The most well-known event in Phryne’s life is her trial. Atheneaus writes that she was prosecuted for blasphemy, a capital charge, and defended by the orator Hypereides, who was one of her lovers. The speech for the prosecution was written by Anaximenes of Lampsacus according to Diodorus Periegetes. When it seemed as if the verdict would be unfavourable, Hypereides removed Phryne’s robe and bared her breasts before the judges to arouse their pity. Her beauty instilled the judges with a superstitious fear, who could not bring themselves to condemn “a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite” to death. They decided to acquit her out of pity.
However, Atheneaus also provides a different account of the trial given in the Ephesia of Posidippus of Cassandreia. He simply describes Phryne as clasping the hand of each juror, pleading for her life with tears, without her disrobing being mentioned. Cooper argues that the account of Posidippus is the authentic version and that Phryne never bared her breasts before the court during her trial.
The description given of the trial by Athenaeus and the shorter account of Pseudo-Plutarch ultimately derive from the work of the biographer Hermippus of Smyrna (c. 200 BC) who adapted the story fromIdomeneus of Lampsacus (c. 300 BC). The account of Posidippus is the earliest known version. If the disrobing did happen, Posidippus would most likely have mentioned it because he was a comic poet. Therefore the only conclusion can be that the disrobing of Phryne must have been a later invention, sometime after 290 BC, when Posidippus was active as a poet. Idomeneus was writing around that time.
The evidence suggests that Idomeneus invented the more salacious version of the story, possibly in his desire to parody and ridicule the courtroom displays of Athenian demagogues. Considering his preference for attributing sexual excess to these demagogues the provocative act of disrobing Phryne fits the character Hypereides had acquired in Idomeneus’ work. As is not uncommon in the biographical tradition, later biographers failed to notice that earlier biographers did not give an accurate representation of events. The later biographer Hermippus incorporated the account of Idomeneus in his own biography. An extract from Hermippus’ biography is preserved in the work of Athenaeus and Pseudo-Plutarch.
There are also arguments for the veracity of the disrobing. The words “a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite” might have indicated that Phryne participated in the Aphrodisia on Aegina. If true, this would have showed the jurors that she was favored by the goddess and deserving of pity. Also, it was accepted at the time that women were especially capable of evoking the sympathy of the judges, mothers and children could be brought to courts for such purposes. The baring of breasts was not restricted or atypical for prostitutes or courtesans, and could be used to arouse compassion as well.
Friné (Φρύνη) es el apodo (el significado de este sobrenombre, probablemente antifrástico, es ‘sapo’) de una famosa hetera griega célebre por su belleza, nacida en Tespias en el año 328 a. C.con el nombre Mnésareté (en griego antiguo Μνησαρετή Mnêsaretế, que significa ‘conmemoradora de la virtud’). Era la amante y musa favorita de Praxíteles, quien se inspiró en ella para la creación de varias esculturas de la diosa Afrodita. Su nombre ha trascendido a la historia sobre todo por dos anécdotas en las que se vio envuelta.
La estatua de Eros
Praxíteles le ofreció a Friné como pago de sus servicios, la escultura que ella quisiera de las que él tenía en su estudio. Friné no sabía de arte y no se veía capaz de decidir cuál era su mejor pieza, así que urdió un plan. Dio instrucciones a un sirviente para que durante una cena, irrumpiera diciendo que el estudio estaba en llamas. Praxíteles exclamó: «¡Salvad mi Eros!». Así ella supo que aquella era la mejor obra y fue la que exigió acto seguido, obsequiándola luego a Tespias, su ciudad natal.
Phryne’s real name was Mnēsarétē (Μνησαρέτη, “commemorating virtue”), but owing to her yellowish complexion she was called Phrýnē (“toad”). This was a nickname frequently given to other courtesans and prostitutes as well. She was born as the daughter of Epicles at Thespiae in Boeotia, but lived in Athens. The exact dates of her birth and death are unknown, but she was born about 371 BC. In that year Thebes razed Thespiae not long after the battle of Leuctra and expelled its inhabitants. She might have outlived the reconstruction of Thebes in 315/316 BC.
In modern and contemporary culture
- Due to her beauty, she also inspired the much later painting by artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryné devant l’Areopage (Phryne before the Areopagus, 1861) as well as other works of art throughout history, though none of our sources mentions the court to have been the Areopagus (both Athenaeus and Pseudo-Plutarch tell us only about “dicasts”, i.e. judges or jurors, so the court could have been a regular dikasterion).
- J. M. W. Turner in 1838 exhibited Phryne going to the Public Baths as Venus – Demosthenes taunted by Aeschines, a picture which John Ruskin and others have tried to explain.
- Charles Baudelaire in his poems Lesbos and La beauté and Rainer Maria Rilke in his poem Die Flamingos were inspired by her beauty and fame.
- Phryné was also the subject of an opera by Camille Saint-Saëns: Phryné (1893).
- Dimitris Varos, modern Greek poet and writer, wrote a book called Phryne.
- Witold Jabłoński, Polish fantasy writer, also wrote a book called Phryne the Hetaera.
- Phryne served as the namesake for the eponymous protagonist in Kerry Greenwood‘s Phryne Fisher series, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Set in 1920s Melbourne, Australia, Phryne Fisher is a thoroughly modern woman operating in a mostly male world. The glamorous lady detective goes about her work with a pistol close at hand and, more often than not, a male admirer even closer.