The crew of a ship sailing the Mediterranean of the classical times (5th century B.C.) about to dock into Corinth would first feel the dry heat radiating from the sun-baked stones of the city. Then they would be taken by the exotic smells; they would pass the gates where the sea winds filled themselves with the smells of the salted pork from Italy, the cheese from Sicily, the dried Black Sea fish, the incense from Arabia and the figs from Asia Minor.

Corinth was a haven for sailors who meant to escape the dangers of the capes of the Peloponese. Its harbor of Lechaio, facing both the Aegean and Ionian seas was the perfect pit stop and crossroads between East and West, which were intertwined within "Corinth the Opulent" and its festive, wealthy atmosphere.

Between the halls which sold the wheat of Egypt, the metals of the Black Sea and the woods from Macedonia, another profitable trade was housed—the slave market. People from all walks of life and origins ended up there. A few were learned men, sold into slavery after their polis lost a war, who would be bought to do some form of clerical work at the service of a wealthy landowner, or maybe to tutor his children. A majority would end up in the galleys and become unwilling pirates. Some had been captured, sold and bought back into the same trade several times. But these considered themselves lucky, because the unlucky would go replace their peers who had died of exhaustion in the mines.

Nicarete

This is where Neaira's story starts. There is no record of where she came from or who her parents were. What is known is that she was approximately five years old when she was bought for 50 drachmas by Nicarete, an experienced madame and a talented teacher. She was renowned for her skill in finding which infants would grow up into beautiful women, as well as her adroit patronage over the girls she bought, whom she educated into skilled prostitutes. However, she probably did not intend for her new acquisition to have one of the most extraordinary lives of her era.

Nicarete's slaves were expected to earn back the money invested into them before the age of seven; beautiful little Neaira was exposed to things which a five year old should never be exposed to, but she was also exposed to things to which men of the time would not let women learn. Courtesans were given an education, which was needed in order to appeal to their upper class clientele. They would provide what most men really seek in prostitution: an understanding ear. They were taught dancing, singing, posture, and other disciplines which would help to seduce clients, which is a far cry from the description of a perfect classical Greek bride, who is kept under extreme surveillance, kept away even from the sun, so that she could "see, hear and ask for practically nothing" up until her wedding. Courtesans had to be more entertaining than a wife. they wore make-up, had artistic skills, could hold a conversation, and they were anything but innocent. The difference is what made them so exciting.

Another thing which Nicarete taught to her girls was to care for nothing but money. Beauty or gruesomness, let alone love or hate, were not factors. By the age of ten Neaira had fully understood those rules. Instead of hollering at the sailors in the harbor in tawdry makeup and lewd clothing like most Corinthian prostitutes, she cooly navigated the social network that had been built for her, calculation presiding over her relations with the men of the Corinthian elite. By the time she was twelve her renown had spread beyond Corinth and she was visited by famous people, notably from Athens, who leased her (quite literally, by signing a lease with her owner Nicarete) for the duration of trips accross the Mediterranean, and she started to cultivate a faithful clientele from every corner of what was, at the time, the world.

Timanoridas and Eucrates

Riding the wave of her popularity, Neaira drove her already very high prices to unaffordable levels. What originally seemed like an overpresumptuous, damaging move was really the smartest decision of her career, but it is unknown whether this was voluntary or accidental. Her prohibitive rates incited two of her faithful clients, Timanoridas and Eucrates, to pool their resources together and buy her from Nicarete for the considerable sum of three thousand drachmas. To them, it meant enjoying Neaira for less money, but to Neaira, it meant what she'd anticipated for years: freedom from her owner Nicarete.

This ménage à trois/co-ownership arrangement worked flawlessly until Timanoridas got engaged to marry—with a free bride from a citizen family, of course—and decided to stop paying for a concubine. Eucrates might have wanted to buy back Timanoridas' half of Neaira, but instead she convinced them to allow her to buy herself back, thus earning her freedom, something which was very rarely allowed to slaves.

She contacted her former clients and got them to contribute money to this cause, notably Phrynion, an Athenian citizen who was famous for being a viveur. He acted as an intermediary for her, since women were not allowed to make financial transactions. With the contributions from Neaira's vast and wealthy clientele, and her most likely weighty savings, she was able to pay back the 3,000 she had been bought for, and thus buy her freedom. After Phrynion had helped her with the transaction, she accompanied him on his journey home to Athens.

