Thargelia…made her onslaughts upon the most influential men [of her time]. – Plutarch
In these harlotographies, I try to alternate between modern ones (who died in the 20th or 21st centuries) and those of earlier times. Unfortunately, even those of earlier times tend to have lived in the Renaissance or later; a precious few date to medieval or classical times, and none at all from earlier. As I wrote in my biography of Thaïs,
…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…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…
Most of the hetaerae I have discussed lived in or near the time of Alexander, and a couple (Aspasia and Lais) were born in the 5th century BCE. As Thargelia flourished only half a century or thereabouts after Rhodopis, y’all probably won’t be surprised at how little is known about her, but since what is known is quite fascinating, I wanted to share it with y’all. Like Aspasia, she was from Miletus; like Lais, she is sometimes considered to be two different women with the same name; and like Thaïs, her claim to fame is bound up in the story of the Greco-Persian conflicts that dominated the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. But while Thaïs gleefully witnessed the collapse of the Persian Empire from the train of its conqueror, Thargelia was born a Persian subject and worked to sway Greek opinion toward the Empire when the Wars were just beginning.
Here’s what we know with a fair degree of certainty about Thargelia: she was an exceptional beauty with an exceptional brain and devastating powers of persuasion who managed to bring more than a few of her powerful and influential lovers over to the Persian side. Her name is also the name of an important spring festival of Apollo and Artemis, celebrated in prehistoric times (like so many ancient Greek festivals were) with human sacrifice; it probably had the same sort of ring in her culture that the names “May” or “Easter” might have in ours. Hippias of Elis claimed that she had been married fourteen times, but this seems highly unlikely; he may have garbled reports about the number of important clients whose support she won for Darius. Other accounts claimed that she married Antiochus, ruler of Thessaly, and ruled for thirty years after his death; the latter is known to be false because it was Antiochus himself who ruled for 30 years, and he was succeeded by Thorax of Larissa. She was eventually assassinated by an anti-Persian politician from Argos whom she had used her influence to imprison.
It’s such a pitifully meager amount of information, yet it’s enough to inspire the imagination: given a few more years to work, who knows how many great men she would have lured into the Persian camp? And had that happened, Darius’ invasion of Greece might have gone very differently…and with it the entirety of European history. In a world where that unnamed Argive had been killed rather than merely imprisoned, Thargelia might have been the most influential whore in history instead of a mere footnote.