Eracle’s annunciation to Athenaïs in relational and cultural context

In the twelfth-century Old French romance Eracle, a thousand beautiful young women competed in a bride-show to select the emperor’s wife. The divinely perceptive imperial advisor Eracle determined that none of them was worthy to be the emperor’s wife. Returning from the bride-show on his fine horse, Eracle saw in the old quarter of Rome a beautiful young woman dressed in an old tunic. When she saw Eracle approaching her, she was troubled and afraid. She ran into her aunt’s house and hid there.

Holy Virgin Kataphigi (of refuge)

Eracle went to the house and greeted the aunt. He asked who was the young woman wearing the old tunic. She was Athenaïs, an orphan living in poverty in the care of her aunt. Athenaïs was the daughter of an eminent Roman senator from the revered ancient Greek city of Athens. But her father had died, and her mother too. Her fortune then dramatically fell. Delighted with this young woman, Eracle asked her aunt to have her come out to him.

In the ancient world, mothers experienced similar situations in relation to their daughters. For example, Crobyle and her daughter Corinna were living in poverty after the money-providing father of their family had died. Crobyle was barely keeping her daughter and herself fed by doing some weaving and spinning. She understandably hoped that Corinna would become a high-earning young woman.

Corinna received a good sum of money for having sex for the first time with the young man Eucritus. She regarded him fondly. Her mother encouraged her to sleep with other young men as well. Her mother wanted her to become a courtesan like Daphnis’s daugher Lyra. That proposition upset the young, innocent Corinna. Her mother responded:

What’s so terrible about that? It means you can have lots of lovers and be as rich as she. Why are you weeping, Corinna? Don’t you realize how many girls are courtesans? How the men run after them, and how much money they make? God forgive me for saying, but I know for a fact that Daphnis dressed in rags until her daughter grew up. Now look at how she goes out with her gold jewelry, embroidered gowns, and four servants.

{ Οὐδὲν τοῦτο δεινόν· καὶ σὺ γὰρ πλουτήσεις ὡς ἐκείνη καὶ πολλοὺς ἐραστὰς ἕξεις. τί ἐδάκρυσας, ὦ Κόριννα; οὐχ ὁρᾷς ὁπόσαι καὶ ὡς περισπούδαστοί εἰσιν αἱ ἑταῖραι καὶ ὅσα χρήματα λαμβάνουσι; τὴν Δαφνίδος1 γοῦν ἐγὼ οἶδα, ὦ φίλη Ἀδράστεια, ῥάκη, πρὶν αὐτὴν ἀκμάσαι τὴν ὥραν, περιβεβλημένην· ἀλλὰ νῦν ὁρᾷς οἵα πρόεισι, χρυσὸς καὶ ἐσθῆτες εὐανθεῖς καὶ θεράπαιναι τέτταρες. }[1]

Corinna’s mother explained how Daphnis’s daughter became so successful:

First of all, she dresses attractively and tastefully. And she’s cheerful with all the men, not that she giggles at the least little thing like you do, but she smiles sweetly and enticingly. When men come and visit her or take her out, she knows how to talk to them, and without throwing herself at them, she gives them what’s coming to them. Whenever she’s invited to a dinner party as a paid escort, she never gets drunk — that’s making a fool of yourself; men can’t stand women who do that — and never behaves like a pig and gorges herself. She handles her food with the tips of her fingers, doesn’t smack her lips over a mouthful, and doesn’t gobble away with both cheeks full. She drinks slowly, never gulping, but just sipping.

{ Τὸ μὲν πρῶτον κατακοσμοῦσα ἑαυτὴν εὐπρεπῶς καὶ εὐσταλὴς οὖσα καὶ φαιδρὰ πρὸς ἅπαντας, οὐκ ἄχρι τοῦ καγχαρίζειν ῥᾳδίως καθάπερ σὺ εἴωθας, ἀλλὰ μειδιῶσα ἡδὺ καὶ ἐπαγωγόν, εἶτα προσομιλοῦσα δεξιῶς καὶ μήτε φενακίζουσα, εἴ τις προσέλθοι ἢ προπέμψειε, μήτε αὐτὴ ἐπιλαμβανομένη τῶν ἀνδρῶν. ἢν δέ ποτε καὶ ἀπέλθῃ ἐπὶ δεῖπνον λαβοῦσα μίσθωμα, οὔτε μεθύσκεται—καταγέλαστον γὰρ καὶ μισοῦσιν οἱ ἄνδρες τὰς τοιαύτας—οὔτε ὑπερεμφορεῖται τοῦ ὄψου ἀπειροκάλως, ἀλλὰ προσάπτεται μὲν ἄκροις τοῖς δακτύλοις, σιωπῇ δὲ τὰς ἐνθέσεις οὐκ ἐπ᾿ ἀμφοτέρας παραβύεται τὰς γνάθους, πίνει δὲ ἠρέμα, οὐ χανδόν, ἀλλ᾿ ἀναπαυομένη. }

Corinna in her innocence asked her mother if Daphnis’s successful daughter drinks slowly even when she’s thirsty. Her mother responded sharply, and then provided further instruction:

Especially when she’s thirsty. She never says more than she should, never makes fun of the other guests, and always has eyes only for the man who’s paying her. That’s why they all think so much of her. When it’s time for her to sleep with the man, she’s never lewd but never acts as if she doesn’t care. Her only concern is to lead a man on and make him passionate about her. So they all praise her. Now, if you’d only learn these things, we could be just as blessedly happy as Daphnis is.

