
To survive they had to become more approachable than the Orian so it was necessary avoid some formalisms and starting to be available to casual visits, to practice kind of entertainments more popular but preferred by clients, to speak the dialect.
What does it mean Geisha?
The literal translation of the word would be "artist" and this is what the Geisha in reality is: not a call girl or prostitute but a female entertainer or escort trained in various skills such as art, music, dance, conversation. The fundamental thing is that she doesn’t provide paid sex.
There is a bit of confusion between the two figures considering that being a Geisha is an honor for a girl so that a lot of prostitutes have called themselves in this way simply to bring in more clients: but it is possible notice the difference on clothes.
Both use to wear the typical kimono over which there is a sash: Geisha ties her sash in the back while prostitute ties it in the front.
How girls could become Geisha?
Generally they have to follow the “okiya” that is the typical school to learn the profession, while daughters of a professionist become entertainers themselves and successor of the “house”.
To become a Geisha the girls have to follow a rigorous and severe training and if they start it before the age of 21 years their name is “maiko”; a girl can also start after the age of 21, but having been a maiko in the past is an experience that bring more prestige inside the escort profession.
The period of training could take several months during which the girls have to pass different stages: they will learn the traditions, the dress, the dialect. After the initial period and after having passed the exams, the girls will take part in the more advanced level of training where they are followed by an “older sister”.
The older sister teaches the maiko how to be a true geisha, the tea ceremony, how to arrange flowers, calligraphy, to play instruments, dancing and conversation. She teaches also the correct way of doing her hair and makeup.
After a year’s trainig normally the girl is ready to be a full Geisha, to debute into the community and start her escort career.
Phryne was without any doubt the most famous, rich, intelligent escort (or courtesan or hetaira) who lived in Athens during the 4th century BC; well educated and with an incredible beauty she frequented a lot of influential men of that time such as the sculptor Praxiteles who created the masterpiece Cnidean Aphrodite in her honour.
But what made Phryne so famous and immortal in ancient history was the notorius matter in her life - the trial – occurred around the year 350 BC: what did this courtesan do to be put under judgement?
Athenaeus said she was putted under process for a capital accusation but he doesn’t not specify what kind of it was; while – according to other historical sources such as Pseudo-Plutarch – it seems during Eleusinian religious festivals she took away her clothes and entered naked into the sea for the ritual baths: this action, made in plain view of Athenian society, was considered an offense – called impiety - for which the punishment was death.
Her lawyer was Hypereides, a Greek orator who was also her client: he defended Phryne using all his his rhetorical skills, but although it unfortunately the case seemed to be lost.
Historians are not univocal and there are different opinions on what it occurred that day during the process: according to Diodorus Periegetes the text about the process was created by Anaximenes and according to Athenaeus it seems that when the verdict appeared to be completely against her, Hypereides moved Phryne to the centre of the court and then removed her clothes to show her body and in particular her wonderful breasts to judges.
The reason of that action was that imprisoning or killing a such a beautiful body, sculpted and perfect could be considered not so good and without respect to the eyes’s Gods. In front of this declaration judges were not able to condemn this ancient escort.
Inside Ephesia is possible to read another version: he writes that Phryne with tears took the hands of the men who were part of the jury, asking and implore them to don’t condemn her, without show her breasts and remaining completely covered with her clothes.
Some historical sources think that is the real version of the history considering maybe Idomeneus invented that version with the intention to put in ridicolous the Athenian judges.
Independently of different versions of the process, the fundamental thing is that what seemed initially a situation unfavourable and against her, it became then a victory for Phryne.
At the end of prosecution she was the winner and that allowed her to continue her life and profession as escort; besides she became so famous to inspire several artists who dedicated their masterpieces to her history.
Phryne was an ancient and famed courtesan born in Boeotia (Greece) and the daughter of Epicles from Thespiae: the exact date of birth and death is uncertain and unknown but many historians suppose she was born about 371 BC, the same year when Thebes razed Thespiae, so they estimate she might have probably seen and experienced the reconstruction of Thebes in 315/316 BC.
Her real name was Mnesarete but people referred to her as Phryne – which was a nickname often used by escorts – because she had a yellow complexion of her skin.
She was a typical Hetaira and even if she was born in Boeotia she spent most of her life in Athens: she had an extraordinary beauty and charme so that she become a model for different painters and artists of her contemporary time who took her image in paintings and sculpures.
