Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Aphrodite and Temple Prostitution in Corinth

Introduction

In the first-century Roman world, every major town had temples and shrines that were often attended by priestesses. Most of these priestesses came from respectable, elite families and the women were usually either married or would go on to be married. However, celibacy was a requirement for many short-term and long-term priesthoods for both men and women (e.g., Plutarch, De Pythiae oraculis 20; the Vestal Virgins).

There is scant evidence of ritual or cultic prostitution by priestesses. Nevertheless, there is an idea often repeated in Christian circles that the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth was served by a thousand priestly prostitutes. This idea is based on a few lines by Strabo (c. 64 BCE–c. 23 CE), a geographer and historian.

Strabo on Aphrodite and Prostitutes

This is what Strabo wrote in around 20 CE, but note his use of the past tense.

The Sanctuary of Aphrodite at Corinth was so rich that it had possessed more than a thousand temple slaves (hierodoulai), courtesans (hetairai), whom both men and women used to dedicate to the goddess
(Strabo, Geography, 8.6.20).

The sanctuary that Strabo wrote about was in the Greek city of Corinth which had been razed by the Romans (in 146 BCE). Corinth was rebuilt a hundred years later (in 44 BCE) as a Roman colony.

Furthermore, Strabo does not refer to these women as priestesses. He calls them temple slaves and courtesans. In a passage about similar temple slaves in the city of Comana in Armenia, he says that they “worked from their bodies” (ergazomenōn apo tou sōmatos).  One of the Corinthian hetairai is reported to have said that “she did not like to work or touch wool.” This is significant because spinning and weaving wool was the pastime of respectable Roman matrons.

There is no mention that the female temple slaves or courtesans in Corinth were involved in priestly rituals or sacred rites. They are mentioned in a paragraph which is about the wealth of Corinth, and the purpose of the prostitutes seems to have been to earn even more money with sex for the temple. Note that these women could not just leave their work. They were slaves, given as gifts to the temple.

Strabo also mentions female temple slaves associated with a temple of Aphrodite in Sicily, and he again speaks about a past time.

It has a temple of Aphrodite that is held in exceptional honour, and in early times was full of female temple slaves who had been dedicated in fulfilment of vows, not only by the people of Sicily but also by many people from abroad; but at the present time, just as the settlement itself, so the temple is in want of men, and the multitude of temple slaves has disappeared.
Italy (Strabo, Geography 6.2.6).

Here is the paragraph where Strabo compares the city of Comana to Corinth.

[In Comana] there is a multitude of women who work from their bodies, most of whom are dedicated/ sacred (hierai), for in a way the city is a mini-Corinth, for there too, on account of the multitude of courtesans (hetairai) who were dedicated/sacred (hierai) to Aphrodite, outsiders resorted in great numbers and kept holiday (Strabo, Geography, 12.3.36).

The adjective “sacred, dedicated, devoted” (hierai) is used twice in 12.3.36. This may simply mean that the women had been dedicated to service on behalf of the temple. Strabo’s words need not imply that their sexual services had spiritual or religious significance.

After looking at the available ancient evidence, and with Strabo’s comment about the 1000 courtesans in mind, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor writes that “sacred prostitution was never a Greek custom, and were Corinth an exception, the silence of all other ancient authors becomes impossible to explain.” Murphy-O’Connor, St Paul’s Corinth: Texts and Archaeology (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier 2002), 56.

More on Strabo’s words in this short article.

Athenaeus on the Courtesans of Corinth

Writing in the early 200s CE, Athenaeus mentions courtesans at Corinth being involved in some cultic activities. His source is Chamæleon of Heraclea who lived  c. 350–c. 275 BCE, well before when Paul wrote to the Corinthians. Note that Venus (a Roman goddess) is equivalent to Aphrodite (a Greek goddess). Note also that the role and status of courtesans in the ancient world varied.

Athenaeus wrote,

I will now mention to you, O Cynulcus, an Ionian story (spinning it out, as Aeschylus says,) about courtesans, beginning with the beautiful Corinth, since you have reproached me with having been a schoolmaster in that city. It is an ancient custom at Corinth (as Chamæleon of Heraclea relates, in his treatise on Pindar), whenever the city addresses any supplication to Venus about any important matter, to employ as many courtesans as possible to join in the supplication; and they, too, pray to the goddess, and afterwards they are present at the sacrifices. And when the king of Persia was leading his army against Greece (as Theopompus also relates, and so does Timæus, in his seventh book), the Corinthian courtesans offered prayers for the safety of Greece, going to the temple of Venus. On which account, after the Corinthians had consecrated a picture to the goddess (which remains even to this day), and as in this picture they had painted the portraits of the courtesans who made this supplication at the time, and who were present afterwards, Simonides composed this epigram:—

These damsels, in behalf of Greece, and all
Their gallant countrymen, stood nobly forth,
Praying to Venus, the all-powerful goddess;
Nor was the queen of beauty willing ever
To leave the citadel of Greece to fall
Beneath the arrows of the unwarlike Persians.

