Phryne's real name was Mnēsarétē (Μνησαρέτη, "commemorating virtue"), but owing to her yellowish complexion she was called Phrýnē ("toad"). This was a nickname frequently given to other courtesans and prostitutes as well. She was born as the daughter of Epicles at Thespiae in Boeotia, but lived in Athens. The exact dates of her birth and death are unknown, but she was born about 371 BC. In that year Thebes razed Thespiae not long after the battle of Leuctra and expelled its inhabitants. She might have outlived the reconstruction of Thebes in 315/316 BC.
Athenaeus provides many anecdotes about Phryne. He praises her beauty, writing that on the occasion of the festivals of the Eleusinia and Poseidonia she would let down her hair and step naked into the sea. This would have inspired the painter Apelles to create his famous picture of Aphrodite Anadyomene (Ἀφροδίτη Ἀναδυομένη, also portrayed at times as Venus Anadyomene). Supposedly the sculptor Praxiteles, who was also her lover, used her as the model for the statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos.
According to Atheneaus Praxiteles produced two more statues for her, a statue of Eros which was consecrated in the temple of Thespiae and a statue of Phryne herself which was made of solid gold and consecrated in the temple of Delphi. It stood between the statues of Archidamus III and Philip II. When Crates of Thebes saw the statue he called it "a votive offering of the profligacy of Greece". Pausanias reports that two statues of Apollo stood next to her statue and that it was made of gilded bronze. Pausanias is almost certainly correct in his claim that gilded bronze was used.
Atheneaus alleges she was so rich that she offered to fund the rebuilding of the walls of Thebes, which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great in 336 BC, on the condition that the words "Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan" be inscribed upon them. Diogenes Laërtius narrates a failed attempt Phryne made on the virtue of the philosopher Xenocrates.
Havelock argues that the story of Phryne swimming naked in the sea is probably a sensationalized fabrication. Because Plutarch saw the statues in Thespiae and Delphi himself Cavallini does not doubt their existence. She does think that the love between Praxiteles and Phryne was an invention of later biographers though. Thebes was restored in 315 or 316 BC, but it is doubtful if Phryne ever proposed to rebuild its walls. Diodorus Siculus writes that the Athenians rebuilt the greater part of the wall and that Cassander provided more aid later. He makes no mention of Phryne's alleged offer.
The best known event in Phryne's life is her trial. Atheneaus writes that she was prosecuted for a capital charge and defended by the orator Hypereides, who was one of her lovers. Athenaeus does not specify the nature of the charge, but Pseudo-Plutarch writes that she was accused of impiety. The speech for the prosecution was written by Anaximenes of Lampsacus according to Diodorus Periegetes. When it seemed as if the verdict would be unfavourable, Hypereides removed Phryne's robe and bared her breasts before the judges to arouse their pity. Her beauty instilled the judges with a superstitious fear, who could not bring themselves to condemn "a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite" to death. They decided to acquit her out of pity.
However, Atheneaus also provides a different account of the trial given in the Ephesia of Posidippus of Cassandreia. He simply describes Phryne as clasping the hand of each juror, pleading for her life with tears, without her disrobing being mentioned. Craig Cooper argues that the account of Posidippus is the authentic version and that Phryne never bared her breasts before the court during her trial.
The first description of the trial given by Athenaeus and the shorter account of Pseudo-Plutarch ultimately derive from the work of the biographer Hermippus of Smyrna (c. 200 BC) who adapted the story from Idomeneus of Lampsacus (c. 300 BC). The account of Posidippus is the earliest known version. If the disrobing did happen, Posidippus would most likely have mentioned it because he was a comic poet. Therefore it is likely that the disrobing of Phryne was a later invention, dating to some time after 290 BC, when Posidippus was active as a poet. Idomeneus was writing around that time.
