Phryne (c. 365–c. 295 BCE)

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Phryne (c. 365–c. 295 bce)

Greek artist's model who inspired the artists Appeles and Praxiteles. Pronunciation: FRIN-ih. Born Phryne near Thebes around 365 bce; died in Athens, at nearly 70 years of age, around 295 bce; mother was an un-known worker on a Theban chicken farm; father was a passing army officer.

Modern-day art students look upon the work of Classical Greece and see only the perfection of white marble. In their own time, the statues were vividly painted—the skin tinted in flesh tones, the hair powdered with gold, the eyes inlaid with precious jewels and the toes and lips blushed red. The loss of this color affects the modern viewer, as the statues from antiquity seem cold. There were real models for these statues, however, who contributed not only their face and form but their personalities. One of the most beautiful and most notorious of these was Phryne.

Phryne was born in the mid-4th century bce, some 40 years after the end of the Peloponnesian War, when Spartan hegemony was threatened by the rebirths of both Athens and Thebes as major Greek powers. In 371, Sparta tried to reclaim Thebes, but the Thebans resisted and the Spartan force was routed. According to tradition, it was a soldier from one such battle who stopped for the night at a chicken farm on the outskirts of the Theban city-state, fathered a baby girl and then left the mother to raise her. Without a father, the baby, whom history knows as Phryne, remained outside the typical Greek family hierarchy. The basis of the polis (city-state) was the oikos (household), a strictly run patriarchal affair, tied both to clan and to tribal origins. Perhaps her uncle took charge of the girl and noticing her extreme beauty decided to make the most of it. Whether he kidnapped her or simply found a better use for the fatherless girl is unknown, but Phryne was sold as a slave to the hetaerae (courtesans) in Athens by the time she was 15.

Athens in 350 bce was still the center of Greek culture. Plato's Academy flourished and attracted students like Aristotle who came to study there when he was 17. The Theater of Dionysus witnessed the performance of plays by Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. Art became more realistic as it moved from idealized portraits of gods and men to more natural figures. In addition to its cultural status, Athens was a political leader. In 351 bce, Athenians like Demosthenes perceived a threat in the ruler of Macedonia, Philip II. Sent to Thebes as a youth to solidify a truce, Philip had absorbed the best of Theban military expertise, an expertise he would adopt and use in his invasion of Greece in 338.

When Phryne reached Athens, however, the city was still enjoying a heyday of wealth and culture; but unlike life in the Golden Age of Pericles, neither the "golden mean" nor the universal man were in vogue. Excess and specialization were the bywords of the day, and those with a gift could find someone to pay their price. In general, women in Athens were outside of this power structure, kept secluded in the gymnaceum, or women's quarters. Most women led very private lives, though the poor, slaves and traders moved freely around the city. In some cases, older, higher status women also had this freedom. Without doubt, however, the hetaerae and intellectuals filled a very special niche in Athenian life. Many hetaerae were considered foreign-born, which meant they came from another city-state besides Athens. Most were classed as courtesans or high-class prostitutes, despite the fact that many evidently fulfilled roles far beyond that of mere sexual partners. Usually unmarried, these women assumed a place in Athenian society not shared by any other group of women. Their independent status was outside the oikos and operated in society in their own interest, or sometimes, in the interest of their male companion. Many hetaerae were very well educated, like Pericles' companion Aspasia , the reputed author of his funeral oration, but others played a more typical part as courtesans or entertainers. Phryne's role was that of a model for the most famous artists and sculptors in 4th-century Athens.

At 15, Phryne was only a slave in the ranks of the hetaerae and, therefore, not well placed in either society or in the villas climbing up to the Acropolis. But women slaves and entertainers in Athens who performed well could buy their freedom, and either retire, open a brothel to train other courtesans, or serve as attachés to male business associates. Phryne, intent on earning enough money to buy her freedom, was born

with a beautiful body, and it was that body that attracted the most famous painter of the day, Appeles. Stories vary on how he came to notice her. One claims that she chose the day of the Neptune Beach Festival to walk naked into the sea in front of the male population of Athens. Another presents a more subdued version: Phryne was accustomed to bathing twice a day in the public baths; on one such occasion, Appeles spied her and asked her to model for him.

