John Florens | Apr 14, 2023

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Phryne (Greek: Phrýnē, 4th century BC) - a Greek hetera from Athens, the heroine of many anecdotes of ancient writers. For this reason, she is sometimes considered the most famous heta of ancient Greece.

It is assumed that she was the mistress of Praxiteles, to whom she posed for the sculpture of Aphrodite of Knidos, as well as probably several other works. Numerous accounts speak of her exceptional beauty, wit and wealth, although the reliability of many of them is questionable. A historical event whose authenticity was in doubt was the trial of Phryne before an Athenian court, when she was accused of impiety, and her acquittal was supposed to be secured by a gesture by her defense attorney, Hyperejdes, who exposed her breasts to influence the judges (most likely, however, nothing of the sort took place, and this is merely a later coloring of the entire trial).

Since modern times, the figure of this heta has been evoked in painting, sculpture, literary and musical works and - in the 20th century - cinematography.

She was a native of Thessaly in Beotia. She was the daughter of a certain Epikles, and bore the name Mnesarete (Gr. Mnēsarétē, "one who does not forget virtue"). The exact years of her life are unknown. She may have been born around 384. At a young age, possibly while still a child, she left her native polis, probably before its destruction in 371 by the Thebans, although it is possible that this happened after the Thespians' destruction.

She ended up in Athens, where she lived as a metoica, initially in poverty. She reportedly supported herself by collecting herbs or selling capers. She then became a flutist and, before long, a hetero. She then came to be known as Fryne (Gr. "toad") - she was so called because of her pale (or slightly yellowish) complexion, in any case a lighter, higher-priced complexion. A conjecture was also put forward that the source of this nickname was supposed to be the shape of her body.

She was said to be distinguished by her beauty and gained considerable success. She was also reportedly referred to by the nicknames Charybda or Sēstos ("sieve"), due to the riches leaking through her fingers, from which she "sifted" men. The credibility of the numerous anecdotes about the wealth she amassed should be judged with caution. She dictated various prices for her services. Antiquity sources state that sometimes these were high sums, such as one hundred drachmas or two stateri of gold.

She chose her company selectively, rotating among the intellectual elite of Athens, associating with artists, writers and speakers. Among her lovers was named one of the members of the Areopagus, the speaker and politician Hyperides. The relationship with the latter brought Phryne the greatest fame, however doubts were raised about the authenticity of their affair. She most likely accompanied him on a trip to Asia Minor and posed for his works, most notably the statue of Aphrodite of Knidos - the first full female nude in Greek art. However much the sculpture was admired immediately after its creation, there was no shortage of negative comments, bemoaning the complete nudity of the goddess, as well as harshly judging the giving of her heta features.

Fryne's fame was also assured by other works of Praxiteles, which she donated to various temples. According to Pausanias and Plutarch, she donated statues of both deities and herself as a priestess of Aphrodite to the shrine of Eros and Aphrodite in her hometown of Thespia. On the other hand, to the temple at Delphi she donated an effigy of herself, also chiseled by Praxiteles, made of gilded bronze (perhaps a copy of the Thespian image). It was placed on a marble column with the inscription "Phryne, daughter of Epictetus, Thespian" (or "Phryne, famous inhabitant of Thespia"). Placing this statue between the likenesses of the kings - Philip of Macedon and Archidamos of Sparta - caused quite an outcry. The choice of such a place was interpreted as an act of worship to her or an expression of gratitude for her participation in Praxiteles' work, which enriched the Greek world with beautiful sculptures.

The episode that is considered the most famous in her life (aside from posing for a statue of Aphrodite) was her trial in Athens, although doubts have been raised about its historicity. However, it is considered to have actually taken place due to references to it in many independent sources from the period, although its exact date is unknown - it is assumed to have taken place in 347 or 345, possibly between 350 and 340. Fryne stood trial (most likely a tribunal of the people's court) on charges of impiety. This was said to have been demonstrated by her introduction of the cult of Dionysus Pluto (most likely the Thracian-Phrygian idol Isodaites, the demon of frenzy, although it is not impossible that some native deity was involved, as the Greek name may indicate), of a secret nature, limited to a select group of individuals, within which licentious rites were practiced. The accusation was made by Euthios, reportedly rejected by her or outraged by the price she demanded of him for her services. Her defense, in a case threatened with death or exile, was undertaken by Hyperides, and Fryne was eventually acquitted. While his participation in the trial is not in doubt, the manner in which he brought about a favorable verdict, using her beauty, already seems like an anecdotal tale.

