Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.42

Debra Hamel, Trying Neaira. The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece.   New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2003.  Pp. xxiii, 200.  ISBN 0-300-09431-0.  $24.95.  

Reviewed by Ian Worthington, History, University of Missouri-Columbia (
Word count: 2483 words

Against Neaera was delivered sometime in the late 340s. It survived in the Demosthenic corpus as Speech 59, but almost certainly was written and delivered (after Theomnestus' opening sally) by the "eleventh Attic orator", Apollodorus. The trial of Neaera was part of an ongoing feud between Apollodorus and Stephanus, Neaera's husband, with Neaera as the pawn. Stephanus and Neaera had been living together in Athens as husband and wife for about thirty years, and everyone regarded their children as legitimate. Nothing wrong with that of course, except that Apollodorus brought a graphe xenias against Stephanus, claiming that Neaera was an alien and that her children were not fathered by Stephanus. To make matters worse, she was an ex-prostitute who had worked first in Corinth and then in Megara. In order to prove his case, Apollodorus traces Neaera's life from her youth as a sex worker and argues that their children are Neaera's and hence illegitimate. Along the way, he reveals a world as far removed from "the grandeur that was Greece" as one can get.

The speech is read a lot for the information it furnishes on Athenian society, citizenship, religion, women, and law. It is a rich mine to exploit for these areas, a lot like Aeschines' Against Timarchus, and, like Aeschines' speech, it is fun to read. That is why Against Neaera regularly appears (in translation) in any course on Greek society or on Athenian law (including my own), and it also works well as a Greek text in an upper-level language course. We have recently had a text, translation and commentary by Christopher Carey (Warminster: 1992) and, more detailed, by Konstantinos Kapparis (Berlin: 1999). These discuss various aspects of the case including its background, the nature of the feud between Apollodorus and Stephanus, and the legal issues at play, as well as an analysis of the arguments in the speech and a review of women and of prostitution at this time. The focus of both these books is Apollodorus' speech, and so the woman that was Neaera remains a shadowy figure in the background.

Enter Hamel (hereafter H.), who focuses on Neaera herself. In a little over 160 pages, her book brings to life not only Neaera but also the times in which she lived. Oddly, given the subject-matter, there is a fair degree of inconsistency in the date of Neaera's trial. For example, it is "sometime between 343 and 340" (pp. x, xxi), in "about 345" (p. 84), and in late 340's (p. 118). We cannot date the trial with absolute certainty, but 345 is too early.

There is plenty of opportunity for a book like this to be done badly, for example in its methodology, or in using its subject as a soap box about male dominated societies. There is no question that Neaera was abused by her society and that she was treated like trash until she met Stephanus. However, H. rightly anchors her account firmly in the ancient sources. H. has to rely mostly on Apollodorus' prosecution speech for information, hence the "True Story" part of the title of H.'s book is too much. However, she does not accept what Apollodorus says at face value. In fact, there are many occasions where she justly rejects details or allegations as she strives to get to the "real" Neaera (or Phano). H. often follows the lead of Carey and Kapparis, but the end result is a little gem of a book from which everyone will profit. It is informative, serious in its approach, use of source material, and conclusions, and commendably written in an unpretentious style. (There are some occasional slip-ups, for example, "In addition to ... also" on pp. 21 and 141.)

H.'s book is divided into three broad parts: 1, "Life as a Prostitute" (pp. 3-43), 2, "Stephanos and the Children" (pp. 47-113), and 3, "The Trial and its Antecedents" (pp. 117-162), each of which is divided into a number of sections. The text is followed by 20 pages of end-notes. (The notes are a little on the thin side for a university press.)

Part 1 deals with Neaera's earlier life as a prostitute down to her flight from Phrynion in Athens to Megara in about 372. It is set against a deftly argued and detailed expose of the sex industry in ancient Greece and is also nicely illustrated with several scenes from pottery showing prostitutes at work. Nicarete, who owned a high-end brothel in Corinth, the Las Vegas of ancient Greece, bought Neaera when she was probably about twelve and "trained" her. Neaera was not a street-corner hooker, nor did she come cheap. Along with half a dozen other girls, Neaera worked out of a Bunny Ranch, which attracted wealthier clients and where there was some degree of safety and control. One client was the speechwriter Lysias, who saw Neaera's co-worker Metaneira regularly, and who took her to Athens along with Nicarete and a young Neaera (her first visit). H. gives us a lengthy excursus on Lysias' life and career to show what sort of person could afford to patronize establishments like Nicarete's, but I found the excursus a little too long given the aim of this part of the book.

