Phryne the Courtesan

Phryne wins her court case, by José Frappa

Name: born as Mnesarete but better known as Phryne (“toad” – for her yellow complexion)


  • Daughter of Epicles


  • Born: around 371 BCE


  • Born: Thespiae (Boeotia)
  • Lived: Athens
  • Connected to: Thebes (see story below about rebuilding Thebes’ walls)


  • Courtesan
Statue of Cnidus Aphrodite, said to be modelled on Phryne

Phryne the Courtesan

At the time when Phryne was living in Athens there were few options available to women who needed to support themselves. At the lower end of the scale were common prostitutes who explicitly sold sex for money, but at the upper end of the scale were courtesans, or hetaera, who were more coy about the nature of their work. A hetaera would provide companionship, and in exchange would receive gifts from men.

Phryne and Thebes

Phryne amassed so much wealth from her work as a courtesan that she was able to offer to pay for the rebuilding of the walls of Thebes. They had been destroyed by Alexander the Great in 336 BCE and the city had not been able to afford to rebuild them. Phryne offered to fund the restoration, on the condition that the walls be inscribed with;

Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan

Thebes declined her offer, preferring to keep the walls in ruins than have them a permanent reminder of the power and wealth of a woman – as a hetaera at that.

Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis, by Henryk Siemiradzki (1889)

Phryne’s Trial

At some point in Phryne’s life she was charged with some capital offence – perhaps impiety – and tried by the Aeropagus. She was defended by Hypereides, but to begin with the trial did not seem to be going in her favour.

Hypereides, when pleading Phryne’s cause, as he did not succeed at all, but it was plain that the judges were about to condemn her, brought her forth into the middle of the court, and, tearing open her tunic and displaying her naked bosom, employed all the end of his speech, with the highest oratorical art, to excite the pity of her judges by the sight of her beauty, and inspired the judges with a superstitious fear, so that they were so moved by pity as not to be able to stand the idea of condemning to death “a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite.

– The Deipnosophists, by Athenaeus

Essentially he argued that she was so beautiful, only the Gods could have created such a body, and to imprison or otherwise harm her would therefore be an affront to these deities.

Phryne before the Areopagus by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1861)





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