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Phryne Was an Ancient Greek Who Exposed Herself to a Jury to Win an Impiety Trial

Photo Credit: Angelica Kauffmann/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain/ Cropped
Photo Credit: Angelica Kauffmann/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain/ Cropped

Celebrated as a renowned courtesan and an object of desire, the ancient Greek prostitute Phryne was known for her magnetic charm and mesmerizing beauty. She enchanted some of the most powerful and artistic minds in her country. Yet she is arguably best known for the creative way she was acquitted during a trial for impiety. Discover this quick-witted beauty and the lasting legacy she left on the pages of history.

Early life

Although a well-known Greek figure, the story of Phryne is difficult to relay faithfully. There is a great deal known about her life, but many scholars question how reliable the information is. Nonetheless, there are certain facts, whether real or embellished, that are often included in her story. Supposedly, she was born as Mnesarete in Thespiae around the year 371 BC. She was called Phryne (Greek for ‘toad’) because she had a yellow complexion.

Painting of Phryne, a woman with golden blonde hair, wearing dangling earrings as she looks off to the side.
Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki entitled Study for the painting Phryne at the Festival of Poseidon in Eleusis. (Photo Credit: Henryk Siemiradzki / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Despite where she was born, most of her life was spent in Athens. In her early years, she was extremely poor, but this would change as she eventually became one of the wealthiest Greek women. She was sold as a slave, often referred to as a prostitute, to the wealthy in Athens by the time she was 15. Phryne was said to have a beautiful face and body, and was determined to earn her freedom by using these assets. It was also how she came to be a muse for the famous Greek painter Apelles.

A true muse

A contemporary account from Athenaeus described her as “a really beautiful woman, even in those parts of her person which were not generally seen: on which account it was not easy to see her naked; for she used to wear a tunic which covered her whole person, and she never used the public baths. But on the solemn assembly of the Eleusinian festival, and on the feast of the Poseidonia, then she laid aside her garments in the sight of all the assembled Greeks and having undone her hair, she went to bathe in the sea.”

Mural of a naked woman holding her hair out to the side.
Similar replica of the painting Aphrodite Rising From the Sea, which is now lost to time, found in a house in Pompeii. (Photo Credit: Peter Grunwald / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

On one of these two occasions, Apelles was said to have watched Phryne walk nude into the sea with her hair trailing loose behind her. He was so inspired watching this that he asked her to be the model for his painting Aphrodite Rising From the Sea. He wasn’t the only artist inspired by Phryne. It is said that she was also the mistress of Praxiteles. He had her sit as his model while he created the sculpture Aphrodite of Knidos, one of the best-known and most widely recreated ancient Greek statues.

More than just a beauty

As much as it is the beauty of Phryne that is talked about, she was also incredibly intelligent and witty. One of the most famous accounts of this wit in action came following the destruction of the walls of Thebes by Alexander the Great in 336 BC. She said that she would pay to have them rebuilt with the condition that they were inscribed with the words, “destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan.” Whether because of her societal status or her gender, her proposal was shot down.

Praxiteles with curly brown hair and a red robe, points towards a small statue of cupid while looking at Phryne, wearing a white robe and pink shawl.
Painting entitled Praxiteles Giving Phryne His Statue of Cupid, 1794. (Photo Credit: Angelica Kauffmann / Rhode Island School of Design Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In another clever move, Praxiteles offered to give her any of his statues. When she asked which was his favorite, he said he loved them all equally. Not long after, one of Phryne’s slaves arrived with news that the sculptor’s workshop was burning, prompting him to weep over losing two particular pieces – a satyr and a sculpture of Love. The clever courtesan revealed this was all a ruse and chose to take the latter statue for herself.

Phryne also unashamedly adored herself, allegedly dedicating a golden statue of her likeness, created by Praxiteles, in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi.

Trial for asebeia

Phryne’s wit and beauty are well documented, but it is her trial for asebeia for which she is undoubtedly best known. Asebeia is roughly synonymous with impiety or ungodliness. She was accused of three things: introducing a new god, leading a drunken ritual procession, and holding unlawful meetings in honor of Dyonisis.

Phryne with her back to the viewer, exposing her chest to a group of men while a red shawl is draped over her shoulders.
Painting of Phryne during her legendary trial, exposing herself to the court. (Photo Credit: Jose Frappa / Musée d’Orsay / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain / Blurred)

The charges were brought forward by a man named Euthias, who happened to be one of her ex-lovers. Fortunately, a current lover, Hypereides, acted as her defense. Many historians believe that this trial actually had nothing to do with Phryne and was a way for Hypereides’ political enemies to get back at him. By all accounts, he spoke eloquently in her favor, even if most of his words were lost to time.

A victory for Phryne

What happened after testimonies were given varies greatly depending on the source, but one thing is consistent: Phryne’s breasts were shown to the jury, and she was acquitted of all charges. The first version of the story says that the courtesan decided to expose herself; the second version says that Hypereides exposed her as the climax of his speech; the third version says that he did so only when he realized that his words weren’t going to be enough to prove her innocence.

Marble head of a woman with her hair tied back.
Head of a statue modeled after the Aphrodite of Knidos, created in Phryne’s likeness, now held at the Louvre Museum. (Photo Credit: Eric Gaba / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Regardless of who came up with the idea, in response to Phryne being exposed to the jury, Hypereides declared, “O respected judges; only the gods could sculpt such a perfect body. Killing her is a blatant disrespect to the gods. How can you condemn such a woman who is beautiful enough to stand in for Aphrodite herself?” No matter which way the jurors were convinced, they agreed with Hypereides.

More from us: Lucrezia Borgia Is Known as a Villainous Woman, but Are the Rumors True?

By this point in her life, Phryne was no longer an ideal age for a courtesan, but she was still well-beloved. It’s unknown when she died.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.