Thais of Athens, the royal escort

Well, we’ve gotta give it to the Greeks — in some terms they’ve had us licked for centuries when it comes to progressive politics and social norms. Though maybe today no one would associate Greek culture and the escort trade, in ancient times the two went comfortably and unabashedly hand in hand.

Accepted into the Greek culture during the Classic Age of Greece was an escort, known as hetaera.

The hetaera were not prostitutes. This was made clear in society through their place politically: the hetaera had to pay taxes, were generally educated (versus married women who were not) and were trained to be skilled in the arts so that they could be interesting and compelling companions. They had relative influence over their lovers as they were skilled in public speaking and informed on politics. And they were free to marry their lovers as they wished, assuring that their children were legally and socially able to be taken freely into Greek society.

The hetaera Thais was one such escort. Little is known of the particulars of Thais’ life, but her power on the men of her time and her place in Athenian society has kept her a famous name to this day.

Thais was the hetaera, lover and then wife of Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great‘s finest generals and the eventual king of Egypt. Time has historically associated Thais sexually with Alexander himself, but ancient writings show that she was most likely Ptolemy’s partner the entire time of their association and that Alexander simply enjoyed her company and respected her intellectually. She followed the army on Alexander’s conquests around Greece and into Egypt, giving advice and speaking on politics to the great conquerors of the time. She was known for being witty and intelligent as well as beautiful and skilled in entertaining, a truly honorable escort to the revered generals.

Thais is most notoriously credited with being the inspiration for the burning of Persepolis. No one quite knows the inspiration for the ruin of this great palace in—was it the excitement of a drinking party or revenge for Xerxes’ burning of the temple of Athena?—but Thais is credited (blamed?) for convincing Alexander’s that it must burn.

After Alexander’s death Thais married Ptolemy and bore him 3 children. She was not recognized as his queen (he had already been married twice and his first wife had born him the would-be princes), but her children would later grow into prominence in society. While some romantics do name her his queen when he was crowned King of Egypt, she was most likely kept out of the spotlight in a monarchical sense.

What is most interesting about Thais is her lasting impact historically. The hetaera were respected during the Classic Greek era. There was nothing shameful about the “job” and they were distinctively in a class outside of prostitution. But time has shown that somehow history has somehow judged this woman, as writers and artists of different times depict her in various lights.

Dante, for example, included her in his Inferno, a woman consumed by guilt and shame: “I live in shame, a whore awash in sewage. I confess I teased and seduced hundreds, led them to sin for my own gains.”

Yet nothing in history refers to Thais as a whore, a prostitute, or the seducer of hundreds of men who laughed as they slaughtered each other for a taste of her body. Dante has given her guilt and shame, traits that have seeped into historical views of her, to please his ecclesiastical overlords.

Similarly, Christopher Marlowe summoned Thais as Alexander’s mistress when he conjures the ancient Greek paramours to console him before his impending damnation. She doesn’t speak in this play, but rather represents the damned who enjoy their time carnally but for whom peace will never come.

So what changed between Thais’ time and her literary condemnation?

Well, the Classic period of Greece fell with the death of Alexander in 323BC, and religion most likely played a large part in the judgment of Thais along with countless other women historically. Also, the fine line between prostitution and escorting that still plagues us today was made ever sharper when the idea of the hetaera fell out of trend.

But as for Thais? We have a feeling she’s resting soundly, a progressive, intelligent woman who knew her worth, her value, and her place in an educated society.