{ τότε μάλιστα, ὦ Κόριννα. καὶ οὔτε πλέον τοῦ δέοντος φθέγγεται οὔτε ἀποσκώπτει ἔς τινα τῶν παρόντων, ἐς μόνον δὲ τὸν μισθωσάμενον βλέπει: καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἐκεῖνοι φιλοῦσιν αὐτήν. καὶ ἐπειδὰν κοιμᾶσθαι δέῃ, ἀσελγὲς οὐδὲν οὐδὲ ἀμελὲς ἐκείνη ἄν τι ἐργάσαιτο, ἀλλὰ ἐξ ἅπαντος ἓν τοῦτο θηρᾶται, ὡς ὑπαγάγοιτο καὶ ἐραστὴν ποιήσειεν ἐκεῖνον: ταῦτα γὰρ αὐτὴν ἅπαντες ἐπαινοῦσιν. εἰ δὴ καὶ σὺ ταῦτα ἐκμάθοις, μακάριαι καὶ ἡμεῖς ἐσόμεθα. }

Corinna wanted to know if all the men who hire girls are like her charming Eucritus.

Not all. Some, of course, are even nicer. Some are more masculine. And some aren’t good-looking at all.

{ οὐ πάντες, ἀλλ᾽ ἔνιοι μὲν ἀμείνους, οἱ δὲ καὶ ἤδη ἀνδρώδεις, οἱ δὲ καὶ οὐ πάνυ μορφῆς εὐφυῶς ἔχοντες. }

With a hint of the resentment some daughters feel at their mothers’ demands, Corinna asked if she must have sex with men who aren’t good-looking.

Certainly. They’ll even pay you a better price. The good-looking ones care about one thing only, their good looks. And you must always keep your eye on the better price if you want to hurry the day when people will point you out and say, “Look, that’s Corinna, Crobyle’s daughter. She’s so rich. And she’s made her mother so happy!” What do you say? Will you do it? You will, I know you will, and you’ll be the best of them all, easily. You’d better run along and take your bath now if your Eucritus is coming today. He promised, you know.

{ μάλιστα, ὦ θύγατερ: οὗτοι μέν τοι καὶ πλείονα διδόασιν: οἱ καλοὶ δὲ αὐτὸ μόνον καλοὶ θέλουσιν εἶναι. καὶ σοὶ δὲ μελέτω ἀεὶ τοῦ πλείονος, εἰ θέλεις ἐν βραχεῖ λέγειν ἁπάσας ἐνδειξάσας σε τῷ δακτύλῳ, Οὐχ ὁρᾷς τὴν Κόρινναν τὴν τῆς Κρωβύλης θυγατέρα ὡς ὑπερπλουτεῖ καὶ τρισευδαίμονα πεποίηκε τὴν μητέρα; τί φής; ποιήσεις ταῦτα; ποιήσεις, οἶδα ἐγώ, καὶ προέξεις ἁπασῶν ῥᾳδίως. νῦν δ᾽ ἄπιθι λουσομένη, εἰ ἀφίκοιτο καὶ τήμερον τὸ μειράκιον ὁ Εὔκριτος: ὑπισχνεῖτο γάρ. }

The happiness of mothers knowing that their sons have died in battle rather than prudently fled or surrendered has historically been celebrated. However, because of systemic sexism, mothers have little reason to encourage their sons to have sex with many women. Corinna faced the burden of her mother’s expectations in the context of privileged opportunities for women.

Nonetheless, attempting to please mother has at times been a burden even for daughters. One young woman got in trouble with her mother for kissing a man she shouldn’t and not having sex with the man she should:

And then you didn’t sleep with him? You actually sang while he was moaning and groaning? My dear daughter, don’t you realize we’re penniless? Have you forgotten all we’ve gotten from him, how we would have had to struggle last winter if the love goddess hadn’t sent him to us?

{ εἶτα οὐδὲ συνεκάθευδες, ἀλλὰ καὶ ᾖδες ἐκείνου δακρύοντος; οὐκ αἰσθάνῃ, ὦ θύγατερ, ὅτι πτωχαί ἐσμεν, οὐδὲ μέμησαι ὅσα παρ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐλάβομεν ἢ οἷον δὴ τὸν πέρυσι χειμῶνα διηγάγομεν ἄν, εἰ μὴ τοῦτον ἡμῖν ἡ Ἀφροδίτη ἔπεμψε }[2]

Another mother complained that her daughter was dating a man who wasn’t paying her anything, but only promising to marry her in the future. Meanwhile, she was refusing to sleep with men offering her a lot of money. Her mother scornfully recounted:

Yesterday that farmer from Acharnia — he didn’t have a beard either — came here with two big bills, money from the wine his father had sent him to sell. You turned up your nose at him. You had to sleep with your Adonis, that boy Chaereas.

