Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Phryne before the Areopagus - 1861

She pioneered women's lib before bras had been invented. The painting above is one rendition of “Phryne before the Areopagus.” The artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme, painted it in 1861. As did his subject, a courtesan named Phryne, he intended to provoke thought.

The painting has the look of a trial. It appears Greek, maybe because the men wore wine-colored tunics, but why did they seem so shocked? History remembers Phryne as stunning, not shocking. She obviously was both.

Defendant's Exhibit Number 1

The men were in fact Greek, They were respected noblemen selected to be Judges for a Court where all capital cases were tried. Only the most righteous of nobility were called upon to serve there. It was steeped in tradition and honor. According to legend, the god, Aries, was tried there by fellow gods for the murder of Poseidon's son, Alirrothios. Phryne was being tried for her life at the Aeropagus, a place which had been the heart of Athenian government centuries earlier. It was not the sort of place where one would expect a strip show.

Gerome's painting caused a scandal when it was first presented. It was not the first artwork inspired by Phryne to do so. Jerome's style of painting, known as “Academicism,” was waning. He believed the “Trial of Phryne before the Areopagus” would revive it. The painting won him attention. However, it also caused him scorn from influential French critics. It is ironic that Frenchmen could be  intimidated by the sight of a naked woman. 2500 years before, other men reacted similarly. Her arrogant beauty threatened their manhood.

Some believe Phryne won her name because she had a golden, yellow complexion. Others said it was a stage name. Literally, it means, “toad.” Her real name was “Mnesarete,” which meant, “she who remembers virtue.” As a famous courtesan, few in patriarchal societies accused her of virtue.She proved one man's virtue was another woman's oppression.

"Respectable" women in Fourth Century Greece had no “freedom” or “democracy,” even in Athens. They were denied education and public life, much as women in modern Islamic countries. Greek women were segregated to quarters in their own homes. They were not permitted to go out, except to religious ceremonies. Even then, they were closely guarded by male family members. They were not allowed to do their own shopping. That task was performed by slaves. Wives and daughters were condemned to toil and drudgery, discouraged from speaking. They were handed down as chattel from their fathers to their husbands to their sons. Greek women were repressed with notions of piety. No respectable Greek woman would have undressed in public, much less in a capital court. Yet, there she stands in the painting, alone among a courtroom of men.

Phryne was a “hetaerae” (courtesan). Today, some might call her a prostitute or “call girl,” but heterae were much more than that. They were independent, educated and shrewd, and many of them became fabulously wealthy. Alone among Greek women they belonged to no one and could even own property. They went about in public as they pleased, even attending the theater and other venues forbidden to “virtuous” women. The services of the hetaerae were sought by kings, philosophers and poets.

Phryne became wealthy. She was so rich that she offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes. in 435 BC. Legend claimed that one the gods built the walls. Amphion moved blocks and stone with his music. A self-proclaimed god, Alexander the Great, destroyed the walls in 435 BC. Yet, somehow, an aging courtesan promised to rebuild them - without the help of Amphion, or other muses. She asked only that the walls  bear the inscription, “Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the Courtesan.” Afraid that a mortal woman could rebuild what gods had built, and what Alexander had destroyed, Phryne's offer was rejected by the town's patriarchs. The walls remained in ruin. However, Thebian manhood remained intact. 

Phryne Modeled for the famous
Aphrodite of Knidos, rendered by
Praxiteles, the Most Famous and
Esteemed Scupltor of Greek Culture.

           In Jerome'spainting, there is a small golden statue of Alexander the Great standing atop a piece of the broken wall. Obviously, it was part of Phryne’s legacy. The artwork suggested her trial was a result of Phryne’s impudent offer. Her lawyer, “Hypereides,” who is depicted in the artwork, was a famous orator who had been involved in revolts against Alexander's rule. Ultimately, the revolts failed, and he was condemned to death. Hypereides fled to Aegina where he was assassinated in a temple for Poseidon Greek, god of the seas. Poseiden himself may have been awed by Phryne.

However, the trial had nothing to do with the walls of Thebes. When Phryne’s trial began the famous Courtesan was in her mid-fifties. Thebes had been sacked years before. Alexander's savage attack against Thebes was a meant to be a lesson to all Greeks. His army slaughtered thousands of helpless citizens and destroyed every building, except for temples. It was an example of what would happen to anyone else who might challenge Alexander. When Phryne promised to rebuild the walls, her famous lawyer, Hypereides, was probably a fugitive.

Phryne's prosecution had probably been urged upon the Court by prominent citizens who resented her success and impropriety. Her conduct was provocative, if not insulting. At the very least, it was arrogant.
This Painting of Phryne at the Festival for Poseidon was painted
by Semiradski G.I 

Phryne shocked many by undressing among worshippers in a festival for Poseidon and walking naked into his sea. Greeks had no problems with male, or “heroic,” nudity, but female nudity was unacceptable then. Even Plato was chastised when he suggested that women should be allowed to exercise in the nude, as did men. 