Appeles painted her for his masterpiece, Aphrodite Emerging, which has been lost since antiquity. However, contemporary reports lauded both the painting and the beauty of its Aphrodite. The painting was seen by Praxiteles, the foremost Athenian sculptor, who enthused, "If Venus came back to earth she would have the body of Phryne." Praxiteles was then at the forefront of a new type of art, a natural flowing sculpture that emphasized sensuality and beauty. His works invoked a curvilinear voluptuousness that caused its viewers to ponder whether it truly "quivered with life." This immediacy was achieved by working from a live model, and that model was Phryne. He fell in love with her and gazed longingly at her as he tried to "entrap the contours of the love he felt." Desiring her to work exclusively for him, the sculptor formed a relationship with the model that furthered both their careers. Praxiteles became famous, while Phryne became rich. She once woke her lover in the middle of the night to tell him the studio was burning. When he told her to save the statue of Cupid, she surmised that it was the most valuable statue in the studio and later asked for it as a gift. She then sold it for a high price to Caius Caesar.

Commissioned to sculpt an Aphrodite for the city of Cos, Praxiteles naturally used Phryne as the model. The first statue was draped, as was the tradition for representations of the gods, but then Praxiteles became creative. By inventing the nude female statue, he captured Phryne for all antiquity. When both statues were submitted, Cos rejected the nude. Soon, however, the statue was bought by the city of Cnidus and became the famed Aphrodite of Cnidus.

If Venus came back to earth she would have the body of Phryne.


The statue and, by extension, its model were considered the most beautiful in Greece. Mythical Aphrodite herself is supposed to have commented, "Oh! ye Gods! where could Praxiteles have seen me naked?" The king of Bithynia offered to pay the debt of Cnidus in exchange for the statue, but the city refused to sell the prize. "Men … speak of [the statue] exactly as if she were a living woman of overwhelming beauty," wrote one contemporary. "One youth, carried away by excitement, leapt up on to the pedestal and threw his arms around the neck." Rapidly, the worship of the goddess and the worship of the model became interwoven. Praxiteles went on to portray Aphrodite arising from the sea many times, while Phryne went on to become a cult figure. Her beauty was viewed as a divine gift, and she would be the only woman ever granted permission to dedicate a golden statue of herself in the Temple of Delphi. The inscription read, "To Phryne who inspired all artists and lovers."

By 335 bce, Phryne was extremely wealthy. That year, Aristotle opened his school in Athens, and Alexander III the Great destroyed Thebes, killing 6,000 Thebans and selling 20,000 more into slavery. Thebes had dared to lead a rebellion of the Corinthian League against Alexander, who at 20 had just inherited the throne upon the assassination of his father in 336 bce. Two years before his death, Philip had secured his hold on the Greek city-states and left his son the legacy. The example Alexander made of Thebes was so graphic that no other city dared to revolt. Phryne offered to rebuild the city if a plaque would be inscribed over the gates that read, "Destroyed by Alexander but rebuilt by Phryne."

Though gifts and adulation brought riches, they also aroused jealousy. Phryne ended up on trial for her life, accused of impiety; she was reputed to have made derogatory comments about the Athenian matrons who participated in the Eleusian rites. These mother goddess cults were the only "outside activity" allowed to the average woman in the city-state. The matrons participated in the late-night worship as their one role free from patriarchal control. They took umbrage at Phryne's derision. Others say her problems were caused by male models in Athens who had hoped to become the muse for Praxiteles and found their position usurped by a woman, both publicly and privately. Whatever the case, Phryne found herself facing trial on May 10, 318 bce, before an all-male jury in the court of the Areopagus.

One of her rejected suitors, Euthais, was the prosecutor for the state, while a young lawyer named Hyperide represented the model. The evidence of the state included a work of art by Praxiteles, The Weeping Wife and the Laughing Harlot. Phryne was reputed to be the model for the harlot laughing at the wife and in doing so demonstrating the triumph of lust and extravagance over virtue and steadfastness. The accusations of Euthais were fervent, and the citizenry was antagonistic. At a loss for a rebuttal, Hyperide, who was probably her new companion, put Phryne on the stand, then removed her tunic exclaiming, "You who would worship Aphrodite, take a look at her who the Goddess of Love could claim as sister. Send her to her death if you dare." The stunned jury cried out in amazement and summarily acquitted her.

By this time, Phryne was beyond her prime, though she was still courted and admired. She lived for several more years, a wealthy and successful hetaera. Meanwhile, the Aphrodite of Cnidus was considered a synonym for absolute perfection. Later generations can only guess at its beauty by viewing Roman copies that merely hint at the sensuality and "aliveness" of the original. And, by extension, posterity can get only a glimpse of the woman who inspired one of the greatest pieces of art work in history as well as the convention of the female nude. An obscure young woman, born in ignominy, sold into slavery as a young teenager, she used her talent, beauty and brains to climb to the highest rank of the hetaerae, the most educated and "liberated" class of Athenian womanhood.


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Michaela Crawford Crawford , Professor of History, California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, California