Through the female characters in my ‘Tales of Ancient Rome’ series, I explore the lives of women in the ancient world. One of my favourite characters in The Wedding Shroud is Erene, the Cretan courtesan who teaches the naïve Roman protagonist, Caecilia, to enjoy the freedoms afforded to Etruscan women rather than cling to the ‘virtues’ taught to her from birth.
“Come,” said Erene, “I will tell you my story. All matrons of Athens and Rome have the same lives, dull and dutiful. It is only what you might become here in Veii that will make you interesting.”
Erene is a hetaira (literally translating as a ‘companion’ in Greek.) As a courtesan, she has unique standing in a man’s world. Accordingly, her character is in a position to compare the cloistered lives of Greek women to those of Etruscan women who were afforded independence, education and sexual freedom (See my post Damn Whores or God’s Police). And while Roman women were granted a form of disenfranchised citizenship, they were also limited to home duties in the very early Republic in which my books are set.
“But now outside my father’s house, I am nothing. Yes, I have often looked on women’s nature in this regard, that we are nothing. When we reach puberty and can understand, we are thrust and sold away from our ancestral gods and from our parents. Some go to strange men’s homes, others to joyless houses, some to hostile. And all this once the first night has yoked us to our husband. We are forced to praise and say that all is well.”
Sophocles (C5th BCE playwright)
The hetairai (Greek) or hetaerae (Latin) were professional courtesans in ancient Greece who cultivated their beauty, intelligence and commercial acumen to gain a degree of independence far beyond that allowed to married women and their daughters. A hetaira was not a prostitute (pornos) who sold sex, but a sophisticated, educated and talented companion whom wealthy and middle class men hired to act as a hostess at parties known as symposia. Many were known for their prowess as artists and performers. Among the most famous were Aspasia, long-time companion of the Athenian politician Pericles, and Thais, a concubine of Alexander the Great.
Heteirai were reputed to be educated and expected to participate in political discourse with guests. These courtesans were generally foreigners, slaves or freedwoman but were well compensated and able to run businesses which employed entertainers such as musicians, jugglers, dancers, singers and flute girls (who performed sexual favours) to perform at symposia. However, the world of a hetaira should not be romanticised. As it was usual for them to be supported by upper class protectors with whom they formed intimate liaisons, withdrawal of patronage could adversely affect their security. Furthermore, due to the sexual aspects of their profession, the companions were subject to religious disapproval and lived in a demi-monde subject to male authority. Nevertheless, compared to the lives of most Greek women whose primary purpose was procreation, and who were considered to be chattels to be bought, sold and inherited, the hetairai enjoyed a rare status in the Attic world.
Over the next three months I will be tweeting quotes from Erene’s story each week via Twitter cards. I hope you enjoy learning how this charming and clever woman found her way to the Etruscan city of Veii.
For those who have missed my previous tweets, I set out the quotes below. Or if you can’t wait for the next instalment, you can discover Erene’s fate by buying The Wedding Shroud. Other wonderful female characters in the ‘Tales of Ancient Rome’ include the Greek slave girl, Cytheris, the Etruscan noblewomen Larthia and Ramutha, as well as the protagonists of The Golden Dice: Pinna, the Roman tomb whore, and Semni, the Etruscan artisan and nursemaid.
Here is Erene’s tale so far…
“I am no whore, as you may think, but I am the daughter of one. My mother, Euterpe, was a flute girl who delighted men by standing naked before them with only a thigh band and necklace adorning her. But being fair of face and able to play a double flute as sweetly as Pan did not save her from poverty. She lost her living when I, still tiny within her womb, thwarted the potion she drank to purge me from her. Men, you see, do not want to see stretched bellies and breasts at their symposiums.
“Our master was prepared to keep my mother, Euterpe, to entertain men in his brothel where no music was needed to gain their attention. He was kind enough also to let her keep me, keen for me to grow to learn the skills of the pornai who lifted their skirts for his profit.
“My mother had a higher aim for me. I was a pretty child. Customers clamored to be the first to taste my loveliness and youth, but Euterpe shielded me, wanting me to become a rich man’s mistress, telling the master that it would be to his benefit to auction the firm breasts and tight loins of a virgin to the highest bidder. I, too, prayed I would never live through the soulless drudgery suffered by her.
“To my good fortune an Athenian named Telamon visited our town in Crete. He succeeded in purchasing the right to hear my melodies in bed for a hefty price. My mother did not cry when he took me away, telling me as she painted my lips and cheeks to make them rosier, ‘He’s agreed to make you a hetaera, a companion, not a mere slave. Here is your chance to never be pornai or flute girl. Do not fail me.’
“Erene took a deep breath, then primped her short, shiny golden hair, and played with the tips of the scarf that was tied across her brow and flowed down her back in a streak of blue. ‘Telamon brought me to a house off the Agora replete with soft beds and a full larder. A woman who had once been a hetaira lived there who bore the residue of loveliness and poise in the tilt of her head and the upturned corners of her mouth. She taught me what my mother could not—grace in movements and elegance in dress that denied the robust nudity of the flute girl.’
“And there I became a companion, groomed to be witty and artistic and educated, to keep men amused discussing politics and philosophy at their symposiums, to entertain with song and flute and lyre, and be a symbol of a man’s status, a symbol of the beauty and talent he could hire. I also acquired those skills that madden men with wanting, just as sweet sounds are teased from a lyre.”
The Roman girl raised her eyebrows. “So you don’t deny it was not just music, art, and oration with which you amused men. You just said so yourself.”
The hetaera’s reply was spiced with irritation. “You think I’m just a costly whore, but I am more than that. You have only recently learned a language other than your own, yet I know many and was taught to craft the Athenian tongue into the language of persuasion.
“Telamon was proud of me, showering gifts upon me, giving me rooms that were proof to his peers that he valued me as a jewel to be marveled at and admired. When I lived with Euterpe, men’s gazes fell heavy upon me, their stares like fingerprints upon my skin, but in Athens the lusts of men were tempered. They could desire my beauty or cleverness but their hunger had to be requited by flute girls instead—or their own companions. Telamon alone enjoyed my favors.
“My house became a place to meet and talk and be entertained. Not a brothel, as I can see you are thinking. There were gifts, though. In exchange for my company, men would show appreciation, be it rings upon my fingers or priceless art in my home.”
Caecilia shook her head in confusion, making Erene laugh.
“Don’t you see that I enjoy the same freedoms as a Veientane wife? And I wouldn’t want to be a good Athenian woman anyway, shut away in women’s quarters and only expected to breed fine citizens.
“Of course, bearing a child is something a hetaera would be foolish to covet. My mother taught me that lesson. Besides, I no longer need worry about making such a choice. I’m barren from too often scouring my womb of children.” The Cretan sounded sanguine about such sorrowful acts, but there was a hint of sadness in the way she spoke in a rush of sentences.
Stay tuned for more via my Twitter flyers over the coming weeks!
Feel free to spread the word about Erene’s story. Here’s a suggested tweet.
Hear the courtesan tell her tale. Follow Erene’s story via @elisabethstorrs #history #histfic #historical http://ow.ly/RGIlA