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Trying Neaira

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


Debra Hamel (View Bio)
Hardcover: Yale University Press, 2003; Paperback: Yale University Press, 2005.

Trying Neaira

Debra Hamel takes a close look at fifth-century B.C. life in ancient Greece through the story of a prostitute, Neaira, who was sold into prostitution in Corinth as a young girl. With the help of an unscrupulous Athenian, Neaira was able to buy her freedom and flee Athens for Megara. There she married another Athenian, also of questionable character, and returned with him to Athens. Based on a true story drawn from ancient Athenian court documents, the story of the enterprising Neaira, her daring escape from slavery, her shady husband, and her scheming daughter, make the world of ancient Athens and the Greek conception of justice come vividly to life.

"Under its thin veneer of toga-and-sandal skin-flick is a work of first-rate scholarship.... Hamel can write, she can think, and she is, accordingly, published by Yale. She turns one of antiquity's more fibrous epochs into a lively and witty slice of history, and gives us a story of cupidity, greed and obduracy, spiced with sexual morsels." — Erotic Review

"This clearly written, entertaining, and well-informed book is a wonderful means of entering the world of fourth-century Athens." — Mary R. Lefkowitz, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities, 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, Yale University

"In the future, this work will be a part of reading lists for courses on the Greek orators.... Hamel's grasp of the current scholarship on Athenian law is formidable. She estimably deciphers the convolutions of Neaira's life as a courtesan in Corinth and Athens.... Any scholar will enjoy this well-documented work." — Library Journal

"Hamel provides a charmingly written, nicely illustrated...convincing analysis of the lurid Athenian speech 'Against Neaira.'... Hamel's account is engaging, accessible to nonexperts, and useful." — Choice

"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, Hillhouse Professor of History and Classics, Yale University

"Clear and useful...[it] is of excellent value..... Students could read it with profit and pleasure." — Journal of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers

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

"Apollodoros's oration offers a rare look at an individual woman's life in the ancient world. 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. Among the stops are the demimonde hierarchies of prostitution, a raucous Greek jury system, the ancient and very different meaning of sycophant, and a vivid description of how seducing a respectable Athenian's wife or daughter could lead to a fine, death, or correctional intimacy with a root vegetable." — The Chronicle of Higher Education

"[Demosthenes's 'Against Neaira'] is read a lot for the information it furnishes on Athenian society, citizenship, religion, women and law. It is a rich mine to exploit for these areas [and]...it is fun to read.... [Hamel's] book brings to life not only Neaira but also the times in which she lived.... A little gem of a book from which everyone will profit. It is informative, serious in its approach, use of source material, and conclusions, and commendably written in an unpretentious style.... It is a book that needed to be written. All too often we focus on some technical aspect of a society, or on why such-and-such a verb is in the passive, and we end up losing sight of the people who make up the society. Neaera as a person gets lots in Appolodorus's speech, but Hamel redresses that lack. In the process we cannot help but have a new sympathy for Neaera." — Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"[A] gripping story of politics, sex, and sleaze in ancient Athens.... A lively and exciting narrative." — London Telegraph

"The astonishing life of Neaira...makes the plot of any contemporary soap-opera (Days of Our Lives) or Spanish film (I have Almodovar in mind) seem pedestrian..... [An] entertaining, well-written, and sensible account of Neaira's life.... Hamel does not simply concentrate on the illogicality of Apollodorus' arguments or on the complex political context of the trial. She explores the wider social and legal background, fleshing out Neaira's extraordinary life with interesting discussions of prostitution, citizenship, slave torture, courtroom procedure and even jury selection in fourth century Athens, which she describes as 'delightfully complicated.'... [Hamel] writes with great verve and humor.... 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...is something to celebrate." — Scholia Reviews

"Among the speeches attributed in surviving manuscripts to the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes are a number of courtroom harangues that were actually composed and delivered by his more seamy contemporary, Appolodoros, the Athenian lawyer. None is quite as gripping, and occasionally horrific, as Appolodoros's long tirade as a prosecutor against a fiftyish Corinthian matron named Neaira.... 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. By presenting sex and the ancient Greek sex trade forthrightly, she puts to shame the ponderous cuteness and leering euphemism that writing about Neaira's case has aroused in classicists over the centuries. She brings out both the sordid exploitation of Neaira's circumstances and the genuine strength of the bond that linked this former prostitute with Stephanos and his family, piecing together a plausible account from what is often minimal evidence, managing to explore her human characters without idealizing them, and judiciously staying just shy of a historical novel..... It is easier, after reading her account, to see...the full imperfection of the athenian political and legal system.... Hamel responds to the...injustices as a historian, presenting them clearly and with a minimum of expressed judgment. Yet her choice of topics and the order in whihc she presents them shows, time after time, that she measures the trial, its circumstances, and its protagonists by an affectingly human scale, so that in her account of the potentially prurient story becomes, in its way, a tragedy. As Aristotle's POETICS recommends for tragic protagonists, Stephanos and Neaira are people who are neither better nor worse than average, whose griefs have come about by some symptom of that basic imbalance that afflicts the real world. They awaken our pity at their troubles and our fear for the violence, injustice, and instability of the world in which they, and we, live out our lives..... Hamel demolishes Appolodoros's case with objectivity and rigor." — The New Republic

"[A] vivid and entertaining book.... It 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. Nor of racy detail: from street-walkers imprinting come-hither messages in the dust with their sandals, to outraged cuckolds shoving radishes up adulterers' bottoms, there is plenty here to delight the most prurient reader. At the heart of her book lies a trial. We only know as much about Neaira as we do because, after 30 years of living with Stephanos, she found herself charged with transgressing the marriage laws.... It is a tribute to Hamel's powers of explanation that she makes the fiendish complexities of the trial, and the murky political feuding which lay behind it, no less fascinating than the details of Neaira's early career. Bookshops at the moment are full of novels which feature detectives in the ancient world, but Hamel is a 'real-life' investigator, weighing up the allegations made in Apollodorus's speech, sifting through the evidence, and then presenting her own conclusions as to Neaira's innocence or guilt. Maybe it is the case that much of this book is sugar, spooned in to help the scholarship go down, but when the sugar tastes so good, and the scholarship is so first-class, who is anyone to complain?" — Sunday Telegraph (London)

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