Byzantine erotic epigrams, notably those of Agathias Scholasticus in the sixth century, generally describe encounters with prostitutes in the street. The winding dark alleyways of the Old city of Jerusalem were particularly appropriate for soliciting.
In small towns of Roman and Byzantine Palestine, however, it seems that the squares, not the streets, were favourable hunting-grounds for prostitutes.
Even in the Babylonian Talmud it states "all they made, they made for themselves: they built marketplaces, to set harlots in the." Some harlots worked at home, such as Mary the Egyptian whose life was written down in the sixth century by Sophronios. On the evidence of the legislation of Emperor Justinian in the mid sixth century, it is clear that providing housing was part of the deal which pimps of Constantinpole struck with the fathers of young peasant girls whom they bought in the capital's hinterland. Byzantine prostitutes were relegated to 'red light districts' in the same way that the prostitutes of Rome lived and worked predominately in Subura and near the circus Maximus, thus to the north and the south of the forum.
In city inns as well as in the staging posts for change of mounts or overnight stay along the official Roman road network, all the needs of travellers were catered for by the barmaids. They served them wine, danced for them, and led them upstairs to the rooms on the upper floor. In order to prevent Christian travellers from falling prey to sexual dangers of this sort, eccesiatical rest houses and inns specifically for pilgrims run by members of the clergy, sprang up along the main pilgrim routes.
Prostitution was also institutionalised under the form of brothels which Juvenal called lupanarnia. Described in the sixth century as a "house of prostitution" in Jericho or even more vaguely "an abode of lust" in Jerusalem. The prostitutes employed in theseestablishments were slaves and property of a pimp or a madam.
A Byzantine brothel has recently been unearthed in the course of excavations at Bet She'an, ancient Scythopolis, capital of Palestina Prima. At the heart of this thriving metropolis, a Roman Odeon founded in the second century was partly destroyed in the sixth century.
The cabins of Bet She'an exendra are reminiscent of the cells of the Pompeii lunanarium which consisted of ground floor rooms, each equipped with a stone bed and a bolster. The back doors of some rooms enabled clients who were keen to remain anonymous, to enter the abode of lust without being seen from the main street and thus to surreptitiously satisfy their sexual fantasies. The portico where girls strolled in the hope of attracting passers by from the street, as well as neighbouring Byzantine baths were part of a fascinating network: Soliciting at the baths, in the portico and in the exedra courtyard, followed by sex in the cabins, and at the back of the building, an entrance-and-exit system for supposedly 'respectable clients'.
The Christian Byzantine state probably turned a blind eye to prostitution because it could occasionally be very lucrative and thus beneficial through taxation.
Since the Roman Republic, according to Tactius (Ann 11.85.1-2) male and female prostitutes had been recorded nominally in registers which were kept under guardianship of the Aediles. From the reign of Caligula, prostitutes were taxed.
Famous Courtesans and common harlots, all met in the public baths which were already frequented in the Roman period by prostitutes of both sexes. Men were not to bathe, but to entertain their mistresses as in the sixth century Italian baganios. The fourth-to-sixth century baths uncovered in Ashquelon in 1986, by the Harvard-Chicago Expedition appear to have been of that type.
It was believed back in the sixth century, that the art displayed by prostitutes consisted precisely in making full use of sexual techniques which increased their clients pleasure, not surprisingly therefore, it was condemned by church fathers.
One technique perfected by prostitutes both increased pleasure of their partners and was contraceptive. In the (De rer. Nat. 4.1269-1275) was a description of prostitutes twisting themselves during coitus.
Tainted by sins of lust, and of enjoyment, Byzantine prostitutes, however, were never branded, unlike the Roman prostitutes who by law had to look different from respectable young women and matrons and were therefore made to wear a TOGA which was strictly for men. Unlike, too the medieval harlots of Western Europe who are consistently depicted wearing striped dresses, stripes being the iconographic attribute of 'outlaws' such as lepers (Hor. Sat.1.2.63).
Descriptions of the physical aspect of Byzantine prostitutes are at best vague, such as 'dressed like a mistress' in Midrash Genesis Rabbah (23.2). We can imagine their appearance from fragmentary evidence, such as blue faience beaded fish-net dresses worn by prostitutes in Ancient Egypt, of which there are several strips in the Weingreen Museum of Biblical Archeology of Trinity College, Dublin.
Some commended words were stated by St Augustine, perceiving prostitution as a social necessity by warning (De Ord. 2.12.) 'Banish prostitutes.and you reduce society to chaos through unsatisfied lust', and he preached, moreover, that 'unnatural sex is atrocious if committed with a prostitute, but even more atrocious if committed with a wife.If a man wishes to use part of the body of a woman which it is forbidden to use for that, it is more shameful for the wife to allow such a crime to be performed on her body than let it be done with another woman'.
Now lets look on the legal side into the Middle ages to look at what life was like for sex workers hundreds of years ago.
The first stopping point on our tour is the reign of Justinian, ruler of the Byzantine Empire from 527-565. Justinian was probably the first ruler to stop prostitution by making laws against third party management. In 531, he put forth a body of laws called the Corpus Juris Civilis. It made provisions to punish all procurers and brothel-keepers.
He even set up the first social readjustment centre for prostitutes, but Aalaric 11 really made an art of it. Alaric 11 was the king of the Visigoths and he established the 'Aalaric code' where prostitutes and procurers were subjected to whippings if caught in the act of any Hanky Panky!
Charlemagne actually went so far as to create a capitulary law that was solely intended to address prostitution . This may be the first legal document in the Western World dealing with issues of prostitution.
Now bear in mind that nearly ALL THE RULERS OF THIS TIME HAD THEIR OWN CONCUBINES AND COURTESANS, but for the mere mortals under their rule this was strictly forbidden.
Charlemagne's capitulary stated that all who solicit or belong to brothels in any capacity, were subject to scourging. In fact, prostitutes were perceived as such serious criminals, because they were subjected to 300 blows of whips, the highest number of whip-blows in the Aalaric code. Remember, 300 blows were enough to kill many strong men. Despite these harsh measures, Charlemagne could not stop prostitution.
An interesting side note on this time period; Nuns were often found guilty of prostitution. This was the easiest way to supplement the convents income!
Jumping about 500 years into the future, prostitution was becoming more accepted during the reign of King Luis 1X. In 1254, he passed an edict threatening exile to prostitutes and those who made money off them. As a result of the edict, prostitution went underground again, and many men complained that they couldn't protect the virtue of their wives and daughters because sexual violence had increased since brothels closed down, and Luis 1X was forced to repel his edict only two years after issuing it.
When the crusades began and the armies began filing to the Holy Lands, the prostitutes followed right behind the troops. The number of camp followers increased and by the time Saint Luis was waging war the eighth crusade, their numbers were vast.