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Literary and performative portrayal of sex-workers in Greek antiquity
Umeå University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Umeå Centre for Gender Studies (UCGS). (Umeå Group for Premodern Studies)
2012 (English)In: Gender and Language, ISSN 1747-6321Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

From Classical antiquity to the late Roman Empire, courtesans (hetairai) and other sex-workers are considered an integral part of elite lifestyle. In reality, actual evidence about them is scattered and limited. As a result of this, recent scholarship and art represented them as more deliberated and charming than citizen wives  (eg Jung’s archetypes, Manet’s Olympias etc). However, their variability in textual representation resulted in their recent reconstruction as marginal in status with undefined agency and hierarchy (Davidson: 1997; McClure: 2003; Faraone and McClure: 2006). Most importantly, their textual and performative representation varies significantly. In early Attic Comedy for example (5th and 4th BCE) they feature as silent nudes pawed by men (Aristophanes) but they ‘evolve’ within 200 years to the stock character of New Greek Comedy (Menander). There, they are outspoken and somehow, romanticized.  

This paper attempts an overview and analysis of the courtesans’ portrayal from Old Greek comedy (Aristophanes) to comic texts of the early Roman Empire, namely Lucian’s comic mimes (Dialogues of the Courtesans) and Athenaeus’ proverbial quotations from famous comedies, now lost in extant form (Learned Banqueters 13). I will contextualize the evolution of character and linguistic abilities of the courtesan with reference to their agency, emotions and status.  I will finally demonstrate how courtesan-related humor informs us, modern readers, about the commercialization of sex, gender and agency in the ancient world.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
iGala‐ Association for the Study of Language and Gender 2012, Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sino, Sao Leopoldo, Brazil , 2012.
Keyword [en]
antiquity, popular culture, performance, humor, sex-workers
National Category
Cultural Studies Cultural Studies History
Research subject
Classical Archaeology and Ancient History; Greek; Latin
URN: urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-63926OAI: diva2:584738
Available from: 2013-01-10 Created: 2013-01-09 Last updated: 2013-01-10Bibliographically approved

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