gigatos | January 4, 2022


Phryne (Greek: Phrýnē, 4th century B.C.) was a Greek heta from Athens, the heroine of many anecdotes by ancient writers. For this reason, she is sometimes considered the most famous hetera of ancient Greece.

It is assumed that she was the lover of Praxiteles, to whom she posed for the sculpture of Aphrodite of Knidos, as well as probably several other works. Numerous accounts speak of her exceptional beauty, wit, and wealth, although the reliability of many of them raises doubts. One historical event of doubtful authenticity was the trial of Phryne before the Athenian court, where she was accused of impiety, and her acquittal was supposed to be secured by the gesture of her defense attorney, Hyperides, who exposed her breasts in order to influence the judges (most likely, however, this did not happen, and is merely a later embellishment of the trial).

Since modern times, the figure of this heta has been evoked in painting, sculpture, literary and musical works and, in the 20th century, cinematography.

She was a native of Thespia in Beotia. She was the daughter of a certain Epikles, and bore the name Mnesarete (Gr. Mnēsarétē, “one who does not forget virtue”). The exact years of her life are not known. She may have been born around 384. At a young age, possibly as a child, she left her native polis, probably before its destruction by the Thebans in 371, although it is possible that this happened after the destruction of the Thespians.

She ended up in Athens, where she lived as a metoress, initially in poverty. It is said that she supported herself by collecting herbs or selling capers. She then became a flutist and, before long, a hetero. She became known as Fryne (Gr. “toad”) because of her pale (or slightly yellowish) complexion, but in any case lighter and more highly regarded. It has also been suggested that her body shape was the source of this nickname.

She was said to be distinguished by her beauty and to have been quite popular. She is also said to have been nicknamed Charybda or Sēstos (“sieve”) because of the riches she sifted through her fingers. The credibility of the many anecdotes about the wealth she amassed must be judged with caution. She dictated various prices for her services. Ancient sources state that sometimes these were high sums, such as one hundred drachmas or two staterias of gold.

She was selective in her choice of companions, hanging around the intellectual elite of Athens, associating with artists, writers, and speakers. Among her lovers was one of the members of the Areopagus, the speaker and politician Hyperides. Her relationship with the latter brought her the greatest fame, although doubts have been raised about the authenticity of their affair. She probably accompanied him to Asia Minor and posed for his works, especially the statue of Aphrodite of Knidos, the first full-length female nude in Greek art. Although immediately after its creation this sculpture aroused admiration, there was no shortage of negative commentaries, which objected to the complete nudity of the goddess, as well as harshly judging the addition of hete features.

Fryne”s fame was also assured by other works of Praxiteles that she donated to various temples. According to Pausanias and Plutarch, she donated statues of both deities and herself as a priestess of Aphrodite to the sanctuary of Eros and Aphrodite in her native Thespia. However, to the temple at Delphi she donated her likeness, also chiseled by Praxiteles, made of gilded bronze (perhaps a copy of the image from Thespia). It was placed on a marble column with the inscription “Phryne, daughter of Epicles, Thespian”. (or “Fryne, famous inhabitant of Thespia”). Placing this statue between the effigies of kings Philip of Macedon and Archidamus of Sparta caused quite an outcry. The choice of such a place was interpreted as an act of worship for her or an expression of gratitude for her participation in Praxiteles” works, which enriched the Greek world with beautiful sculptures.

The episode that is considered the most famous in her life (apart from posing for the statue of Aphrodite) was the trial in Athens, although doubts have been raised about its historicity. However, it is believed to have actually taken place due to references to it in a number of independent sources from the period, although its exact date is unknown – it is assumed to have taken place in 347 or 345, or possibly between 350 and 340. Fryne stood trial (most likely a tribunal of the people”s court) on charges of impiety. She was accused of introducing the cult of Dionysus Pluto (most probably the Thracian-Phrygian god Isodaites, the demon of rage, although it is possible that this was a native deity, as the Greek name might suggest), a secret cult restricted to a select group of people, in which deviant rites were practiced. The accusation was made by Euthios, reportedly rejected by her or outraged by the price she demanded of him for her services. Her defense, in a case threatened with death or exile, was taken up by Hyperejdes and eventually Phryne was acquitted. While his participation in the trial is not in doubt, the manner in which he brought about a favourable verdict, using her beauty, seems to be an anecdotal tale.

The accusation concerning the introduction of the cult of Isodaites was related to the ambivalent perception in Athens of new cults, as well as to the suspicious treatment of any informal groups that gathered secretly. Perhaps the matter had a second, political bottom, connected with the rivalry between the anti- and pro-Macedonian parties. Aristogeion (an opponent of Demosthenes and Hyperides) and Anaximenes of Lampsakos, the author of the accusatory speech, were associated with the latter. It is possible that in the case of the trial of Hetusa the procedure was abused, which could have been an attempt to accuse her of high treason.

