Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Guest Blog by Debra Hamel


You may well be asking yourself just that because the blog you're standing in, Mary Sharratt's Sphinx Rising, is devoted to historical fiction and the strong female protagonists therein. I haven't written any historical fiction, or published any other kind of fiction, for that matter. But Mary thought it mightn't be a terrible thing to include the occasional mention of nonfiction on her blog. So I'm in.

In my book Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece (Yale University Press, 2003; ISBN 0300107633) I tell the story of a woman, Neaira (pronounced "neh-EYE-ruh"), who was put on trial in Athens in the 340's B.C. when she was in her fifties. She had been a high-class prostitute (a "hetaira") earlier in her life, but prostitution was not illegal in Athens and it was not the reason she was tried. Indeed, the offense for which she was hauled into court was not on the face of it a particularly interesting one: the claim was that Neaira was a non-citizen (which was certainly true, and no one was contesting the fact) and that she had broken the law by living with an Athenian citizen as his wife rather than, say, as merely a concubine: marriages between citizens and non-citizens were illegal at the time, while less formal relationships were unproblematic.

But in trying to prove Neaira guilty of the charges against her...or perhaps I should say, in trying to prejudice the jurors against Neaira so that they'd vote against her for some reason, the prosecutor in the case--a certain Apollodoros--wound up dragging into his speech all manner of dirt. Thus we learn about Neaira's early life in a brothel, and about her stint as the sex slave of two joint owners, and it is alleged that Stephanos, the man with whom she supposedly lived as a wife, pimped her out to other men even after she had bought her freedom and settled down with him. We're also told a great deal about Phano, who was either the daughter of Neaira or of Stephanos (or both), and who reportedly followed Neaira's example when it came to behaving licentiously. Apollodoros used all of this back-story to make his case that Neaira was not an Athenian citizen, a charge, as I said above, that no one was denying. When it came to proving his second point, that Neaira had acted as if married to Stephanos, the prosecutor was on far shakier ground.

Apollodoros himself may not have believed that Neaira was guilty of the charge leveled against her. He and Stephanos had been enemies for some time, and part of their feud, at least, had been playing itself out on Athens' legal stage. Stephanos had attacked Apollodoros in court at least twice before, on one occasion actually prosecuting him for murder. In bringing a case against Neaira, an innocent bystander in his feud with Stephanos, Apollodoros was merely seeking vengeance. If she was found guilty by the jurors, so much the better, but harassing Stephanos by making him prepare a defense and by disrupting his home life may have been its own reward.


Blogger Sarah Johnson said...

This is fascinating, Debra. Neaira's story is also sounding very familiar to me. Have you read The Courtesan's Daughter by Priscilla Galloway? It's a young adult novel set in Athens of 350BC - about a young woman, Phano, and her stepmother, Nera, who was a famous courtesan in her day... at least until she met a fellow named Stephanos and settled down with him.

2:01 AM  
Blogger dhamel said...

Seriously?! I'll have to look into it. I've never heard of this. Thanks!

4:48 AM  
Blogger dhamel said...

Well, I'm glad to see, at least, that the book was published in 2002, which is to say after I'd written mine and I was no longer researching all things Neaira. I'm going to order a copy right now. Thanks again!

4:51 AM  
Blogger Sarah Johnson said...

You're welcome! It would be interesting to hear your thoughts after you've read it. I read Courtesan's Daughter several years ago and enjoyed it, and recall the author mentioning that it was based on an ancient court case. I'm going to check out your book, too. Thanks for posting about it!

3:51 PM  
Blogger dhamel said...

And thank you! I don't know when I would have heard of that book without your mentioning it. When I read it I'll post a review, I'm sure, at my book review site: -- probably sooner rather than later since it'll presumably be shortish and I'm curious.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks again, Sarah! I just reviewed Priscilla Galloway's book here:

1:11 AM  
Blogger Sarah Johnson said...

I'm glad that you enjoyed the book! I just pulled my library's copy of Trying Neaira off the shelves (it's the only title we have on ancient Greek law!) and have been reading more about Phano's first marriage, which, as you said, the novel doesn't get into at all. It's been especially interesting to read about the episodes Galloway chose to leave out.

8:03 PM  
Blogger dhamel said...

Thanks, Sarah! I'm glad you're reading it and hope you enjoy it.

I'm reading The Wizard of Oz for the first time, and I'm--in a similar sort of way--finding it interesting to see how the movie differs from the book, what choices they made to make the story tighter, how it worked better or differently.

4:08 PM  

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