Come yourself to me, and in this enclosure we will fall into each other’s arms. - Phryne
I mentioned in yesterday’s column that one of my heroines was Phryne (390-330 BCE), the hetaera of classical Athens, whom I first read about in the paperback version of The Book of Lists when I was 13 or 14. Though it is not difficult to find information on this great lady online, I felt it only right to compose my own tribute to the woman who was one of my earliest examples of the truth that degradation is something jealous people try to impose on whores rather than something intrinsic to our profession.
Any discussion of Phryne herself is pointless without a brief introduction to the world in which she lived. By the 4th century BCE the ancient tradition of sacred prostitution was a mere shadow of its former self; the practical Greeks had largely replaced the whore-priestesses with exceptionally beautiful slave-girls given to the temples as offerings, and though these sacred harlots were honored as representatives of Aphrodite they were still technically slaves. Though religion remained very important to the Greeks it was no longer the all-encompassing institution it had previously been, especially in progressive Athens; the old aristocrats had fallen out of power, and the temples were increasingly under state control. This was due to the birth of democracy, which was quickly followed by that of her bastard child the professional politician; then, as now, power-hungry individuals were willing to do anything to increase their personal power.
One of these early politicians was Solon (638-558 BCE), whom nearly a hundred generations of male historians have lauded as wise and credited with helping to usher in the Golden Age of Athens. Female students of history are not so quick to praise him, however; Solon established a set of laws intended to curtail the relatively high status of women in Greek society, thus making a lie of Athenian talk of “freedom” and “democracy”. Athenian wives were denied education and public life; like women in modern Islamic countries, they were segregated to their own quarters in Athenian homes and not permitted to go out except to religious ceremonies, and even then they were closely guarded by male family members. They were not even allowed to do their own shopping; this task was performed by slaves. Wives and daughters were condemned to toil and drudgery, discouraged from speaking and handed down as chattel from their fathers to their husbands to their sons.
Given this grim regime, it is certainly no wonder that many women rebelled, as illustrated in this passage from Geoffrey Grigson’s The Goddess of Love:
A girl disenchanted with spinning and weaving and all the chores which withered and wasted the flower of a girl’s life, made a bonfire of her gear outside the door of her house and chose garlands and music and the sweet life instead; she became a courtesan and in her new career naturally called on Aphrodite: “Cyprian, you shall have ten per cent of all I earn,/Just find me work, and you shall have your cut.”
This is still true of many whores today, but for “spinning and weaving” substitute “office work and the rat race.” It should come as no surprise, then, that many of us still worship an aspect of Aphrodite.
But Solon was not to be so easily foiled; he responded to the explosion in secular prostitution by establishing state brothels staffed with (mostly Asian) slave girls captured in war or purchased on the open market. Solon set a very low price (one obol, equivalent to ferry fare or the cost of three liters of cheap wine) on these girls so as to drive down the market value on the services of independent whores, and the lives of these poor captives was even more wretched than that of the Athenian wife; they were confined to cramped cells and saw no profit from the Aphrodite-only-knows how many low-class men they were required to service each day. It was no doubt because of these horrific conditions that wealthier men still preferred to hire streetwalkers, so they continued to thrive despite competition from the public brothels; Solon responded to this by outlawing streetwalking, so the girls were forced to bribe the police with money and sexual favors in order to avoid arrest. These Ancient Greek cops, like those of 18th century France, were therefore the forerunners of pimps as I discussed in my column of July 27th.
After Solon’s death persecution of streetwalkers declined, and in many other Greek city-states there never were any such laws. And so conditions were ripe for the rise of the hetaerae (courtesans), the very first call girls. They were independent, educated and shrewd, and many of them became fabulously wealthy. Alone among Greek women they belonged to no one and could even own property for themselves; they went about in public as they pleased, even attending the theater and other venues forbidden to “virtuous” women. Some of them even retired by establishing gynoecia, schools for the education of young courtesans. The services of the hetaerae were even sought by kings, philosophers and poets; one of them, Aspasia, was the mistress of Solon’s later successor Pericles (495-429 BCE). This, then, was the world in which Phryne lived.
She was born Mnesarete in the city of Thespiae in Boetia; Phryne (meaning “toad”) was her stage name and referred to the fact that she had a yellowish complexion. This does not appear to have detracted from her beauty, however, which was so great that she became the model for several contemporary paintings and sculpture, including a statue of Aphrodite by her client Praxiteles. This statue was purchased by the city of Cnidus after the city of Cos (who had originally commissioned it) objected to its being nude, and became such a popular tourist attraction that the city was able to pay off its entire debt.
Phryne’s beauty did not only make money for others, however; she became so fabulously wealthy that she even offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes after they were destroyed by Alexander the Great in 336 BCE, on the condition that the words “destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan” be inscribed upon them. The prudish government of Thebes refused her, just as the modern government of Nevada refuses to tax brothels on the grounds that it would “legitimize” them. Though her regular price was high, she adjusted it depending on how she felt about the client; since she considered the King of Lydia to be a tyrant she charged him a ridiculous price (which he paid and then recovered by a special tax on his subjects), but she gave herself to the philosopher Diogenes free of charge because she admired his mind. And when the Athenian leader Demosthenes offered her a sum equal to the annual salary of a regular workman, she turned him down cold; this may have been a contributing factor to her legal troubles described below.
Eventually, she became such a celebrity that she went about veiled so that only those who paid could look upon her; however, at the festival of Poseidon in Eleusis, she stripped completely and waded into the sea in full view of everyone as an offering to the god. The event impressed the spectators so that it inspired several works of art, including the Aphrodite Anadyomene of Apelles. The politicians, however, were impressed in a different way; they were jealous of her power, wealth and popularity and so used the occasion as an excuse to arraign her on the trumped-up charge of “profaning” the festival by her offering. In those days, blasphemy was a very serious charge; if convicted, she would have been executed. She was defended by the renowned lawyer Hypereides, who was one of her clients, but despite his skill Phryne appeared doomed by the prejudice of the court; after all, she was independent, proud, educated, outspoken, powerful and wealthy, the diametric opposite of everything a “virtuous” Athenian woman was supposed to be. As a last effort, Hypereides tore off her gown to display her naked body to the judges, crying ““How could a festival in honor of the gods be desecrated by beauty which they themselves bestowed?” 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.
Contrary to what some male historians would like to believe, the hetaerae did not regard each other as rivals but as a sisterhood, as evidenced by this excerpt from a letter of thanks written to Hypereides by the hetaera Bacchis soon after Phryne’s acquittal: “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.” History does not record whether the ladies rewarded him in the manner implied, but he and others like him soon had many cases, for the Athenian government and those of other city-states (under Theban and later Macedonian domination) began to prosecute the hetaerae more maliciously and much more often, forcing them to form some of the earliest recorded corporations in order to keep experienced defense lawyers on permanent retainer. Less than a decade after Phryne’s death the Golden Age of Greece gave way to the Hellenistic Era, and courtesans did not again have it so good until the height of the Roman Empire over 300 years later.
Yet Phryne’s story survived the ages, and her legendary beauty has continued to inspire not only visual artists but also literary ones: Baudelaire wrote two poems about her, the composer Saint-Saëns wrote an opera about her (Phryne, 1893), and several modern writers have penned novels about her. And I’m certainly not the only modern whore who feels a strong sense of sisterhood and connection to her; like her, we know what it is like to be vilified by “moral” women who lack the strength and imagination to live as we do, and persecuted by powerful men who employ our services, then offer us up as sacrificial lambs whenever it’s politically expedient to do so.