WOMEN OF HISTORY | PHRYNE (4th century BC) (Tabrett Bethell)

An Ancient Greek hetaera (courtesan) living in Athens and famous for her beauty and charm, Phryne had become so wealthy through her profession that she offered to fund the rebuilding of the wall of Thebes which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great. However, she said that the words ‘Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan’ had to be inscribed on them. The city turned down her offer.

Once, at a festival of Poseidon at Eleusis, Phryne let down her hair, removed her clothes, and stepped naked into the sea in view of everyone gathered. This inspired Apelles to paint his famous (and now lost) Venus Anadyomene, for which Phryne also posed as model. This painting became the iconic image of Aphrodite rising from the sea. She is also said to be the model for the statue of Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles, as well many other ancient statues.

A (probably untrue) story talks of when Phryne was accused of profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries. The orator Hypereides - one of her loves - spoke in her defense and when it looked as though she was going to lose, he tore open her robe and displayed her body to those gathered. Such physical perfection was seen as a mark of divine favour and Phryne was acquitted.

(Her born name was actually Mnēsarétē and she gained the name Phryne (‘toad’) because of her yellowish complexion which was often referred to as ‘golden’. It’s thought now that she probably had Gilbert’s syndrome.)

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