“When,” asked Aphrodite, “did Praxiteles see me naked?”

The line is attributed to the goddess of beauty and sexual desire in a book of Byzantine epigrams. She has been perturbed by the accuracy of a statue carved by Praxiteles, the most celebrated sculptor in Greece in the 4th Century BCE. The original statue in question – the Aphrodite of Knidos – does not survive to the present day, although various copies do. The nude goddess is caught somewhere between flaunting her immortal beauty and concealing it, rather ineffectually, behind her hand.

She mingled with some of the most celebrated intellects of all time 

The statue was widely regarded as one of the most desirable of its time, literally and metaphorically. One story told by Lucian describes a nobleman who becomes obsessed with the statue and spends the night in the temple precincts just to be near it. He’s caught and the humiliation is so great that the man throws himself into the sea. Too much beauty – we are left in no doubt – can be a dangerous thing. But Aphrodite’s question is a good one: how does a sculptor find the inspiration for the most beautiful female form he (and his audience) can imagine? In Praxiteles’ case, he did not have to look very far. In fact, he only had to look across the room to his girlfriend, Phryne.

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Phryne was a hetaira, a word which is usually translated as ‘courtesan’. She was born in Thespiae in Boeotia before moving to Athens to make her living there. If the copies of Praxiteles’ sculpture are anything to go by, she was very beautiful: the statues all show a straight nose, round jaw, dainty pout and lovely wide-set eyes. This is perhaps more surprising when one remembers the meaning of Phryne’s name: toad.

But Phryne was also notable for the independence she exhibited and for a wit and curiosity that put her in the same circles as 4th Century BCE Athens’ philosophers – in other words, some of the most celebrated intellects of all time. Unfortunately, the many references to Phryne by artists in more recent times have neglected her cerebral qualities in favour solely of her beauty.

More than skin-deep 

We’re told that Phryne’s real name was Mnesarete, which literally means ‘remembering virtue’. Perhaps that wasn’t the ideal name for a courtesan. The biographer Plutarch helpfully explains that she had a pale, rather sallow complexion, which is what led to her amphibian nickname. The Greeks were rarely flattering when it came to nicknames: Plato’s real name was Aristocles, but he was always called Plato, which means ‘broad’. For all the attempts by scholars to connect this to his broad forehead (and implied cleverness), he is only one small step away from being known as ‘Fatso’.

A beautiful woman with a quick wit was obviously a compelling combination

We have stories about Phryne from multiple sources, which reveal a woman who was not just beautiful enough to stand in for Aphrodite herself, but was also witty, clever, persistent and self-deprecating. These characteristics might seem distinctly modern, given that Athenian women largely had uneventful lives: higher-class women particularly lived a cloistered existence, only ever seen in public when accompanied by a close male relative. Hetarai, however, had far more freedom. They would have been educated, and able to converse alongside their male companions on philosophical and artistic matters. By modern standards, they had a far more desirable lifestyle.

A good number of the anecdotes about Phryne come from the work of Athenaeus, who lived in the 3rd Century CE and compiled various stories about the dinner parties of philosophers. It is in these stories, called The Deipnosophistai, that Phryne is revealed as a great fan of wordplay. Puns are notoriously tricky to translate, but one example is her meeting with a stingy lover who asked if she was really the Aphrodite of Praxiteles. “That’s nothing,” Phryne replies, “you’re the Eros of Pheidias.” Pheidias was another celebrated sculptor, but his name is close to the Greek work pheido, which means thrift. Athenaeus is impressed: a beautiful woman with a quick wit was obviously a compelling combination. 

Phryne insisted an inscription say that Alexander destroyed Thebes’ walls, but she rebuilt them

Phryne wasn’t just a go-to girl for goofy jokes, however. She was canny and she knew her worth, which was considerable. Athenaeus also tells us that she offered to pay to rebuild the city walls of Thebes, after they had been destroyed by Alexander the Great in 336 BCE. Her one stipulation was that the new walls must bear an inscription, declaring that they had been demolished by Alexander and rebuilt by Phryne the courtesan.

