Meet Phryne: One of the Most Beautiful and Wittiest Women of Ancient Greece

She socialized with Athenian philosophers and was the model for a sculpture of Aphrodite.

November 12, 2017 5:00 am

Imagine a woman of the ancient world who inspired great artists with her beauty but also impressed greate thinkers with her conversation and reparteé. That’s Phryne.

Praxiteles, a Greek sculptor from the 4th Century BCE, used her as his model for a famous nude statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and sexual desire. (Phryne also happened to be his girlfriend.) But Phryne was also notable for her wit and curiosity, not just her beauty. She ran in the same circles as the Athenian philosophers from that era.

According to the BBCPhryne was a hetaira, which means “courtesan.” And despite that the name means “toad,” it is well-documented that she was very beautiful. In fact, Phryne’s real name was Mnesarete, which means, “remembering virtue. In the BBC biography, it found that Plutarch attributed her nickname to her pale, sallow complexion.

Many anecdotes about Phryne come from Athenaeus, who lived in the 3rd Century B.C.E. and compiled various stories about philosophers and their dinner parties. He writes that Phryne was a great fan of wordplay, and she “knew her worth,” writes BBC. She offered to pay to rebuild the walls of Thebes after they had been destroyed by Alexander the Great in 336 B.C.E., but only if there was an inscription saying the walls had been destroyed by Alexander and rebuilt by Phryne.

She did find herself at the wrong end of a lawsuit, and BBC reports that it was a capital charge. The story of her trial is immortalized in painting. Her lawyer did not do a good enough job to get her acquitted, so while the jury was deliberating, he tore open her tunic, thinking that no one could condemn a woman when they had seen her naked, especially one so beautiful that she stood in for Aphrodite. The male jury quickly acquitted her, the BBC says.

This story, and the other stories of her beauty, also seem to outshine the stories of her wit and cleverness. Therefore, BBC writes, “perhaps the time has come to think about Phryne again, as an entire person rather than as a shorthand for seduction.”

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