Trying Neaira

The True Story of a Courtesan’s Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece

Debra Hamel

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Neaira grew up in a Corinthian brothel in the fourth century B.C. and became one of the city-state’s priciest courtesans while yet a teenager. In her twenties she served as the sex slave of two former clients and endured an abusive relationship with an unsavory Athenian. Finally she met Stephanos, an Athenian citizen with whom she lived for the next thirty years.

Neaira’s life with Stephanos was riddled with lawsuits. In the 340s Neaira was dragged into court and charged with transgressing Athens’ marriage laws. During the trial, zealous prosecutors dredged up the most sordid details of her life. The stakes in the case were high; Neaira’s freedom lay in the jurors’ hands.

The details of Neaira’s life are known because the speech delivered in court by her prosecutor has survived. Here, with a more sympathetic eye toward the protagonist, Debra Hamel explains the historical, legal, and cultural context of the trial. In reconstructing the facts of Neaira’s life, this book illuminates the social world of ancient Greece.

Debra Hamel is the author of Athenian Generals: Military Authority in the Classical Period. She lives in Connecticut.

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“Debra Hamel has written a marvelous account of a fascinating series of events in the life of a Greek woman of the fourth century B.C. She tells the tale with clarity and verve and, along the way, she teaches the reader a vast amount about Athenian society in the most interesting and entertaining way.”—Donald Kagan, Yale University

“This clearly written, entertaining, and well-informed book is a wonderful means of entering the world of fourth-century Athens.”—Mary R. Lefkowitz, Wellesley College

“The subject matter of Trying Neaira suggests a supermarket tabloid—prominent politicians and their favorite hookers; but in fact this book is a richly informative, exuberant short course in the politics, legal system, and social mores of Athens in the fourth century B.C. The prose is elegant and deliciously ironic, the scholarship fastidious and up-to-date.”—Victor Bers, Department of Classics, Yale University"Describing, challenging, and fleshing out the text, the scholar sends the reader on a tour of Greek culture and custom linked to the case and the feud."—Nina C. Ayoub, Chronicle of Higher Education

"A charmingly written, nicely illustrated, and generally convincing analysis of the lurid Athenian speech Against Neaira. . . . Hamel’s account is engaging, accessible to nonexperts, and useful for courses on Athenian society. . . . Recommended."—Choice

"[Trying Neaira] is an extraordinary tale, with more than an echo of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, and Hamel, unusually for a classicist, is not afraid of a good narrative."—Tom Holland, Daily Telegraph

"A lively social history of the time and place."—H.J. Kirchhoff, Globe and Mail

“In the future, this work will be a part of reading lists for courses on the Greek orators. . . . Including comprehensive descriptions of the trial process and the role of the jury in Athens’s court system. Any scholar will enjoy this well-documented work. Recommended for upper division undergraduate and graduate students.”—Library Journal

“Witty and easy to read. . . . Hamel approaches Neaira’s life . . . as a detective would, piecing together bits, shifting out obvious falsehoods, and in the end presenting a surprising full picture of one woman’s life. This is an excellent book for anyone who is, or who is NOT, interested in ancient Athenian law.”—Gypsi Phillips Bates, Midwest Book Review

"Hamel’s treatment of this complicated story is outstanding not only for its comprehensive (yet remarkably concise) presentation of the social and historical context of fourth-century Athens, but also, perhaps supremely, for its tact. . . . Hamel responds to the same injustices as a historian, presenting them clearly and with a minimum of expressed judgment. . . . Hamel demolishes Apollodoros’s case with objectivity and rigor."—Ingrid D. Rowland, New Republic

“[An] entertaining, well-written and sensible account of Neaira’s life. . . . Hamel’s work makes a notable contribution to the important process of uncovering the lives of women in antiquity and restoring them to history. . . . The fact that we have access to the life of a prostitute like Neaira, which has been excavated, in so engaging a manner, from yet another male-produced text, is something to celebrate.”—Michael Lambert, Scholia Reviews

"As told by Debra Hamel, this true-life story offers an extraordinary window on a civilization that wasn’t half so rarefied in its interests or affections as we tend to assume."—The Scotsman (Books in Brief)

"Hamel's book follows this complex character and brings her to life. I would recommend it especially for students and nonclassicists. Not only is it very fluent and pleasant reading, but it also exposes its readers to reliable scholarship."—Konstantinos Kapparis, Journal of the History of Sexuality



ISBN: 9780300094312
Publication Date: February 8, 2003
224 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4
15 b/w illus.