Phyrnion

Prostitution was a legitimate, thriving business in Athens. Any free man could wander in one of the well advertized brothels in the city. There, half naked slave girls lay on the floor in lascivious postures which emphasized their best traits, and the citizen could choose any of them. However, Neaira was past that. She was no longer a porne but a hetaira, Phyrnion's concubine, who lived with him and went with him to parties and dinners.

As always, Neaira's skill in creating and navigating social networks was put to good use, as she made herself a central member of Phyrnion's circle of rich, debauched drinking buddies, whose parties almost always degenerated into wild orgies. Neaira initiated most of these orgies and made sure she was at the center of them, in order to cement her central role in Phyrnion's social circle, which quickly became her social circle, of which Phyrnion was merely one of the more important components.

Meanwhile, she grew more demanding of Phyrnion and her taste got more expensive than ever. She wanted to run his household completely, and required more and more expensive gifts from him and other clients. She thought that once she could dominate Phyrnion and his household then she would be free of any constraints. However, Phyrnion, though deeply enamoured with Neaira, was reluctant to let her run her life. One day she must have decided that Phyrnion had not only become an unimportant member of her circle, but also an expendable one.

Stephanos

What she did was unbelievably daring: she left Phyrnion. She didn't abstain from looting his house of every piece of clothing, jewellery and furniture, and taking her two maids and the three children who were the consequence of her career, Proxenos and Ariston, boys, and Phano, a girl.

She could not stay in Athens without a patron, and could not return to Corinth for fear of becoming a slave again, so she headed for the nearby polis of Megara. Her plan was to set up shop on her own but she quickly found that it was impossible, simply because women had no civic rights in Greece, forbidden to even walk in broad daylight except during religious ceremonies. Also, while Athens and Corinth were among the most powerful and opulent cities of the world at the time, Megara would be reminiscent to the modern reader of Puritan settlements in 18th Century North America. Even though trade went well and the city certainly wasn't poor, the local upper class was more keen on keeping their gold locked away in some chest than on spending it on lavish parties and newly-arrived Athenian whores, especially one with such expensive tastes as Neaira's. She had grown accustomed to the highest levels of wealth known in the Meditteranean and in Megara she could only earn enough to run her business hand to mouth. It was Paris Hilton meets The Simple Life. But her precarious standing in Megara jeopardized something much more important than her expensive lifestlye, and that was the freedom she tried to gain by leaving Athens.

Escape, as always, came in the form of a client, by the name of Stephanos. He was not particularly rich or handsome; he was a widower, thus unattached, but one factor above all pleaded in his favor: his Athenian citizenship. She promptly seduced him, made a lover and a confident out of him, and began to hatch a plan which would allow her not only to return to Athens and her previous wealth, but to win her freedom at last.

Stephanos took Neaira back to Athens, and let her set up her bordello in a wing of his house. At the same time, the two got married. This had many obvious legal advantages for Neaira: she now had the legal standing of a citizen's wife, and not of a concubine; more importantly, her three children became part of Stephanos' family, theoretically affording citizenship to her two boys once they reached adulthood, thus fullfilling her dream of climbing to the top of the social ladder of Ancient Greece.

Perhaps most importantly to him, Stephanos' marriage with Neaira also allowed them to set up a much more lucrative wing of her business: a scam. The ploy is classic, since Neaira's teacher Nicarete used it back in Corinth, but it is effective. Neaira would seduce a man, most likely a visiting foreign businessman. He would think he is only sleeping with a prostitute, if it weren't for Stephanos, who would catch them at the most innoportune time of their transaction and reveal that the prostitute is in fact a married woman and that the unfortunate traveller is therefore guilty of the very serious crime of adultery. According to Athens' literally draconian laws, a husband who catches adulterers in the act is allowed to kill them. But after a few minutes the offended husband's anger would subside and as the foreign traveller realised he could be tied up in Athens by a lengthy and damaging lawsuit, the two would reach a profitable agreement—profitable for the happy couple, obviously.

