In fact, he had most likely not caught leprosy (which is not transmitted by sexual contact) but venereal syphilis, just like Heron, a young monk of Scetis who, ‘being on fire’, left his cell in the desert and went to Alexandria where he visited a prostitute. Palladius’ narrative in the Lausiac History 26 continues thus: ‘An anthrax grew on one of his testicles, and he was so ill for six months that gangrene set into his private parts which finally fell off’. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 33a), Rabbi Hoshaia of Caesarea also threatened with syphilis ‘he who fornicates’. He will get ‘mucous and syphilous wounds’ and moreover will catch the hydrocon – an acute swelling of the penis. These are precisely the symptoms of the primary phase of venereal syphilis.

There are, of course, two conflicting theories concerning syphilis. According to the Colombian or American theory, syphilis (Treponema pallidum) appeared for the first time in Barcelona in 1493, brought back from the West Indies by the sailors who had accompanied Christopher Columbus. On the other hand, the unicist theory claims that the pale treponema has existed since prehistoric times and has spread under four different guises: pinta on the American continent, pian in Africa, bejel in the Sahel, and lastly venereal syphilis which is the final form of a treponema with an impressive gift for mutation and adaptation.

The latter hypothesis is supported by a recent discovery of great importance made by the Laboratoire d’anthropologie et de préhistoire des pays de la Méditerranée occidentale of the CNRS at Aix-en-Provence. Lesions characteristic of syphilis have been detected on a foetus gestating in a pregnant woman who had been buried between the third and the fifth centuries AD in the necropolis of Costobelle in the Var district. Bejel is still endemic amongst some peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean. A few cases have been recorded archaeologically on skeletons of Bedouins and settled Arabs of Ottoman Palestine. Contracted in childhood, bejel spreads by physical but not necessarily sexual contact, whereas syphilis which is an illness of adults, is transmitted only sexually. In both cases, the deterioration of the bones as well as the symptoms and the progress of the illness are identical. However, only venereal syphilis is able to go through the placenta and to infect the embryo. The mother of the Costobelle foetus must therefore have suffered from venereal syphilis. This would confirm the view held by modern pathologists that venereal syphilis already existed in Ancient Greece and Rome.

The sin of enjoying sex

Besides the sin of lust punished by illness with which prostitutes contaminated all those who approached them physically, harlots embodied also the sin of sexual pleasure amalgamated with that of non-procreative sex condemned by the Church Fathers. The Apostolic Constitutions (7.2) forbade all non-procreative genital acts, including anal sex and oral intercourse. The art displayed by prostitutes consisted precisely in making full use of sexual techniques which increased their clients’ pleasure. Not surprisingly therefore, Lactantius condemned together sodomy, oral intercourse and prostitution (Divin. Inst. 5.9.17).

One technique perfected by prostitutes both increased the pleasure of their partners and was contraceptive. Lucretius’ description of prostitutes twisting themselves during coitus (De rer. nat. 4.1269-1275) was echoed by the Babylonian Talmud (Ketuboth 37a): ‘Rabbi Yose is of the opinion that a woman who prostitutes herself turns round to prevent conception’.


In the sermons of the Church Fathers, contraception and prostitution formed a couple that could only engender death. St John Chrysostom cried out in Homily 24 on the Epistle to the Romans 4: ‘For you, a courtesan is not only a courtesan; you also make her into a murderess. Can you not see the link: after drunkenness, fornication; after fornication, adultery; after adultery, murder?’. According to Plautus, abortion was a likely action for a pregnant prostitute to take (Truc. 179), either – Ovid suggested – by drinking poisons or by puncturing with a sharp instrument called the foeticide, the amniotic membrane which surrounds the foetus (Amor. 2.14). Procopius of Caesarea states emphatically that when she was a prostitute, Empress Theodora knew all the methods which would immediately provoke an abortion (Anecd. 9.20).

In the same breath, the Didascalia Apostolorum (2.2) condemned both abortion and infanticide: ‘You will not kill the child by abortion and you will not murder it once it is born’. In 374, a decree of Emperors Valentinian I and Valens forbade infanticide on pain of death (Cod. Theod. 9.14.1). Nevertheless, the practice which had been common in the Roman period, continued. That is why the Tosephta (Oholoth 18.8) repeated in the fourth century the warning made by the Mishna in the second century: ‘The dwelling places of Gentiles are unclean… What do they [the rabbis] examine? The deep drains and the foul water’. This implied that the Gentiles disposed of their aborted foetuses in the drains of their own houses.

