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The Curious Case of Phryne: Finding Comedy in Phryne's Trial

Molly Schaub

University of Michigan

Phryne was undoubtedly one of the most famous courtesans in ancient Greek history because of both her famous beauty and her scandalous trial for impiety which was still being discussed centuries after it took place. Many authors record a version of this story: Though it looked like she was going to be charged with capital punishment, her beauty saved her when she showed her nude body to the judges. Nevertheless, the accounts of her trial disagree at critical points in the narrative, casting doubt on the historicity of this story. The only other source that we have for the life of Phryne is her treatment in Greek comedy from the fragments preserved in Athenaeus’ The Learned Banqueters. In these fragments, Phryne is characterized along the lines of the stock comic courtesan as manipulatively beautiful, witty, and greedy.

This paper will look at some of the major discrepancies between the accounts of her trial in Athenaeus, Alciphron, Quintilian and others in order to prove that the accounts are unlikely to be historically accurate but rather were affected by outside literary influences. By looking at the comic fragments in which Phryne appears and the mythological and historical comparanda for sexualized women and their power over men, this paper seeks to analyze the extent to which the courtesan’s and more generally famous eroticized women’s treatment in Greek comedy may have influenced the story discussed by these later authors. Phryne’s case shows similarities to Helen’s appeal to Menelaus mentioned in Euripides’ Andromache and mocked in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and Phryne, famous for her beauty, finds an apt comparison with the figure of Helen. Likewise, the descriptions of Hyperides’ sexual appetite and his actions in court imply a parody of the statesman Pericles and his behavior at the trial of his mistress Aspasia. These scenes, combined with the evidence for Phryne’s extensive treatment as a comic courtesan, show that the accounts of her trial were affected by larger trends in comic invective. 

Session/Panel Title

The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

Session/Paper Number

61.3

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