You are here

Houses of Ill Repute: The Archaeology of Brothels, Houses and Taverns in the Greek World

July 2017 (121.3)

Book Review

Houses of Ill Repute: The Archaeology of Brothels, Houses and Taverns in the Greek World

Edited by Allison Glazebrook and Barbara Tsakirgis. Pp. viii + 256, figs. 59. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 2016. $69.95. ISBN 978-0-8122-4756-5 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Prostitution is famously the world’s “oldest profession” and is ubiquitous in time and space. That it existed and even flourished in ancient Greece is extensively (and colorfully) attested by Xenarchos, Aeschines, Euboulos, and many other ancient observers. Archaeologists, however, encounter myriad difficulties when trying to identify actual sites of prostitution in antiquity. There is a purpose-built brothel at Pompeii whose function is not in doubt, but the other 40 structures there that seem to be associated with prostitution cannot be definitively identified as brothels for the same reasons (discussed below) that constrain such conclusions for the ancient Greek world.

The Greeks had a word for houses of ill repute, porneia, but there are no literary references to porneia that can be conclusively associated with any excavated building. Other establishments such as taverns and inns have been identified archaeologically, and although it is likely that prostitution would have been practiced at such sites, the archaeological evidence for it is inconclusive. In fact, “inconclusive” is a good word to describe the pronouncements of the authors represented in this volume. Each contributor is especially careful, in the absence of solid evidence, to attribute a definitive identity as a brothel to any of the various buildings that might qualify and for which such an identity has been proposed by others. For example, three of the best candidates to date are Building Z in the Athenian Kerameikos, the House of the Lake on Delos, and the Aphrodiseion in Myrrhinous. The evidence for prostitution at these and other such structures is considered by various contributors to this volume without any conclusive resolution of the problem: all equivocate to one degree or another.

Making such identifications is problematic for a variety of reasons, including the fact that many buildings used for venal sexual activity differed little, if at all, from residences or certain commercial structures. Moreover, a building that housed a brothel during one part of its existence could have been used for entirely different purposes at other times, and still other structures were multipurpose, with prostitution being only one of the activities carried out therein. Finally, there is some evidence that prostitution was practiced in both private and public buildings, further compounding the archaeologists’ dilemma inasmuch as distinguishing private from public buildings is often problematic in itself.

The factors archaeologists take into consideration when trying to determine the function of an ancient structure and the activities carried out within include location, size, and design as well as associated artifacts and the patterns of their distribution. Unfortunately, for those trying to identify ancient brothels, none of these factors is exclusive to houses of ill repute; all that are associated with the sex trade are also characteristic of many other usages. For example, an assemblage of abundant pottery associated with drinking—cups, mixing bowls, and pouring vessels—is equally characteristic of brothels and taverns as of other establishments combining convivial drinking, dining, and sex.

The “ultimate goal” of this volume, according to coeditor Tsakirgis, is to determine “whether or not we can distinguish between houses, brothels and taverns in the material record” (13). To that end, she offers a comprehensive definition of the Greek house with an emphasis on how such a structure might serve as a brothel. Her many examples highlight the difficulties encountered in determining the function of a structure exhibiting the defining characteristics of the Greek residential oikos, since they can be identical to those of a brothel or tavern.

As with any volume of essays focusing on a common topic, some contributions cleave closer to the theme than others. In particular, Smith’s “Looking Inside on the Outside of a Pot.” is the chief outlier here. Although she investigates how ancient Greek pottery may provide insights into the “interior” spaces of the ancients, she does not attempt to apply this exercise to the identification of ancient sites of prostitution. Nor do any of the images in the essay have much to do with brothels; they are far more likely to illustrate weddings and funerals. Only two have scenes depicting or suggesting sex, and in both cases they are homoerotic encounters.

Two other essays that focus on pottery are more relevant;  Lynch and Lawall make the case that pottery alone cannot be used to identify a building definitively as a brothel but rather is only one of the factors that must be taken into account when assigning a function to a structure (58, 73–4). Both Ault and Scahill examine single buildings for evidence of commercial sexual activity. Ault focuses on the several incarnations of the aforementioned Building Z, concluding that at least part of it served as a brothel during at least two of its phases, but cautions that he cannot say so with full authority. The South Stoa at Corinth is the subject of Scahill’s scrutiny, and his conclusion is similar to those of other contributors to this collection: the stoa could have served as a brothel at one or more times in the past, as most of the requisite features of such are present and consistent with such an assignation, but like the other contributors, he shies away from making a definitive statement.

Trümper is perhaps the most skeptical of the authors represented here. She disputes Nicholas Rauh’s identification of the House of the Lake as a brothel, systematically pointing out that all the features Rauh cites to support his case for this house as a brothel are characteristic of most other Delian houses (117). She also contradicts Jean Delorme, excavator of the Granite Palaistra on Delos, arguing that the building is not a palaistra; she stops short of calling it a brothel but rather suggests that it might have served as a hostelry and barracks for Roman soldiers, with the possibility of prostitution on the premises (123–25). Several other buildings on Delos are discussed or mentioned as possible sites of prostitution, but Trümper will not commit to a definite identification as such.

One laudable aspect of this book is that it contains references to comparative works on subjects far beyond the classical world. Lawall cites Anne Yentsch’s publication on the archaeology of a 19th-century Maryland plantation, and Glazebrook references works on the archaeology of brothels in the American West of the 19th century. Classical archaeology could benefit from the inclusion of more such comparative perspectives. I was surprised that none of the contributors cited Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York 1975), a seminal work on prostitution in antiquity.

Given the inconclusiveness of these studies, one is tempted to say that this volume is premature, but I can imagine a collection of such pieces published 50 years hence without much more resolution, since the problems these authors chronicle are unlikely to be resolved by the passage of time or any advances in archaeological methods and interpretation. So, we should be grateful for this collection in which the thorny problems faced by excavators trying to identify ancient buildings as brothels are thoroughly parsed. It should be in every university library and could be useful for certain classes in archaeology.

Peter S. Allen
Rhode Island College

Book Review of Houses of Ill Repute: The Archaeology of Brothels, Houses and Taverns in the Greek World, edited by Allison Glazebrook and Barbara Tsakirgis

Reviewed by Peter S. Allen

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 3 (July 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1213.Allen

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.