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Corinth: The Sex Paradise City of Ancient Greece

AI depiction of a man and a woman in ancient Corinth, the sex paradise of Greece
Was Corinth ancient Greece’s sex capital? It certainly had a more relaxed approach to moral issues compared to other Greek cities. Credit: AI illustration by DALLE for the Greek Reporter

The ancient Greek city of Corinth was not just renowned across the ancient world for its wealth and cosmopolitan atmosphere. It was infamous for its very relaxed morals, the sexual freedom of its citizens and visitors, and the so-called sinful habits of its people.

As one of the largest and most prosperous trading hubs in the Mediterranean, Corinth attracted people for centuries from all walks of life. Archaeological evidence provides fascinating insights into this lesser-known aspect of Corinthian culture that continues to intrigue experts.

Temple of Aphrodite and sacred prostitution

According to ancient sources, the Temple of Aphrodite that was at the top of Acrocorinth hill in Corinth was renowned for its alleged practice of sacred prostitution.

The Greek geographer Strabo, who wrote his works in the early 1st century AD, claimed the temple employed around a thousand hierodouloi. These were temple slaves, who served as sacred prostitutes dedicated to the goddess of love, Aphrodite. The women, given by both men and women to the temple, would engage in sexual rituals with visitors as a form of religious devotion. This comes in direct contrast with today’s definition of prostitution. This is why their services brought great wealth to the city of Corinth and was something of which the city was proud rather than ashamed.

ancient Corinth ruins
Ruins of ancient Corinth. Credit: MM, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The reputation of Corinth as a center of sacred prostitution was so widespread in the ancient Greek world that the Greek phrase “Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth” became a popular saying. The saying implied that not everyone could afford the expensive services of the temple prostitutes, as it was not the most affordable thing one could partake in in ancient Corinth.

Religious votives in the shape of male and female genitalia have been excavated from the broader Corinth area throughout the centuries. These provide hints that this important temple may have also been a place of healing for those who suffered from sexual diseases or fertility issues. As with other gods, people with such issues would offer votives to Aphrodite, hoping that she would cure them.

However, despite many accounts from ancient authors, no definitive archaeological evidence has yet been found to confirm the existence of sacred prostitution at the Temple of Aphrodite in Corinth was actually true.

Many modern scholars have even questioned the truth of the claims made by Strabo and other ancient authors. These scholars suggest the accounts may have included exaggerations or misinterpretations of other ritual practices that ended up being confused with the so-called sacred prostitution.

In any case, the temple itself was quite small in size, and it was highly unlikely to have accommodated a thousand prostitutes as described.

Even though the idea of a grand temple filled with sacred prostitutes has captured the imaginations of scholars and archaeologists alike for centuries, it is important to approach the topic with caution and stick to the archaeological evidence we have.

Further archaeological work and investigation at the Acrocorinth site may one day shed more light on this fascinating aspect of religious life in ancient Corinth, but until then, we should take everything with a grain of salt.

Pottery and artwork depicting sexual themes

What is clearly proven with archaeological evidence is that Corinth was famous in antiquity for its pottery. It was widely exported across the Greek world. Many of these vases and vessels were decorated with erotic scenes, some of which have survived to this day. Some of them reflect the city’s openness to sexuality and lack of boundaries as expected nowadays.

A bronze mirror discovered in Corinth years ago also bears explicit sexual imagery, proving that the city had really relaxed ethical boundaries compared to other cities of the time. The statues and artwork unearthed in the city celebrate the human form in all its sensuality. All this evidence suggests ancient Corinthian culture was much more liberal when it came to sexual matters. This was especially so compared to other ancient Greek cities a few hundred miles away, such as Sparta.

The agora of Corinth and its people

At the heart of the ancient city of Corinth was the agora, the central marketplace and civic center of this buzzing Greek community.

This bustling hub, along with the busy ports of the broader Corinth area, attracted sailors, merchants and travelers who were not only interested in their trade but also sought other earthly pleasures.

Road in ancient Corinth
A street in the ancient city of Corinth. Credit: MM-Wikimedia-Commons-Public-Domain

The winding alleys around the agora of Corinth were lined with taverns and inns. Many of them likely doubled as brothels, offering services to their wide clientele. The vast agora excavated by archaeologists the previous decades was almost certainly a major center of this activity, too. In fact, the sex trade was a significant part of the economy of Corinth itself, and the city derived substantial fame and wealth from it.

The condemnation of Corinthian immorality by Apostle Paul

The most concrete evidence of the immorality of the city came from the New Testament. During the 1st century AD, Paul the Apostle spent a significant amount of time in Corinth establishing its first Christian church. However, as was expected, the liberal ways of the Corinthians appalled him. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul lists the sins that Corinthian converts struggled with.

According to Paul, the most important and challenging of them was the sexual immorality of the Corinthian society. Paul also notes that some members of the Christian congregation had previously been sexually immoral, including people such as adulterers and prostitutes. The letters of Paul make it very clear that he was profoundly shocked by the lack of sexual ethics among Corinthian believers. This is why he sought to condemn the sinful reputation of Corinth, calling Christians to adhere to a brand new, higher moral standard according to early Christian teachings.

The archaeological evidence from the wider area paints a vivid picture of the ethically liberal culture of ancient Corinth. It also shows the central role sex played in its society and economy. While some of the evidence, such as the whole temple prostitution theory, remains inconclusive, the rich erotic artwork of the city and writings of early Christians like Paul suggest Corinth was indeed a place that was profoundly notorious for its sexual immorality.

Ultimately, it was this very reputation for sin and vice that led to strong condemnation by early Christian leaders who sought to establish a new ethical framework for their followers and the newly established Christian Church.

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