It is famous the Praxiteles’s statue, made by her client Praxiteles, which was bought by the city of Cnidus (even if it was in origin ordered by the city of Cos); the statue became so popular to attract many tourists and thanks to great tourism the city could earn enough money to pay off its debt.
Phryne generally wore a large tunic covered her body completely and she didn’t have the custom to use public baths so it was difficult to see her naked.
But according to Athenaeus, during the solemn assembly of Eleusinia festival and the feast of Poseidonia, she laid aside her clothes and entered naked into the sea: the perfection and beauty of her body inspired the artist Apelles who created in her honour the painting of Aphrodite Anadyomene.
Phryne was a woman exceptionally beautiful and incredible rich: according to Athenaeus it seems that probably was the richest woman of that period who made an immense fortune thanks to her job.
Not only rich but also a generous person as she offered her money to rebuild the city of Thebes, which was destroyed by Alexander in 336 BC, asking in return to write on the city walls the following phrase "Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan".
With similar words she intended demonstrate that an escort – so not just any common woman – thanks to her profession could make something great for the society just like any other entrepreneur: that offer was not accepted by the patriarchs and the city remained for a lot of time in ruin.
But how was the world in her time where she lived? In Greece during the 4th century BC the women didn’t live in a very good condition and their lifestyle was very poor.
Usually they didn’t have the opportunity to receive an education and to access to public life, so that they lived closed inside their homes and isolated in their typical quarters: they could go out only during religious events and even in there circumstances they were constantly under the survelliance of male members of family so that they could not go out alone without them. Even about shopping, it was not permitted to wives and daughters as it was a task reserved to slaves.
So they were really condemned to live sequestred: under this sever, restricted regime where women had no power, freedom and dignity, it is certainly quite normal that many of them rebelled and choosed to become escorts to be more free and independents.
Solon, an Athenien politician of that time (638-558 BC), in front of this increase of prostitution tryed to manage it by approving special laws: under that regulations was possible have State brothels mainly filled with slave girls (most of them where foreigners from Asia) captured during wars or bought on “market”.
Solon fixed very low prices so that the lives of the prostitutes inside these brothels were really poor more than that of the Athenian wives: they lived in extreme and horrible conditions confined in cells, forced to meet a lot of low class men required their service every day without profit.
State or public brothels were really places where women worked in bad and horribilant conditions so that a lot of escorts chose to work in street: because of these conditions it was also normal that men of medium class more wealthy preferred to meet a streetworker instead to go to public brothels.
Streetworkers became competitors of public brothels and to solve this “competition” where state brothels were unfavourable, Solon approved a regulation to outlawing them: the girls working in streets were obliged to offer money and sexual favors to the police in order to avoid arrest.
After the decline of this persecution, inside the society started to rise better conditions which allowed women to become “courtesans”: cultured, educated and independents they were completely free and could go outside in public, even to attend performance in theaters or others events. They could even be owner of property such as buildings.
Seen as a symbol of freedom they belonged to no one except themselves so that they could refuse appointments and choose to meet only men of high status such as nobles, poets, merchants: they were the very exclusive high class escorts of that time.
Phryne became a legend and she has continued, through the centuries, to be a feminine figure who inspired not only painters but also poets and writers such as: Baudelaire, the composer Saint-Saëns, and others who wrote poems and novels about her myth.
What was a symposium?
In Greece the Symposium was a drinking party where only men of high level or status in the society coming from respected families could take part: it was considered a social institution or a forum reserved exclusively to these elite male people to speak and to discuss about different topics.
Often held by aristocrats, the Symposium was the ideal place and occasion to introduce new culturated men into aristocratic society or to celebrate special events such as athletic victories in sporting games.
Usually it took place in a specific area of the house which was the men’s room or quarter called “andron” and followed the evening meal as a part of a banquet: it was strictly forbidden for respectable wives to participate to these events but it was possible for the professional escorts.
Inside there was the presence of the symposiarch – the Master of Ceremonies – who decided about the course of the party for the occasion: he could dictat the kind of activites, the topics and the strenght of the wine that means how much water could be mixed during the evening.
Indeed the wine was fundamental during these encounters and it was served mixed with waters considering that drinking pure wine was a typical habit of the lower class and uncivilized people.
Men could drink the wine only after dinner and it was drawn from a big jar called “krater” managed by slave boys which had to serve it.
The symposium was an opportunity for Greek elite mens to come together in activities that included drinking games as well as discussions and conversation on a multitude of topics: philosophy, love, differences between genders, cultural arguments, debates, poetry recitals, political discussions. All these activities were accompanied by music and dancing.
