Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece
by Debra Hamel
Love and Money
A review by Ingrid D. Rowland
Among the speeches attributed in surviving manuscripts to the ancient Greek orator
Demosthenes are a number of courtroom harangues that were actually composed and
delivered by his more seamy contemporary Apollodoros, the Athenian lawyer. None
is quite as gripping, and occasionally horrific, as Apollodoros's long tirade
as prosecutor against a fiftyish Corinthian matron named Neaira. Sometime between
343 and 340 B.C.E., Apollodoros accused Neaira of living with an Athenian citizen
named Stephanos as his lawful wife, at a time when binding marriages between Athenian
men and non-Athenian women were forbidden. By the time the couple came to trial,
they had been living together for thirty years. If Apollodoros succeeded in making
his case, Stephanos could expect to be fined an amount that equaled three years'
income. Neaira could expect to be sold into slavery.
But Apollodoros did not need to make his case in order to achieve his true purpose. What he really wanted to do was to stir up further trouble for a man who had been his inveterate enemy for years. This was a city-state in which trials were public spectacles and jurors numbered in the hundreds if not thousands Neaira's case was heard by 501 men. And so Apollodoros could create more than enough trouble for Stephanos by doing no more than airing a few stories about the first half of Neaira's life, about those twenty-odd years before she settled down in Athens with her Athenian lover.
From its opening paragraph, Debra Hamel's account of Neaira's trial exploits all the story's potential:
The prosecutor was in his early fifties, boorish and unattractive, to judge by the description he had given of himself some ten years before, and with a booming voice that carried well in the court. It was early yet, an hour or two into a trial that would last the rest of the day. The 501 jurors hearing the case were not yet distracted by grumbling stomachs and the thought of collecting their wages when the verdict was in. Apollodoros was just getting started on his denunciation of the defendant, Neaira.... "A bunch of them had sex with her while she was drunk," he tells the jurors, describing the aftermath of a dinner party given some thirty years before. "Even the slaves."... In the Athenian law courts of the fourth century B.C., relevance, and the truth itself, very often took a back seat to a more urgent concern, rousing the jurors' hostility, by any means possible, against one's opponent.
In other words, what we hear about Neaira from Apollodoros need not have been entirely true. But what we hear, even if exaggerated, is lurid enough. Her life before Stephanos was the life, as Hamel candidly puts it, of a sex slave a calling in which Neaira, owing to her beauty and her skill, eventually amassed enough money to buy her own freedom at the age of about twenty-five.
Modern readers may find that Neaira's prosecutors and jurors are the ones who condemn themselves of scandalous living, by accepting the terms on which Neaira had to make her way as a woman of ancient Greece. Ancient Greek vases, some illustrated in Hamel's text, show what Neaira's colleagues, called hetairai, or "companions," were doing a few generations before her. On wine cup after wine cup, the anonymous Athenian vase artist known as the Brygos Painter traces the exquisite outlines in black on red of painfully young, beautiful women, their short hair identifying them as foreign-born slaves, who stand by patiently as the long-limbed, gilded youths of Athens stagger, sing, grope, flail their walking sticks, and vomit as if they own the world; and indeed they do. Hamel shows also a far less skillfully painted vase in which a kneeling, naked prostitute kisses the hand of a reclining youth as, in the background, another boy nurses great dark bruises; presumably we see the end of a fight for the girl's favors, which are now offered to the victor in an act of abject submission.
The great Pericles would call these men and their kind "the school of Hellas," and "lovers of beauty without excess, lovers of wisdom without softness," even as he admonished their womenfolk to hold their tongues. By then Athens was the greatest, wealthiest power in the Greek world, a city that put its heart and soul as well as its bounteous silver coinage not only into its navy, but also into works of art and literature: the Acropolis with its forest of sculpture; the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes; the histories of the immigrant Herodotus and the native Thucydides.
How can it be, then, that one of the most informative sources about women's life in ancient Athens seems to be Apollodoros's scurrilous attack on a former sex slave who moved into a self-sufficient, comparatively decorous retirement? For this argument from social history is how Neaira's trial has become so well known; under such a pretext the trial serves, for example, as one of the first readings given to students of elementary Greek in the textbooks issued by Cambridge University Press for Britain's Joint Association of Classical Teachers. (The case certainly holds students' attention.)
Neaira has enjoyed her success partly because the study of the ancient classics, especially the Greek classics, has often taken a misogynistic turn, from Aristotle in the fourth century before the Christian era, with his contention that women were biologically definable as imperfect men, to Angelo Poliziano in the fifteenth century, with his vicious invective against old women. Their prejudices, and those of figures such as the grumpy ancient Greek poets Semonides and Theognis, were adopted happily by many a don, professor, and schoolmaster of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the breed is by no means extinct in the opening of the twenty-first. As the Greeks were among the first to show, great insight often goes hand in hand with great blindness.