Neaira's veritable obsession with elevating her children to freedom and citizenship did not stop with having them included in Stephanos's estate. She wanted her daughter Phano, who was excelling at her mother's trade, to marry an Athenian citizen, preferably a nobleman. A first attempt to marry Phano with a regular citizen had failed dismally. The girl had inherited her mother's excesses. Her husband, Phrastor, was a relatively well-off landowner who wanted nothing but a quiet life in the country with a quiet wife. Meanwhile, all that Phano could think of was spending her husband's money to support the extravagant lifestyle she had grown accustomed to, and generally acting much too independently for any reasonable Athenian lady. After Phrastor learned of Phano's original lifestyle he sued Stephanos and the wedding was quickly annulled for fear of a scandal. But meanwhile Neaira's hunger for power, wealth, safety—all synonymous with freedom in her mind—grew grossly disproportionate.

Stephanos knew a young noble heir named Theogenes, and Neaira had him build a frienship with him to the point where Stephanos became Theogenes' paredros, a kind of adviser. His noble lineage made Theogenes eligible for the position of Archon of Athens. In the days of the aristocratic regime, the Archon was the King of the city, but even in democratic Athens the post of Archon held tremendous prestige, notably because of the religious prerogatives attached to it. As Theogenes was campaigning for the position, Neaira tried through Stephanos to arrange a marriage between him and her daughter. An Archon's wife had religious duties which wrre as central to the Athenian life as her husband's. She had to be an Athenian-born and a virgin—Phano was neither, but Neaira didn't let that stop her.

Theogenes trusted his friend Stephanos too much and married Phano little after being elected Archon. Public scrutiny however quickly revealed the truth and scandal broke out like a wildfire: the wife of Athens' new Archon, the city's spiritual leader, turned out to be a foreigner and a prostitute, the daughter of famous courtesan and madam Neaira no less! Determining which of these two offenses was worse to the Athenians will be left as an excercise to the reader, but they both amounted to the same thing: two things which were intrinsically meant to be kept outside of the city had swindled their way into its very core. To the Athenians, the purpose of the city was to build a cosmos, an organized, ordered whole: a social, political and religious order. And through her manipulative actions, Neaira had perverted it.

Appolodoros

Young prosecutor and aspiring politician Appolodoros seized the wonderful opportunity for publicity that the scandal entailed. Instead of Theogenes, who had quickly proclaimed his ignorance of Phano's real life and repudiated her before resigning from his post as Archon, he went after the mastermind, Neaira—or rather her husband Stephanos, since women didn't have legal personality and thus could not face trial. He sued him not for marrying a prostitute, since prostitution wasn't particularly ill-regarded in Ancient Greece, but for marrying an alien, which was a much more serious offense.

Without the high profile lawsuit, the modern world would never have known about Neaira's extraordinary life trajectory, since the only source we have on her is the transcript of Appolodoros' closing argument. The young orator unsurprisingly took a stand for maintaining Athenian law and order, drawing a stark contrast between the outrageous lifestlye of the aging Neaira—she was in her fifties at this point—and the blessedly quiet and submissive wives and daughters of the all-male jury, who must have salivated profusely at Appolodoros' lengthy, detailed descriptions of Neaira's sexual excesses.

Neaira had one of the most atypical lives of her time. A child sex slave, her entire life was centered on her obsession to acquire freedom, for her or her children. It was a life of tremendous pride and excess, but also a passionless life. Her mind was always cold, calculating: she'd never learned about warmth, when sex was her business. She'd never known love, even as she used it to gain control.

Her unique story ends on a mystery: we have Appolodoros' closing argument, but we don't have the verdict. It's up to the reader to decide whether Stephanos was condemned and, more importantly, what happened to Neaira. If Stephanos lost the case, she ran the risk of re-enslavement and a return to the lifestyle of her youth. But the verdict may also have left her free to return to her life with Stephanos, from which—who knows—she could have hatched a more successful plan to gain freedom for her children. Just like her origins are shrouded in mystery, so is the end of her life. Neaira emerged from the shadows of history to forge her unique path through life, and she retreated back to them before the end, when all possibilities were open.

 

Sources:
  • Jacques Mazel, Les Métamorphoses d'Éros : l'amour dans la Grèce antique
  • Appolodoros, Against Neaira

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