Neaira (hetaera)

Neaira (hetaera)
Born 4th century BC
Died 4th century BC
Occupation Hetaera

Neaira, or Neaera, (pronounced "neh-EYE-ruh") (Νέαιρα ) was a hetaera who lived in the 4th century BC in ancient Greece; there is no reliable data about the exact dates of her birth and death. She was brought to trial in the mid-fourth century, and the prosecution speech from that trial (Demosthenes 59 Against Neaira) provides a great deal of information about the life of Neaira and the sex trade in the ancient Greek city-states (poleis). More is known today about Neaira than any other prostitute of antiquity.[1]

A man and a hetaera (a money purse hangs on the wall, describing the nature of the transaction) in sexual intercourse; inside an earthenware bowl by the Wedding Painter; private collection, Munich (around 480–470 BC)



Early years

Neaira was probably born around the year 400 B.C. Her heredity is uncertain; perhaps she was an abandoned child or from an outlying area of Greece, such as Thrace. Around 390 BC she was purchased by Nikarete, a madam from Corinth. Nikarete operated a "better" establishment in Corinth, a city famous in antiquity for its flourishing prostitution trade. From the name Corinth comes the ancient Greek verb korinthiazein, which means "to fornicate".

Nikarete called Neaira and the other prostitutes who worked for her her "daughters" and provided for their training as prostitutes. Through this "parental" relationship Nikarete sought to increase the price her customers had to pay: it was usual for free women to demand higher prices for their services.[2]

Several girls of different ages lived in the brothel besides Neaira: Metaneira, Anteia, Stratola, Aristokleia, Phila, and Isthnias. They were probably all very prominent in their time. Several dramas were dedicated to Anteia at the time, and the poet Philetairos mentions three of Nikaretes's girls (Neaira, Phila, and Isthmias) in his work The Huntress. Customers belonged to the upper class, for the most part. Sometimes they came from beyond Corinth - the city owed its status as a commercial center to its location on an isthmus. Notable customers included politicians, athletes, philosophers, and well-known poets, among them the poet Xenokeides and the actor Hipparchos.[3]

The orator Lysias was a prominent guest in Nikarete's brothel and a regular customer of Metaneira. To show his appreciation to Nikarete and his mistress, Lysias paid for a trip to Eleusis in the mid-380s, where they were initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries at his expense. Lysias and Metaneira were accompanied not only by Nikarete, but also by Neaira. It was probably Neaira's first stay in Athens.[4]

In 378 BC, Neaira again went to the city, this time to the Panathenaic Games, where she was in the company of her madam and regular customer Simos of Thessaly. Simos belonged to the important Aleuadei family of Thessaly and would have been very famous in middle 4th-century BC, but nothing more of his status or the journey can really be said.[5]

As the relationships of Metaneira to Lysias and Neaira to Simos show, the relationships of Nikaretes's hetaerai did not have to be only for quick pleasure, but could become long-term relationships. Nevertheless, one cannot rank them among the highest class of prostitutes, since, as slaves, they did not have any freedom of choice regarding their customers.

Between brothel and freedom

The most lucrative years for Nikarete's girls were the years between puberty and their third decade, after which their attractiveness to potential customers began to decline. Therefore it was probably not inconvenient to Nikarete when Timanoridas of Corinth and Eukrates of Lefkada purchased Neaira in 376 BC on a journey to Athens. They were probably both regular customers of Neaira, and found that it would be cheaper in the long term to buy Neaira outright, even if it should cost a large amount.[6]

Nikarete demanded no less than 3,000 drachma (five to ten times the price of a skilled craftsman slave, and five to six times the annual income of a laborer). Although both were stretched to their financial limits, the transaction was completed. Neaira now had two owners who could deal with her as they pleased. This practice was far from unusual and is cited in several sources of antiquity.[6]

After about one or two years, one of the two (or both) wanted to marry. It was expensive to maintain a hetaera, so a solution had to be found. The three came to an agreement that Neaira could buy her freedom for 2,000 drachma, if she left Corinth forever. With the help of former customers, and above all a man named Phrynion, she raised the money and bought her freedom. She went with Phrynion to his hometown of Athens, where the couple lived together for some time.[7]

