Trying Neaira:
The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece

Debra Hamel

Yale University Press 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
Neaira grew up as a slave in a Corinthian brothel, but became a leading courtesan and bought out her freedom; she spent most of her life in Athens, eventually settling into a stable relationship with an Athenian citizen, Stephanos. Around 340 BC, when in her 50s, she was prosecuted as part of a feud between Stephanos and Apollodoros — and we know about her only through the latter's speech Against Neaira (attributed to Demosthenes).

Using this rather biased source and incidental evidence in others, Debra Hamel has written what is effectively a biography of Neaira. Though not as salacious as the subtitle might suggest, it is a lively account, staying close to its subject and the feud in which she was caught up. Hamel does speculate about the details of Neaira's life in places, but always makes it clear when she's doing so.

Woven into this story are explorations of classical Athenian society. Hamel explains the background to Neaira's status — she was prosecuted for having illegally married a citizen — the marriages of Stephanos' daughter, and other aspects of their family life. And she gives an outline of the Athenian legal system and the workings of its courts and juries. Some things seem rather foreign — anal penetration with a radish as a punishment for adultery?! — but others seem startlingly modern — the use of the legal system to further political ends, for example. None of this social history is dumped on the reader in the abstract: it is always given substance through its connection to the central story.

Trying Neaira is written for the non-specialist — no knowledge at all of Greek history or literature is assumed — but endnotes provide references for the cognoscenti. It's a lot of fun to read, but Hamel's biggest service is in providing a radically different entry point to classical Athens, one that doesn't involve triremes or tragedies.

October 2004

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%T Trying Neaira
%S The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece
%A Hamel, Debra
%I Yale University Press
%D 2003
%O hardcover, references, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0300094310
%P 200pp