{ καὶ πρῴην μὲν ὅτε ὁ γεωργὸς ὁ Ἀχαρνεὺς ἧκε δύο μνᾶς κομίζων, ἀγένειος καὶ αὐτός — οἴνου δὲ τιμὴν ἀπειλήφει τοῦ πατρὸς πέμψαντος — σὺ δὲ ἐκεῖνον μὲν ἀπεμύκτισας, καθεύδεις δὲ μετὰ τοῦ Ἀδώνιδος Χαιρέου. }[3]

Not all young women desire financial success, nor do all young women dream of triumphing in a bride-show for the emperor, or in a beauty pageant broadcast worldwide on major television networks. A mother should tolerate a daughter who complacently loves just one boyfriend and wants to marry him, without even receiving money from him or the promise of a lavish wedding.

A young woman can feel coerced into competing with other young women. For example, Philinna’s man Diphilus was kissing and whispering to Lamprias’s woman Thais. Philinna explained to her mother:

Thais was the one who got up and danced first. And she pulled her dress way up high — as if she’s the only girl in the world with lovely ankles. When she was done, Lamprias didn’t applaud or say a word, but Diphilus praised her for how graceful she was, what an interesting dance she did, how well she kept time to the music, her beautiful ankles, and on and on, as if she were the Venus de Milo instead of Thais. I don’t need to tell you what she looks like — we’ve both seen her at the baths. And do you know the dirty crack she made right to my face? “If someone wasn’t so ashamed of her skinny legs, she’d get up and dance too.” I’ll admit it, Mother, I got up and danced. What else was I to do? Sit there and make it look like she was telling the truth? Let that Thais lord it over the whole party?

{ ἡ Θαῒς δὲ ἀναστᾶσα ὠρχήσατο πρώτη ἀπογυμνοῦσα ἐπὶ πολὺ τὰ σφυρὰ ὡς μόνη καλὰ ἔχουσα, καὶ ἐπειδὴ ἐπαύσατο, ὁ Λαμπρίας μὲν ἐσίγα καὶ εἶπεν οὐδέν, Δίφιλος δὲ ὑπερεπῄνει τὸ εὔρυθμον καὶ τὸ κεχορηγημένον, καὶ ὅτι εὖ πρὸς τὴν κιθάραν ὁ ποὺς καὶ τὸ σφυρὸν ὡς καλὸν καὶ ἄλλα μυρία, καθάπερ τὴν Καλάμιδος Σωσάνδραν ἐπαινῶν, ἀλλ᾿ οὐχὶ Θαΐδα, ἣν καὶ σὺ οἶσθα συλλουομένην ἡμῖν οἵα ἐστί. Θαῒς δὲ οἷα καὶ ἔσκωψεν εὐθὺς ἐς ἐμέ· Εἰ γάρ τις, ἔφη, μὴ αἰσχύνεται λεπτὰ ἔχουσα τὰ σκέλη, ὀρχήσεται καὶ αὐτὴ ἐξαναστᾶσα. τί ἂν λέγοιμι, ὦ μῆτερ; ἀνέστην γὰρ καὶ ὠρχησάμην. ἀλλὰ τί ἔδει ποιεῖν; ἀνασχέσθαι καὶ ἐπαληθεύειν τὸ σκῶμμα καὶ τὴν Θαΐδα ἐᾶν τυραννεῖν τοῦ συμποσίου }[4]

The competition starts off with showing off ankles, but then the dress gets pulled up higher and higher until all the young women are wearing short-shorts divided in the front and the back. What young woman, in her own free choice, would feel comfortable walking around in shorts like that?

Aphrodite Kallipygos

Competition between women builds upon social pressure among women and the devaluation of women’s enduring relationships with men. Magara taunted Bacchis for not attending a wild all-women event because Bacchis wanted to be with her boyfriend:

Only you have a lover whom you love so much that you can’t be separated from him even for a moment. By Lady Aphrodite, that’s disgusting! Even though you were invited by Glycera to her sacrificial feast such a long time ago (for she sent us the invitations at the time of the Dionysia) you didn’t come — perhaps because of him you can’t stand even to see your girlfriends. You’ve become virtuous and are in love with your lover, congratulations on that reputation! We, on the other hand, are shameless whores.