And even private individuals sometimes vow to Venus, that if they succeed in the objects for which they are offering their vows, they will bring her a stated number of courtesans.
Athenaeus, The Deipnotists, 13.32

Athenaeus continues and writes about a man named Xenophon who, it is said, donated 100 courtesans after a victory at Olympia (The Deipnotists 13.33). His source is still Chamæleon of Heraclea who quotes the poet Pindar (518–c. 438 BCE) and also the comic poet Alexis (c. 375–c. 275). None of these men was writing about courtesans of first-century Roman Corinth.

Anne Pippin Burnett writes about Xenophon and Pindar’s skolion (song) in her paper “Servants of Peitho: Pindar fr.122 S” in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 51 (2011): 49–60. (A PDF is freely available here.) On page 59, Burnett states that Pindar’s song does not make the women “temple functionaries who practice the art of sex … In fact, the song is in no detail appropriate to Athenaeus’ description of its occasion as a sacrificial ceremony (θυσία, Athen. 13.573F) in which Xenophon was joined by the women who were being offered.”

Aristophanes and the Verb “Corinthianize”

It is sometimes mentioned that sexual immorality was so bad in Corinth that it coined new words reflecting its seedy reputation. Liddell, Scott, and Jones, in the exhaustive Greek lexicon, have an entry for the verb korinthiazomai (“Corinthianize”). They give the meaning of this verb as “practise fornication” and they explain, “because Corinth was famous for its courtesans.” Korinthiazomai seems to be a rare word as LSJ cite only one source: Aristophanes, Fragment 354. Aristophanes (427–386 BCE) was a famous comic playwright who wrote during the Old Attic Comedy period.

LSJ note that this word is also mentioned in the fifth or sixth-century CE lexicon of Hesychius. Hesychius cites the same single source, Aristophanes, and gives mastropeuein (perhaps “to seduce a woman”) and hetairein (“to keep company with a courtesan”) as two definitions. (See column 905 here or Wikipedia here.) As an aside, in Aristophanes’ play Plutus (“Wealth”), a character speaks coarsely about Corinthian courtesans (hetairai) in the context of money (Plutus 149: Greek; English).

Was Aristophanes the only person to use the verb “Corinthianize” which he made up? Did it ever become a word used by others? The claim that Corinth’s reputation was so bad that it coined this word, seemingly used by one author in one play, may well be exaggerated.

LSJ also have an entry for the word korinthiastēs. “The Corinthiast” (Korinthiastēs) is the title of two plays, one by Philetaerus and the other by Poliochus. From what I can gather, these two men were also Athenian comic playwrights. It was difficult to find information on them but it seems they wrote during the Middle Attic Comedy Period (400–320 BCE). Athenaeus quotes from both these plays (Athen. 13.7. and 7.92).

These three playwrights were writing well before Greek Corinth was destroyed and refounded 100 years later as a Roman colony with Roman customs. Furthermore, many comic writers in ancient Athens, as now, are known for using exaggeration, satire, and raunchiness for comic effect.

Athenian comedy writers lampooning Corinth are not a reliable source of factual or unbiased information regarding social customs. Nevertheless, Corinth did seem to have a reputation for sexual promiscuity and for numerous courtesans in classical Greek times. But this has little to do with first-century Roman Corinth and the church that Paul wrote to.

This blog post shows how faulty and misleading information about Corinth’s reputation keeps circulating among Christians.

Conclusion

As far as I can tell, Strabo is the only ancient source that links sex workers with the Corinthian temple of Aphrodite, and Athenaeus is the only source that links Corinthian courtesans with cultic functions, but not necessarily within the temple. However, Strabo and Athenaeus, who were writing centuries after the events and stories they relate, may not have been fully aware of the facts. They may even have exaggerated to make their own tales more interesting. Athenaeus says that he “spun” his version of the story. Whatever the case, what they said, and also what the Attic comic playwrights have said, has little to do with the temple of Aphrodite that stood in Paul’s day.

I’ve found no evidence that sacred or ritual prostitution was a recognised or accepted feature of religious practice in the first-century Roman world. I’ve looked hard but have found no evidence to suggest that, in the first century, the temple of Aphrodite was served by prostitutes who engaged in ritual or cultic sex. Furthermore, there’s no reason to think that (non-cultic) prostitution was worse in Corinth than in any other port city of the ancient world.

© Margaret Mowczko 2023
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Image Credit

Youth giving a purse to a sitting hetaera (courtesan). Behind her stands a young woman carrying a plemochoe (toilet vase). This scene is on a red-figure pelike (wine-holding vessel) and was painted by Polygnotos, a famous Athenian vase painter, c. 430 BCE. From Kameiros, Rhodes. (Source: Wikimedia) Cropped and slightly recoloured. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

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