The accusation regarding the introduction of the Isodaites cult was related to the ambivalent perception in Athens of new cults, as well as the suspicious treatment of any informal groups that gathered secretly. Perhaps the matter had a second, political bottom, related to the rivalry between the anti- and pro-Macedonian parties. Associated with the latter, appearing on the side of the prosecution, were Aristogeion (opponent of Demosthenes and Hyperejdes) and Anaximenes of Lampsakos, author of the accusatory speech. It is possible that there was an abuse of procedure in the trial of Hetra, which may have been an attempt to accuse her of treason.

The statue that Phryne donated to Delphi has been linked to the trial, as its execution dates to around 345, and it may have been an ex-voto to Apollo for the successful conclusion of the case.

The date of her death remains unknown, according to an anecdotal account she was said to have proposed to Alexander of Macedon to rebuild Thebes in 335. Some studies state that she was still alive in 316.

Ancient literature

A large number of anecdotes have been associated with her character by ancient writers, and as a result she is sometimes considered the most famous ancient Greek hetero, known for her beauty and brilliance, as well as her famous lovers. Most of these stories do not date from Fryne's contemporaries, nor are they generally true, although they may be based on some earlier account, colored or distorted. The main source of such information about her is the collection of biographies of the heteros compiled by Athenaeus and appended to his work The Feast of the Sages. In it he collected from all the works known to him all kinds of references to this group of prostitutes. The most famous anecdotes about Phryne come from this work.

One concerns the method of defense employed by Hyperides during her trial. When he had finished delivering his defense speech, which was revered in Athenian schools of rhetoric in later years, unsure whether he had convinced the judges, he pulled off part of Phryne's robe and exposed her breasts. He then appealed for the life of this priestess of the goddess of love, as he called her, to be spared, and warned against a guilty verdict that would be an insult to Aphrodite. The stunned judges, captivated by the beauty of the subjudice or frightened by the threat of the goddess' wrath, decided to acquit the hetero. According to a different version of this anecdote, handed down by Quintilian, it was Phryne herself, begging for mercy with weeping and hand-wringing, who exposed her breasts, either accidentally or on purpose.

Another of the stories dedicated to her is connected with the figure of Alexander of Macedon. Hetera was said to have offered the ruler to rebuild Thebes, which she undertook to cover from her own wealth. However, she made one condition - there was to be a plaque on the walls of the city with the inscription: "What Alexander demolished, Fryne's hetero rebuilt." It is also reported that she made this proposal not to Alexander, but to Kassander in 316. According to another anecdote, the philosopher Crates was said to have harshly judged the placement of the hetera's likeness at Delphi, calling it "a monument to the promiscuity of the Hellenes."

In addition to these most popular stories, Athenaeus and other ancient authors cited a number of other tales, some of which were said to illustrate the intelligence and wit of the heta - especially her penchant for word games, as well as her modesty in everyday life. According to these accounts, Fryne never used public baths, while she walked the streets tightly clothed. In front of the general population of Athens, she was said to have exposed herself only during the Eleusinian mysteries or during the feast of Poseidon, when she bathed naked in the sea. This behavior was explained as an expression of piety, the performance of ritual purification, or a desire to act out the birth of Aphrodite before the Athenians. The story was also told that she never used lipstick, which was particularly liked. Once, during feasts, she offered to dip her lips in water to the other heteros, which made her compare favorably with them, as they all smudged.

Another anecdote, handed down by Pausanias, is related to a statue of Eros offered to Thespians. Its pedestal was decorated with an epigram that mentioned Praxiteles as the creator and Phryne as the donor. She received this sculpture from the artist through the use of trickery. After many requests, the sculptor promised to donate one of his most successful works, but did not reveal which specifically he had in mind. While he was spending the night at Hittite's house, a servant appeared and relayed that Praxiteles' house and studio had burned down - most of the statues gathered there had been destroyed. The artist then expressed hope that at least the Satyr and Eros sculptures had survived, revealing his secret. Fryne then admitted to using this ploy - for in fact no fire occurred - and wished to receive an effigy of the god of love, which she then offered to the temple.