But not every ancient Greek, nor every ancient Athenian, saw women without really seeing them. Certainly not Homer, whose "wise Penelope" more than equals the wiles of her husband Odysseus: when they reunite at last, time itself stops to pay them joint honor. And certainly not the tragedians. Aeschylus's Clytemnestra was upstaging Agamemnon long before Athens' Theater of Dionysus ever had a stage. When Sophocles's Ajax tells his wife that "silence adorns a woman," he is in the grip of suicidal madness and his protesting wife is absolutely right; when Sophocles's Creon explains to outspoken Antigone that her loyalty to religion should submit to his reasons of state, he slips into blasphemy and reveals himself as a crazy tyrant. When Euripides's Medea says that she would rather face battle many times than give birth once, she may be enunciating a statistic about the risks of childbirth that was familiar to every veteran of Athens' many wars.
And then there is Plato, the radical who proclaimed the equality of men and women for his ideal republic. Like the tragedians, and unlike the prosecutor Apollodoros, Plato is a writer of infinite subtlety; he aspired to be a playwright himself, and his dramatic gift shows in his dialogues. His most compelling female figure is also his most enigmatic, and she appears in what may be the most perfectly realized of all his surviving compositions: Diotima, the prophetess of Mantinea, who appears near the climax of the Symposium to give Socrates a lesson in the ways of love. At least since the fifteenth century, when it was translated into Latin by the Christian Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino, Plato's Symposium has often been read (especially by the scholars and the artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) as Plato's own writ rather than as a dramatic dialogue.
What a mistake! The byplay of character and timing that would have made Plato a brilliant dramatist places the dialogue's every speech about love in its own peculiar light: thus the comic poet Aristophanes hiccups right through the physician Eryximachus's long-winded exposition of love's clinical effects; and it is not Plato who says that there are two kinds of love, the heavenly and the mundane, it is comely, air-headed Phaedrus. (Burly Plato shows an acute and acerbic awareness of Socrates' predilection for these bland pretty boys, including Plato's brother Glaucon, and one wonders whether his absence from his Socratic dialogues reflects his own experience of Socrates's inattention.) And then at last Socrates himself begins to speak, and from his lips we expect to hear the truth.
As always, however, the truth is elusive. Socrates claims to have learned everything he knows about love from a wise woman in the Arcadian city of Mantinea. That wise woman, Diotima, lays out a whole curriculum for the aspiring lover, who turns out in fact to be an aspiring philosopher, for "philosophy" by its very etymology means love of the highest order, the love of wisdom. Diotima insists, among other strictures, on the impossibility of real philosophical love between men and women, for she claims that their union is physical, designed to beget children (there was a matter-of-fact Greek word for this activity: paidopoiein, "child-making"). Real love, she says, can only occur between two men who eschew physical union for the "bringing forth in beauty" of pure Idea. At a certain point Diotima suggests that Socrates may already have reached the limit of his own capabilities in this course of instruction, but she presses on nonetheless to outline the loftiest exercises of philosophical love, until Socrates's whole spellbinding tale of her conversation is brusquely interrupted by the appearance of a party-crasher, the handsome, dissolute, and very drunk Alcibiades, who plops himself down beside Socrates on the dining couch and proceeds to steal the show.
Alcibiades insists, words slurred by drink over and above his characteristic lisp, that love is like Socrates himself: superficially ugly, internally beautiful, capable of total concentration, passionately physical, yet capable of denying all physicality. Meanwhile we realize that the deft puppeteer Plato has put the most ineffable reaches of his philosophy in the mouths of a woman and a drunk, neither of whom has undergone the rigorous manly training that Diotima had been earnestly prescribing to Socrates before the drunk interrupted the report of their conversation. And yet (and this must be Plato's point), despite their shared lack of a good introductory course in love and philosophy, both the woman and the drunk have seen God's truth.
Did Plato really believe, then, that men should spend their time undergoing the course of study that Diotima prescribes, to "bring forth in beauty"? If he did, then the structure of the Symposium does a remarkable job of exploding that curriculum's persuasive power by bringing on a drunken pratfall at its climax, with timing and a sense of risk worthy of an expert comic. And should it not arouse at least a glimmer of suspicion that a wise woman is yarning on and on about women's incapacity to understand the higher reaches of philosophy when that woman clearly lives parasangs beyond the understanding of Socrates, proverbially the wisest of men? Whatever Plato was about, his realm of Ideas was located far beyond the confines social, intellectual, and political of the Athenian society that also included (or better, perhaps, confined) people like Neaira, Stephanos, and Apollodoros. And there is no greater proof than the fact that his ideal Republic unlike theirs, or the Golden Age Athens of Pericles would grant women equal rights with men.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Neaira's life, in fact, is the extent to which she was able to achieve a status comparable to that of a respectable Athenian matron this achievement, after all, is the charge that Apollodoros was trying to level against her. The odds ranged against her bid for respectable domesticity were all but insurmountable. She had been brought up in an expensive brothel in the sophisticated port city of Corinth, and in her early twenties she was sold off in a time-share arrangement to two of her steady customers for three thousand drachmas. This was five to ten times the usual asking price for a slave, and it was one thousand drachmas more than the two partners would ask of Neaira herself the subsequent year, when, both on the verge of proper marriages, they offered her the chance to buy her freedom. They made only one stipulation aside from the steep price: she would have to leave Corinth for good. Neaira purchased her freedom with the help of gifts and loans from other former clients, including an Athenian named Phrynion, who took her home with him as his mistress. But Phrynion was a brute, and soon Neaira left him to set up house in the neighboring city of Megara, apparently continuing to practice her lucrative trade as a professional "companion." Here, two years later, she first met Stephanos, an Athenian widower with three children, who decided to take her back to Athens with him.
