For today’s courtesan, we’re stepping back 2,500 years, to the hetaera Phryne of classical Athens. The hetaerae were independent, educated and shrewd at a time that wives were kept confined and ignorant.
Phryne apparently tailored her fees to her client, charging very high prices to some, and giving herself to the philosopher Diogenes free of charge, because she admired his intellect.
She became so wealthy at her profession that she offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes after Alexander the Great destroyed them. Her only condition was that they be inscribed ‘Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan’. This was a step too far for the city government, however.
She ran afoul of her own city government — they did not like wealthy independent women. And they had their chance to put this one in her place when she stripped naked as an offering to the god Poseidon during a festival. She was put on trial for blasphemy, the punishment for which was death. Things were looking grim when her lawyer stripped off her gown. “How could a festival in honour of the gods be desecrated by beauty they themselves bestowed,” he said.
It worked. Rather than offend the goddess Aphrodite, the judges acquitted the courtesan, prompting this letter to her lawyer from one of her friends:
We courtesans are grateful to you, and each one of us is just as grateful as Phryne. The suit, to be sure…involved Phryne alone, but it meant danger for us all, for…if we…face prosecution for impiety, it’s better for us to have done with this way of living…you have not merely saved a good mistress for yourself, but have put the rest of us in a mood to reward you on her account.