Phrynion was a playboy and regularly included Neaira in his debauchery, as Apollodoros describes. He is even said to have had sex with Neaira in public, which in ancient Greece and even open-minded circles was not the done thing. A banquet with the Athenian general Chabrias in the late summer of 374 B.C., which celebrated his victory in the Pythian Games, is described in great detail. During the celebration Neaira was said to have drunk herself into unconsciousness, so that in her drunken condition many of the guests and even slaves had sex with her.[8]

Life with Stephanos

After the Battle of Leuctra, which shifted the balance of power in Greece to Thebes over Sparta, the Athenian Stephanos came to Megara and remained as a houseguest of Neaira's. The two started an affair and apparently fell in love with one another. It is also possible that Neaira wasn't in love, but preferred the security of Stephanos to her otherwise uncertain and unsteady life. Since the Battle of Leuctra the situation in Megara hadn't improved, so she went with Stephanos back to Athens. It is believed that Stephanos also acted as a guardian against Phrynion.[9]

It is interesting to note that only now, when leaving Megara for Athens, does Apollodoros mention that Neaira took three children with her: two sons, Proxenos and Ariston, as well as a daughter named Strybele, who was called Phano later in life. Apollodoros states further that Phano also became a hetaera. Allegedly, Neaira had to provide for Stephanos after moving to Athens as a hetaera. However these statements aren't very reliable, and Apollodoros doesn't offer proof for them.[10]

Next there was the problem of Phrynion. When he realized Neaira was in Athens, he tried to drag her away from Stephanos's house with the help of several of his friends. Such an action meant that he wanted to make his right and power clear as a master of a slave. Afterwards, Stephanos brought a suit against Phrynion, which was answered by a counter-suit. Thus the status of Neaira was to be clarified in court.[11]

Ultimately, however, the case never came to court. Both sides agree to have the case decided by private arbitration. The result was, as in many such conciliation procedures, a compromise with which both Phrynion and Stephanos could live; Neaira had no choice in the matter anyway. It was stated that she wasn't a slave but a freedman. She had to return everything besides clothes, accessories, and self-purchased slaves that she had taken from Phrynion's house. In addition, she would remain in the sexual domain of both men. In each case, the man with whom she lived would be responsible for her living costs. How long this agreement was honored is unclear, because Phrynion isn't mentioned again in our sources.[12]

Events surrounding Phano

As Apollodoros would later state, Phano was Neaira's daughter by blood. More than ten years after the aforementioned events, Phano would marry for the first time. Her husband was an Athenian named Phrastor. The marriage didn't go well, and they divorced after about a year, when Phano was pregnant. Phrastor indicated that the reason for the divorce came when he discovered that Phano wasn't the daughter of Stephanos and his first wife, but of Neaira. This posed a problem because marriages between Athenians and non-Athenians weren't permitted. Another possible factor is that Phano may not have deferred to him as much as he believed he deserved, and may not have embodied the ideal Athenian housewife in her husband's mind.[13]

What followed was a complicated matter. Because Phrastor wouldn't pay back Phano's 3,000-drachma dowry, Stephanos sued him. Phrastor filed a counter-suit, in which he accused Stephanos of having given him in marriage a non-Athenian wife. Since the Athenian jurisdiction fell to the hands of layman judges (heliastes), the chance of rhetoric causing a miscarriage of justice always existed. This circumstance allowed Stephanos to withdraw his complaint, which Phrastor was glad for. There was more than just 3,000 drachma on the line for Stephanos; his citizen and civil rights were at risk, wherein Phano could have been denied her status as a citizen.[14]

Shortly after this episode, Phrastor became seriously ill. Phano and Neaira maintained their relationship despite everything, but probably not without ulterior motive. While sick, Phrastor recognized Phano's son as their legitimate child and legal heir.[15]

In the mid- or late-350 BCs Stephanos brought another affair before the court. He surprised a guest of the family - Epainetos of Andros, an alleged former client of Neaira's - while he was having sex with Phano. As the head and protector of those within the household, Stephanos had the right to punish Epainetos, even so far as to kill him. But he demanded only 3,000 drachmas in damages, and Epainetos was shrewd enough to deal for two conditions.[16]

As soon as he was free, Epainetos sued Stephanos for allegedly unjustified capture. In addition, he would be cleared as a moichós (a marriage crusher, or sexual criminal). He maintained that Phano was a prostitute and that Stephanos's house was a brothel (and therefore that he was not chargeable as a moichos). All of these statements were pretty weak, since Epainetos could hardly have found witnesses to stand before the court and discredit Phano. Nevertheless, the jury possibly would have assumed that a girl in the house of the notorious Neaira must also be a hetaera.[17]

