From Ancient “It Girl” to Deity: How the Ancient Greek Sex Icon, Phryne, Became a Goddess

Were the Ancient Greeks to hold a beauty contest—which incidentally they did with the Judgement of Paris—Helen of Troy would probably come out tops. The face that launched a thousand ships, the catalyst of the decade-long Trojan War; the allure of this demigoddess has been the muse of writers and artists for millennia. But Helen belongs to the realm of myth. Turn to the realm of history and we have a much stronger contender: the fourth century courtesan Phryne.

Born Mnēsarétē (meaning “commemorating virtue”) in the Greek city of Thespiae in 371 BC, she spent her childhood and adolescence in Athens where she worked as a hetaira (translated into English as a courtesan or high-status, educated prostitute). Her pallid complexion soon earned her the nickname Phryne (meaning “toad”), and while this may seem an unflattering name for arguably the ancient world’s most beautiful woman, it was commonly given to prostitutes. Plus the Athenians, like the Romans after them, were notoriously mean with names: Plato, for example, meaning “broad”; the philosopher’s real name was Aristocles.

Henryk Siemiradzki’s “Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis” (1889). Wikimedia Commons

Phryne was damn good at her job. She earned a fortune selling her body and her wit to the highest bidders; so much, in fact, that according to the third century AD writer Athenaeus, she offered to rebuild the walls of the Greek city of Thebes, razed by Alexander the Great in 335 BC. Her only condition was that on the walls it should be inscribed “Destroyed by Alexander the Great; Rebuilt by Phryne the Courtesan”. Regrettably (though unsurprisingly), it doesn’t seem Thebes took her up on the offer. More than just being a ravishing beauty, however, she also had the brains and personality to match.

Athenaeus’s concisely titled “Deipnosophistai” or “Sayings of Philosophers over Dinner” has preserved for us a number of anecdotes showing Phryne razzling and dazzling through her sharp wit and clever wordplay. One one occasion, one of her notoriously stingy Athenian lovers asked her if she was really the model behind Praxiteles’s famous Aphrodite of Knidos statue. Evading his question, she asked him if he was Eros of Pheidias (Pheidias was the name of another sculptor, but it was also a play on the word pheido, which meant “stingy”). Hey, I never said it was funny, just clever…

Phryne Aphrodite. Getty Museum

Her tight lover wasn’t the only man she called a statue. She once found herself in the rather intimate company of the philosopher Xenocrates, but try and she might she failed to seduce him (something that, given her renowned beauty presumably seldom happened). Her sharp retort was to mock him by calling him andriantos: a statue of a man rather than a living, breathing man.

If Phyrne was in fact the woman behind Praxiteles’s Aphrodite then we have a pretty good idea what she looked like. And the fact that not only Athenaeus but also Pausanius (History’s first travel writer and the author of the “Description of Greece”) tells us that she was is pretty strong evidence that when we look at this statue, we’re looking back through time at Phryne herself. But according to Pausanius, Phryne wasn’t just the model behind Praxiteles’s Aphrodite; she was also the renowned artist’s lover.