The statue that Phryne donated to Delphi is associated with the trial, for its execution dates to about 345 and it may have been an exvoto to Apollo for the successful conclusion of the case.

The date of her death remains unknown, according to anecdotal evidence she was to propose to Alexander of Macedon to rebuild Thebes in 335. Some studies say that she was still alive in 316.

Ancient literature

A large number of anecdotes have been associated with her character by ancient writers, and as a result she is sometimes considered the most famous ancient Greek heta, known for her beauty and brilliance as well as her famous lovers. Most of these stories do not date from Fryne”s contemporaries, nor are they generally true, though they may be based on some earlier account, either colored or distorted. The main source of such information about her is the collection of biographies of the Heteros compiled by Athenaeus and appended to his work The Feast of the Sages. In it he collected from all the works known to him all kinds of references to this group of prostitutes. The most famous anecdotes about Phryne come from this work.

One of them concerns the method of defense employed by Hyperides during her trial. When he had finished delivering his defense speech, which in later years was highly regarded in the Athenian schools of rhetoric, unsure whether he had convinced the judges, he pulled off part of Phryne”s robe and exposed her breasts. He then called for the life of this priestess of the goddess of love, as he called her, to be spared, and warned against passing a sentence of conviction that would be an insult to Aphrodite. The stunned judges, either captivated by the beauty of the defendant or frightened by the threat of the goddess” wrath, decided to acquit Helena. According to a different version of this anecdote, passed on by Quintilian, it was Phryne herself, begging for mercy by crying and wringing her hands, who exposed her breasts, accidentally or on purpose.

Another of the stories dedicated to her is connected with the figure of Alexander of Macedon. Hetera offered to rebuild Thebes, which she undertook to pay from her own property. However, she made one condition – on the walls of the city there had to be a plaque with the inscription: “What Alexander destroyed, the Hetite Fryne rebuilt”. It is also said that she made this proposal not to Alexander, but to Cassander in 316. According to another of the anecdotes, the philosopher Krates was said to have harshly judged the placement of the image of the Hetite in Delphi, calling it “a monument to the promiscuity of the Hellenes”.

In addition to these most popular stories, Athenaeus and other authors of antiquity quoted a number of other tales, some of which were supposed to illustrate the intelligence and wit of the heroine, especially her penchant for verbal games, as well as her modesty in everyday life. According to these accounts, Phryne never used public baths and walked the streets tightly clothed. In front of the general population of Athens, she was said to have exposed herself only during the Eleusinian mysteries or the Poseidon festival, when she bathed naked in the sea. This behavior was explained as an expression of piety, ritual purification, or a desire to play out the birth of Aphrodite before the Athenians. The story was also told that she never used lipstick, which was particularly popular. Once at a feast she suggested to the other hetero women that they dip their lips in water, which made her look better in comparison, as they all smudged.

Another anecdote, transmitted by Pausanias, is related to a statue of Eros offered to Thespians. Its pedestal was decorated with an epigram that mentioned Praxiteles as the creator and Phryne as the donor. She received this sculpture from the artist through the use of a ruse. After many requests, the sculptor promised to donate one of his most successful works, but he did not reveal which specifically he had in mind. While he was spending the night at Hittite”s house, a servant came and told him that Praxiteles” house and studio had burned down and that most of the statues there were destroyed. The artist then expressed the hope that at least the Satyr and Eros sculptures had survived, revealing his secret. Phryne then confessed to this ploy – in fact, there was no fire – and wished to receive an effigy of the god of love, which she then offered to the temple.

A story was also quoted about a situation when someone offered her a small amount of wine, while pointing out that it was a ten-year-old beverage. In response, he was told that for this age, the wine was very small. Diogenes Laertios, on the other hand, in his Lives and Views of Famous Philosophers, gave a story about a certain failure of Fryne. She was to accept a wager to seduce the philosopher Xenocrates of Chalcedon. At night she went to him and begged him to take her under his roof, claiming that she had lost her wealth and had nowhere to go. Xenocrates agreed and made room for her in his bed, for he had only one in his household. When Phryne returned in the morning, she had to admit her defeat – the philosopher had not succumbed to her charms, which she commented on by saying that she was returning not from her husband (gr. ap”andros), but from a statue (ap”adriantos).