When Neaera was in her early twenties, and so beyond her prime for Nicarete's clientele, two of her clients, Timanoridas and Eucrates, bought her. They kept her as their personal sex slave for a couple of years and then allowed her to buy her freedom for 2,000 drachmas (1,000 less than they had paid for her). As part of the deal she had to leave Corinth, an odd proviso, but one that she respected. In the speech Apollodorus says that the two men were motivated out of compassion for Neaera: how nice of them. However, H. convincingly argues (pp. 31-37) that they had no real regard for her well-being but cut her a deal in order to save themselves the trouble of finding a buyer who would pay top drachma. H. nicely connects this cynical scenario to the proviso that Neaera had to leave Corinth. The need for her to leave had nothing to do with her reminding them of their wild youth, as is sometimes thought, but to ensure that as she grew older and lost her looks they would not feel bound to support her because of their previous relationship.

In order to raise the money for her freedom, Apollodorus says that Neaera appealed to many of her former clients. They responded, including Phrynion of Athens, who made the trip to Corinth to collect her. Any hope that Neaera might have had of a stable relationship was soon shattered by his abuse of her, and, taking some of his property, she fled to Megara. How did she make contact with these men though? H. simply writes: "Probably she wrote to a number of potential benefactors asking for money and "summoned" to Corinth the one from whom she could expect the most help" (p. 37), and further that Phrynion provided the "lion's share" (p. 38). This is too simplistic an explanation: could Neaera read and write? Would Nicarete, whose customers were after actions not words, have taught her to do so? I wonder about the extent of Neaera's pleas for financial help and whether Apollodorus exaggerated her network for rhetorical effect. Besides, if Neaera was so sure that Phrynion would be her savior, why did she bother with anyone else?

Part 2, the longest in the book, focuses on Stephanus of Athens and the children. Stephanus spent time with Neaera at her house in Megara and was duped by her tale of woe into taking her back to Athens with him. After all, she needed his protection in case of retaliation by Phrynion, whom she had robbed. At this point in his narrative (sec. 38), Apollodorus out of the blue says that her Neaera's two sons and a daughter accompanied them to Athens. Three children who suddenly appear out of nowhere? H. rightly scorns Apollodorus' allegation about their parentage, not least because Neaera would have to have been pregnant while in Nicarete's employ, and pregnant prostitutes were not appealing to clients. Moreover, Stephanus enrolled the sons into his phratry and deme, and any question of their legitimacy would have been settled during their scrutinies.

That leaves the daughter Phano, and her various relationships (pp. 77-113). Apollodorus claims that Phano's first husband divorced her when he discovered that Stephanus had illegally passed her off as a citizen lady, that she then had a sexual relationship with a certain Epainetus, and finally that her second husband, Theogenes the archon basileus, was originally oblivious of her past and alien status but divorced her when the Areopagus exposed her for what she was. This is all part of Apollodorus' case to show that Phano and her mother Neaera were aliens. H. believes that Phrastor may have made up the story of Phano's parentage in an effort to keep her dowry. Certainly he appears capable of such a deception for venal means, for later, as H. plausibly suggests, he recognised his son from their marriage so that his relatives, whom he disliked, would not have claim to his property.

Phano's second divorce is more problematic. Stephanus gave his friend Theogenes political advice and, more importantly, money. When Theogenes became archon basileus he appeared to repay Stephanus by appointing him a paredros and marrying Phano. She was now the basilinna, with important civic religious duties, the sort that could only be performed by a citizen. Moreover, there was a law, quoted in the speech (sec. 75), that the basilinna had to be not only to be a citizen but also a virgin. Apollodorus tells us that when the Areopagus conducted a secret inquiry and discovered that she was an alien and had previously been married, it fined Theogenes, but he decided to divorce her anyway (secs. 80-83). The speech quotes his deposition (of doubtful authenticity) that he had been deceived by Stephanus about Phano's status and so kicked her out (sec. 84).