Yet Neaira's troubles were far from over when she moved back to Athens: Phrynion learned of her return, and accused her successfully of making off with some of his possessions, and unsuccessfully of being his fugitive slave. The settlement of this suit compelled her for a time to split her residence between the households of Stephanos and the unsavory and abusive Phrynion; why or how this arrangement ended goes unmentioned by Apollodoros and therefore remains a mystery. There were other lawsuits as well; Athens was a litigious city, and Stephanos proved an eager contributor to its litigations. Hamel shows how contemporary politics as well as social mores played a role in shaping Stephanos's and Neaira's continuing legal struggles and those of the children to whom Neaira acted as adoptive mother. Each child would eventually face charges of illegitimacy, and although none of those charges would stick in a court of law, the shame and the trauma of these successive trials, as Hamel suggests, must have been considerable in this most public and most shame-driven of societies. Pericles himself had been driven to shed tears in public when the Athenian assembly refused to legitimize his children by his non-Athenian mistress Aspasia.
The last lawsuit that Neaira and Stephanos faced, to our knowledge, is Apollodoros's great tirade against Neaira, and, as Hamel shows, the case went to trial before a jury because of a technicality that looks particularly cruel to contemporary eyes. Stephanos and Neaira could have avoided an open trial by submitting their household slaves to interrogation about their marital status, but the interrogation of slaves in the ancient world meant torture, for slaves were believed to be incapable of telling the truth of their own volition. There was no guarantee that under intolerable duress slaves, as mere property, were shown no mercy under torture their own slaves would insist that they had never lived as citizen husband and citizen wife. Instead Stephanos and Neaira chose to run the risk of a public exposure that has lasted well over two thousand years.
Hamel's treatment of this complicated story is outstanding not only for its comprehensive (yet remarkably concise) presentation of the social and historical context of fourth-century Athens, but also, perhaps supremely, for its tact. By presenting sex and the ancient Greek sex trade forthrightly, she puts to shame the ponderous cuteness and leering euphemism that writing about Neaira's case has aroused in many classicists over the centuries. She brings out both the sordid exploitation of Neaira's circumstances and the genuine strength of the bond that linked this former prostitute with Stephanos and his family, piecing together a plausible account from what is often minimal evidence, managing to explore her human characters without idealizing them, and judiciously staying just shy of a historical novel. Her description of court procedure, and the differences that separate ancient Athenian standards for legal procedure and basic justice from our own ideas of democracy and the rule of law, show how much has changed in the definition of these powerful words over the millennia. It is easier, after reading her account, to see how the full imperfection of the Athenian political and legal system could have driven Plato to such savage fury against "the school of Hellas" that he established an academy of his own and gave up a literary form, tragedy, sponsored by the Athenian state, for a new dramatic genre of his own, the philosophical dialogue, in which he would insist on the pursuit of pure good and pure justice.
Hamel responds to the same injustices as a historian, presenting them clearly and with a minimum of expressed judgment. Yet her choice of topics and the order in which she presents them shows, time after time, that she measures the trial, its circumstances, and its protagonists by an affectingly human scale, so that in her account the potentially prurient story becomes, in its way, a tragedy. As Aristotle's Poetics recommends for tragic protagonists, Stephanos and Neaira are people who are neither better nor worse than average, whose griefs have come about by some symptom of that basic imbalance that afflicts the real world. They awaken our pity at their troubles and our fear for the violence, injustice, and instability of the world in which they, and we, live out our lives.
What Stephanos and Neaira seem to want most from their own existence can be described in the same two words that begin Aeschylus's Agamemnon, and hence the whole towering trilogy of the Oresteia: apallagê ponôn, "release from trouble." We do not know whether Neaira and Stephanos found that release after Apollodoros and the Athenian jurors were done with them. The verdict of Neaira's trial does not survive. While Hamel demolishes Apollodoros's case with objectivity and rigor, we cannot be certain that the jurors shared her perspicacity, though we can safely take for granted that they judged the case on the basis of radically different beliefs about men, women, justice, sex, politics, and religion. What we do know is that after this moment, Stephanos, Neaira, and Apollodoros disappear from our surviving records, and for two of them, at least, no news may well have been the best news of all.
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