Phryne, or The Commemoration of Virtue

by Lucy Holme

I gave myself to Phryne for her wages,
And now I no more charms employ, nor
Arrows,
Save those of earnest glances at my love
—Inscription from Praxiteles’ statue of Eros

A gender line…helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage
—Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Awake early, she casts the sheets aside. Her face lit by shifting solar planes flickering on the cool stone walls, she stretches and lifts her arms to pin an ornamental wreath to tousled amber waves. ‘So this is the day I meet the torch,’ she says to the mirror, and observes her skin as yet adorned, sallow flesh unmarked and lobes unpinched. The sleepless nights do not reflect in those famous cheeks that hint at vestiges of post-coital pink. Her bracelets clatter, and the winking inlaid gems emanate a strange glow as if imbued with subtle fire. ‘Such a mediocre form of torture,’ she sighs, looking out at the sky above the areopagus, thinking of the croaking herd who long to strip her bare in front of the judge. A rabble who salivate like wild wolves and who’ll cheerfully crow from the gallery, ‘Behold the twin of Aphrodite rising from the Aegean!’ with hollers and foul catcalls.

It is said that Phryne’s real life beauty left Aphrodite in the shade and as she could neither confirm nor deny these rumours, she shrugged and let others make up their minds. The summer was, by now, a distant memory but a slew of words had gained traction in the symposium. She overheard the exaggerated stories about the night her gown had slipped from her shoulders in Eleusis and caused mortal offence. Phryne remembered that day differently. She knew not of impersonation only of personification. When they announced impiety charges against her, the initial reaction was amusement but now the rabid pack stalked her everywhere she went, hungry for a glimpse of her infamous body, to snatch her arm, or drunkenly pinch her flesh. They were determined to make an example of her but as she reasoned, the trial itself could not be worse than that which she had already endured throughout her twenty-five years. Ahead lay a string of sweaty court dates facing an idiot jury and hours wasted waiting in the suffocating heat. Worse still, it could mean the loss of her financial freedom, her independence, even imprisonment. Everything she had worked for to claw her way out of the kitchen and the bathhouses was in jeopardy.
                 ‘Unbearable stifling zoo of Hellas’ she sneers, slamming down her pearl handled brush and ringing her bright obsidian eyes with kohl. ‘They might try me now, but they’ll never see this face up close unless in art.’
                 ‘Have you finished shouting at your reflection, Phryne?’ Myrto gathers Phryne’s elegant purple chiton and lays it out, catching her eye and smiling. ‘You will look your best mistress, that is for sure. And if they permit you to speak, well then, it’s all over.’ Phryne smooths her hair and arranges her belongings, reaching for Myrto’s hand as she passes and squeezing it tight.
                 ‘Thank you, love. I am ready for them.’

It had been some while since Praxiteles had cast her shape in the image of the goddess Aphrodite of Knidos so successfully in marble and pigment. Though he captured nothing (in her opinion) of Phryne’s own wit or cunning mind he created an enduring emblem of femininity which gave her cachet and boosted her social standing. The sessions were sweltering and sensual. At the time Praxiteles was virile and lustful, driven half mad with ambition but torn by his earnest devotion to Phryne. She felt pity that he could not keep his hands off her when his only commission was to create a masterpiece, not to fall hopelessly in love, but she played the game, buffed his edges smooth and ladled charm into his neurotic depths only after a while cringing to note his presence everywhere she strolled, every time she flirted or laughed, watching her at length.

Their friendship and consequent, unavoidable love affair became heavy. Sickened by desire he thought he could control, he raged at this uncontrollable passion but ever the patient educator, she tried to teach him previously unknown tender recesses. Now, he missed the touch of her skin so much he couldn’t think or sleep at night. Overtaken by a new found deep regard for her, he offered his Cupid as a token of his love but she saw his eyes fill when she recoiled.
                 ‘I cannot take this Praxiteles, don’t be absurd’ and she warned him, quite seriously, ‘at your peril, judge my independent ways. Better cast your ideal beauty in a form that keeps you safe Praxiteles, I am only warming up. For my wealth is my beauty plus the knowledge of its worth.’

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The woven pleats conceal her celebrated form. Folds suffused with sweet-scented violet leaves, a sharp neroli tang to mask the hard-won sweat of her last paying guest. She insinuates a clear path through the crowd, uses her full height. Her Stoic frame impenetrable as gold, she circumvents the throng who have come for a glimpse of her lily shining skin and perfectly broad nose and to try to absorb the secret of her hold on the men of taste and standing. They were here to witness the charges of the slander of divinity in place, and she feared the spectacle. Within the agora’s walls, she falls in step with Hypereides, rolls of parchment carried under arm, sandals chafing in the heat and beading sweat upon his brow, and spins him round.
                 ‘Tell me now what my chances are, Hypereides,’ she says, staring into his eyes.
                 ‘Where were you last night?’ He hisses in reply, pulling her close to him. ‘Phryne, this is serious! You may not walk from here so proud! The complication of this case, my dear, is how to measure the offence you’ve caused. Piety is dear to gods and impiety is that which is not. It’s difficult to explain, best left to the experts. We’ll do our damnedest to show the real you, in your divine majesty, lest they condemn to death a prophetess of Aphrodite herself.’ She comes to a decisive halt.
                 ‘And to think I am paying you for this!’ She says, with rising scorn. ‘I might defend myself if I were standing here freeborn!’ She smacks his clammy arm from around her waist and makes her way to the stone bench, fury stamped upon her bloodless face. She imagines for a moment that she stands alone, that it is her right to safeguard her space, her name and honour.