{ Σοὶ μόνῃ ἐραστὴς γέγονεν, ὃν φιλεῖς οὕτως ὥστε μηδὲ ἀκαρῆ πως αὐτοῦ διαζευχθῆναι δύνασθαι. τῆς ἀηδίας, δέσποινα Ἀφροδίτη. κληθεῖσα ὑπὸ Γλυκέρας ἐπὶ θυσίαν εἰς τοσοῦτον χρόνον — ἀπὸ τῶν Διονυσίων γὰρ ἡμῖν ἐπήγγειλεν — οὐχ ἥκεις, εἰ μὴ δι᾽ ἐκείνην οὐδὲ τὰς φίλας ἰδεῖν γυναῖκας ἀνασχομένη. σώφρων γέγονας σὺ καὶ φιλεῖς τὸν ἐραστήν, μακαρία τῆς εὐφημίας· ἡμεῖς δὲ πόρναι καὶ ἀκόλαστοι. }[5]

Unlike Bacchis, Magara and the other women walked proudly as sluts. They enjoyed getting together in all-women safe spaces to explore how to overcome society’s repression of women. Magara taunted Bacchis:

What a drinking party we had — why shouldn’t I make you regretful? — full of great delights! Songs, jokes, drinking till cockcrow, perfumes, garlands and sweetmeats. Our place of reclining was shaded by some laurels. Only one thing was missing: you, nothing else. We have often caroused, but rarely with this much pleasure. But what gave us the most delight was that a fierce quarrel arose between Thryallis and Myrrhine concerning which of them had the most beautiful and smooth buttocks.

{ οἷον ἡμῶν ἐγένετο τὸ συμπόσιον — τί γὰρ οὐχ ἅψομαί σου τῆς καρδίας; — ὅσων χαρίτων πλῆρες. ᾠδαὶ σκώμματα πότος εἰς ἀλεκτρυόνων ᾠδὰς μύρα στέφανοι τραγήματα. ὑπόσκιός τισι δάφναις ἦν ἡ κατάκλισις· ἓν μόνον ἡμῖν ἔλιπε, σύ, τὰ δ᾽ ἄλλα οὔ. πολλάκις ἐκραιπαλήσαμεν, οὕτω δὲ ἡδέως ὀλιγάκις. τὸ γοῦν πλείστην ἡμῖν παρασκευάσαν τέρψιν, δεινή τις φιλονεικία κατέσχε Θρυαλλίδα καὶ Μυρρίνην ὑπὲρ τῆς πυγῆς ποτέρα κρείττω καὶ ἁπαλωτέραν ἐπιδείξει. }[6]

As aporia-engendering as it is to men of a rational-philosophical sort, many women relish social drama. If they don’t have drama in their lives, they will create some at any cost. In the buttocks beauty debate at the women’s sacrificial symposium, Myrrhine was the first to swing from words into action:

And Myrrhine, having first loosened her girdle — her dress was made of silk — swayed her hips which quivered like honey-cheesecake through her dress, while she was looking back at the movements of her buttocks. Then she sighed gently like she was making love so that, by Aphrodite, I was astounded.

{ καὶ πρώτη Μυρρίνη τὸ ζώνιον λύσασα — βόμβυξ δ᾽ ἦν τὸ χιτώνιον — δι᾽ αὐτοῦ τρέμουσαν οἷόν τι μελίπηκτον γάλα τὴν ὀσφῦν ἀνεσάλευσεν, ὑποβλέπουσα εἰς τοὐπίσω πρὸς τὰ κινήματα τῆς πυγῆς· ἠρέμα δ᾽ οἷον ἐνεργοῦσά τι ἐρωτικὸν ὑπεστέναξεν, ὥστε ἐμέ, νὴ τὴν Ἀφροδίτην, καταπλαγῆναι. }

Myrrhine recreated the pose of the famous Aphrodite Kallipygus {Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks}.[7] How could Thryallis ever press a claim to have better buttocks than that beauty?

Thryallis, however, didn’t give up, but outdid Myrrhine in shamelessness. “I shall not compete behind curtains,” she said, “nor play coy, but play as in a men’s gymnastic contest, for a contest isn’t created from excuses.” She took off her dress, tightened her buttocks and said, “There, look carefully at the skin, Myrrhine, how pure, how spotless it is. Look here at the pink lining of the hips, the slope towards the thighs, which are neither too fat nor too thin, and the dimples at the sides. But, by Zeus, they don’t quiver” — and at the same time she smiled — “like Myrrhine’s do.” Then she made her buttocks quiver so much, and she whirled the whole thing around, to and fro, over her loins, like it was flowing. We all applauded and declared that the victory belonged to Thryallis.

{ οὐ μὴν ἀπεῖπέ γε ἡ Θρυαλλίς, ἀλλὰ τῇ ἀκολασίᾳ παρευδοκίμησεν αὐτήν· “οὐ γὰρ διὰ παραπετασμάτων ἐγώ” φησίν “ἀγωνίσομαι, οὐδὲ ἀκκιζομένη, ἀλλ᾽ οἷον ἐν γυμνικῷ· καὶ γὰρ οὐ φιλεῖ προφάσεις ἀγών.” ἀπεδύσατο τὸ χιτώνιον καὶ μικρὸν ὑποσιμώσασα τὴν ὀσφῦν “ἰδού, σκόπει τὸ χρῶμα” φησίν “ὡς ἀκριβῶς, Μυρρίνη, ὡς ἀκήρατον, ὡς καθαρόν, τὰ παραπόρφυρα τῶν ἰσχίων ταυτί, τὴν ἐπὶ τοὺς μηροὺς ἔγκλισιν, τὸ μήτε ὑπέρογκον 6 αὐτῶν μήτε ἄσαρκον, τοὺς γελασίνους ἐπ᾽ ἄκρων· ἀλλ᾽ οὐ τρέμει, νὴ Δία,” — ἅμ᾽ ὑπομειδιῶσα — “ὥσπερ ἡ Μυρρίνης”. καὶ τοσοῦτον παλμὸν ἐξειργάσατο τῆς πυγῆς, καὶ ἅπασαν αὐτὴν ὑπὲρ τὴν ὀσφῦν τῇδε καὶ τῇδε ὥσπερ ῥέουσαν περιεδίνησεν, ὥστε ἀνακροτῆσαι πάσας καὶ νίκην ἀποφήνασθαι τῆς Θρυαλλίδος. }[8]

