Scholia Reviews ns 13 (2004) 1.
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, incl. a detailed chronology, 2 maps, 15 halftones and 2 line illustrations. ISBN 0-300-09431- 0. UKú16.95.
University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg
An energetic and itinerant career as a slave prostitute in a Corinthian brothel run by a notorious madam; an enterprising sex slave of two former customers; freedom bought with the help of lust- struck clients; cohabitation with an Athenian, whom she fleeces, before a dramatic flight to Megara; the mysterious appearance of three children; return to Athens as the consort of a litigious sycophant; marriage and divorce of her daughter with an Athenian citizen; re-marriage of the alleged daughter to the archon basileus (and thus penetration of the elite set), who divorces her; in her fifties, the subject of a celebrated trial, with a murky political background: such is the astonishing life of Neaira, which makes the plot of any contemporary soap-opera (Days of Our Lives) or Spanish film (I have Almodovar in mind) seem pedestrian.
Debra Hamel's entertaining, well-written and sensible account of Neaira's life, heavily indebted to the recent work of Carey and Kapparis,[] attempts to disinter the truth (or as near a version of the truth as is possible) about Neaira from the slander, specious arguments and rhetorical bluster of Apollodorus' speech 'Against Neaira' (Demosthenes 59), delivered in the Athenian courts in the late 340's BCE.
Launching a vengeful counter-suit against Stephanos (Neaira's Athenian partner for at least thirty years) for his two attempts to prosecute Apollodorus, Theomnestos, the son-in-law (and brother-in-law) of the notoriously litigious Apollodorus,[] charged Neaira with being a foreigner living in an illegal marriage relationship with an Athenian citizen. To prove this, Apollodorus focused on Stephanos' treatment of the children: introducing the boys into his phratry (possible only for legitimate citizen sons) and twice marrying off Phano to Athenian citizens, as if she were the legitimate offspring of legally married Athenian parents. To ingratiate himself with the all-male jury and so win his case, Apollodorus felt it necessary to expose the aging Neaira's life to the lurid spotlight: details of her sex-life and that of Phano (her presumed daughter) were paraded before the doubtlessly salivating jury (rather like the leering patriarchs eyeing the naked Phryne on the jacket illustration) with the outrage of a prudish voyeur.
Hamel subjects Apollodorus' arguments to the scalpel of hindsight and convincingly demonstrates that the prosecutor never actually proves the parentage of the children: he identifies them as Neaira's children, born before she had even met Stephanos, but then implies that they were born to Stephanos and Neaira (in their illegal marriage), and definitely not to Stephanos and some other citizen wife (pp. 51f.). Apollodorus' case against Neaira is flimsy in the extreme: proof of the precise relationship between Neaira and Phano (whose career occupies a considerable portion of the speech) is never furnished; consequently, the 'like mother, like daughter' argument is as slippery as his attempts to reproduce a private conversation between Stephanos and Neaira twenty-five years earlier (p. 53). Furthermore, Hamel interrogates Phrastor's alleged reasons for divorcing Phano and suggests, again not unconvincingly, that in his desire to retain the 3000-drachma dowry (which was illegal) he may have simply invented the fact that Phano was not a citizen (p. 85).
Of especial interest in establishing Apollodorus' bias (and rage) against anyone who dared gatecrash Athenian citizenship (let alone its hallowed institutions) is Hamel's brief biography of the prosecutor: Apollodorus was the son of a slave, whose family 'had won Athenian citizenship the old- fashioned way', by spending vast sums of money on liturgies for the polis (p. 136). Like his father (Pasion), Apollodorus had performed trierarchies (at least four times) and had been a choregos (p. 140): no wonder his animus against anyone suspected of creeping into citizenship ranks through the back door. However, Apollodorus was not simply motivated by revenge: in the years after Philip of Macedon's capture and destruction of Olynthus (348 BCE), Demosthenes' Olynthiacs and Stephanos' attempts to get at Apollodorus for his proposal to channel funds from the Theoric Fund into the war effort, it is not difficult to suspect that behind the charges against Neaira lay tension between the various political factions in Athens, wondering how best to deal with the scourge from Macedon (pp. 118- 23; 126-31).
However, Hamel does not simply concentrate on the illogicality of Apollodorus' arguments or on the complex political context of the trial. She explores the wider social and legal background, fleshing out Neaira's extraordinary life with interesting discussions of prostitution, citizenship, slave torture, courtroom procedure and even jury selection in fourth century Athens, which she describes as 'delightfully complicated' (p. 147). Herein lies the strength of Hamel's work: the accessibility of these brief discussions makes the book an ideal introduction to the study of women in antiquity, especially in Classical Civilization courses in which no knowledge of Greek is required.
Hamel provides her own snappy translations of extracts from Apollodorus (and others), attempting to give as accurate a version of the original as possible (for her approach to translating some of the 'Proustian' sentences of Apollodorus, see p. 183, n. 3). She generally writes with great verve and humour, which makes the footnotes interesting reading (and how often can one say that!): her husband is thanked for his familiarity with Dutch prostitution (p. 164, n. 5); she seems to think that some readers may be interested in the 'logistics of mid-trial dicastic excretion' (p. 182, n. 26).
At times, this style (sassy as it undoubtedly is) is simply too trans-Atlantic for an international readership: Phrastor, we are to imagine, is a 'pitchfork-wielding American Gothic kind of fellow' (p. 79); a herm, with one obvious difference, looked like a 'large Pez dispenser' (p. 104); Nikostratos' brothers (involved in shady financial deals with Apollodorus) 'sicced' a young vandal on his rose-beds (p. 138). Whilst the use of 'scofflaws' (p. 12), 'spin' and 'in on the con' (p. 96) is, I suppose, acceptable globalspeak in this epoch of the imperium Americanum, this South African reviewer struggled with the Pez dispenser: what the hell is it? At moments too, Hamel's style results in some loose claims: for instance, that Spartan women 'enjoyed far more freedoms than their counterparts elsewhere in Greece' (p. 14). At what period, and what precisely does 'freedoms' mean? References to the Athenian 'state' (p. 54) is a common inaccuracy.
However, these are minor quibbles. Hamel's work makes a notable contribution to the important process of uncovering the lives of women in antiquity and restoring them to history. We never do know how the prosecution of Neaira ends; if Stephanos lost the case, she ran the risk of re-enslavement and a return to the lifestyle of her youth. Hamel hopes that the jurors' verdict 'left her free to return to her life with Stephanos -- and free, perhaps, to give him hell for involving her in such a mess in the first place' (p. 162). The fact that we have access to the life of a prostitute like Neaira, which has been excavated, in so engaging a manner, from yet another male- produced text, is something to celebrate.
[] C. Carey, Apollodorus Against Neaira: Demosthenes 59 (Warminster 1992); K. Kapparis, Apollodorus 'Against Neaira' D. 59 (Berlin 1999).
[] Theomnestos' sister was married to Apollodorus; their daughter was Theomnestos' wife (and niece). Hamel probes the possible reasons for the fact that Theomnestos, rather than Apollodorus, brings this suit (a graphe xenias) against Neaira (pp. 134f.).