A story was also cited about a situation where someone offered her a small amount of wine, while pointing out that it was a ten-year-old beverage. He was to hear in response that for that age, the wine was very small. Diogenes Laertios, on the other hand, in Lives and Views of Famous Philosophers, relayed a story about a certain failure of Fryne. She was to take a bet to seduce the philosopher Xenocrates of Chalcedon. At night she went to him and begged him to take her under his roof, claiming that she had lost her wealth and had nowhere else to go. Xenocrates agreed and made room for her in his bed, for he had only one in his household. When Phryne returned in the morning, she had to admit defeat - the philosopher did not succumb to her charms, which she commented with the words that she was returning not from her husband (Gr. ap'andros), but from a statue (ap'adriantos).

Anecdotes about Fryne were alluded to by Alkifron in his fictional collection of hetero correspondence. Three letters related to her appear there. The first, allegedly of her authorship, was addressed to Praxiteles, concerning his sculpture of Aphrodite in Thespias. The next two were said to have come from the hand of Hetra Bakchis. In one she thanked Hyperides for his successful defense of Phryne, while in the other, to Phryne herself, she commented on the situation after the trial.

A whole series of these and other tales indicate her popularity, although most likely she was not respected by the Athenians in her own time (as the anecdote about Crates can attest), as were other heteros. It is possible that originally these messages had an unfavorable tone toward her (for example, they were intended to emphasize her rapacity, as may have been the case with the story of the acquisition of the statue of Eros or the comment against the small gift of wine), which, however, was obliterated when they were taken out of the context of the full works from where Athenaeus and other writers took them. Besides, the qualities she displays in the anecdotes - beauty, subtlety, wit, good manners - were not the exception, but conventional qualities, what men expected from this group of prostitutes. When being compared to Aspasia, she was described as not matching her intelligence.

The credibility of many of the anecdotes seems low. Most likely, the situation with the exposure of Fryne's breasts during the trial never happened at all. None of the sources contemporary with Hyperides mentions such an incident. Of particular note is the absence of any mention of the subject in the otherwise well-informed comedian Posidippos, who, it is believed, would certainly not have missed mentioning such an incident if it had actually occurred. Instead, he mentions only that Fryne begged the judges for mercy, lamenting and taking them by the hands.

Also, the story about the proposal to rebuild Thebes, which is supposed to prove her wealth, generosity, desire for fame or high self-esteem even at an advanced age, has nothing to do with reality, especially since her family Thespians suffered a lot from Thebes. Perhaps the anecdote was taken by Athenaeus from some comedy that ironically depicted Phryne's intentions.

There were also doubts as to whether all of the above anecdotes could be linked to only one hetera known as Fryne, or whether they should be attributed to several women appearing under that name, but with different nicknames - Thespian, Sieve, Klausigelōs ("laughter through tears"), Saperdion ("anchovy", "croaker fish"). Nowadays it is difficult to resolve whether a second hetero (or even several) could have gained such fame, and most often the heroine of the trial is identified with Praxiteles' model.

Ancient art

Phryne posed Praxiteles for the statue of Aphrodite of Knidia, known from numerous ancient copies, for this work has not survived in the original. The majority of ancient accounts agree, except for individual authors. Modern art historians have considered whether the famous sculpture corresponded to the actual appearance of this woman. According to some sources, the model was short and dark-haired, which for some scholars was an argument justifying the rejection of the tradition of posing her, while others pointed out that the artist could have created his work based on the appearance of several women. The issue has been widely debated. However, it is widely accepted that Fryne was the sculptor's model, the truth of which is supposed to be supported by the individualized nature of the heads from the statues, idealized but not ideal. Moreover, such identification of mortal women with deities was not entirely unusual in the ancient world, and in the second half of the fourth century BC it did not apply only to members of royal families, but also to heteros. Considering that Phryne was Praxiteles' mistress, perhaps her choice as a model was due not only to her beauty, but also to the affection the artist had for her.

