Tawdry Tuesday Two: Remorse for 10,000 Drachmas

Aulus Gellius on Demosthenes and the Courtesan Lais (Attic Nights 1.VIII)

8 A detail excerpted from the writings of the philosopher Sotion about the prostitute Lais and the orator Demosthenes

Sotion was a rather well known man from the peripatetic school. He wrote a book filled with varied and extensive anecdotes and named it The Horn of Amaltheia, which in our tongue is pretty close to saying The Horn of Plenty.

In that book he included this anecdote about Demosthenes the orator and Lais the prostitute. “Lais”, he says, “the Corinthian, used to earn a lot of money through the elegance and beauty of her body. Often, some of the most well-known wealthy men from all of Greece came to see her, but not a one was admitted unless he gave what she asked: and she used to ask for no small amount.” He says that this is where the common saying was born among Greeks that “It is not possible for everyman to sail to Corinth”, since a man went to Corinth to Lais in vain if he could not give what she asked.

“And the famous Demosthenes went to her in secret and asked for her services. But she asked for 10,000 drachmas” [1]–an amount which would be exchanged for ten thousand of our denarii—“Struck dumb by the woman’s daring and by the great heap of money, Demosthenes turned away pale and said “I cannot buy regret for such a price”. But the Greek which he is said to have spoken is more charming: “I will not buy remorse for 10,000 drachmas.”

8 Historia in libris Sotionis philosophi reperta super Laide meretrice et Demosthene rhetore.
1 Sotion ex peripatetica disciplina haut sane ignobilis vir fuit. Is librum multae variaeque historiae refertum composuit eumque inscripsit Κέρας Ἀμαλθείας. 2 Ea vox hoc ferme valet, tamquam si dicas “cornum Copiae”. 3 In eo libro super Demosthene rhetore et Laide meretrice historia haec scripta est: “Lais” inquit “Corinthia ob elegantiam venustatemque formae grandem pecuniam demerebat, conventusque ad eam ditiorum hominum ex omni Graecia celebres erant, neque admittebatur, nisi qui dabat, quod poposcerat; poscebat autem illa nimium quantum.” 4 Hinc ait natum esse illud frequens apud Graecos adagium:

Οὐ παντὸς ἀνδρὸς ἐς Κόρινθον ἔσθ᾿ ὁ πλοῦς

quod frustra iret Corinthum ad Laidem, qui non quiret dare, quod posceretur. 5 “Ad hanc ille Demosthenes clanculum adit et, ut sibi copiam sui faceret, petit. At Lais myrias drachmas poposcit”, hoc facit nummi nostratis denarium decem milia. 6 “Tali petulantia mulieris atque pecuniae magnitudine ictus expavidusque Demosthenes avertitur et discedens “ego” inquit “paenitere tanti non emo”. Sed Graeca ipsa, quae fertur dixisse, lepidiora sunt: οὐκ ὠνοῦμαι μυρίων δραχμῶν μεταμέλειαν.

Does this face merit a surcharge?

[1] If we use the popular idea that a drachma was worth one day of a skilled worker’s wages, then Lais’ services cost 10,000 working days. Perhaps less overwhelming, but still impressive is valuing a drachma at $25 USD: A night with Lais is only $250,000 dollars. But maybe that’s just because it was Demosthenes….

Leave a Reply