The female gaze is as real as is the male gaze. Both are socially constructed, as is human sexuality. With suitable social pressure, all young woman might be made to enjoy gazing on the naked, prominently shaken buttocks of another woman. Some university administrators and literature professors seem to have that as their fundamental project and great moist hope.

The twelfth-century Old French romance Eracle contradicts classical authorities. Eracle asked to see the beautiful young woman Athenaïs. She was living in poverty with her aunt. Her aunt responded:

For God’s sake, young man, pray have mercy;
your pleasure is not to be found here.
This is not what you are seeking.
I don’t know what you’re hoping for,
but we would prefer her to be pulled to pieces
rather than passionate madness be done to her body,
for that would be an evil sin.
She has no interest in it whatsoever, know that well!
Nor has any living person ever
heard her speak of passionate madness.
Even hearing of it so grieves her
that if others talk of it, she leaves.
She had a father who was a very worthy man;
her mother was of good repute.
This one is not of base stock.
Seek your pleasure elsewhere.
Here is utterly nothing to your purpose.

{ Por Dieu, vallés, vos pri merchi;
vostre deduis n’est mie chi,
çou n’est pas çou que vos querrés.
Je ne sai que vos esperés,
nos le lairiesmes ains detraire
que de son cors folie faire,
car ce seroit mals et peciés,
n’ele n’a cure, che saciés;
onques encor ne fu en vie
qui l’oïst parler de folie;
nes li oïrs itant li grieve,
s’ele en ot parler, si s’en lieve.
Trop fu ses pere a çou prodom,
se mere fu de boin renon;
ceste n’est pas des noaillors,
querrés vostre deduit aillors,
ci n’a a vostre oés nule riens. }[9]

The aunt knew that young women could earn money for having sex with men. Despite their poverty, neither she nor Athenaïs were interested in that opportunity. The aunt also knew about the bride-show to select the emperor’s wife. She didn’t seek to have Athenaïs compete in it.

Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the mother of Jesus

What hope could Athenaïs have? Nothing is impossible with God. Eracle chose Athenaïs to be the emperor’s wife. Subtly alluding to the words of Simeon cradling the child Jesus, Athenaïs’s aunt proclaimed:

So help me God, beautiful Lord,
now no longer have I grief or anger,
now I’m not concerned about when I die,
now no longer can death harm me.
Bringing up one whom I thought was an orphan,
I have in fact brought up an empress.

{ Aïe Dieus, biaus sire,
or n’ai je mais ne duel ne ire,
or ne me calt il quant je muire,
or ne me puet mais li mors nuire.
Norir cuidai une orfenine
et j’ai nori une roïne. }[10]

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Read more:


[1] Lucian of Samosata, Dialogue of the Courtesans {Ἑταιρικοὶ Διάλογοι} 6, “Crobyle and Corinna {Κρωβύλη καὶ Κόρινανα}, ancient Greek text from Jacobitz (1896) via Perseus, English translation (modified slightly) from Casson (1962). For help with the Greek text, Hayes & Nimis (2016). The subsequent four quotes above are similarly from Lucian’s dialogue between Crobyle and her daughter Corinna.

Fowler & Fowler (1905), which bowdlerized Lucian, didn’t translate this dialogue in its translation of Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans. The text in English translation is free available online in A.L.H. (1928).

The name Corinna {Κόρινανα} is cognate with κόρη, which can mean simply a young woman. But Corinna also has specific literary references. Corinna of Tanagra (in Boeotia) was a famous ancient Greek woman poet. Corinna is a beloved young woman in Ovid’s Loves {Amores}. On Ovid’s invocation of Corinna, Heath (2013). In Lucian’s Dialogue of the Courtesans, Corinna is probably best interpreted as a representative young woman {κόρη}.

Lucian’s approach to courtesans is realistic. His depiction of these women’s relational difficulties still seems true:

Lucian sets his depiction of courtesan life apart from his predecessors’ by his use of realism. … Lucian’s realism is enhanced by the fact the courtesans speak for themselves and share their experiences with the audience in their own voices.

Shreve-Price (2014) pp. 179-80. Similarly, id. pp. 1, 111-6, 151. Shreve-Price asserts that Lucian’s realism makes him a feminist. Id., p. 198. Lucian realistically depicts competition between women and women exploiting women. Realism in general, and that realism specifically, is better labeled as meninist.