Anecdotes about Fryne were alluded to by Alkifron in his fictional collection of hetero correspondence. Three letters related to her appear there. The first, allegedly written by her, was addressed to Praxiteles and concerned his sculpture of Aphrodite in Thespia. The next two were supposed to have come from the hand of Hera Bakchis. In one she thanked Hyperides for his successful defense of Phryne, while in the other, to Phryne herself, she commented on the situation after the trial.

A number of these and other stories point to her popularity, although she was probably not respected by the Athenians in her own day (as the anecdote about Crates may attest), as were other Hittites. It is possible that originally these messages had an unfavorable tone towards her (for example, they were supposed to emphasize her rapacity, as it may have been the case with the story about the acquisition of the statue of Eros or the comment about the small gift of wine), which was, however, lost when they were taken out of the context of the full works from which Athenaeus and other writers took them. Besides, the qualities she displays in the anecdotes – beauty, subtlety, wit, good manners – were not the exception but conventional traits, what men expected from this group of prostitutes. When compared to Aspasia, she was described as not being equal to her in intelligence.

The credibility of many of the anecdotes seems low. Most likely, the situation with the exposure of Phryne”s breasts during the trial never happened at all. None of the sources contemporary to Hyperides mentions such an incident. Particular importance is attached to the absence of any mention of this subject by the comedian Posidippos, otherwise well-informed, who, it is believed, would certainly not have failed to mention such an incident had it actually occurred. Instead, he only mentions that Fryne begged the judges for mercy by lamenting and taking their hands.

Also, the tale of the proposal to rebuild Thebes, supposed to prove her wealth, generosity, desire for publicity, or high self-esteem even in her old age, has nothing to do with reality, especially since her hometown Thespians suffered a lot from Thebes. Perhaps the anecdote was taken by Athenaeus from some comedy that ironically portrayed Phryne”s intentions.

There were also doubts whether all the above anecdotes can be connected with only one heta known as Fryne or whether they should be ascribed to several women appearing under that name but with different nicknames – Thespian, Sito, Klausigelōs (“laughter through tears”), Saperdion (“anchovy”, “croaker fish”). Nowadays it is difficult to decide whether the second hetero could have gained such fame (or even several), and the heroine of the trial is usually identified with Praxiteles” model.

Ancient art

Phryne posed for Praxiteles with a statue of Aphrodite of Knida, which is known from numerous ancient copies, because this work was not preserved in the original. The majority of accounts from antiquity agree, with the exception of individual authors. Modern art historians considered whether the famous sculpture corresponded with the real appearance of the woman. According to some sources, the model was short and dark-haired, which for some researchers was an argument justifying the rejection of the tradition of her posing, while others pointed out that the artist could have created his work based on the appearance of several women. This issue has been widely debated. However, it is generally accepted that Fryne was the sculptor”s model, the truth of which is to be supported by the individualized character of the heads from the statues, idealized but not ideal. Moreover, such identification of mortal women with deities was not entirely uncommon in the ancient world, and in the second half of the 4th century BC it did not only concern members of royal families, but also hetero women. Considering that Phryne was the lover of Praxiteles, it is possible that her choice for a model resulted not only from her beauty but also from the affection the artist had for her.

It is likely that Fryne”s participation in his work was not limited to this work and the statues depicting her known as gifts to temples. It is possible that she also posed for his statue of Aphrodite, given to the sanctuary in Thespia. The statue of Aphrodite of Arles, whose facial features betray a resemblance to the work for Knidos, is considered to be a Roman copy. The difference in the figures of the goddess is explained by the assumption that in the first of these works, the Heptite posed still as a young woman, while in the second already as a mature woman.

A resemblance to the facial features from these works can also be seen in the marble fragments of the sculptures known as the head of Arles and the head of Athens, which are thought to be the remains of a copy of the statue of Phryne for Delphi, a work that also seems to have enjoyed considerable fame in antiquity and was sometimes reproduced. It is likely that the remains of another copy of this sculpture were also discovered at Ostia.

It is possible that the separation from Phryne influenced the further work of Praxiteles, who after Aphrodite of Knidos no longer created sculptures of such sensual, naked goddesses.

In addition, the Hetusa was credited with posing for the painter Apelles for his painting Aphrodite Anadiome, which depicts the goddess in the bath, squeezing her hair. Apparently, the artist was inspired to create such an image by the sight of Fryne emerging naked from the sea. This cannot be verified, as the work has not survived. Moreover, ancient authors attributed her posing to almost every famous depiction of the goddess. Moreover, some Pompeii paintings also depicted scenes from Fryne”s life.

From modern times

The figure of Fryne has appeared in the works of various artists since modern times, inspired by some of the many anecdotes about her.

