Updated: Jul 30, 2021
“Things are not going well… my client’s life is at stake and my own reputation too..” with this thought, he took extreme measures. He took her to a very visible place and tore her tunic, leaving her breast exposed.
“How can you condemn beauty? Only god could sculpt a body so perfect and killing such a body would amount to disrespect to god!” – he reasoned.
Quickly, the lost case turned into triumph and she walked out of the Court victoriously. Who was she? How can someone be saved from death by her beautiful body?
This is the story of Phryne, an ancient hetaera. Hetaera means courtesan who is beautiful and brave. Phryne was her nickname. Her real name was Mnesarete. People would call her Phryne due to her yellowish skin.
Phryne was a daughter of Epicles from Thespiae but spent most of her life in Athens. Her exact date of birth is not available but various historians estimate that she was born around 371 BC. She was extraordinarily beautiful. She spent most of her life in Athens.
Once, Phryne has taken part in destroying the statue of Hermes. This statue was considered sacred. So the disrespect to a statue was one of the offences committed by her. A second offence committed by her was to step out of the sea naked to mock the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Based on these two charges, the council was trying to accuse her to make sure that she would be sentenced to death. She was defended by the Orator Hypereides, who was one of her lovers.
Even though there’s a great dispute among historians about what really happened that day in the court, one of the most credible sources (that of Athenaeus) states that Hypereides tore off Phryne’s robes in the middle of the courtroom to show the judges her beautiful breasts. His reasoning was that only the Gods could sculpt a body so perfect and as such, killing or imprisoning her would be seen as blasphemy and disrespect to the Gods. Athenaeus mentions in The Deipnosophists,
“Now Phryne was a native of Thespiae; and being prosecuted by Euthias on a capital charge, she was acquitted: on which account Euthias was so indignant that he never instituted any prosecution afterwards, as Hermippus tells us. But Hypereides, when pleading Phryne's cause, as he did not succeed at all, but it was plain that the judges were about to condemn her, brought her forth into the middle of the court, and, tearing open her tunic and displaying her naked bosom, employed all the end of his speech, with the highest oratorical art, to excite the pity of her judges by the sight of her beauty, and inspired the judges with a superstitious fear, so that they were so moved by pity as not to be able to stand the idea of condemning to death "a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite." And when she was acquitted, a decree was drawn up in the following form: "That hereafter no orator should endeavor to excite pity on behalf of any one, and that no man or woman, when impeached, shall have his or her case decided on while present."
The judges upon seeing the beauty of her body withdrew all of their accusations and let her be. All of them referred to Phryne’s body as the most divine in ancient history.
Quickly, the lost case of Phryne turned into triumph. She walked out of the Court victorious and her story went on inspiring several works of art.
Many scholars regarded her act as a symbol of freedom!
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