The courtesan Neaira, who lived in Athens about 342 BGC, began working as a courtesan at a very young age. Apollodorus (previously attributed to Demosthenes), Against Neaira 22. Neaira apparently had a daughter Phano who also prostituted herself following the example of her mother. Id. 50. While Apollodorus almost surely slanted the facts to favor his case, his oration suggests that being a courtesan was regarded as a profession passed down within a family like other professions.

In Hebrew scripture, the prophet Ezekiel similarly depicts prostitution as an enterprise in which daughters were apprentices to their mothers. Condemning the holy city of Jerusalem for being a whore in relation to her lover God, Ezekiel declared:

Behold, everyone who uses proverbs will use this proverb about you, “like mother, like daughter.”

{ הִנֵּה כָּל־הַמֹּשֵׁל עָלַיִךְ יִמְשֹׁל לֵאמֹר כְּאִמָּה בִּתָּהּ׃ }

Ezekiel 16:44.

Egbert of Liège’s early eleventh-century schoolbook, The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis}, included related proverbs:

How the courtesan wishes that all women would live unchastely!
A whore castigates her daughter, “What I am, don’t you abandon.”

{ Quam cuperit meretrix incestas vivere cunctas!
Castigat natam “quod sum, ne desere” scortum. }

Fecunda ratis 1.30-1, Latin text and English translation (modified to follow the Latin more closely) from Babcock (2013).

[2] Lucian, Dialogue of the Courtesans {Ἑταιρικοὶ Διάλογοι} 3, “Philinna and her mother {μήτηρ καὶ Φίλιννα}, ancient Greek text from Jacobitz (1896) via Perseus, English translation (modified slightly) from Casson (1962).

[3] Lucian, Dialogue of the Courtesans {Ἑταιρικοὶ Διάλογοι} 7, “Musarium and her mother {μήτηρ καὶ Μουσάριον}, ancient Greek text from Jacobitz (1896) via Perseus, English translation (modified slightly) from Casson (1962).

In New Comedy and elegy, a young courtesan commonly has an absent father and a mother-guardian. Konstan (2009) pp. 59-60. In one epigram, a mother seeks a share of her daughter’s sexual enterprise:

I was much in love with the young woman Alcippe, and one day
I succeeded in persuading her and embraced her secretly on her bed.
Both hearts were beating, for fear anyone would come near,
anyone see the secrets of our surpassing passion.
But her mother noticed and looked in suddenly and
said, “Hermes shares, my daughter.”

{ Παρθένον Ἀλκίππην ἐφίλουν μέγα, καί ποτε πείσας
αὐτὴν λαθριδίως εἶχον ἐπὶ κλισίῃ.
ἀμφοτέρων δὲ στέρνον ἐπάλλετο, μή τις ἐπέλθῃ,
μή τις ἴδῃ τὰ πόθων κρυπτὰ περισσότερον.
μητέρα δ’ οὐκ ἔλαθεν κείνης λάλον· ἀλλ’ ἐσιδοῦσα
ἐξαπίνης· “Ἑρμῆς κοινός,” ἔφη, “θύγατερ”. }

Marcus Argentarius, Greek Anthology 5.127, ancient Greek text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Konstan (2009) p. 58. The phrase “Hermes shares” refers both to a “lucky find {ἕρμαιον}” that should be shared and the ithyphallic form of publicly erected Hermes pillars. Hendry (1991).

[4] Lucian, Dialogue of the Courtesans {Ἑταιρικοὶ Διάλογοι} 3, “Philinna and her mother {μήτηρ καὶ Φίλιννα}, sourced as previously. For other examples of agressive rivalry between women, see Sarah and Hager in Genesis 21:10-14 and Peninah and Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:4-7.

[5] Alciphron, Letters 4, Letters of the Courtesans {Επιστολαι Εταιρικαι} 14, Magara to Bacchis {Μεγάρα Βακχίδι}, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Granholm (2012). Id. has “because of her,” a mistake for “because of him.” The subsequent four quotes are similarly from id. All other quotes from Alciphron are similarly sourced, unless otherwise noted. Anon (1896) is an earlier, less scholarly translation.

[6] Magara added:

There were also comparisons of hips and breast competitions. However, nobody dared to compare her belly with Philoumene’s, since she had not born any children and was plump.

{ ἐγένοντο δὲ καὶ περιάλλων συγκρίσεις καὶ περὶ μασταρίων ἀγῶνες· τῆς μὲν γὰρ Φιλουμένης γαστρὶ ἀντεξετασθῆναι οὐδ᾽ ἡτισοῦν ἐθάρσησεν· ἄτοκος γὰρ ἦν καὶ σφριγῶσα. }

Alciphron, Letters 4, Letters of the Courtesans {Επιστολαι Εταιρικαι} 14, Magara to Bacchis {Μεγάρα Βακχίδι}.