Scandal and sophistry

But like many notorious characters of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, Phryne found herself on the wrong end of a lawsuit. Our sources are agreed that it was a capital charge; one claims the charge was impiety – this provoked frequent prosecutions in Athens, resulting in the death of Socrates, for example. Perhaps the alleged crime stemmed from her modelling for a statue of a goddess. Pheidias had been prosecuted on the same charge in the 5th Century, for modelling civic statues on himself and his friend Pericles.   

Whatever the details, the story of her trial is one which has been immortalised in art, painted by JMW Turner, Jean-Léon Gérôme and José Frappa, amongst others. Athenaeus tells us that Phryne’s defence lawyer did not do a good enough job for her to be acquitted. At the crucial moment, when the jury was about to vote, he therefore tore open her tunic to reveal her naked breasts to the room. Who could condemn a woman when they had seen her naked, one who was beautiful enough to stand in for Aphrodite? Particularly when, as Athenaeus excitedly tells us, Phryne was more beautiful in the parts of her body which were ‘generally unseen’. The male jury quickly acquitted her.

It is no surprise that some male artists have found this scene inspirational, though it is hard to defend its authenticity. We have fragments of a comic playwright’s rendition of the trial, however: Posidippus makes no reference to nudity, and it’s unlikely a comedian would have missed out on something as saucy and potentially amusing as that if it had been a well-known feature of the story. So perhaps Athenaeus was indulging in a little wish fulfilment about his favourite joke-telling beauty.

Phryne was not just quick-witted but also in possession of a kind of practical cleverness. Praxiteles, we are told by Pausanias in his Description of Greece, offered her the choice of any of his statues she wanted to own. She asked him which was his favourite, only to be fobbed off with an excuse: he thought them all equally beautiful. A short while later, one of her slaves rushed in to say that Praxiteles’ workshop was on fire and much of his work was destroyed. He wept at the possibility of losing either his statue of a Satyr or his sculpture of Love. Phryne then revealed it had been a trick, and chose the statue of Love.

Phyrne become one of the most famous women of her day, celebrated in word and stone alike

Indeed statuary is a running theme throughout Phryne’s life. Not only did she enjoy modelling for it and owning it, but it was also her first point of reference when her desires were thwarted. She once tried to seduce a philosopher, named Xenocrates. After snuggling up next to him on his couch and finding him unresponsive (something which presumably happened to Phryne very rarely), she declared him andriantos – a statue of a man, rather than a man himself.

The Athenian statesman Pericles once declared that the greatest glory of a woman was to be not spoken about. He refuted his own argument by living with one of the most famous women in Athens at the time, a hetaira named Aspasia. A century later, Phryne too ignored his advice with wit, charm and beauty to become one of the most famous women of her day, celebrated in word and stone alike.

But her legacy has been less reflective of her wit and her cleverness than it has been of her beauty. When she appears in (relatively) modern works, it is not her canny mind which is celebrated. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke mentions her in Die Flamingos, to compare his glorious birds with Phryne’s seductive nature. And Baudelaire gets positively hot under his 19th Century collar at the thought of multiple Phrynes pledging themselves to one another on the island of Lesbos. If one attractive woman is a distraction, the prospect of an island full of them is clearly thrilling.

But many translations of the Baudelaire poem simply lose Phryne’s name altogether, and replace it with the word ‘courtesan’ or ‘slave’. The implication is clear: Phryne’s character is not important – her name is being used as a reference for educated men to tell other educated men how clever they are. A more obvious poet would perhaps mention Helen of Troy or Aphrodite as his reference point of Greek beauty. But Baudelaire prefers to let us know how well-read he is (and expects his readers to be) by mentioning someone far more obscure. And if Phryne was poorly served by Baudelaire, a German friend of mine suggests that Rilke probably referenced her simply because he was looking for a rhyme for the word Grüne: a metaphorical term for grass.

In other words, the wit and cleverness of Phryne has been largely forgotten, and her beauty and seductiveness have been decontextualised and celebrated in place of the real woman. Perhaps the time has come to think about Phryne again, as an entire person rather than as a shorthand for seduction.

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