Skip to main content

The auletris (female oboe-player) occupies a minor place in the scholarship on sexual labor in classical Athens. A less glamorous attendant of the symposion than the hetaira, the auletris has often been assimilated to the category of porne. Although men at the symposion would doubtless see a slave woman hired to perform as sexually available, I argue that the evidence suggests that the auletris was generally hired primarily as a musician and her sexual labor, when it occurred, was a secondary aspect of her role and status. This primary aspect has been obscured due to a certain fuzziness in the use of the term 'prostitute,' a fuzziness that muddies the nature of our understanding of the labor, sexual and musical, of the auletris. A closer look at the auletris can improve our understanding of female sexual labor and the role of women's labor more generally.

Although the scholarly assimilation of the auletris to the porne occasionally goes so far as to suggest that the term auletris was a synonym for prostitute, the discourse of the auletris presents a more complicated and nuanced set of associations. It has been claimed that auletris was one of the many additional words used to define the porne, implying that the status of porne was somehow prior and that we should understand the auletris as the oboe-playing porne. There is little evidence supporting this view. The passage in Menander's Perikeiromene (337), which has been cited as support, contrasts the seducing of a citizen girl with prototypically sexually available women. This passage does not prove that an auletris was a synonym for porne.

References to the auletris in her paradigmatic locus of the symposion reveal two strands of connotation. The dominant one highlights her role as an essential musical entertainer, hired to entertain with her musical skill. The auletris is sent away in Plato's Symposium because the symposiasts propose to entertain themselves with talk rather than with hired music. Her sexual availability is not at issue and many references to the auletris taken to be sexual in fact reflect her primary role of musical entertainer. The second strand highlights her sexual availability. It is hardly surprising that Athenian male discourse, which does not always make clear distinctions between porne and slave women, would connect the auletris with sexuality. There are, however, only limited references that explicitly refer to her sexuality and only a handful suggest payment for sex. The strand that highlights sexuality can be found in comedy, Attic oratory and on some vase paintings. This strand reflects eroticized and occasionally also moralized discourse on low status, sexually available women.

Even this eroticized discourse highlights the secondary nature of her sexual behavior. The sexual labor, when it occurs, comes later in the symposion. This secondary aspect is clear when Athenaeus quotes a biographer of Zeno who writes of an auction for an auletris at a symposion (Athen. 13.607). The law regulating the prices for the auletris and other performers hired for the symposion (Arist. Ath. Pol. 50), on this view, is concerned with these performers' primary function and not their secondary availability for hired sexual labor. In Aristophanes' Wasps (1335-81), the conflict for the auletris Dardanis suggests that what is classed as prostitution might at times have been closer to sexual violence. This sexualized discourse raises questions about how an auletris might try to resist or limit the sexual violence she could be exposed to as a hired female slave at a male symposion.

The modern discourse of prostitution tends often to invert the ancient evidence about the auletris, highlighting her sexual activities while ignoring or de-emphasizing her musical services. It seems certain that an auletris occasionally sold sex, although it seems perverse to define her by that aspect. It highlights only one strand of eroticized and moralistic elite male discourse and thereby occludes our understanding of women's labor in Athens.