Saturday, April 08, 2006

Guest Blog by Debra Hamel


I wrote Trying Neaira because I wanted to introduce readers who are not familiar with the ancient world to some of the more interesting aspects of classical Greek, and especially Athenian, society. I use the case of Neaira as a prism through which to view her world. Neaira's story is particularly suited to this task. In part, frankly, that's just because a relatively large amount of information about her survives, but it's also because her life story, as interesting as it is, touches on so many topics--the role of women in Greece at the time, the sex trade, religious practices, inheritance and citizenship issues, and the peculiarities of Greek law. Lest you think that the last is a dry subject, know that the "peculiarities" to which I refer include the right of an aggrieved husband to introduce a large radish into the anus of his wife's paramour should he come upon the two in flagrante delicto. Seriously.

Thus, unpacking Neaira's life proves very illuminating.

Relatively illuminating, at least. Because in telling Neaira's story I was of course limited by the source material I had to work with.

Before I got the idea for a book about Neaira I'd had it in mind that I'd like to write a popular history on some Greek subject. But I had pretty much despaired of ever doing so. I've read some wonderful popular history set in more recent periods--Eric Jager's The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France springs to mind as an excellent example of the genre. But historians and authors writing these slices of relatively modern social history have much more evidence to go on, usually, than ancient historians have. Medievalists, for heaven's sake, sometimes have lengthy private letters to work with! So, lacking that kind of source material, I figured I would never be able to write such a book myself. One day, though, with thoughts of popular histories still haunting the back of my mind, I had one of the few lightbulb moments of my life. I was reading a blurb on the back of a book--someone commenting on how interesting social history was being written about trials--and it hit me at once that the case against Neaira might just be able to sustain a book-length narrative, given that one would have to explain a good deal of background information in order to tell Neaira's story to a non-specialist audience. I started working on the book the next day.

While we know far more about Neaira than about most ancient Greek women, the infomation we have is stll quite limited. As the above summary of my book (see Part I: WHO AM I AND WHY AM I HERE?)suggests, the speech that the prosecutor in Neaira's case,Apollodoros, delivered against her in court survives. Unfortunately we do not have the defense speech, which Stephanos (Neaira's Significant Other) will have delivered on Neaira's behalf. Naturally I used other sources in writing my book to round out my account, to provide the social, legal, and historical context of Neaira's story. But apart from scattered references in other sources, nothing terribly detailed, our main source of information about Neaira's life is the text of Apollodorus' speech, an undeniably biased document.

The hardest part about writing Trying Neaira was trying to wrestle the truth from Apollodorus' speech. This is made difficult not only because we don't have access to Stephanos' counter-arguments, but also because the logistics of Athenian trials gave Apollodorus a lot of wiggle room when it came to telling the truth. Neaira's case will have been heard in a single day by a jury of some 501 Athenian male citizens. There was no professional judge overseeing the case, no debate among the jurors prior to giving their verdict, no review of the evidence presented. Jurors processed information about the accused at the speed of speech. Thus litigants who could make an argument sound good for the duration of a day's trial--whether or not that argument could stand up to scrutiny upon reconsideration--were at an advantage. Apollodorus was a litigious man with a lot of experience in courtroom speaking. Many of his arguments in fact don't stand up to scrutiny. Some of them don't make sense. Some of them are irrelevant. But bellowed out by a convincing speaker in an Athenian lawcourt, in front of hundreds of hungry jurors who were eager to collect their pay and get home, his arguments may indeed have seemed reasonable enough. Unfortunately we don't know how his speech was received, whether Neaira was found guilty of the charges against her and sold back into slavery (the likely result had she lost the case), or if she was able to live out the rest of her life peacefully with Stephanos. That the outcome of the case is unknown is disappointing, but it is hardly surprising given the nature of our sources from the period.


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