Everyone knows that person. Okay, you might know many “that persons”. But this time, we’re talking about the one guy or girl who just seems to be too attractive to ever get in trouble. It is generally accepted to be a real thing by the way, even in court. But perhaps the greatest legend in this department was someone whom the Greeks deemed so attractive; she avoided her court charges and became a proxy prophet to Aphrodite. Let’s talk about the story of Phryne.
Who Was Phryne? What Does Phryne Mean?
If you’re down with linguistics you’re probably confused by the name “Phryne”. That would likely be because it roughly translates to “toad,” one Phryne got due to a yellowish skin complexion. For those wondering, her real name was Mnesarete–roughly “commemorating virtue”. While Phryne was a nickname–a common one at that–the Phryne we’re talking about kind of took that name and made it hers.
Nobody really knows when exactly Phryne was alive, but we at least know she was born by 371 BC. There’s more speculation about when Phryne ended up passing away, but it’s speculated that she probably outlived the rebuilding of Thebes by 315 BC. She lived most of her life in Athens, working as a courtesan.
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How Attractive Was She Supposed to Be?
It might be odd to you that a courtesan literally nicknamed “toad” was considered one of the most attractive (if not the most attractive) person of the time. But it really was the case.
For starters, she had a handful of statues made or modeled after her. One was made of gold and set up in the temple of Delphi. Keeping in mind how long it takes to make statues, as well as the skill and materials involved, you’d probably have to look pretty good if you want to be a statue model. The Greeks also made all their deities in the image of the ideal and perfect human form, and religious art was in vogue. So if you were a statue model; you were probably a stand in for some deity or at least an important figure.
Phryne was no different, and she once offered her likeness as a model for Aphrodite. Yes, the Greek god of love, sexuality, and beauty. That’s like two layers of attractiveness; the first being attractive enough to model a deity, but then the second being attractive enough to model the deity of attractiveness.
Thanks to her job, Phryne would later end up being one of the richest self-made people of her time. So rich that she even offered to fund the reconstruction of the walls of Thebes after they were destroyed. Apparently she was only going to do so if “destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan” was carved into them.
Unsurprisingly, the ruling patriarchy was too insecure to let that happen so they just kind of left things in ruin. So we guess even back then a fragile ego could take precedent over the people?
Phryne Goes to Court
So now we’ve established the mental image of this absolute baller courtesan rolling in money. The literal image of the Greek God of Beauty, and witty enough to make the patriarchy super insecure (not that it’s that hard, let’s be real). Then she went to court and was staring down capital punishment. The charge? Blasphemy. Which is a little ironic considering that her birth name roughly translates to “virtue,” but sure.
Phryne was to be defended by orator Hypereides–which didn’t go so well for the pair at first.
Well, actually it didn’t go well for most of the trial. Phryne was almost found guilty. She did have one last card up her sleeve (tunic?) though. Phryne used her own attractiveness as defense in court–citing that imprisoning or executing beauty as exquisite as herself would be blasphemous. Afterwards she undressed in front of the jury and she was found not guilty. Which means that Phryne basically pulled the ultimate “No u” on the Roman justice system.
Some versions of the story state it was Hypereides that undressed Phryne, while others have her simply kissing the hands of each juror–but if she had the guts to call out Alexander, the first interpretation seems a little more fitting.
Want to learn some Greek? Check out this post: What Is the Greek Alphabet?