It is most likely that Fryne's participation in his work was not limited to this work and statues depicting her, known as gifts to temples. It is possible that she also posed for him for a statue of Aphrodite, donated to the sanctuary at Thespia. A sculpture of Aphrodite of Arles is considered to be a Roman copy of it, in whose case the facial features betray a resemblance to the work for Knidos. The difference in the silhouettes of the goddess's figures was explained by the supposition that in the first of these works of art the Hittite posed still as a young woman, while in the second she was already mature.

A resemblance to facial features from these works can also be seen in marble fragments of sculptures known as the head of Arles and the head of Athens, which are believed to be the remains of a copy of the statue of Phryne for Delphi, a work that also appears to have enjoyed considerable fame in antiquity and was sometimes reproduced. It is also likely that the remains of another copy of this sculpture were discovered in Ostia.

It is possible that the parting with Phryne influenced the further work of Praxiteles, who, after Aphrodite of Knidos, no longer created sculptures of such sensual, naked goddesses.

In addition, the Hittite was credited with posing for the painter Apelles for his painting Aphrodite Anadiome, depicting the goddess in a bath, squeezing her hair. Apparently, the artist was inspired to create such a depiction just by the sight of Phryne, naked emerging from the sea. This cannot be verified, as the work has not survived. Moreover, ancient authors credited her with posing for almost every famous depiction of the goddess. In addition, some paintings from Pompeii also claimed to depict scenes from Fryne's life.

From the modern era

The figure of Fryne has appeared in the works of various artists since modern times, inspired by some of the many anecdotes about her.

In painting, examples of this phenomenon are two oil paintings by Angelika Kauffmann from the 18th century - 1794: Prakstyteles showing Fryne his sculpture of Eros and Fryne tempting Xenocrates. In both canvases she is depicted according to neoclassical fashion. In the former as a modest girl, while in the latter - a woman provoking with her eyes and attitude. William Turner, on the other hand, in a painting from 1838, created his version of the story of the heta's bath, which he combined with an anecdote concerning the quarrel between Demosthenes and Aeschylus. The famous Greek woman appears in it in a skimpy tunic, but the whole ancient anecdote plays a subordinate role - the main attention in this canvas is drawn to nature, the landscape with stately trees and the sky, flooded with sunlight.

Over the course of the 19th century, the figure of Fryne became a frequent subject in French painting. It was taken up by Gustave Boulanger in 1850, while Jean Léon Gérôme's painting Fryne in front of the Areopagus from 1861 is considered the most famous example of the use of this motif, although sometimes criticized. The artist went further than the message of the ancient anecdote, for in his vision Hyperides exposes before the astonished judges not only the breasts of the heta, but her entire body, while she covers her face. On the other hand, the figure of Liberty in Eugène Delacroix's painting was unfavorably described by unfavorable critics with the words a bizarre mixture of Fryne, the briber and the goddess of liberty.

Referring to the story of the Greek woman's sea bath, Henryk Siemiradzki presented a painting of Fryne at the feast of the sea god Poseidon in Eleusis in 1889, which brought him considerable fame. Other painters who created paintings alluding to the figure of the ancient heta include Artur Grottger (Fryne, 1867). This theme was also taken up in the 20th century.

Sculptors also created works related to her figure, for example James Pradier, who presented his Fryne at the Paris Salon in 1845. In turn, Francesco Barzaghi's sculpture was successful at the 1867 World Exhibition, while Percival Ball was the author of the bas-relief Fryne in front of Prakstyteles (1900), commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia.

A reference to the painterly visions of the heta also appeared in the work of Italian cartoonist (and screenwriter) Milo Manara, who also included an anecdote about the process in his book (2002's The Model), which depicts stories about various models of famous artists, with an illustration referencing a painting by Gérôme.

The figure of Fryne became the subject of literary and musical works. Lev Mej's 1855 poem about her influenced the final form of Siemiradzki's canvas. Charles Baudelaire uses Fryne's name in Lesbos, while Rainer Maria Rilke referred to his work and the figure of the heta in his poem Die Flamingos. In turn, in 2008 Polish writer Witold Jablonski published his novel Fryne the Hetter, in which he made her the main character and also the narrator.

A poem about Fryne entitled O Fryne sacrificial ballad was written by Joanna Kulmowa.

In 1893, Camille Saint-Saëns staged his comic opera Phryné in Paris, which he composed for the famous soprano singer Sibyl Anderson. This two-act, light-hearted and witty work depicted the story of an uncle and nephew vying for the affection of Phryné. It enjoyed considerable popularity - it was staged one hundred and ten times.