In painting, two oil paintings by Angelika Kauffmann from the 18th century – 1794 – are examples of this phenomenon: Prakstyteles showing Fryne his sculpture of Eros and Fryne tempting Xenocrates. On both canvases she is depicted in accordance with the neoclassical fashion. In the first one, she is depicted as a modest girl, while in the second – as a woman provoking with her eyes and attitude. William Turner, on the other hand, in a painting from 1838 created his own version of the story of the bath of the Herta, which he combined with an anecdote about a quarrel between Demosthenes and Aeschylus. The famous Greek woman appears in the painting in a skimpy tunic, however the whole antique anecdote plays a subordinate role – the main attention is drawn by nature on this canvas, the landscape with stately trees and the sky flooded with sunlight.

During the 19th century, the figure of Fryne became a frequent subject in French painting. It was taken up by Gustave Boulanger in 1850, while Jean Léon Gérôme”s painting Fryne in front of the Areopagus from 1861 is considered to be the most famous example of the use of this motif, although sometimes critically assessed. The artist went further than conveying the antique anecdote, for in his vision Hyperides exposes before the astonished judges not only her breasts, but her entire body, while she herself covers her face. In turn, the figure of Liberty from the painting by Eugène Delacroix was described by unfavorable critics as a bizarre mixture of Fryne, a peddler and the goddess of freedom.

Referring to the story of the Greek girl”s sea bath, Henryk Siemiradzki presented a painting Fryne at the feast of the god of the seas Poseidon in Eleusis in 1889, which brought him considerable fame. Other painters, who created paintings referring to the figure of the ancient heta, include Artur Grottger (Fryne, 1867). This theme was also taken up in the 20th century.

Also sculptors created works related to her figure, for example James Pradier, who presented his Fryne at the Paris Salon in 1845. On the other hand, Francesco Barzaghi”s sculpture was a success at the World Exhibition of 1867, and Percival Ball was the author of the relief of Fryne in front of Prakstytes (1900), commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia.

The reference to the painterly visions of the heta also appeared in the work of the Italian comic book cartoonist (and screenwriter) Milo Manara, who also included an anecdote about the process in his book (The Model, 2002), which presents stories about various models of famous artists, with an illustration referring to a painting by Gérôme.

The figure of Fryne became the subject of literary and musical works. A poem about her by Lev Mej from 1855 influenced the final form of Siemiradzki”s canvas. Charles Baudelaire uses the name Fryne in Lesbos, while Rainer Maria Rilke referred to his work and the figure of the heta in his poem Die Flamingos. On the other hand, in 2008 Polish writer Witold Jabłoński published his novel Fryne the Hetter, in which he made her the main character and also the narrator.

A poem about Fryne entitled O Fryne ofiarnej ballada was written by Joanna Kulmowa.

In 1893, Camille Saint-Saëns staged his comic opera Phryné in Paris, which he composed for the famous soprano singer Sibyl Anderson. This two-act, light and witty work depicted the story of an uncle and nephew vying for the affection of Phryné. It was very popular – it was staged one hundred and ten times.

The figure of the heta was inspired by Adorée Villany, a French dancer famous in the early 20th century. One of her dance performances, combined with elaborate striptease, was called the Dance of Fryne.

Also the cinema became interested in the ancient hetero. A reference to her trial can be found in Alessandro Blasetti”s film Old Times (Altri tempi) from 1952. The last of its episodes, based on a short story by Edoardo Scarfoglio (from 1884), presents the story of a woman named Mariantonia (played by Gina Lollobrigida), from a village in Abruzzo, accused of poisoning her husband and mother-in-law. In the course of the trial, the lawyer directly refers to Fryne both by word and gesture, wrapping his client in a cloak, which at one point he quickly pulls off, as in a Gérôme painting.

The 1953 Italian film Frine, cortigiana d”Oriente was directed by Mario Bonnard and starred Elena Kleus in the title role. In this costume picture, Fryne was portrayed as an aristocrat who had to flee from Beotia. In Athens, as a hetero, she acquired a large fortune, part of which she used to help the exiles from the destroyed Thebes. She also proposed rebuilding the city. However, when the officials rejected this idea, she tried to win over the people by pretending to be a priestess of Aphrodite during the rites in Eleusis, which, however, ended in her capture and trial. Defended by Hyperides, she left Athens with him, starting a new life. The film, not without errors, was partly based on ancient accounts dedicated to her.

A reference to Fryne also appeared in the 1972 film Dr. Popaul (Trappola per un lupo), directed by Claude Chabrol, where one of the protagonists, played by Laura Antonelli, in an awkward situation covers her face, with a gesture as if from a Gérôme painting.


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