I Lais, once of Greece the pride,
For whom so many suitors sigh’d,
Now aged grown, at Venus’ shrine
The mirror of my youth resign;
Since what I am I will not see,
And what I was I cannot be. – Julian the Egyptian
As I’ve written many times before, it’s difficult to know which details of the lives of courtesans are true and which are false, and which of the latter are embellishment or exaggeration and which outright invention on the part of the lady herself, her admirers, her enemies or her biographers. And that’s just the modern courtesans; the biographies of those of the ancient world often trail off into legend and myth. But the problem with writing about Lais is simultaneously simpler and more maddening: there may have been two hetaerae by the same name living at almost the same time, whose biographical details became confused with one another; or, there may have only been one Lais who sometimes looks like two because stories about other courtesans became mistakenly attached to her. So though I’ll do my best to straighten things out, I cannot promise to fully untangle a skein it has taken over twenty-three centuries to tangle.
Some sources say she was born in Hyccara, Sicily in 421 BCE, and died in Thessaly in 340. That’s a long lifespan, but not impossible even for the time; however, if she was only one woman the legend about her death – that she was stoned by the native women out of jealousy – would certainly have to be false, since I hardly think even the greatest beauty of her age (as she was reputed to be) would still be capable of inspiring murderous jealousy at 81. If the story of the murder is true, she would either have to have been born at least forty years later or to have been two women. However, I am highly suspicious that it is indeed true, because it sounds a lot more like a tall tale men would make up than actual female behavior; while women are certainly capable of murder, we generally don’t do it in big groups unless there’s some sort of ritual involved. If the death date is accurate, I think it’s much more likely Lais died of old age in her bed…but that makes a much less lurid story.
The account of her origin is no less interesting, but far more credible: her birthplace, Hyccara, was conquered by the Athenians in 415 BCE and its entire population sold into slavery. Lais ended up in Corinth, and as she matured into a beauty won her freedom in much the same way Rhodopis did. Some modern authors claim that the elder Lais was born in Corinth and the younger in Hyccara, but since the town was depopulated years before the birth of anyone who was still young in 340, this hardly seems likely. The two-Lais theory is undermined still further by the fact that though there are solid contemporary references to her in the early 4th century BCE, those which take place later are entirely anecdotal. The philosopher Aristippus (435-356 BCE) was one of her clients and mentions her in two of his writings, and in his play Wealth (388 BCE), Aristophanes states that she was kept by a man named Philonides. By contrast, the accounts of famous men who were said to have sought her out in the mid-4th century (such as Demosthenes and Myron) are unverified by contemporary sources; furthermore, the story that she set an absurd price for one man while giving herself to the philosopher Diogenes for free is also told about Phryne, with Demosthenes playing the part of the King of Lydia.
There is one last factor which makes the one-Lais theory far more likely than its rival: the woman who died in 340 (and was buried in a tomb decorated by a statue of a lioness holding a ram in her forepaws) was supposed to have moved to Thessaly to live with a handsome young man named Hippostratus, with whom she had fallen in love. Now, poets adore the romantic notion of a successful courtesan giving it all up for love, but in truth this rarely happens; most often, it’s older, retired courtesans who take up with much younger men rather than young ones running off with boys their own age.
So though we cannot be sure, the facts of Lais’ life seem to be these: she spent her later childhood and early teens as a slave, and was trained as a hetaera; after a while one of her admirers bought her freedom and she quickly became popular. She charged very high fees and indulged herself in many of the extravagances common to her profession; she even developed her own exclusive perfume. But by her early thirties she began to slow down, allowing herself to be kept by a succession of wealthy men rather than accepting a large number of short-term clients. As she got older still she took up with Hippostratus and moved to Thessaly, and eventually died of old age. But her legendary beauty and reputation attracted stories as honey attracts flies (even stories that were also told about others), and eventually there were too many of them for just one woman’s lifetime to contain…so some not-quite-as-clever-as-they-imagine historians decided to split her into two.