In early Rome and Greece, therefore, sexual behaviour was left largely to taste and custom. (132) Civil enactments protected individuals from abuses, such as rape. Marriage was monogamous, and for life, but only a minority of the population aspired to marriage. Husbands had property rights in their wives: a wife’s adultery was severely punished by the husband, partly because it made the paternity of his children doubtful. A husband, on the other hand, could have what sexual experiences outside marriage he liked, subject only to the fact that he would incur the wrath of another husband if he seduced a married woman, and might be killed for so doing. An unmarried man was equally free. Where formal marriage was envisaged, a daughter’s virginity was protected because lack of it tended to lower her marriageability, but there was no admiration of virginity as a good in itself, and among the populace a woman was free to sleep with a man at her own discretion. It follows that such a woman was not a prostitute as we use the word: she was not ‘declasse‘, and had no sense of doing something looked down upon, whether or not she took money for her actions. (145) In Rome, the daughters of knights were forbidden to take money for sexual favours, but that was all.
That is why Seneca could say:
“He has done no wrong. He loves a prostitute — a usual thing; wait, he will improve and marry a wife.”
And why Horace could actually recommend brothels, saying
“young men, when their veins are full of gross lust, should drop in there, rather than grind some husband’s private mill”.
It is against this background, too, that one must put the emergence of the hetaira, the witty, cultivated woman of whom Demosthenes said:
“We have wives for child-bearing, hetairae for pleasure and concubines for daily needs.”
As Plautus says in the Curculio:
No Stop sign here, no Notice to Trespassers.
If you’ve the cash, buy anything on sale.
The highway’s free to all — walk where you like
But don’t make tracks through any walled reserve
Don’t touch a wife, a widow or a virgin,
A youth or a freeborn child, take all the rest!