The figure of the heta was inspired by Adorée Villany, a French dancer famous in the early 20th century. One of her dance performances, combined with elaborate striptease, was called the Dance of Fryne.

Cinema, too, has taken an interest in the ancient hetero. A reference to her trial was made in Alessandro Blasetti's 1952 picture Old Times (Altri tempi). The last of his episodes, based on a short story by Edoardo Scarfoglio (from 1884), tells the story of a woman named Mariantonia (played by Gina Lollobrigida), from a village in Abruzzo, accused of poisoning her husband and mother-in-law. In the course of the trial, the lawyer directly refers to Fryne by word as well as gesture, wrapping his client in a cloak, which at one point he quickly pulls off, as in a Gérôme painting.

In 1953 there was an Italian film Frine, cortigiana d'Oriente, directed by Mario Bonnard, in which Elena Kleus played the title role. In this costume picture, Frine was portrayed as an aristocrat who had to flee from Beotia. In Athens, as a hetero, she acquired a large fortune, part of which she used to help the exiles from destroyed Thebes. She also proposed rebuilding the city. But when officials rejected the idea, she tried to win the people over to it by posing as a priestess of Aphrodite during rituals in Eleusis, but this ended in her capture and trial. Defended by Hyperides, she left Athens with him, starting a new life. The film, not without errors, was based in part on ancient accounts dedicated to her.

A reference to Fryne's persona also appeared in the 1972 film Doctor Popaul (Trappola per un lupo), directed by Claude Chabrol, where one of the characters, played by Laura Antonelli, covers her face in an awkward situation with a gesture like one from a Gérôme painting.


  1. Phryne
  2. Fryne
  3. Nie była jedyną heterą noszącą taki przydomek, określenia odnoszące się do zwierząt był dość powszechne wśród nich, Reinsberg 1998 ↓, s. 120; Kucharski 2016 ↓, s. 354. Ponadto wiadomo, iż młode hetery przyjmowały jako pseudonimy imiona tych bardziej znanych, Borowska 1995 ↓, s. 101–102.
  4. Adolf Furtwängler poruszając problematykę osoby innego rzeźbiarza Kefisodotosa, uznał go za starszego brata Praksytelesa, który również miał romansować z Fryne. Większość historyków sztuki zidentyfikowała go jednak jako ojca Praksytelesa, Bernhard 1992 ↓, s. 232–233.
  5. Potwierdzenia romansu Fryne z nim dopatrywano się we fragmencie jego mowy w obronie hetery, co jednak mogło być wynikiem błędnego odczytania tekstu, sam zaś związek mógł być wymysłem późniejszych pisarzy, Kucharski 2016 ↓, s. 41, 354–355.
  6. Strabon, w przypadku rzeźby Erosa, przypisywał ufundowanie jej flecistce Glykerze, kochance malarza Pausjasza, Kobiety ↓, s. 380; Bernhard 1992 ↓, s. 301.
  7. ^ a b c d Cavallini, Frine tra storia e aneddotica, p. 133.
  8. ^ Ateneo, XIII, 591 C.
  9. ^ a b c d Plutarco, De Pythiae oraculis, 401 A.
  10. ^ a b c Ateneo, XIII, 591 E.
  11. ^ a b Anfide, fr. 23 Kassel-Austin.
  12. a b c Havelock, Christine Mitchell (2010). The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-472-03277-8.
  13. Stylianou, P. J. (1998). A Historical Commentary on Diodorus Siculus, Book 15. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 367. ISBN 978-0-19-815239-2.
  14. Dillon, Matthew (2002). Women and Girls in Classical Greek Religion (en inglés). p. 195.
  15. Keesling, Catherine (2006). «Heavenly Bodies: Monuments to Prostitutes in Greek Sanctuaries». En Faraone, Christopher A.; McClure, Laura K., eds. Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World (en inglés). Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 67. ISBN 978-0-29-9213145. Consultado el 12 de febrero de 2021.
  16. Моралии (Плутарх), 14
  17. Havelock, Christine Mitchell. The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art. — Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2010. — С. 43. — ISBN 978-0-472-03277-8.

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