To those learnedly ignorant, Alciphron’s Letters of the Courtesans “prove that female sexuality can be portrayed as active even in the Foucauldian sense, and therefore that women in literature can be sexual agents.” Funke (2008) p. 1. See also Empress Messalina, Empress Theodora, active enjoyment of being sexually penetrated, and Hajdarević (2018).

[7] Funke (2018) p. 150. Myrrhine {μυρρίνη} is Attic Greek for myrtle. “The rose and the myrtle are sacred to Aphrodite and connected with the story of Adonis {μυρσίνην Ἀφροδίτης τε ἱερὰ εἶναι καὶ οἰκεῖα τῷ ἐς Ἄδωνιν λόγῳ}.” Pausanias, Description of Greece 6.24.7, ancient Greek text and English translation from Jones (1933). See also id. 2.32.3 and Virgil, Eclogue 7.61-3, Georgics 2.64.

Alciphron lived in the late-second or early-third century GC. But Alciphron, like Lucian, wrote in the Attic Greek used more than 500 years earlier. His letters evoke the cultural context of Menander’s comedies. Funke (2016). Alciphron is associated with a particular type of nostalgia:

This version of nostalgia is not centered on a wish to restore the past, but rather marked by the self-awareness of the impossibility of such a task. Mimesis takes priority over re-creation … moments in which text and image merge in the Letters create a mimesis of nostalgia while simultaneously undermining it; the momentary passing of an image replicates the transitory experience of nostalgia but does not linger long enough for its accuracy to be appraised.

Funke (2018) p. 139. Such nostalgia has commonalities with pornography. With his Letters 4.13 and 4.14, Alciphron has been called the inventor of pornography:

the fictional letter is ideally suited to the kind of prying into the most private, and concealed, zones of another’s life that pornography implies. … the private nature of letters often requires the reader to fill in details that are presumed to be known to the correspondents themselves, and authors of fictional collections can imitate this lacunose element in the narrative, obliging the reader to enter, as it were, into complicity with the writer so as to complete the sense where it is merely intimated or left obscure. … In a fictional letter, it can contribute to the sense that the reader is ferreting out hidden implications or insinuations, even things that have been modestly left unsaid between intimates: οἶδας ὅ τι λέγω – You know what I mean, O reader! … At a certain moment in the second century (most probably), the rising popularity of epistolary fiction, combined with the fixation of the literary culture on a remote age which offered (among other things) an idealized image of erotic freedom (and of its converse, romantic love, as in the Greek novels), provided just the right conditions for this kind of lubricious tension. Alciphron seems to have been the first to capture it in his epistles (he was not followed in this by Aristaenetus or any other ancient writer, to my knowledge), and in this regard he may rightly enjoy the distinction of having invented pornography.

Konstan (2011) pp. 330-2. That’s learned literary analysis. Alciphron’s Letters 4.13 and 4.14 seem to me too artistically sophisticated for an ordinary person today to regard them as pornographic. Beyond that, the matter is complicated. Briand (2016).

[8] Alciphron, Letters 4.13.10 reports that at a feast “there were eggs, which quivered like buttocks {ᾠά τε τὰ τρέμοντα ταῦτα ὥσπερ αἱ πυγαί}.” Meineke (1853) interpolated “like Thryallis’s {τῆς Θρυαλλίδος}.” Benner & Fobes (1949) p. 283, n. 13.

Ancient Greek literature includes an instance of connoisseurship with respect to women’s buttocks:

I judged the buttocks of three women; for they themselves
chose me and displayed to me the naked splendor of their limbs.
Rounded dimples marked the first,
her buttocks glowing with white softness;
the second’s snowy flesh blushed where her legs parted,
redder than a crimson rose;
the third was like a calm sea furrowed by a silent wave,
her delicate flesh jiggling involuntarily.
If the judge of the goddesses had seen those buttocks,
he would have refused to look again at the previous ones.

{ Πυγὰς αὐτὸς ἔκρινα τριῶν· εἵλοντο γὰρ αὐταὶ
δείξασαι γυμνὴν ἀστεροπὴν μελέων.
καί ῥ᾽ ἡ μὲν τροχαλοῖς σφραγιζομένη γελασίνοις
λευκῇ ἀπὸ γλουτῶν ἤνθεεν εὐαφίῃ·
τῆς δὲ διαιρομένης φοινίσσετο χιονέη σὰρξ
πορφυρέοιο ῥόδου μᾶλλον ἐρυθροτέρη·
ἡ δὲ γαληνιόωσα χαράσσετο κύματι κωφῷ,
αὐτομάτη τρυφερῷ χρωτὶ σαλευομένη.
εἰ ταύτας ὁ κριτὴς ὁ θεῶν ἐθεήσατο πυγάς,
οὐκέτ᾽ ἂν οὐδ᾽ ἐσιδεῖν ἤθελε τὰς προτέρας. }

Rufinus, Greek Anthology 5.35, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified slightly) from Paton & Tueller (2014). For another ancient Greek example of buttocks competition, Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters 12.554c-e. Classical Arabic literature shows extensive appreciation for women’s buttocks.

