Phryne the Thespian was a notable hetaira, or courtesan, of Athens, who has been remembered throughout the millennia for her dramatic trial which she won by baring her breasts. Her real name name was Mnesarete, but people referred to her as Phryne (“toad”), because of the yellow complexion of her skin.
Her story has survived for thousands of years, with the famous model and courtesan becoming the ultimate symbol of freedom against sexism, as well as repression disguised as piety.
Phryne was born around 371 BC in Thespiae (Boeotia), but spent most of her life in Athens. Because of her stunning looks, she became a model, posing for various painters and sculptors, including Praxiteles, who was also one of her most frequent clients. One of the statutes Praxiteles modeled after Phryne was purchased by the city of Cnidus – after the city of Cos that had originally commissioned it objected to its being a nude – and the statue became such a notable tourist magnet that the city managed to pay off its entire debt.
Phryne’s beauty also became the subject of many ancient Greek writers, who praised her looks, with Athenaeus openly worshiping her in his work titled The Deipnosophists. From this work we also know that Phryne was the wealthiest self-made woman in all Athens at the time.
She became so rich and powerful during her lifetime that she even proposed paying for the reconstruction of the walls of Thebes, which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great in 336 BC. Intimidated by the idea that a female model and courtesan could restore what a great king like Alexander the Great had destroyed, Phryne’s offer was rejected by the local authorities of Thebes — and the walls remained in their ruined condition.
Regardless of her incredible wealth and beauty — and prominent clients — what keeps alive the memory of Phryne to this day is her famous trial. According to Athenaeus, Phryne was prosecuted on a capital offense, and was defended by the orator Hypereides, one of her lovers. Athenaeus does not specify the nature of the charge, though some other historical sources state that she was accused of profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Although there is great debate among scholars about what really happened that day in court, Athenaeus wrote that Hypereides tore off Phryne’s dress in the middle of the courtroom to show the judges her beautiful body. His reasoning was that only the gods could sculpt such a perfect body; thus killing or imprisoning her would be seen as blasphemy and disrespect to the gods.
What appeared to be an unfavorable verdict for Phryne turned into a glorious victory for her after the inspired action of Hypereides. Phryne walked out the court triumphant, and her story went on to inspire many works of art, including the iconic painting Phryne before the Areopagus by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1861) and the sculpture Phryne Before the Judges, by Albert Weine, from 1948.
Additionally, Baudelaire wrote two poems about her, the composer Saint-Saëns wrote an opera about her (Phryne, 1893), and several modern writers have penned novels about her controversial trial.