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Phryne's real name was Mnēsarétē (Μνησαρέτη, "commemorating virtue"), but owing to her yellowish complexion she was called Phrýnē ("toad"). This was a nickname frequently given to other courtesans and prostitutes as well. She was born as the daughter of Epicles at Thespiae in Boeotia, but lived in Athens. The exact dates of her birth and death are unknown, but she was born about 371 BC. In that year Thebes razed Thespiae not long after the battle of Leuctra and expelled its inhabitants. She might have outlived the reconstruction of Thebes in 315/316 BC.
Athenaeus provides many anecdotes about Phryne. He praises her beauty, writing that on the occasion of the festivals of the Eleusinia and Poseidonia she would let down her hair and step naked into the sea. This would have inspired the painter Apelles to create his famous picture of Aphrodite Anadyomene (Ἀφροδίτη Ἀναδυομένη, Rising From the Sea also portrayed at times as Venus Anadyomene). Supposedly the sculptor Praxiteles, who was also her lover, used her as the model for the statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos.
According to Athenaeus, Praxiteles produced two more statues for her, a statue of Eros which was consecrated in the temple of Thespiae and a statue of Phryne herself which was made of solid gold and consecrated in the temple of Delphi. It stood between the statues of Archidamus III and Philip II. When Crates of Thebes saw the statue he called it "a votive offering of the profligacy of Greece". Pausanias reports that two statues of Apollo stood next to her statue and that it was made of gilded bronze. Pausanias is almost certainly correct in his claim that gilded bronze was used.
Athenaeus alleges she was so rich that she offered to fund the rebuilding of the walls of Thebes, which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great in 336 BC, on the condition that the words "Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan" be inscribed upon them. Diogenes Laërtius narrates a failed attempt Phryne made on the virtue of the philosopher Xenocrates.
Havelock argues that the story of Phryne swimming naked in the sea is probably a sensationalized fabrication. Because Plutarch saw the statues in Thespiae and Delphi himself Cavallini does not doubt their existence. She does think that the love between Praxiteles and Phryne was an invention of later biographers though. Thebes was restored in 315 or 316 BC, but it is doubtful if Phryne ever proposed to rebuild its walls. Diodorus Siculus writes that the Athenians rebuilt the greater part of the wall and that Cassander provided more aid later. He makes no mention of Phryne's alleged offer.
The best known event in Phryne's life is her trial. Athenaeus writes that she was prosecuted for a capital charge and defended by the orator Hypereides, who was one of her lovers. Athenaeus does not specify the nature of the charge, but Pseudo-Plutarch writes that she was accused of impiety. The speech for the prosecution was written by Anaximenes of Lampsacus according to Diodorus Periegetes. When it seemed as if the verdict would be unfavourable, 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.
However, Athenaeus also provides a different account of the trial given in the Ephesia of Posidippus of Cassandreia. He simply describes Phryne as clasping the hand of each juror, pleading for her life with tears, without her disrobing being mentioned. Craig Cooper argues that the account of Posidippus is the authentic version and that Phryne never bared her breasts before the court during her trial.
The first description of the trial given by Athenaeus and the shorter account of Pseudo-Plutarch ultimately derive from the work of the biographer Hermippus of Smyrna (c. 200 BC) who adapted the story from Idomeneus of Lampsacus (c. 300 BC). The account of Posidippus is the earliest known version. If the disrobing did happen, Posidippus would most likely have mentioned it because he was a comic poet. Therefore it is likely that the disrobing of Phryne was a later invention, dating to some time after 290 BC, when Posidippus was active as a poet. Idomeneus was writing around that time.
The evidence suggests that Idomeneus invented the more salacious version of the story, possibly in his desire to parody and ridicule the courtroom displays of Athenian demagogues. Considering his preference for attributing sexual excess to these demagogues the provocative act of disrobing Phryne fits the character Hypereides had acquired in Idomeneus' work. As is not uncommon in the biographical tradition, later biographers failed to notice that earlier biographers did not give an accurate representation of events. The later biographer Hermippus incorporated the account of Idomeneus in his own biography. An extract from Hermippus' biography is preserved in the work of Athenaeus and Pseudo-Plutarch.
There are also arguments for the veracity of the disrobing. The words "a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite" might have indicated that Phryne participated in the Aphrodisia on Aegina. If true, this would have showed the jurors that she was favored by the goddess and deserving of pity. Also, it was accepted at the time that women were especially capable of evoking the sympathy of the judges. Mothers and children could be brought to courts for such purposes. The baring of breasts was not restricted or atypical for prostitutes or courtesans, and could be used to arouse compassion as well.
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