H. tries to explain Theogenes' action, but, in my reading of her account, soon gets confused and inconsistent (pp. 107-113). She considers that the Areopagus discovered the previous marriage and, since Theogenes appeared ignorant of it, decided merely to fine him. That makes sense, though the religious implications of what Phano did make me wonder whether the Areopagites would be so lenient. H. further disbelieves that Theogenes' action "meshes" with the Areopagus' decision (p. 112), and thus that the council must have found out about Phano's fling with Epainetus or that Phano was an alien. Yet why did it simply fine Theogenes, and, more importantly, take no action against Stephanus for his deception in a law court? The key to all this lies in the investigation that the Areopagus conducted, but frustratingly we simply do not know anything about this. One explanation for Theogenes' action that H. does not consider is that peculiar thing, the masculine ego. Theogenes, let's face it, sounds a little naïve and we can easily accept that Stephanus pulled a fast one when he saw the chance to marry his daughter off to a nobleman. When Theogenes found out that his wife was not a virgin bride, he felt slighted by his friend, whom he had evidently trusted with his political future. In a fit of pique, he kicked out Phano and then fired Stephanus as a paredros. The bottom line, however, as H. persuasively argues, is that Apollodorus does not prove that Phano (and Neaera) was an alien.

H. also pours cold water on the image of Stephanus presented in the speech (sec. 39). He may well have been a man who wanted to have Neaera with him because of her beauty (what man would not?), but it was not his intention to prostitute her because his only other income was sycophancy. In fact he was fairly well off, and Neaera did not do the sort of things that Apollodorus alleges (pp. 63-72). However, would the jury buy Apollodorus' lies, and, if they did not, surely would this not damage his case? H. sees Stephanus and Neaera raising their children as part of their family unit and whiling away their days at home in Attica (p. 72). This does not preclude the two of them getting into a swinging lifestyle, hence Apollodorus' scandalous allegations. Moreover, as H. goes on to discuss, Phrynion eventually came knocking on their door to claim Neaera. A private arbitration between Stephanus and himself led to a settlement of his claims, and for some time afterwards, as H. puts it, they took turns "at enjoying Neaera's company" (p. 75). This sort of behavior gives Apollodorus' character denigration the kernel of truth needed to influence a jury.

Part 3 is largely descriptive. H. traces the origin of the feud between Stephanus and Apollodorus. It began in 348 with Stephanus' successful graphe paranomon against Apollodorus for proposing that the budget surplus be deflected from the Theoric Fund and used for military purposes. Two years later, Stephanus went after him again, this time charging him with the murder of a woman in Aphidna. Apollodorus was acquitted, but the resentment between the two men came to a head in the trial of Neaera for the first section of the speech makes it clear that Stephanus was indicted for revenge. H. has good notes on Apollodorus and on Theomnestus, who formally brought the charge on behalf of Apollodorus, and who spoke first at the trial. There are also sections on jury service, courtroom procedure (I won't comment on H.'s acceptance of the claim that all public trials had to be completed within one day, p. 149), and voting procedure.

Part 3, and thus the book, ends with an analysis of Neaera's trial and a breakdown of Apollodorus' speech (pp. 155-162). This is a very useful section, given that this is a long speech with a lot of complicated arguments and twists and turns, and personally I would have preferred this section earlier in the book.

We do not have Stephanus' defence speech, nor do we know the outcome of the trial. Perhaps Apollodorus' disappearance from history after the trial indicates that he lost his case; after reading H.'s book, we hope that is what happened.

Needless to say, I liked H.'s book a lot, and to judge from the enthusiastic endorsements on its cover I am not alone. And it is a book that needed to be written. All too often we focus on some technical aspect of a society, or on why such-and-such a verb is in the passive, and we end up losing sight of the people who make up the society. Neaera as a person gets lost in Apollodorus' speech, but H. redresses that lack. In the process we cannot help but have a new feeling of sympathy for Neaera.

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