Phryne must have known her stunt threatened the foundations of Greek society. It challenged the notion that women were intended to have no rights. Her scandalous conduct went unpunished by Poseiden, whose waves caressed her naked body.

Phryne's antics reminded Greeks of a famous legend. In it, Poseidon forced his godly self on a young maiden who had caught his eye while she was worshiping in the Temple of the goddess Athena. The male god suffered no retribution for desecrating Athena's holy temple. Instead, the maiden received the wrath of the gods. She was made so ugly that  anyone who gazed upon her turned to stone. Athena banished her to the Isle of Gorgon to live the remainder of her days in a dark, cold cave. Her long, flowing hair was transformed into a nest of venomous serpents. Centuries later, her name, "Medusa," is synonymous to hideousness. The message of the legend was that women had no rights. Their dignity was not entitled to protection. Phryne disproved the myth at Poseiden's festival.

As did Medusa, she attended a place of worship (a Festival). It was not in Athena's temple, but it was in Athens, her city. The famed courtesan bared her famously beautiful body and waded into the lecherous god's sea, separated from him only by his rolling, wet surf. Yet, Poseidon never appeared, much less ravaged the famous beauty. Phryne was not turned into a Gorgon, nor was she banished to a distant island. The infamous heterae could still brush hair her without being bitten, and no one turned to stone when they saw her (though some undoubtedly hardened). Phryne tempted the wrath of the gods and nothing happened. It was heresy, but it was an effective way to make Greece's chauvenist society appear impotent.

As a result, Phryne was prosecuted. One of the country's leading orators argued to the Judges that Phryne engaged in heresy; she undoubtedly knew her conduct was inappropriate and offensive, and that authorities would react (if the gods did  not). He argued that Phryne had used a religious ceremony for her own self-promotion. A sacred festival for Poseidon, or any other god, was not a proper forum for a heterae to advance her celebrity. His argument was forceful.

Although he was an esteemed Orator himself, Hypereides could find no words to defend his client. Phryne was doomed by the prejudice of the court. She was independent, proud, educated, outspoken, powerful and wealthy. Phryne was the diametric opposite of everything a “virtuous” Athenian woman was supposed to be. In some accounts, when the outcome of the trial appeared to be unfavorable, Hypereides disrobed Phryne in the court room, which is what the painting shows. In other accounts, Phryne uncloaked herself. In either event, it is reported that one of them then argued to the startled Judges:

“How could a festival in honor of the gods be desecrated by beauty which they themselves bestowed?”

The gambit succeeded. Some suggest it worked, because Ancient Greeks viewed physical beauty as a gift of Aphrodite. Since Phryne’s figure was so perfect, the judges had  to accept it as a sign of divine favor. Further, if the gods allowed her to go unpunished, unlike Medusa, then how could a mortal court do otherwise? Her judges were forced to acquit the famous courtesan.

The Nudity Defense Was Soon Outlawed
In another account, Phryne approached the Judges. She held the hands of each and pleaded tearfully. She explained that she undressed at the Festival and walked into the sea as an offering to Poseidon. Her actions were intended to honor him with beauty the gods bestowed upon her. Confronted with a choice of executing an impudent young woman, or disappointing others who were offended by her conduct, the Court chose to let her go. 

They may have had second thoughts later. For one thing, the nudity defense, which Phryne invented, wasn't well received when other Defendants tried it. It became a problem. Not everyone was blessed with divine beauty, so the Courts eventually banned it. The courtesan's impudence wasn’t curbed by the trial, either. If anything, the tribunal fueled her fire. Phryne was the model for a controversial statue of Aphrodites by the famous sculptor Praxiteles. That also raised a furor, not only because it was the first nude statue of a Goddess, but also because it cast the image of Aphrodite in the likeness of a heterae. Some suggested it questioned the goddess’s virtue. Praxiteles didin't care. He was inspired by the story of his model’s conduct at the Festival of Poseidon, as can be seen by his work.

The statue was very popular. The people of Cnidus placed it in their Temple for Aphrodite. It raised so much revenue from tourism that King Nicomedes offered to but it. Although he offered to pay off all of their foreign debt in return, they refused to sell. Eventually, the “Aphrodite of Cnidos,” as it was called, was lost or destroyed. However, scores of ancient copies survive.

The same could be said of Phryne herself. She died at age 60 in 430 BC. Her fame and likeness have lived onwards. Even today, the image of her undressed body stirs scandal. Some use the phrase, “Phryne Trial Syndrome” to criticize an innate tendency to accept as “right” what is seen, and more importantly what is seen as beautiful. One Biologist, Víctor de Lorenzo, wrote, “Every scientist has a favourite horror story in which a handsome image has led to a mistaken conclusion.” Even today, lessons of the "Trial of Phryne before the Areopagus" are debated.

The famous heterae is remembered by some as a rebel against repression disguised as piety. Contrary to the notion of “Phryne Trial Syndrome,” the young woman chose to do what she believed was right, not what others proclaimed was "right." That is her legacy. It is a lesson to be learned today.

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