The Renowned Courtesan as a Heroine of a Christian Ideological Narrative? Social and Legal Implications

Original article

Maria Eduarda Oliveira,

BA, LLB, Journalist, Observador Jurídico, São Paulo, Brazil

Address: 875 R. Gomes de Carvalho, Vila Olímpia, São Paulo, 04547-003 Brazil



Beatriz M. Carvalho

LLB, LLM (Civil Law), Attorney, Legal expert, Ramos e Pereira Advogados LLC, São Paulo, Brazil

Address: Ramos e Pereira Advogados LLC, 475 R. Conselheiro Furtado, Liberdade, São Paulo, 01511-000 Brazil


Article ID: 010410604

Published online: 31 May 2019




Quoting (Chicago style): Oliveira, Maria Eduarda, and Beatriz M. Carvalho. 2019. “The Renowned Courtesan as a Heroine of a Christian Ideological Narrative? Social and Legal Implications” Beacon J Stud Ideol Ment Dimens 2, 010410604.

Language: Portuguese

Download the full text:

Vol. 1 No. 1 Pdf

Download full-text translations:


Vol. 1 No. 1 ENG Pdf


A story of Lais of Corinth, the famous ancient Greek courtesan, was made a central part of a Christian ideological tale composed by Clement of Alexandria, Arnobius of Sicca, Athenagoras and Theophilus of Antioch independently of each other. Notwithstanding a little unnatural character of such a tale, these Christian apologists created different versions of ideological “stories” where sinful women, “strumpets” receive the same divine blessing as respected matrons. These “stories” were used by the first Christian communes in pre-Constantine’s time to maintain a social balance of laymen and monastic adepts.

Key words: Christian ideological picture of the world, early Christian literature, apologetics, gender, asceticism, sexual licentiousness, hetæras, Clement of Alexandria, Arnobius of Sicca, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch

Extended summary in English


One of the important homiletic themes of early Christian apologists is the question of erotic love and asceticism as possible ways of serving God. A number of the first Christians of the second – early fourth centuries, influenced by Marcion’s Gnosticism, viewed any sexual intercourse as a sin and therefore considered it a prohibited thing for their lives, even an abomination. On the other hand, some other Christians, following the example of the heretical sect of the Nicolaitans, fell into the opposite extreme, debauchery, perversions and sexual immorality. Gradually these followers of Nicolaitans caused an universal opposition of the early Church communes in Alexandria, Corinth and Antioch. Their bad example shifted a balance strongly towards the ideal of monastic life. With the fervent instances of the first monasteries inhabitants, the overwhelming majority of members of the first Christian communities in Mediterranean region also began to incline towards rejecting and abandoning their families and joining the monasteries. The primitive Christian Church faced a real threat of vanishing because of the widespread, almost universal choice of monastic way of life. By the end of the second century, there was an urgent need in an innovative ideological “story” that would prevent the majority of Church members from both the monastic asceticism and lechery. Christian apologists Clement of Alexandria, Arnobius, Athenagoras, and Theophilus of Antioch created different versions of such ideological tales to elaborate a “middle” way by reconciling sexual austerity and marriage. In their ideological work, they rallied common Church members around the idea of Christian marriage as the best lifestyle.


In their “stories,” the apologists in question utilised the topic of ancient Greek priestesses-hetaeras that served the cult of Aphrodite. They used either the generalised character of a hetaerae, or the personified one, Lais of Corinth.


The ideological plot was as follows. Lais, once one of the renowned courtesans of ancient Greece, gradually repudiated her sinful life and turned to marriage. In the “stories” intended for the ordinary Christians, it was highlighted that if God accepts even such sinners as the courtesan Lais, then the way of a worldly person that would like to marry, cannot be disgusting to God. This ideological appeal of the four Christian authors to the Church members resulted in diminishing the number of people tending to monastic life.


For Theophilus and Arnobius, it is important to stress the impossibility for Christians of bringing the sacredness of human eros to the point of absurdity. Such excesses will undoubtedly lead to promiscuity, perversions, sexual lasciviousness and debauchery, alike the excesses performed in the temple of Aphrodite by hetaeras-priestesses and "believers" who came to this temple “to lay these hetaeras to Aphrodite,” i.e. to commit sacred prostitution, the act of carnal intercourse with hetaeras in front of an Aphrodite image in the temple. Christians should not consider this “dirty”, reproachful, sinful eros as a way to save their souls. The authors of the paper believe that it is for this purpose that Theophilus and Arnobius, in their ideological "stories", draw numerous parallels between the obscene erotic activities of the followers of the sect of Nicholas of Antioch and similar ritual sexual practices of the Corinthian priestesses of Aphrodite. Nevertheless, the image of Lais Corinthian in the works of the apologists discussed stands apart from most of the temple hetaeras. Due to the fact that this woman has retired from cult prostitution, her personality acquires a positive and instructive character in the ideological “stories” that emphasised the “proper choice” of marriage. For Clement of Alexandria, the very story of Lais’s life is interesting, and Athenagoras deals with the connection of Lais’s image with the aesthetics of statues of Aphrodite.


Their ideologically skewed interpretation led to the establishment of pre-designed social order in early Christian communities and consequent legal skew in favour of married men.

© 2019 Maria Eduarda Oliveira; Beatriz M. Carvalho.
Licensee The Beacon: Journal for Studying Ideologies and Mental Dimensions.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( that permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

CC Licence

Return to the issue

go to