Phryne, Goddess Incarnate
Updated: Feb 26, 2019
While prostitution in Ancient Athens was considered “unsuitable for well-bred women”, it was nevertheless considered to be a legitimate profession. Along with metal work, medicine and joinery, prostitution was categorized by the statesman Aeschines as perfectly legal trades operating in the Athenian marketplace.
Like Ancient Mesopotamia and Renaissance Venice , Ancient Athens had a rigid whorearchy. Greek scholar Konstantinos A. Kapparis suggests that three levels existed for people who engaged in sex work. At the lowest end of the scale were the brothel workers; their services were the least expensive and they were “mainly slaves living in wretched conditions […]”. Then, in the middle range, were freelance streetwalkers who had “more freedom, normally more money, and less coercion and pressure” than brothel workers. At the top of this social pyramid were the courtesans, or hetaeraes*, whom Kapparis describes as “too costly for brief encounters”. Hetaeraes mingled with the wealthiest, most influential Anthenian men, and unlike most women in Ancient Greece (and, let’s be honest, most women throughout history), hetaerae had access to an education, some even studied with prominent philosophers.
The most prominent Hetaerae in Ancient Greece was called Phryne. She came from a small town in Boetia called Thesbia, and spent her childhood picking capers, a painful and exhausting job. However, when she moved to Athens in early adulthood, she enjoyed a precipitous rise and became one of richest, independently wealthy women of classical Greece. She also became known for her sharp wit; it is reported a client once complained about her price, to which she responded that she would lower her fee when she, not he, desired to have sex.
The rhetorician and grammarian Athenaeus of Naucratis claimed that:
“Phryne was a really beautiful woman, even in those parts of her person which were not generally seen: on which account it was not easy to see her naked; for she used to wear a tunic which covered her whole person, and she never used the public baths. But on the solemn assembly of the Eleusinian festival, and on the feast of the Poseidonia, then she laid aside her garments in the sight of all the assembled Greeks, and having undone her hair, she went to bathe in the sea; and it was from her that Apelles took his picture of Aphrodite Anadyomene; and Praxiteles the sculptor, who was a lover of hers, modelled the Aphrodite of Cnidus from her body."
In 340 B.C., Phryne’s activities during holy festivities led her to be charged with asebeia, or perceived lack of proper respect for something considered sacred, an elastic concept that left a lot to the feelings of the judges. Two notorious hetaerae, Bachis and Myrina, convinced their client, the famous orator Hyperides, to undertake Phryne’s defense, as the entire sex work industry would become vulnerable to prosecution if its most famous and wealthy representative were to be convicted.
As her case developed, the outcome hung on whether Phryne’s beauty could be construed as witchcraft, or divine emanation. During the trial, Hyperides is reported to have exclaimed: ‘How could a festival in honor of the gods be desecrated by beauty which they themselves bestowed?’. After which it is rumoured that he proceeded to disrobe her. Maggie McNeil writes that ‘the desperate gambit succeeded; the Ancient Greeks viewed physical beauty as a gift of Aphrodite, and Phryne’s figure was so perfect the judges had no choice but to accept it as a sign of divine favor. Since they dared not risk incurring the anger of the love goddess, the judges were forced to acquit the famous courtesan, but they were so unhappy about their failure to make an example of her that the “nudity defense” was henceforth specifically banned in Athenian courts.’
After Phryne was acquitted, Bacchis wrote a letter of thanks to Hypereides: ‘We courtesans are grateful to you, and each one of us is just as grateful as Phryne. The suit, to be sure … involved Phryne alone, but it meant danger for us all, for … if we … face prosecution for impiety, it’s better for us to have done with this way of living … you have not merely saved a good mistress for yourself, but have put the rest of us in a mood to reward you on her account.’
Phryne survived the court case with an undamaged reputation. It is rumoured that she became so fabulously wealthy that she offered to rebuild the city walls of Thebes, on the condition that they inscribe ‘destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the hetaerae’.
Centuries after her death, she continued to inspire artists, including Jean-Léon Gérôme and Jean-Alexandre Joseph Faguière, as well as French artist José Frappa and American sculptor Albert Weine in 20th century. Unfortunately, as Natalie Haynes notes, Phryne’s ‘legacy has been less reflective of her wit and her cleverness than it has been of her beauty. When she appears in (relatively) modern works, it is not her canny mind which is celebrated.
Konstantinos A. Kapparis's "Apollodoros ‘Against Neaira’"
Melissa Hope Ditmore's "Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, Volume 1"
Natalie Haynes' "The ‘It’ Girl of the Ancient World"
Athenaeus of Naucratis' "The Deipnosophists: or, Banquet of the learned, of Athenæus, Volume 3"
Maggie McNeil's "Phryne"
Nils Johann Ringdal's "Love for sale: A world History of Prostitution"