Beauty has been prized since time immemorial, although what and who people consider beautiful changes with each era. For ancient Grecians, the rules of beauty were all important. When it came to men, a stunning figure was an indication of inner beauty as well as favor from the gods. For women, it could spell trouble. And for someone like Phryne, a breathtaking courtesan with extreme independent wealth, that meant heading to court.
The Aphrodite of Athens
Born Mnesarete around 371 B.C.E., Phryne was the daughter of Epicles from the ancient Greek city of Thespiae. Despite being born there, she spent most of her life in Athens, a well-known center for art, philosophy, and learning. Her birth name meant ‘remembering virtue,’ a moniker that would prove to be woefully misplaced considering she grew up to be one of the most revered hetairai in the region.
The Greeks weren’t notorious for their flattering nicknames, as evidenced by Mnesarete becoming known as Phryne — which meant toad — due to her sallow complexion. This not-so-sweet epithet was regularly bestowed on courtesans and prostitutes. But Phryne, as we’ll soon find out, wasn’t like the others.
Her otherworldly beauty caught the attention of various artists, which allowed her to earn a living sitting for painters and sculptors. Perhaps most notably, she was the inspiration for the Aphrodite of Knidos, one of the most celebrated works of the famous Praxiteles, who also happened to be a client. He designed the statue so that it could be admired from every angle. It became so widely known and copied that people joked Aphrodite herself went to see it and exclaimed “Alas! Where did Praxiteles see me naked?”
Phryne wasn’t just immortalized via marble and canvas, however. While her striking figure made her a desirable courtesan among powerful men, her wit provided entrance into the circles of Athens’ most celebrated intellectuals. She became a subject for rhetoricians like Athenaeus, who wrote about her at length in The Deipnosophists and helps fill us in on some of the details of her life.
There are several sources with stories of Phryne. Aside from describing her looks, they outline a woman who was clever, quick-witted, and lively. She sounds very modern, which isn’t surprising given her station in life. Unlike women in Sparta, Athenian ladies lived sober lives secluded in their homes. They were denied an education and public life and could only venture out for religious reasons. Slaves saw to the shopping so they could stay firmly ensconced in their houses. After an Athenian girl got married, she rarely saw her family and friends.
A courtesan was free from these restraints. She needed to be well-educated and capable of carrying on a conversation with men on matters of aesthetics and philosophy. With no husband, there was no one to govern her. Phryne was free to showcase her intellect via jokes and teasing. One memorable anecdote has her meet with a stingy client who asked if she was really the Aphrodite of Praxiteles. She shrugged it off, replying “That’s nothing — you’re the Eros of Pheidias.” Pheidias was another known sculptor, whose name was close to the word “pheido,” which meant thrift.
Another account tells of the time Praxiteles offered Phryne one of his statues to keep. When she asked which was his favorite, he gave the politician’s answer and said he loved them all. Soon after that exchange, one of her slaves rushed into the room claiming his workshop had caught fire and his art was destroyed. In despair, he wept over losing his statue of a Satyr and his sculpture of Love. After this confession, Phryne revealed it was a ruse before choosing the sculpture of Love. These playful displays likely made her a very desirable, exciting companion, indeed.
So much so that she became extremely wealthy. At one point, she offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes, which Alexander the Great had destroyed in 336 B.C.E. She had only one stipulation — that the walls bear the inscription “Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan.”
Naturally, a clever, gorgeous woman with lots of money couldn’t go through life without a bit of scandal.
The Naked Truth
Like many high-flying members of ancient society, Phryne eventually found herself in court. Most sources agree the charge was a capital one and may have been blasphemy. This happened frequently in Athens, and no one was above execution, as was evidenced by Socrates’ high-profile trial and death. In Phryne’s case, some think that her modeling as a goddess for artists might have been enough to land her in front of a panel of judges.
Whatever the case, her trial has been immortalized in art due to its licentious and bawdy nature. One story goes that Phryne’s lawyer Hyperides was doing a poor job of defending her, and the outcome was looking grim. When all seemed lost, he turned to his last resort: ripping her dress open and showing the jurors her exposed chest. If the gods blessed her with such perfection, how could she be a blasphemer? Didn’t they know she was Aphrodite’s conduit on earth? Killing such a heavenly treasure was surely blasphemy itself. Commence pearl clutching.
Another rendition of the story has Phryne expose herself and plead with every juror. Still some believe this is all entirely embellishment and no nudity ever occurred. When it comes to such ancient anecdotes, it’s difficult to know for sure.
Whatever happened, Phryne walked out acquitted of all charges. Afterward, a decree was drawn up stating “That hereafter no orator should endeavour to excite pity on behalf of any one, and that no man or woman, when impeached, shall have his or her case decided on while present.”
So while most people remember her for her astounding beauty and controversial trial, Phryne was more than just a pretty face. Putting it all together, she was a lively, intelligent woman who would likely still stand out if she lived today. Imagine her OnlyFans account.