The Egyptians relations affirm that Rhodopis was a most beautiful Curtizan; and that on a time as she was bathing her self, Fortune, who loveth to doe extravagant and unexpected things, gave her a reward… – Aelian, Various Histories (XIII, xxxiii) (tr. Thomas Stanley)
As I pointed out in my biography of La Belle Otero,
…the details of [the] lives [of courtesans] tend to be vague and often contradictory…[because] when one is in the business of selling an illusion, the details of one’s life may become as fluid and embellished as advertising copy, and one’s biographers are forced to choose between conflicting reports from letters, rumors, the rose-tinted memories of favored clients, the gossip of rivals and the propaganda of moralists.
But though many fanciful tales are told of courtesans from Acca Larentia to Mata Hari, none are as romantic and enduring as the story of Rhodopis, which eventually became one of the world’s most beloved fairy tales.
She was a Thracian enslaved in Samos sometime in the first half of the 6th century BCE; her birth name may have been Doricha, but since the source of this information is Strabo (who lived 500 years later), we cannot be certain. She was the slave of Iadmon, who also owned Aesop, the great fabulist; by this we may infer that Iadmon was an enlightened man who educated his slaves well and allowed them considerable freedom. Sometime in her teens she was sold to Aesop’s original owner Xanthes, a merchant who traded extensively with Egypt (one of the traditions of Aesop’s life is that he was Ethiopian, which would make sense in the context of Xanthes’ business). It is unclear whether she started working as a hetaera for Iadmon or if it was her second master who first employed her thus, but the fact that she was educated (as other Greek women were not) indicates that this was the career for which she was intended from the start. Her stage name, like those of many hetaerae, was based on a physical feature: “Rhodopis” means “rosy cheeks”.
Xanthes took her to Naucratis, the first permanent Greek colony in Egypt, where she quickly became very popular. She had not been working a very long time when she was hired by the merchant Charaxus, elder brother of the poetess Sappho; he soon fell in love with her and purchased her freedom for a very dear price, for which he was scolded by his sister in verse. It is from this now-lost poem that Strabo derived the name Doricha; some sources say the lyric also chided Rhodopis for taking advantage of her brother’s good nature by stealing his property (i.e. accepting her freedom rather than becoming his slave). This helps us to pin down the time somewhat; Herodotus tells us that the reigning pharaoh was Amasis II, whose reign began in 570 BCE, and Sappho is believed to have died not long after that. Rhodopis remained in Naucratis and became very successful; she was religiously devout and tithed to the temple at Delphi, which had to be rebuilt after being destroyed in a fire (the Pharaoh also donated 1000 talents of gold as a gesture of friendship toward the Greeks). Large contributors were commemorated by iron spits engraved with their names; Herodotus (who lived a century later) said that he counted ten inscribed with hers, which gives you some idea of her wealth.
This is all that can be considered historical about Rhodopis; the rest belongs to the realm of legend and fantasy. The first of these stories, which began shortly after her death, claimed that she had built the third of the Great Pyramids. This is of course ridiculous; it was actually built by Menkaure in the 4th Dynasty, about 2500 BCE. The story may have arisen through confusion of Rhodopis with the legendary 6th dynasty Queen Nitocris, possibly due to the name of her city (Naucratis); Nitocris was herself confused with Menkaure because her throne name was said to have been Menkaura. Herodotus thoroughly debunked the idea that Rhodopis had anything to do with pyramid-building, but did repeat the legend of Nitocris…who may not have existed at all. Historians believe that she appeared in the historical record due to a mistake in a catalog of pharaohs compiled during the reign of Ramses II, and that previously independent legends were then attached to her. Incidentally, Herodotus’ account of Nitocris’ life inspired the young Tennessee Williams’ first published story, “The Vengeance of Nitocris”, which appeared in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales; this story in turn inspired H.P. Lovecraft to mention her in two of his tales, thus bringing her into the Lovecraftian tradition drawn on by many writers since. And Ramses II, who inadvertently created her legend, himself inspired Shelley’s “Ozymandias”. It’s almost like I planned all this to fit together, isn’t it?
The confusion of Rhodopis and Nitocris (a lady of very different background and temperament) was no doubt facilitated by the legend that the former also became the Queen of Egypt. Strabo repeats the story, already old in his time, that after Rhodopis had become successful and wealthy she bought a fine house with a pool in the garden. And while she was bathing there one day, an eagle swooped down and stole one of her sandals, carried it to nearby Sais, and dropped it in Pharaoh’s lap. The monarch was of course fascinated by this strange omen and by the richness and beauty of the sandal, and so sent men throughout the capital and other nearby cities to discover who the owner of the dainty lost shoe might be. Rhodopis’ maids had of course gossiped about the singular occurrence at their mistress’ bath, and by this word came to Pharaoh, who summoned the hetaera to the palace. When he beheld her beauty he interpreted the omen as a sign he should marry her, and she therefore became Queen of Egypt and they lived happily ever after.
Though there is no clear historical record of the latter part of Rhodopis’ life, we do know the names of Amasis II’s consorts and she is not among them. It’s certainly possible that she became one of his concubines; she would be neither the first nor the last courtesan to become a royal mistress, and an earlier folk tale may have become attached to her name because of it. But in the end, it doesn’t matter because the magical romance of a king and a commoner enabled by a lost slipper proved greater than either of the living people who inspired it, and Rhodopis – or as we have called her since 1697, Cinderella – is undoubtedly the only whore ever to inspire a Walt Disney movie.
One Year Ago Today
“Full of Themselves” reveals the incredible pomposity of certain women who would be considered sex workers but for the existence of an arbitrary legal line.