Sweeping an arm across the panorama, she begins with a steady tone and mighty pace.
                 ‘To you and all of Athens, a hetaera I may be (though all of you have lain with me and mine and we have soothed your cries of bodily neglect) but I see those blowsy bitches pass in body hiding peplos, acres of spun silken layers wound and wound around, revealing nothing of themselves! While I open my great mind to those who tangle fists up in my hair. Imagine if you will, littlest Phryne, who now rebuilds walls by her own honest coin. No vote, no land, no inheritance of any kind! How do we support ourselves from homes which only value sons?’ A hush descends as her rich voice pipes into the space.
                 ‘The noble ladies hold their hands, prepare for marriage, friendship, a healthy home. Though these men they call their husbands thirst for eros alone, and the expert sleight of my fair hand upon their thigh, my fine brain entwined with theirs in company. The state sanctions this rampant lust that brings them here to copulate, yet I am called to answer for a trumped-up crime?’ Her arms fall, bracelets clacking as she eyes the solemn men.
                 ‘I am the link between you all. The only one to stand and look you in the eyes in the salon and all society knows it to be true. I am Mnesarete, remember virtue is in me! Can you say the same? You, who seek to turn me to the wall? Mnesarete is my name, not this wretched amphibious title Phryne you gave to me. Yes, it doesn’t suit, my virtue sacked a million moons ago, but I have strengthened my edifices day by day, from within. Since I was a child who barely crawled. You’re all so afraid; you’d rather see me drink a poisoned chalice, collapse dead upon my knees though it is I who imbibed your poison cheerfully for years and survived it well, than to acknowledge the truth. You’d rather I fell than to legitimise my role and function. And yes! My dear Xenocrates, I see you in the back. I don’t hate you for your weakness or your failings as a man. Do you recall my body pressed against you tight as you clasped your rimless eyes? The softest and most yielding of the statues yet’. She laughs bitterly and continues.
                 ‘How they talk of nature’s sin, to make me pay. Make me pay for what exactly? His flaccid display? I’ll admit I sat in bed that night and laughed and laughed, unsheathed my little flute and played a tune to rouse him from his shallow sleep. But I’m here today to defend my honour, tell you I’m not a myth, or a super-witch with stinking reptile hair. I’m not some dumbed down, vulgar siren who can only hum and sway. I’m not defined by my erotic touch, existing solely in these male-created roles we have to play. No, I do not imitate the gods; I merely work here to survive! I use what the Gods have given me. And I shrug it off. All of this sorry pantomime. Before you all today.

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The faces of accusers in the cloying heat swim slower now. A scrabble of urgent hands that seek to pin her down, press themselves into her core, to remind her of her birthright, of repudiated lore. In Phryne’s mystery-head she forages for scraps of love, the truth of womanhood writ large but finds only stinging slaps of disappointment, no different from the fettered confines of her youth. Was she worthy? The secret rites in Eleusis, hibiscus petal in her hand, truth flower placed upon her mouth, rising with her breath, her echoed laugh. Could she ever represent more than just desire? Those gauzy fronds, veins floating under fabric, gossamer-thin. She imagines the tepid breeze once again, the cascade of this same magenta robe beside the shore, the jolt of power she experienced looking back to smile and watch eyes fill with tears. The amazed expressions, enraptured, breathless with the twist-knife of deceit and lust. The beat of the brittle bird wings in the gulf.

Time is in step with the bulbous water clock that drips, drips, drips and records the session for the future yet, chimes a chord she can’t ignore. She knows with certainty that this place will never hear her speak. Hypereides turns as if to comment on her unspoken dialogue, the words she had conceived to defend her supposed crime but which stopped short before she spoke them aloud. He mouths at half speed.
                 ‘Phryne, my sweet Phryne, I know how you feel. In all you suppose you are correct, but you won’t change their minds with anger, even though they know it to be true. You have to let me handle this!’
                 ‘Then, immortalise me here as Kalon kakon, Hypereides, do it now!’ She shouts, ‘a beautiful-evil thing eternally I would rather be, than just to disappear without a trace!’ She thinks of the tedious chit and chat and scolding lessons, the forged connections, the higher learning. How disappointing that the knowledge and pretence was all for nothing.
                 ‘I dismiss these plebeian farmers with their hard and fast ideals of gods and humans and though I wish you would have let me speak, here inside the people’s court, I know they do not represent the likes of me. So do it Hypereides, let my body talk. Let it be my second best defence.’

Hypereides tears off Phryne’s robe theatrically and roars aloud that only Gods could sculpt a body so perfectly divine. The poetry and the drama sustains him and overcome by his own words, by the effect the pièce de résistance of his legal case has on the judge and jury, he allows himself a moment of indulgence at the spectacle. She stands apart, head exalted, wrist across her face. Her elongated neck blue-white and a flower at her throat as red as blood. The beautiful words she owned and wished to speak had dried upon her lips at the pulsing point of breath.

He wanted to make me a goddess on earth, that’s how I seemed to him when we last touched, she thinks.
Her eyes open but hidden, she understands the part she played.
They have my body now in plain sight, but can never reconcile the two halves.

My face belongs to me,
to me alone.