Thaïs the courtesan [conducted] the ceremony. She was the first after the king to throw her blazing torch into the palace…What was most remarkable was that the sacrilege committed by Xerxes…against the Acropolis of Athens was avenged by a single woman, a fellow-citizen of the victims, who many years later, and in sport, inflicted the same treatment on the Persians. - Diodorus of Sicily
In order to give the broadest and most interesting picture of the lives of harlots, I try to choose the subjects of my harlotographies from as wide a range of time periods as possible. I have decided that I won’t write on anyone who is still alive, but that still means I can cover contemporary figures such as Deborah Jeane Palfrey or Robyn Few, who have passed on very recently. But on the other end, the boundary isn’t nearly as clear; I would be willing to write about a whore of Uruk or Mohenjo-Daro could I find a biography of one to draw from, but it seems as though Rhodopis of the 6th century BCE may be about as early as I’m able to go; her life story is a mixture of fact, surmise and legend, and though we know the names of earlier whores (such as Shamhat and Rahab), they are largely inhabitants of the sphere of legend. This is really not so surprising when one considers that we know little more than the names and dates of most kings from earlier times, and virtually nothing about anyone else unless they had some impact on the affairs of kings.
Thaïs was an Athenian hetaera who, unlike most of her profession, enjoyed travel. Nothing is known of her life prior to 334 BCE, but she must have already achieved quite a reputation as a courtesan because sometime around that date she attracted the attention of Alexander the Great (either directly or through a relationship with his general and close friend Ptolemy) and afterward accompanied him on all of his Persian campaigns. Her exact relationship with Alexander is unclear; obviously the fact that she was often seen with him demonstrates that he was extremely fond of her, but it is unknown whether she was his lover or Ptolemy’s at this time. It may be that he merely enjoyed her company; she was said to have been very wise, an accomplished orator and a ready wit with a large repertoire of dirty jokes.
Her most famous (or infamous) contribution to history came soon after Alexander took Persopolis, capital of the Persian Empire. After allowing his troops to loot the city for several days, Alexander decided to rest here for a few months and set up his headquarters in the Palace of Xerxes. Historians have varying views about what exactly happened next, but let’s look at some facts and see if we can’t connect the dots: Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 BCE and, after defeating the Spartans at Thermopylae, occupied Athens. Immediately after he took possession of the city it (including the Temple of Athena on the Acropolis) was largely destroyed by fire; though this may have been an accident caused by Athenians fleeing Xerxes’ approach, naturally the leaders preferred to claim that the conqueror had done it on purpose, and by the time Thaïs was educated almost 150 years later this was taught as historical fact.
Now, Alexander was a heavy drinker, and after one of his legendary wild parties had been underway for long enough for his judgment to be well and truly numbed, Thaïs stood up and made a speech which convinced him that Xerxes’ act of sacrilege against Athena should be avenged by burning down his palace. A great procession was arranged in which all the participants either played music or carried torches, and Thaïs ordered the building evacuated; when everyone was safely clear she egged Alexander into hurling his torch into the building, and hers immediately followed. Everyone else then did the same, and the blaze was so great that it soon spread out of control and consumed the entire palace district, though apparently the neighbors fled quickly because there were no recorded fatalities.
If she ever was Alexander’s lover, she had ceased to be by 327 BCE; in the spring of that year he was smitten by the strikingly beautiful Roxana, Princess of Bactria, who married him and accompanied him until his death four years later. Whether Thaïs had started with Ptolemy or not, it is certain she ended up with him and bore him three children named Lagus, Leontiscus and Eirene. After Alexander’s death Ptolemy became the King of Egypt, but though he married Thaïs around this time she did not become his queen because he opted for a political marriage instead. Her daughter Eirene, however, did become a queen as the wife of Soli, King of Cyprus.
Though history records a few minor references to her children, Thaïs herself lapses into obscurity after their births; we do not even know the year of her death. Like so many people of pre-modern times we see her only in proximity to great events in which she was involved: she emerges from shadow into the great circle of light cast by that burning palace, is visible while she crosses the area, and then vanishes again into the darkness on the other side.