The newborn babes who had been killed and tossed into the main sewer of the Ashqelon Baths, were predominantly boys.[12] This contradicts W. Petersen’s statement that ‘Infanticide is … associated with the higher valuation of males’.[13] According to him, whenever infanticide is practised, girls are first eliminated, followed by deformed and sickly children, offspring unwanted for reasons of magic (such as multiple births, twins or triplets) or of social ostracism (such as bastards). Beyond the biological fact that male births are more numerous than female births, the male dominance in the infanticide pattern at Ashqelon may derive in this precise case from the very trade of the mothers of these newborn children.

According to Apollodoros’ Against Neaira, Greek hetairai predominantly bought young female slaves or adopted new-born girls who had been exposed. They educated them in the prostitutes’ trade and confined them to the brothels until these girls were old enough to ply their trade themselves and support their adopted mothers in their old age. Consequently, in a society of prostitutes, would Petersen’s ‘natural’ selection not have been reversed? Baby girls would have been kept alive and brought up in brothels so that eventually they would be able to pick up the trade from their mothers when the latters’ attraction had faded. It would not have been possible to raise baby boys in the same way.[14]

Tainted by the sins of lust, of sexual enjoyment and murder, Byzantine prostitutes, however, were never ‘branded’, unlike the Roman prostitutes who by law had to look different from respectable young women and matrons and were therefore made to wear the toga which was strictly for men (Hor. Sat. 1.2.63); unlike, too the mediaeval harlots of Western Europe who are consistently depicted wearing striped dresses, stripes being the iconographic attribute of ‘outlaws’ such as lepers and heretics.[15] Descriptions of the physical aspect of Byzantine prostitutes are at best vague, such as ‘dressed like a mistress’ in Midrash Genesis Rabbah (23.2). We can only imagine their appearance from fragmentary evidence, such as blue faience beaded fish-net dresses worn by prostitutes in Ancient Egypt, of which there are several strips in the Weingreen Museum of Biblical Archaeology of Trinity College, Dublin.

Prostitution – a social necessity

‘Banish prostitutes … and you reduce society to chaos through unsatisfied lust’, St Augustine warned (De Ord. 2.12). He preached, moreover, that ‘unnatural sex is atrocious if committed with a prostitute, even more atrocious if committed with a wife… If a man wishes to use part of the body of a woman which it is forbidden to use for that, it is more shameful for the wife to allow for such crime to be performed on her body than to let it be done on another woman’ (De bon. conjug. 11.12). Thus, in the well-organised world of the City of God, there was no need whatsoever for domestic contraception. If possessed by a non-procreative urge, a man simply had to go to a prostitute and pour out his sperm but in vas, since coitus interruptus was strictly forbidden. The harlot’s rôle was therefore that of a ‘natural’ contraceptive.

As a result of a chain of false logic, sexual repression dictated by the Church Fathers led to eroticism per se at the hands of prostitutes. Whilst controlled procreative sexuality was kept harnessed at home, pleasure blossomed amongst the harlots. The Midrash Genesis Rabbah (23.2) explained that at the time of the Great Flood, a man used to marry two women, one to bear him children, and another for sexual intercourse only. The latter took a ‘cup of roots’ to render herself sterile and was accustomed to keep company with him dressed like a mistress. Is this not reminiscent of Apollodoros’ triad amputated of the pallake – the concubine? Had values therefore not changed despite the advent of Judaeo-Christian civilisation?

In fact, values had changed, but in this particular context for the worse. Frankness had given way to prudish dishonesty displayed both by Rabbinic Judaism and Patristic Christianity. Such puritanism is surely to blame for the proliferation of Byzantine prostitution and in its trail the increase in numbers of abandoned children. The bad faith shared by Augustine and Jerome on the matter of prostitution encouraged prostitution in exactly the same way that the Victorian brothel was, according to Michel Foucault, the offshoot of bourgeois puritanism. [16]


Claudine Dauphin

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique


[12]Thanks are due to Prof. P. Smith for informing us on 11 November 1994 of the latest results of her paleoanthropological study.

[13]Population (New York-London, 3rd ed., 1975), p. 205.

[14]We are extremely grateful to Dr M. Lloyd of the Department of Classics, University College Dublin, for discussing with us at length the various aspects of this problem and for suggesting to us this hypothesis.

[15]J.-Cl. Schmitt, ‘Prostituées, Lépreux, Hérétiques: les rayures de l’infamie’, L’Histoire No. 148 (Octobre 1991), p. 89.

[16]Histoire de la Sexualité. 1. La volonté de savoir (Paris, 1976) p. 11.


About sooteris kyritsis

Job title: (f)PHELLOW OF SOPHIA Profession: RESEARCHER Company: ANTHROOPISMOS Favorite quote: "ITS TIME FOR KOSMOPOLITANS(=HELLINES) TO FLY IN SPACE." Interested in: Activity Partners, Friends Fashion: Classic Humor: Friendly Places lived: EN THE HIGHLANDS OF KOSMOS THROUGH THE DARKNESS OF AMENTHE
This entry was posted in Health and wellness and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.