The evidence suggests that Idomeneus invented the more salacious version of the story, possibly in his desire to parody and ridicule the courtroom displays of Athenian demagogues. Considering his preference for attributing sexual excess to these demagogues the provocative act of disrobing Phryne fits the character Hypereides had acquired in Idomeneus' work. As is not uncommon in the biographical tradition, later biographers failed to notice that earlier biographers did not give an accurate representation of events. The later biographer Hermippus incorporated the account of Idomeneus in his own biography. An extract from Hermippus' biography is preserved in the work of Athenaeus and Pseudo-Plutarch.
There are also arguments for the veracity of the disrobing. The words "a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite" might have indicated that Phryne participated in the Aphrodisia on Aegina. If true, this would have showed the jurors that she was favored by the goddess and deserving of pity. Also, it was accepted at the time that women were especially capable of evoking the sympathy of the judges. Mothers and children could be brought to courts for such purposes. The baring of breasts was not restricted or atypical for prostitutes or courtesans, and could be used to arouse compassion as well.
In modern and contemporary culture
- Due to her beauty, she also inspired the much later painting by artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryné devant l'Areopage (Phryne before the Areopagus, 1861) as well as other works of art throughout history, though none of our sources mentions the court to have been the Areopagus (both Athenaeus and Pseudo-Plutarch tell us only about "dicasts", i.e. judges or jurors, so the court could have been a regular dikasterion).
- J. M. W. Turner in 1838 exhibited Phryne going to the Public Baths as Venus - Demosthenes taunted by Aeschines, a picture which John Ruskin and others have tried to explain.
- Charles Baudelaire in his poems Lesbos and La beauté and Rainer Maria Rilke in his poem Die Flamingos were inspired by her beauty and fame.
- Phryné was also the subject of an opera by Camille Saint-Saëns: Phryné (1893).
- Dimitris Varos, modern Greek poet and writer, wrote a book called Phryne.
- Witold Jabłoński, Polish fantasy writer, also wrote a book called Phryne the Hetaera.
- Phryne served as the namesake for the eponymous protagonist in Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. Set in 1920s Melbourne, Australia, Phryne Fisher is a thoroughly modern woman operating in a mostly male world. The glamorous lady detective goes about her work with a pistol close at hand and, more often than not, a male admirer even closer.
- Arnold Bennett in his novel, The Old Wives' Tale, Book II Chapter VII, refers to Miss Insull, whom Mr. Critchlow wants to marry, in a sentence "She might have been a Phryne and he the infatuated fool.".
- Plutarch, De Pythiae oraculis 14.
- Havelock, Christine Mitchell (2010). The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-472-03277-8.
- Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 590–591.
- Stylianou, P. J. (1998). A Historical Commentary on Diodorus Siculus, Book 15. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 367. ISBN 978-0-19-815239-2.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.15.1
- Keesling, Catherine (2006). "Heavenly Bodies: Monuments to Prostitutes in Greek Sanctuaries". In Faraone, Christopher A.; McClure, Laura K. Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press. p. 67. ISBN 978-0-29-9213145.
- Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 4.2
- Plutarch, Amatorius 9.
- Cavallini, Eleonora. "Phryne in Modern Art, Cinema and Cartoon". Retrieved 12 November 2012.
- "The Parian Marble". The Ashmolean Museum. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
- Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica 19.54.1–3, 19.63.4.
- Pseudo-Plutarch, Lives of the Ten Orators 9.
- Cooper, Craig (1995). "Hyperides and the trial of Phryne". Phoenix 49 (4): 303–318.
- Nalden, F. S. (2006). Ancient Supplication. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 102. ISBN 978-0-19-538598-4.
- Havelock, Christine Mitchell (2010). The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-472-03277-8.
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- Aelianus, Claudius. "Book IX, 32". Varia Historia.
- Lardinois, André; McClure, Laura, eds. (2001). Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-00466-2.
- McClure, Laura K. (2003). Courtesans at Table: Gender and Greek Literary Culture in Athenaeus. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-93947-8.
- Morales, Helen (2011). "Fantasising Phryne: The psychology and ethics of ekphrasis". The Cambridge Classical Journal 57 (1): 71–104. doi:10.1017/S1750270500001287.
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