Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis by Henryk Siemiradzki, c. 1889.

Prostitution is often called the oldest profession in the world. In the ancient world, courtesans had played a major role in many a palace intrigues. Among these, the Greek Courtesan Phryne stands out for the way in which her trial was conducted.

Phryne was tried before the jury in Greece and the charge against her was impiety. She was defended by the orator Hypereides.

Who was Phryne?

Phryne was born in 371 B.C in Greece and even though her real name was Mnesarate, she was known as Phryne, for her yellow complexion ( which meant “toad”). This was a common name used for describing courtesans and prostitutes.

Many anecdotes are available which praise the beauty of Phryne. Greek Rhetorician, Athneus mentions that she during the festivals of Eleusinia and Poseidonia, she would let her hair loose and step into the sea. This apparently had inspired a host of paintings and sculptures in ancient Greece. She was showered with riches by her admiring coterie, that she even offered to rebuild the wall of Thebes that was destroyed by Alexander the Great.

The Trial

However, the most (in)famous event that would happen to Phryne was her trial. Her defender was Athenaeus, who was also alleged to be one of her lovers. The exact charge that was levelled against her is not known, but it is broadly known to be that of impiety and carried a capital charge. The prosecution was led by Anaximenes of Lampascus and he led a vehement one at that.

When it seemed that the verdict would be unfavorable, 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.

In Popular Culture

Whether or not an actual disrobing of Phryne happened is a matter of debate among the historians. However, the story sure piqued the imagination of many an artists.

Phryne before the Areopagus by Jean-Léon Gérôme, c. 1861
Phryne by José Frappa. Phryne is depicted baring her breasts before the jury.

The above two paintings are two of the most famous depictions of the trial that unfolded in Greece in the 4th century B.C. Whether it happened or not, the trial of Phryne would be something that would again and again come up in context of jurisprudence in the World.

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