Once again, Stephanos relinquished his right and thus the 3,000 drachma. If he had exercised his right and landed the affair before a court, where Phano's promiscuity could not be concealed - the chances of a second, respectable marriage for the young woman would have sunk considerably. In a conciliation procedure Stephanos was nevertheless awarded an amount of 1,000 drachmas. Phano was briefly in a prestigious marriage a second time, but it did not go well.[18]

The trials

Stephanos dealt with more than just marital problems: he was a politically active man and often involved himself in such proceedings. The previously mentioned Apollodoros, one of the richest Athenians of this time, developed into one of Stephanos's greatest rivals. Stephanos had faced Apollodoros several times in court, and had dealt him some painful defeats.

Between 343 and 340 BC, Theomnestes produced a civil complaint (xenías graphs) on behalf of Apollodoros against Neaira, which involved Stephanos. According to these accusations, Neaira was unjustly married to Stephanos, and their children had become Athenian citizens illegally. Apollodoros brought the prosecution, trying to prove Neaira a total fraud. From the beginning it was openly stated that this really only concerned revenge against Stephanos. Complaints against third, indifferent parties such as Neaira were considered legitimate.

Apollodoros laid out Neaira's life history in detail and emphasized its alleged depravity. Accordingly, he only half-heartedly tried to prove that all of Stephanos's children were actually Neaira's alone rather than Stephanos's by another woman. Stephanos, Apollodoros claimed, had violated the law which forbade marriage to a non-Athenian woman.

Today only the prosecution's speech and not the result of the trial are known. Available sources report nothing of the final fate of the most important participants. Athenian culture did not permit Neaira to speak in court, even though her defeat would probably have resulted in renewed slavery. Besides that, the legal status of the children would have become uncertain.


Although no other prostitute of antiquity is as well documented, Neaira is in our contemporary consciousness less than, for example, Lais, Thaïs, or Phryne. The indictment of Neaira offers a key source to historians about Athenian social history and the history of women in Greece. Traditionally Apollodoros' speech against Neaira has been attributed to Demosthenes: the speech appears in the Demosthenic corpus as speech 59 Against Neaira, although Apollodoros is now accepted as the true author of the speech.

The true nature of the hetaera can't be totally reconstructed from these sources; Neaira served several parties' interests during the trial and placed herself in the background. None of the authors - at the very least Apollodoros - are seriously interested in characterizing a woman of ill repute; and then only when something of note happens that will support the accusation, not for the purpose of objective representation.

In the last few years, the trial and life of Neaira have become frequent topics of scrutiny. Debra Hamel wrote a monograph in 2003 to this extent. It and the trial were translated into German by Kai Brodersen. There is also an excellent commentary on the speech by K.A. Kapparis. Likenesses and later representations of Neaira have not survived.

See also


  1. ^ The article on this page is based, unless otherwise noted, on Debra Hamel, Der Fall Neaira. Die wahre Geschichte einer Hetäre im antiken Griechenland, Primus-Verlag, Darmstadt 2004, ISBN 3-89678-255-X. (Some corrections for accuracy have been made to the article by the author of that book, which appeared originally in English as Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece, Yale University Press, 2003, ISBN 0300107633.)
  2. ^ about Nikarete and her brothel: Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,18 & 19
  3. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,19; Athenaios, Deipnosophisten 13 567c & 586e
  4. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,22 & 23
  5. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,24
  6. ^ a b Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,30
  7. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,30–32
  8. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,33
  9. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,37.
  10. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,38 & 119.
  11. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,40.
  12. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,46–48.
  13. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,50
  14. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,50–53
  15. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,55–59
  16. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,64–66
  17. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,67
  18. ^ Pseudo-Demosthenes 59,69–71


  • Athenaios 13,593f.–594a
  • Pseudo-Demosthenes or. 59
    German translation in: Kai Brodersen: Antiphon, Gegen die Stiefmutter, and Apollodoros: Gegen Neaira (Demosthenes 59). Frauen vor Gericht. Wiss. Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2004 (Texte zur Forschung, 84), ISBN 3-534-17997-8.
  • James N. Davidson: Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. London 1997.
  • Debra Hamel. (2003) Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10763-3.
  • Konstantinos A. Kapparis (1999). Apollodoros Against Neaira. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016390-X. (Text, English Translation, Commentary)
This article incorporates information from the German Wikipedia.

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