Poetry and music were fundamental inside the symposium so that it was required the presence of high class escorts acting as companion – the hetairas – who were the only women allowed to partecipate in these forums, as free women of high status did not attend them.
The courtesans had to elaborate conversations on different topics with the guests and had also play instruments to entertain them: usually they play the “aulos” which was a typical Greek instrument made by wood very similar to an oboe or in alternative they play also the traditional “barbiton”.
During the party was custom to organize competitive games in which guests partecipated actively. The typical game played was the “kottabos” and a very common performance was the “skolia”.
The evidence about the existence in the society of these exclusive escorts come from paintings and ancient writings; many paintings are displayed on pottery particularly on the common drink cup for wind called “kylix” (common ancient Greek drinking cup for wine) where these women appear nude or with very simple cloths during conversations with one or more men or during sexual acts.
The presence of the Hetaira inside the symposium images starts to appear in the 6th century BC.
The most famous Symposium seems to be that of the poet Agathon which was hosted by him in occasion of this victory at the theatre in the 416 BC: this event is described by Plato in his “Plato’s Dialogue”.
The organization of these drinking party remained a traditional custom in the Greek society for centuries and the same tradition was adopted also by the Romans which they called “convivium”.
Venice in the sixteenth century was very renowned for her courtesans –
not only for the elevated number but especially for the high
level/quality of these “escorts” and the city was a wonderful place for
them: full of wealthy men of all sorts and intellectuals such as rich
noblemen, merchants, artists, writers, it could be considered a
“renaissance hetaira” like ancient Greece.
During Renaissance the venetian society recognized two kind of professionists: the honest courtesans (high class) and the Lume courtesans, a lower class of prostitutes who normally met men from middle classes and lived and worked near the Rialto Bridge. In addition to this two type of prostitution it seems there was a third kind – called “the harlots” – who sold their services under the bridges of Venice.
The honest courtesans were among the most educated women in society: they owned aristocratic manners, were culturally accomplished with a knowledge in art, music, literature so that capable to have in intellectual relationship with their clients, attracting men from the societal elites.
The most famous of these ancient escorts was Veronica Franco remembered as “courtesan” but also as poet.
She was born in Venice in 1546, the daughter of Paola Fracassa and Francesco Franco, a merchant. She had three brothers and was educated by tutors and her mother, a honest courtesan herself who insisted that Veronica received that education: so that starting from a young age, she learned the art to use her natural assets and abilities to reach a good financially status.
In the early 1560, while still in her mid-teens, Veronica was married to a wealthy physician named Paolo Panizza but the union ended badly and she separated from him soon after; after the marriage and with a young child to support she had little option other than turning to serve as a courtesan to wealthy men.
Veronica became a honest courtesan in the mid to late 1560s: thanks to her mother that trained her very well she soon excelled at her profession becoming one of the most successful “ancient escort” catering to senators, cardinals, academics, and even kings. In 1565, when she was about 20 years old, she was among the most popular and respected courtesans in Venice and was listed in the Courtesan Catalogue which gave the names, addresses, and fees of the best prostitutes of the city.
Her intellectual education began in the family home but during the 1570s and 1580s she continued her studies by frequenting literary gatherings of writers and painters in Venice: in these occasion she met a Venetian poet Domenico Venier (1517-1582), who became her reader and protector.
Venier was the owner of the most renowned private literary circle in Venice at Ca' Venier (the Venier palace) where Veronica – that becamed a member of the Venetian Literati - was very active in group discussion and contributed to edit collections of poetry published by the Venier Salon.
About her publications, Veronica wrote two volumes of poetry. In 1575 was published the first volume of poetry “Terze rime” containing a collection of “capitoli” and in 1580 was published “Lettere familiari a diversi” ("Familiar Letters to Various People").
Veronica’s poetry is erotic and she used these poems to create a more positive image of the escorts in the public eye as she was not ashamed of being a professionist but rather celebrated it, and often was very active to defend courtesans (and women in general) rights.
In addition to these publications she collected the works of other leading writers into anthologies and also founded a charity for prostitutes and their children.
In 1575 Veronica was forced to leave Venice during the epidemic of plague that ravaged the city and when she returned in 1577, she faced the Inquisition: she defended herself in court with dignity so that the charges were dropped and she won her freedom.
Here her famous writing:
"When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards.
Women have not yet realized this, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death; and to prove that I speak the truth, amongst so many women, I will be the first to act, setting an example for them to follow."