Thanks to a 1996 essay by Claudine Dauphin, I can say with certainty that sex (along with religion) was an overriding obsession in sixth-century Constantinople, the setting for my novel The Eagle and the Swan. Obviously, when writing about the heroine, Theodora, an ex-prostitute portrayed as lusty and lascivious by her court historian Procopius, sex was a topic the book couldn’t gloss over. Thanks to Dauphin’s research, I have scholarly proof that sexcapades were as common – and ardently sought – as chariot-racing in the city on the Bosphorus.

To summarize Dauphin’s findings, let’s start with the Greco-Roman unholy trinity: wife, concubine and courtesan. Fourth-century BC Athenian orator Apollodoros declared, “We have courtesans for pleasure and concubines for the daily service of our bodies, but wives for the production of legitimate offspring and to have reliable guardians of our household property”. This domestic triad persisted in the Roman period: legal monogamy and sub rosa polygamy. After Christianity came along, husbands were supposed to forego concubines, but dalliance with courtesans continued to flourish.

Holiness and debauchery, Christian asceticism and lust existed side by side. Even a pilgrimage destination like Jerusalem housed numerous “abodes of lust”. Outside the city, prostitutes were known to stalk monks in their caves. In the fifth century AD, rabbis proclaimed that any bachelor who could remain chaste in a large city was without doubt extremely pious. The city (especially a port like Constantinople) was considered a pit of iniquity, temptation and sin. Innkeepers readily offered harlots to regular clients and travelers.

Erotic graffiti in the sixth century depict salacious encounters with prostitutes. Streetwalkers called scortae erraticae or ambulatrices solicited customers in alleys as well as public squares. Rabbi Judah huffed about the Romans: “They built market-places to set harlots in them”. Harlots worked either at home or for a pimp. Justinian’s mid-sixth-century law required pimps to provide housing for young peasant girls they purchased in the boondocks. Of course, housing might be only a shack or room in the red-light district, the seediest part of town.

In city taverns and staging posts for change of mounts or overnight stays along the network of Roman roads, barmaids met all the needs of travelers, serving wine, dancing and providing more intimate entertainment. The Codex Justinianus exempted barmaids from prosecution for adultery, acknowledging their second shift as prostitutes. To spare them temptation, clergy were forbidden from entering these establishments.

Prostitution in brothels called lupanaria or fornices was widespread. The prostitutes were often slaves belonging to a pimp. Cells of the Pompeii lupanarium contained a stone bed and a bolster, with a back door so clients could patronize the establishment in privacy. Soliciting at the Baths was commonplace.

Two classes of Byzantine harlots existed: actresses and courtesans (scenicae) and poor girls (pornai) trading rural poverty for golden dreams in Constantinople before being hooked by pimps. Among the theatrical troupe, daughters succeeded their mothers, just as Theodora’s mom pushed her three daughters on stage in bawdy plays. The poet Horace described girls dancing seductively at banquets, causing Bishop Jacob to label dancing “mother of all lasciviousness”, which “incites by licentious gestures to commit odious acts”. One sixth-century mosaic portrays a castanet-snapping dancer in translucent muslin next to a clearly aroused satyr.

John of Ephesus refers to Justinian’s consort as “Theodora who came from the brothel”. Long before puberty, Theodora allegedly worked in a bordello where, according to Procopius, she could only provide sexual services like a “male prostitute” until she became sexually mature. Then she went on stage and became a courtesan. As an actress, she was famous for her stripteases and profligacy at banquets. After a brief tenure as concubine in Libya, Theodora (according to Procopius) applied her talents throughout the East before bewitching Justinian and becoming Empress.

Such an astronomical rise from the depths of degradation to the height of grandeur was rare. Few courtesans advanced socially in this phenomenal way. Most prostitutes were slaves or illiterate peasants without legal status, called meretrix, “she who makes money from her body”. Pimps paid a few coins to buy a peasant girl from her needy parents, giving the girls only clothes and food as salary. When Theodora paid off pimps to free the prostitutes, it cost five gold coins for each, the equivalent price for a camel but less than for a she-ass or a slave boy. Inflation had caused prices to climb since the days of Pompeii and Rome, when a harlot’s services cost two asses (the price of a loaf of bread or two cups of wine at a tavern). The cheapest prostitute apparently cost the same as a mouthful of boiled chick peas. Without clients for several days, prostitutes would lack even this sustenance and go hungry.

Once the Christian church condemned non-procreative sexual intercourse, homosexuality and male prostitution were outlawed in the Western Empire. In 390, an edict threatened the death penalty for forcing or selling of males into prostitution. In Rome, male prostitutes were dragged out of brothels and burned alive as a mob cheered. In the Eastern Empire male prostitution remained legal, although saddled with an imperial tax, until 533 when Justinian denounced both homosexual relations and adultery, punishable by death.

As early as 529, Justinian had tried to curb female child prostitution by penalizing anyone engaged in the trade, especially owners of brothels. To combat sex trafficking, he nullified contracts in 535 by which pimps put peasant girls to work. This vilification represented a change from Roman times when pedophilia involved small boys. In Constantinople, little girls (some younger than ten) were the primary victims. Abandoned children often supplied the sex market, since nearly all unwanted babies who were exposed ended up as as prostitutes.

Excavation of a Byzantine bordello in Ephesus yielded a gruesome discovery: the bones of nearly 100 infants in a sewer under the bathhouse. The presence of intact infant bones indicates that the infants were thrown into the drain soon after their birth. It appears the prostitutes used the Baths not only to seek clients but also as a dump for disposing of unwanted offspring.

Saint Augustine had practical counsel on the efficacy of prostitutes. “Banish prostitutes … and you reduce society to chaos through unsatisfied lust”. In his City of God, marital contraception was unnecessary. The harlot’s role was to prevent a randy husband from impregnating his wife, for if a man was seized by a non-procreative urge, he could conveniently expel his sperm into a prostitute.

As early as the Great Flood in Genesis narratives, a man would marry two women, one to bear children, and another for sexual pleasure. The latter drank a “cup of roots” as a contraceptive and was supposed to dress alluringly like a mistress. By the time of early Byzantium, things had changed for the worse. The Church’s insistence on sexual repression led to eroticism and the need for prostitutes. While at home sexuality was confined to procreation, pleasure was sought among harlots. Christianity fostered prudishness in theory and licentiousness in fact, causing a boom in Byzantine prostitution and an increase in abandoned children. Just as the Victorian brothel was the offshoot of bourgeois propriety, so the Christian emphasis on spirituality and suspicion of bodily pleasure led to hypocrisy and corruption.

Image: Diva Theodora Imperatrix by Valentine Princep, British Library

[Note: I’m indebted to Tom Sawford’s Byzantine blog for featuring the article, published in Classics Ireland ( vol 3, which I’ve paraphrased and considerably condensed.]