Phryne the Thespian: Triumph of an Iconic Courtesan in Athens


Phryne the Thespian, whose actual name was Mnesarete, was a renowned courtesan of Athens, celebrated not just for her beauty but also for her remarkable court case where she won her freedom by baring her breasts. Born in Thespiae around 371 BC, she spent most of her life in Athens, becoming a sought-after model for painters and sculptors, including the renowned Praxiteles. This article delves into her early life, rise to fame, extraordinary wealth, and the infamous trial that forever etched her name in history.

Early Life and Claim to Fame

Phryne the Thespian
Cnidus Aphrodite. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original of the 4th century. (Marie-Lan Nguyen/ CC BY 2.5 )

Phryne, the daughter of Epicles, hailed from Thespiae in Boeotia but found her way to Athens, where she became a prominent figure in society. Her exact birth and death dates remain uncertain, but historians estimate she was born around the time Thebes razed Thespiae following the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.

Her unparalleled beauty captivated artists, and the eminent sculptor Praxiteles even immortalized her in a statue. The statue, originally commissioned by the city of Cos, ended up in Cnidus, drawing countless visitors and enabling the city to repay its debts. Athenaeus, in his work titled “The Deipnosophists,” lauded Phryne’s beauty, providing intricate details about her life.

Phryne the Thespian’s Extreme Wealth

Phryne the Thespian
Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis. (1889) By Henryk Siemiradzki. ( Public Domain )

In addition to her beauty, Phryne achieved immense wealth, making her possibly the richest self-made woman of her time. Her affluence reached a point where she offered to fund the reconstruction of Thebes’ walls after their destruction by Alexander the Great in 336 BC. Phryne insisted that the words “Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan” be engraved on the walls. Despite her offer, the town’s patriarchs rejected it, perhaps due to apprehensions about a woman, particularly a courtesan, undertaking such a task.

Phryne the Thespian Trial: A Bold Act of Defiance

Phryne the Thespian
Sculptor Praxiteles offering a statue of Cupid (his favorite work) as a gift to Phryne. (1794) By Angelica Kauffman. ( Public Domain )

While Phryne’s beauty and riches earned her admiration, it was her famous trial that catapulted her to legendary status. Prosecuted on a capital charge, she was defended by the orator Hypereides, who was one of her lovers. The specific nature of the charge remains disputed among historians, but some sources mention accusations of impiety.

During the trial, Hypereides employed a daring strategy, tearing off Phryne’s robes in the middle of the courtroom to reveal her beautiful breasts. He argued that her perfect physique was a testament to divine craftsmanship, making her akin to a priestess of Aphrodite. Such a stunning display moved the judges with pity and superstition, resulting in her acquittal. A decree was then issued, preventing orators from using pity as a tactic in future trials.

Verdict and Legacy of Phryne the Thespian

Phryne the Thespian
Phryne before the Areopagus. (1861) By Jean-Léon Gérôme. ( Public Domain )

Phryne’s triumph in court cemented her legacy and inspired numerous works of art, each capturing her enduring tale of defiance and freedom. Among these works are Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting “Phryne before the Areopagus,” José Frappa’s “Phryne,” Alexandre Falguière’s sculpture “Phryné,” and Albert Weine’s “Phryne Before the Judges.”

Phryne’s remarkable life challenges conventional views on repression and piety, prompting scholars to see her as a symbol of freedom. While some may question her choices, there is no denying her impact on history.

Was Phryne a real historical figure?

Yes, Phryne was a historical courtesan, renowned for her beauty and the famous trial she won.

What was Phryne’s most iconic moment in court?

Phryne’s most iconic moment was when Hypereides bared her breasts to sway the judges in her favor.

Did Phryne’s trial have any lasting consequences?

Yes, the trial led to a decree preventing orators from using pity as a persuasive tactic in future trials.

How did Phryne’s beauty influence art in ancient Greece?

Phryne’s beauty inspired many artists, including Praxiteles, who created famous sculptures based on her appearance.

What happened to Phryne after her trial?

After her trial, Phryne continued to be a prominent figure in Athenian society, leaving a lasting legacy.

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