[9] Gautier d’Arras, Eracle vv. 2631-47, Old French text from Pratt (2007), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Raynaud de Lage (1976) represents an earlier critical edition.

[10] Gautier d’Arras, Eracle vv. 2749-54, sourced as previously. Both Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, sing of God bringing about enormous reversals of fortune. 1 Samuel 2:4-8, Luke 1:46-53. Cf. Psalm 113:7-9.

[images] (1) The Holy Virgin Kataphigi {of Refuge}. Detail from a double-sided processional icon made about 1395 and kept in the Poganovo Monastery, Bulgaria. Currently preserved in the Museum of the Archaeological Institute, Sofia, Bulgaria. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Aphrodite Kallipygos {Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks}, originally in the Farnese collection. White marble statue from 1st or 2nd century BGC (excluding head, right arm, and left leg), restored by Carlo Albacini in the 1780s. Preserved in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (3) The annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke 1:26-38. Oil on canvas painting by Johann Christian Schröder. Painted between 1685 and 1691. Preserved in the Ptuj Ormož Regional Museum (Ptuj, Slovenia). Via Google Art Project and Wikimedia Commons.


A.L.H.,  trans. 1928. Lucian of Samosata. The Mimes of the Courtesans. New York: Privately printed by the Press of Classic Lore.

Anon. 1896. Alciphron, literally and completely translated from the Greek, with introduction and notes. Athens: Privately printed for the Athenian Society. (alternate presentation)

Babcock, Robert Gary, ed. and trans. 2013. Egbert of Liège. The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis}. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 25. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Benner, A. R, and F. H. Fobes, ed. and trans. 1949. Alciphron, Aelian, Philostratus. Alciphron, Aelian, and Philostratus: The Letters. Loeb Classical Library 383. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Briand, Michel. 2016. “The Girlfriends’ Letters: Poikilia in the Book 4 of Alciphron’s Letters.” Paper presented at the conference Les Lettres d’Alciphron: la possibilité d’une œuvre / The Letters of Alciphron: To Be or not To be a Work? Nice, France. June 2016.

Casson, Lionel, trans. 1962. Selected satires of Lucian. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Fowler, Francis George, and H. W. Fowler. 1905. The Works of Lucian of Samosata. 4 vols. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

Funke, Melissa. 2008. Sexuality and gender in Alciphrōn’s Letters of Courtesans. M.A. Thesis, The University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada).

Funke, Melissa. 2016. “The Menandrian World of Alciphron’s Letters.” Ch. 12 (pp. 223-238) in Marshall, C. W., and Tom Hawkins, eds. Athenian Comedy in the Roman Empire. London: Bloomsbury.

Funke, Melissa. 2018. “Nostalgic Authority: Alciphron’s Use of Visual Culture.” Ch. 8 (pp. 138–154) in Biraud, Michèle, and Arnaud Zucker, ed. The Letters of Alciphron: a unified literary work? Mnemosyne, Supplements 424. Leiden: Brill.

Granholm, Patrik, ed. and trans. 2012. Alciphron: Letters of the Courtesans. Uppsala: Institutionen för Lingvistik och Filologi, Uppsala Universitet.

Hajdarević, Sabira. 2018. “Sexual Initiative in Aristaenetus’ Erotic Letters.” Systasis 32: 1-24.

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Heath, John. 2013. “Why Corinna?” Hermes. 141 (2): 155-170.

Hendry, Michael. 1991. “A Hermetic Pun in Marcus Argentarius XII GP (A. P. 5.127).” Hermes. 119 (4): 497.

Jacobitz, Caroli, ed. 1896. Luciani Samosatensis Opera. Biblioteca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana. Lipsiae: Teubner.

Jones, W. H. S., ed. and trans. 1933. Pausanias. Description of Greece, Volume III: Books 6-8.21 (Elis 2, Achaia, Arcadia). Loeb Classical Library 272. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Konstan, David. 2009. “Between Epigram and Elegy: Horace as an Amatory Poet.” Pp. 55-69 in Pereira, Maria Helena da Rocha, José Ribeiro Ferreira, and Francisco de Oliveira, eds. Horacio e a sua perenidade. Coimbra: Centro Internacional de Latinidade Léopold Senghor.

Konstan, David. 2011. “Alciphron and the Invention of Pornography.” Ch. 15 (pp. 323-335) in Lambert, S. D., ed. Sociable Man: essays on ancient Greek social behaviour in honour of Nick Fisher. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales.

Paton, W.R., trans. and Michael A. Tueller, revised. 2014. Greek Anthology. Books 1-5. Loeb Classical Library 67. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pratt, Karen, ed. and trans. 2007. Gautier d’Arras. Eracle. King’s College London Medieval Studies 21. London: King’s College London, Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies.

Raynaud de Lage, Guy, ed. 1976. Gautier d’Arras. Eracle. Paris: Champion. Published online in by ENS de Lyon in the Base de français médiéval, last revised 28-5-2013.

Shreve-Price, Sharada Sue. 2014. Complicated Courtesans: Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans. Ph. D. Thesis, University of Iowa.

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