- Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan’s Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece
The modern reader may sometimes wonder whether the elderly woman who appeared before an Athenian court in the late 340s B.C.E. could ever imagine that intimate details of her life would be widely studied and much [End Page 104] discussed in the coming millennia. She stood accused of unlawfully pretending to be the wife of an Athenian man, even though in reality she had been an alien courtesan. If she lost, she would be sold into slavery. Her story has evoked strong emotive reactions even among austere classical scholars, and the saucy details of her life continue to attract vivid interest among undergraduate students in universities around the world. But what is so special about this lady that her life continues to be scrutinized so intensely 2,500 years after her death? Her story is told to us by Apollodoros, her prosecutor. In a remarkable speech, which includes a fascinating narrative that to some degree resembles a novel, he provides not only details of Neaira's life and career as a prostitute but valuable, firsthand information on religion, law, slavery, private life, gender relations, and sexuality. Thus the speech is an invaluable witness to women's lives and the social and cultural history of the ancient world.
Two major studies in recent years have focused on the speech.1 This book by Debra Hamel, as one of its reviewers has noted,2 focuses on Neaira herself. This is not a radically new approach. In the 1930s a great Italian student of ancient Greek law and oratory, Ugo Enrico Paoli, attempted a similar approach, and his study was translated into German but not into English. Even if an English version had appeared, there would be plenty of scope for a new book, as Paoli's work preceded the significant gains of recent scholarship not only on the speech itself but also in the fields of Athenian law, women's studies, gender relations, and private life. Hamel's book has benefited from this research, which makes it a welcome addition to the modern bibliography on the subject. While the book is written in a fluent, simple style that makes it accessible to the student and the layperson, behind it lies a wealth of scholarship and learning. Hamel has benefited from previous studies of the speech to a very considerable degree. Occasionally she proposes thoughtful new interpretations of the facts: she is correct to argue that the reduction of the price of Neaira by Eucrates and Timanoridas was not really so much a favor to her as it was a realistic appraisal of her reduced market value, as she was aging. Hamel may also be correct when she suggests that the two men did not want Neaira to stay in Corinth because they feared that they might feel obliged to support her in her older days.
The reader will find a small number of minor errors. For example, I would take exception to the statement that "the emergence of Greece as a united nation awaited the Greek War of Independence in the early nineteenth century" (x). The reason is that it is based on modern perceptions of nationhood and statehood, and, with regard to the long history of the Greek nation, to apply such concepts to past times would be an anachronism. The Congress of Corinth (338-337 B.C.) set out a constitutional frame for the unification of the Greek world and effectively [End Page 105] ended its political fragmentation. After that, in the course of two millennia the Greek world went through many political ups and downs but retained a strong sense of its identity and heritage.
It would be unfair to speak of omissions in the bibliography, because with a subject like this the relevant literature can be expanded exponentially. Hamel simply had to compile a sensible and balanced list, which she has done admirably well. However, sometimes an omission...