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More than Idle Chatter: Powerful Bodies and Personal Agency in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans

Suzanne Lye

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the Dialogues of the Courtesans, Lucian puts the lives of sex workers on public display for his audiences by looking at different problems that stem from the treatment of bodies as commodities of variable value in a fickle market. In highlighting intimate conversations between female sex workers and those in their sphere, Lucian makes both their bodies and secret thoughts into objects for his audiences’ consideration, activating literary tropes and real-world stereotypes about these women, their work, and their clients – from their sexual voraciousness and pettiness to their competitiveness and deceptiveness.

Scholars such as Kate Gilhuly (2006, 2007), Leslie Kurke (1997), and Sarah Pomeroy (1995) have discussed the social impact and literary representations of courtesans (ἑταῖραι) in ancient Greek culture and shown how studies of their representations can cast a light on power dynamics in elite Greek society. In this paper, I build on their work to show in more detail how Lucian uses comic dialogues to identify these women as particular threats to male authority and autonomy through the exercise of control over their own bodies – and the bodies of others. Whether through tears, seductive behavior, magic, or bodily enhancements in the form of wigs, makeup, and the occasional dildo, Lucian portrays sex workers as wielding a wide array of weapons in their pursuit of personal needs, desires, and status. While his focus on these qualities were meant to get an easy laugh from his audiences, the dialogues suggest that Lucian and his audience saw the power of this class of women as dangerous to men and society.

I argue that Lucian frames the free-moving existence and personal agency of sex workers in the Dialogues as a threat to existing socio-political structures through their speech patterns, which often objectify men, and through his complex characterizations of different figures, such as the rival lover (1), the pushy mother (3, 7), the young girl (6, 15), and the cunning businesswoman (8, 14). In Dialogue 5, Lucian even portrays a lesbian relationship, in which one partner is described as a male proxy (Λεσβίαν Μέγιλλαν τὴν πλουσίαν ἐρᾶν σου ὥσπερ ἄνδρα). Erietta Bissa (2013) discusses the gender-bending of these characters as a combination of mythic expectation and reality. I push further to suggest that Lucian shows these women taking on male and female roles as a challenge to the patriarchal status quo. Further, his portrayal of the courtesans’ agency reflects the somewhat hidden but nevertheless documented agency exercised by women in the erotic sphere, as seen in erotic curse tablets (Ogden 2009).

By combining situational, lowbrow comedy in the vein of New Comedy and Mime with the more serious, upperclass, male-dominated genre of the philosophical dialogue (Gilhuly 2007), Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans offers a unique and sustained reflection on the “life of the body.” Moreover, in showing the challenges and insecurities of a profession focused on the movement and possession of bodies, Lucian locates hidden agency and the subtle expression of power in the female sex workers of ancient Greek society.

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