Famous Courtesans


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Some of the oldest women in history were courtesans: Madame de Chatelet, the famed mistress of Voltaire who translated Newton's Principia into French; Diane de Poitiers, the courtesan of King Henry II, who was responsible for ushering the Renaissance into France; Madame de Pompadour, one of the most well known courtesans; the long line of the geisha of Kyoto; the devidasi of India and the hetairai of ancient Greece who strongly influenced the philosophers and rhetoriticians of their time.


Diane de Poitiers was duchess of Valentinois, and mistress of Henry II of France. Although Henry was ten years her junior, she inspired the young prince to no end and their passions lasted until his death. When Henry acsended to the throne in 1547, it was also the accession of Diane who became virtual queen, so much that she even had the crown jewels. It was Henry's lawful wife, Catherine de' Medici, that lived in comparative obscurity. Diane did not involve herself in politics though. She was a patron of the arts and is often celebrated in ushering the Renaissance into France. It was for her that Jean Goujon executed his masterpiece, the statue of Diana, now in the Louvre.


Possibly the most powerful woman in Byzantine history, Theodora began her career as a courtesan and ended up an empress. When one of her lovers took her to Constantinople, she stayed whereas he did not. There, she caught the eye of the Emperor's nephew Justinian I. They were star crossed lovers you might say and fought to be with one another. When Justinian became Emperor, she shared his throne. And she did it well. During the Nika revolt she convinced both her husband and the generals of the city not to flee but to stand and fight. She also was responsible for the laws affecting forced prostitution and women's rights in divorce, inheritance and guardianship. She also opened shelters for prostitutes. This last made her very unpopular with the official historian, Procopius, whose Secret History paints her as a very lewd woman, indeed.
(4th century BC)
Phryne was born Muesarete, but later achieved the nickname "toad" because of her wan complexion. Highly skilled in the erotic arts, she soon became one of the wealthiest courtesans in the ancient world: after the walls of Thebes were destroyed by Alexander the Great in 335 BC, Phryne offered to rebuild them--provided the walls were inscribed with the words "Destroyed by Alexander the Great, rebuilt by Phryne the hetaera." The Thebans turned her down. Artists and sculptors loved her: olive skin, dreamy eyes, and voluptuous-yet-innocent figure. Apelles portrayed her in his "Aphrodite Anadyomene." Praxiteles, one of her lovers and the greatest sculptor of his day, carved her as "Aphrodite of Cnidus"--the first nude statue of the Goddess. The statue brought accusations of blasphemy, but it was not until later, on charges of corruption, that Phryne was brought to court. Conviction would have brought the death penalty. Another lover, the orator Hyperides, defended her; when he sensed that the verdict was going against them, Hyperides ripped off Phryne's gown to the waist. She was acquitted. Phryne also knew the value of art: on one occasion, lover Praxiteles told her she could choose from among his works as a gift. But he refused to tell her which he thought the best. At that moment, a servant ran up, shouting that his studio was on fire. Praxiteles was heard to groan "No, not my Satyr and Love." It had, of course, all been a ruse. And Phryne went away with her gift.

Hariette Wilson was one of the most sought after courtesans in London during her time and even had the fame of making a laughing stock of the Duke of Wellington.  Born in London to a Swiss clockmaker, Hariette began seducing men at the age of 15, the first of many was Lord Craven. Soon after her reputation as an amazing, beautiful and intelligent courtesan spread across London. Completely independent, she actually turned down many an ardent suitor. Eventually she settled down for a time, if being a mistress can be called such, with the Duke of Wellington.  But the man drove her insane with his jealousy and lack of conversation. When she left him to marry and settle down to a literary career, writing her memoirs, Wellington threatened to sue if she told of their trysts. "Publish, and be damned!" he told her.  Her response? She added even more material on him.