Friday, March 21, 2008

Famous Courtesans of History: Lalage of Rome

Homer mentioned her in an ode, saying:
"That smile so sweet, that voice so sweet,
Shall still enchant me."

Kipling dedicated an entire poem to her power over men:
It’s twenty-five marches to Narbo,
It’s forty-five more up the Rhone,
And the end may be death in the heather
Or life on an Emperor’s throne.
But whether the Eagles obey us,
Or we go to the Ravens—alone,
I’d sooner be Lalage’s lover
Than sit on an Emperor’s throne!

But who was she? Legend has it that Lalage was a courtesan of ancient Rome, a woman of beauty, wit, charm, and power in a patriarchal society. But if truth be told, no one really knows if there was a woman such as Kipling's Lalage. We do know that the ancient Greeks had a class of courtesans called hetairae, women who were not just prostitutes or ordinary paid sex workers, but rather educated and highly intellectual, and invariably foreign, women. We also know that the hetaira of Greece and Syria eventually became the meretrices of Rome. What were these women and why were they better than ordinary prostitutes?

In his Dialogues of the Courtesans, Lucian (second century AD) relates an exchange between two friends about a successful courtesan: "In the first place, she dresses attractively and looks neat; she's gay with all the men, without being so ready to cackle as you are, but smiles in a sweet bewitching way; later on, she's very clever when they're together, never cheats a visitor or an escort, and never throws herself at the men. If ever she takes a fee for going out to dinner, she doesn't drink too much--that's ridiculous, and men hate women who do--she doesn't gorge herself--that's ill-bred, my dear--but picks up the food with her finger-tips, eating quietly and not stuffing both cheeks full, and, when she drinks, she doesn't gulp, but sips slowly from time to time. . . . Also, she doesn't talk too much or make fun of any of the company, and has eyes only for her customer. These are the things that make her popular with the men. Again, when it's time for bed, she'll never do anything coarse or slovenly, but her only aim is to attract the man and make him love her; these are the things they all praise in her."

Rome made a fine art of licensed prostitution all the way up through the Renaissance. Influenced by the hetairea brought back to the city from wars, class divisions arose among the various women engaged in prostitution. According to Marcellus, "This is the difference between a meretrix [courtesan] and a prostibula [ a common streetwalker]: a meretrix is of a more honorable station and calling; for meretrices are so named a merendo (from earning wages) because they plied their calling only by night; prostibulu because they stand before the stabulum (stall) for gain both by day and night."


The courtesans of ancient Rome were real and many. Roman men turned to their slave women for basic sexual gratification, to wives to provide them with children, but it was to the courtesans, the foreign hetairea to whom they turned for comfort, companionship and, indeed, for romance. These women may have held more power through their patrons than even the matrons of Rome. And whether or not one of them named Lalage was a vision in the heart of the ordinary Roman soldier as Kipling's beautiful poem claims, there is no doubt that her trade was a thriving one with over 40 different terms for the registration of prostitution in Rome alone.

The name Lalage literally means to talk, and likely--if there was a real Lalage--it was for her mind and her conversation she was beloved, not just for her body. That, gentlemen, is all the difference between a courtesan and a prostitute.

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