Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Trying Neaira

Debra Hamel’s Trying Neaira is an object lesson in how to write a non-fiction book which has academic credibility and yet remains easily comprehensible to the general reader.

The book’s subtitle is The true story of a courtesan’s scandalous life in ancient Greece. The courtesan in question is Neaira (pronounced neh-EYE-ruh), and the ‘trying’ part of the title refers to the fact that, towards the end of her life, she was prosecuted for living with an Athenian citizen as his wife.

Under the laws of Athens, foreigners (of whom Neaira was one) were forbidden to marry citizens. The penalties were far from negligible: if found guilty, Neaira might have been sold back into slavery, and Stephanos, the man in her life, would have lost all the rights and privileges associated with citizenship.

First published in hardback in 2003, the book is now available in paperback. The publisher is Yale University Press, and in the academic world there are few more prestigious names. Yale will undoubtedly have had this book vetted (anonymously) by experts in the field, and indeed the author thanks them for their suggestions. So you can be sure that the information conveyed is correct.

The cover of the book features a highly apposite illustration: a sumptuous nude study by Jean-Leon Gérome. The artist’s subject is another famous Greek courtesan, Phryne, who was known for charging variable prices according to whether she liked you or not.

In essence, the book is very simple. It tells, in as much detail as is known, the life story of Neaira. She was brought up in a Corinthian brothel – in the fourth century BC – and was at one time a sex slave but bought her own freedom. And then she entered into a thirty-year relationship with Stephanos of Athens.

Stephanos, is seems, had enemies, and some of them sought to attack him through his long-term relationship with Neaira. The prosecutor was one Apollodoros, and the text of his speech to the court has amazingly survived; it constitutes the main source for Debra Hamel’s book.

In the course of describing Neaira’s life, Debra Hamel passes on a substantial amount of background information about life in ancient Greece, not least about the extraordinary legal system of Athens.

Trying Neaira is short and to the point. The author has mercifully chosen not to write in the fashionable style of gobbledygook which is so eagerly adopted by many who work in the humanities. Equally mercifully, we are spared a lot of feminist propaganda to the effect that all men are bastards; Debra Hamel allows the facts to speak for themselves.

As you would expect, there are extensive footnotes, enlarging on the points made in the text, and there is a substantial list of references. One book missing from the bibliography is Hans Licht’s Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, which was popular when I was a lad; but no doubt it has been displaced by more recent studies in this field.

One way and another Debra Hamel has provided this book with masses of supporting material on the web. You could start by going to her book blog, which is a valuable resource in itself, or you can go to the book’s own web site and work on from there.

Maybe, in the course of time, someone will do Neaira – the Novel. And after that Neaira – the Movie. Who knows?

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