What Became of Lais?

There are at least seven poems preserved in the Greek Anthology ‘celebrating’ a courtesan named Lais. The poem controversially attributed to Plato is elegant, compact, and clever. The poem attributed to Antipater is some combination of prosaic, creepy, and cruel.

Plato 6.1 (Greek Anthology)

That Lais who proudly laughed at Hellas
And had swarms of young lovers at her door,
Now gives to Aphrodite this mirror—
Since I won’t look at myself as I am,
And can’t look at myself as I used to be.

ἡ σοβαρὸν γελάσασα καθ᾽ Ἑλλάδος, ἥ ποτ᾽ ἐραστῶν
ἑσμὸν ἐπὶ προθύροις Λαῒς ἔχουσα νέων,
τῇ Παφίῃ τὸ κάτοπτρον: ἐπεὶ τοίη μὲν ὁρᾶσθαι
οὐκ ἐθέλω, οἵη δ᾽ ἦν πάρος οὐ δύναμαι.

Antipater 7.218 (Greek Anthology)

Debauched woman robed in purple and gold,
Love’s accomplice, softer than soft Kypris—
Corinthian Lais, it’s she I hold.
More dazzling than the tumbling waters
Of Peirene’s pellucid spring.
That mortal Cythereia: more pursued
By noble suitors than the unwed
Daughter of Sparta’s king, Tyndarius.
Men enjoyed her favors, her paid-for love.
Now, her saffron-scented tomb: the moist bones
Still redolent with incense unguents,
And her oiled hair exhales its fragrant breath.
For her, Aphrodite scratched her lovely face,
And in his mourning Eros groaned and cried.
If only she hadn’t made of her bed
A slave to money, and open to all—
Hellas would have endured ordeals for her,
Just as it had for Helen.

τὴν καὶ ἅμα χρυσῷ καὶ ἁλουργίδι καὶ σὺν Ἔρωτι
θρυπτομένην, ἁπαλῆς Κύπριδος ἁβροτέραν
Λαΐδ᾽ ἔχω, πολιῆτιν ἁλιζώνοιο Κορίνθου,
Πειρήνης λευκῶν φαιδροτέραν λιβάδων, [p. 124]
τὴν θνητὴν Κυθέρειαν, ἐφ᾽ ᾗ μνηστῆρες ἀγαυοὶ
πλείονες ἢ νύμφης εἵνεκα Τυνδαρίδος,
δρεπτόμενοι χάριτάς τε καὶ ὠνητὴν ἀφροδίτην:
ἧς καὶ ὑπ᾽ εὐώδει τύμβος ὄδωδε κρόκῳ,
ἧς ἔτι κηώεντι μύρῳ τὸ διάβροχον ὀστεῦν,
καὶ λιπαραὶ θυόεν ἄσθμα πνέουσι κόμαι
ᾗ ἔπι καλὸν ἄμυξε κάτα ῥέθος Ἀφρογένεια,
καὶ γοερὸν λύζων ἐστονάχησεν Ἔρως.
εἰ δ᾽ οὐ πάγκοινον δούλην θέτο κέρδεος εὐνήν,
Ἑλλὰς ἄν, ὡς Ἑλένης, τῆσδ᾽ ὕπερ ἔσχε πόνον.

Marble statue of an old woman. 1st Century AD Roman copy of a 2nd Century BC Greek original. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

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