Grecian Courtezans

The rank which the courtezans enjoyed, even in the brightest ages of Greece, and particularly at Athens, is one of the greatest singularities in the manners of any people.

By what circumstances could that order of women, who debase at once their own sex and ours—in a country where the women were possessed of modesty, and the men of sentiment, arrive at distinction, and sometimes even at the highest degree of reputation and consequence? Several reasons may be assigned for that phenomenon in society.

In Greece, the courtezans were in some measure connected with the religion of the country. The Goddess of Beauty had her altars; and she was supposed to protect prostitution, which was to her a species of worship. The people invoked Venus in times of danger; and, after a battle, they thought they had done honor to Miltiades and Themistocles, because the Laises and the Glyceras of the age had chaunted hymns to their Goddess.

The courtezans were likewise connected with religion, by means of the arts. Their persons afforded models for statues, which were afterwards adored in the temples. Phryne served as a model to Praxiteles, for his Venus of Cnidus. During the feasts of Neptune, near Eleusis, Apelles having seen the same courtezan on the sea-shore, without any other veil than her loose and flowing hair, was so much struck with her appearance, that he borrowed from it the idea of his Venus rising from the waves.

They were, therefore connected with statuary and painting, as they furnished the practisers of those arts with the means of embellishing their works.

The greater part of them were skilled in music; and, as that art was attended with higher effects in Greece than it ever was in any other country, it must have possessed, in their hands, an irresistible charm.

Every one knows how enthusiastic the Greeks were of beauty. They adored it in the temples. They admired it in the principal works of art. They studied it in the exercises and the games. They thought to perfect it by their marriages. They offered rewards to it at the public festivals. But virtuous beauty was seldom to be seen. The modest women were confined to their own apartments, and were visited only by their husbands and nearest relations. The courtezans offered themselves every where to view; and their beauty as might be expected, obtained universal homage.

Greece was governed by eloquent men; and the celebrated courtezans, having an influence over those orators must have had an influence on public affairs. There was not one, not even the thundering, the inflexible Demosthenes, so terrible to tyrants, but was subjected to their sway. Of that great master of eloquence it has been said, “What he had been a whole year in erecting, a woman overturned in a day.” That influence augmented their consequence; and their talent of pleasing increased with the occasions of exerting it.

The laws and the public institutions, indeed, by authorizing the privacy of women, set a high value on the sanctity of the marriage vow. But in Athens, imagination, sentiment, luxury, the taste in arts and pleasures, was opposite to the laws. The courtezans, therefore may be said to have come in support of the manners.

There was no check upon public licentiousness; but private infidelity, which concerned the peace of families, was punished as a crime. By a strange and perhaps unequalled singularity the men were corrupted, yet the domestic manners were pure. It seems as if the courtezans had not been considered to belong to their sex; and, by a convention to which the laws and the manners bended, while other women were estimated merely by their virtues, they were estimated only by their accomplishments.

These reasons will in some measure, account for the honors, which the votaries of Venus so often received in Greece. Otherwise we should have been at a loss to conceive, why six or seven writers had exerted their talents to celebrate the courtezans of Athens—why three great painters had uniformly devoted their pencils to represent them on canvass—and why so many poets had strove to immortalize them in verses. We should hardly have believed that so many illustrious men had courted their society—that Aspasia had been consulted in deliberations of peace and war—that Phryne had a statue of gold placed between the statues of two kings at Delphos—that, after death, magnificent tombs had been erected to their memory.

“The traveller,” says a Greek writer, “who, approaching to Athens, sees on the side of the way a monument which attracts his notice at a distance, will imagine that it is the tomb of Miltiades or Pericles, or of some other great man, who has done honor to his country by his services. He advances, he reads, and he learns that it is a courtezan of Athens who is interred with so much pomp.”

Theopompus, in a letter to Alexander the Great, speaks also of the same monument in words to the following effect—“Thus, after her death, is a prostitute honored; while not one of those brave warriors who fell in Asia, fighting for you, and for the safety of Greece, has so much as a stone erected to his memory, or an inscription to preserve his ashes from insult.”

Such was the homage which that enthusiastic people, voluptuous and passionate, paid to beauty. More guided by sentiment than reason, and having laws rather than principles, they banished their great men, honored their courtezans, murdered Socrates, permitted themselves to be governed by Aspasia, preserved inviolate the marriage bed, and placed Phryne in the temple of Apollo!


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