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Laϊs of Corinth

Perhaps it is not surprising in these notes pages that Lais of Corinth attracted my interest because of the reverse of an ancient coin. From the coin it was easy to get lost on tangents: the definition of hetaira, contemplating Aristotle (384–322 BC), his study under Plato, and founding of the "peripatetic school", or origins of the name "peripatetic": connected the colonnades under which they walked. It is easy to wander through Aristotle's many contributions to philosophy, zoology, ethics, logic, math, and the varied glorification, interpretation and refutation of his contributions to modern science, always, the wandering did eventually return to the ancient coin.

The side trip to Aristotle started from "Sotion of Alexandria" a man of the Peripatetic school, founded by Aristotle, mentioned by Gellius in Attic Nights, the source of an anecdote about Lais, a wealthy hetaira associated with several famous philosophers:

"An anecdote found in the works of the philosopher Sotion about the courtesan Lais and the orator Demosthenes.

Sotion was a man of the Peripatetic school, far from unknown. He wrote a book filled with wide and varied information and called it Κέρας Ἀμαλθείας,​ which is about equivalent to The Horn of Plenty.

In that book is found the following anecdote about the orator Demosthenes and the courtesan Lais: "Lais of Corinth," he says, "used to gain a great deal of money by the grace and charm of her beauty, and was frequently visited by wealthy men from all over Greece; but no one was received who did not give what she demanded, and her demands were extravagant enough."

He says that this was the origin of the proverb common among the Greeks: Not every man may fare to Corinth town,​ for in vain would any man go to Corinth to visit Lais who could not pay her price. "The great Demosthenes approached her secretly and asked for her favours. But Lais demanded ten thousand drachmas" — a sum equivalent in our money to ten thousand denarii. "Amazed and shocked at the woman's great impudence and the vast sum of money demanded, Demosthenes turned away, remarking as he left her: 'I will not buy regret at such a price.' "But the Greek words which he is said to have used are neater; he said: Ούκ ὠνοῦμαι μυρίων δραχμῶν μεταμέλειαν."
- A. Cornelius Gellius (AD c. 125 to >180) Attic Nights 1.8

"Corinth isn't for every man"​ seems to carry warning of the risks inherent in travel to Corinth, boasts of success, challenges to masculinity. Strabo's explanation of the phrase contrasts those who grew rich in Corinth and those whose spent their fortunes:

"And the temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves, courtesans, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess. And therefore it was also on account of these women that the city was crowded with people and grew rich; for instance, the ship captains freely squandered their money, and hence the proverb, “"Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth.
-Strabo, Geography, 8.6.20 

An association with the cult of Aphrodite referenced by Strabo is also supported by Athenaeus (573) quoting Pindarus: "courtesans who joined in the sacrifice to Aphrodite".

Lais of Corinth is referenced in this paragraph from Pausanias:

"As one goes up to Corinth are tombs, and by the gate is buried Diogenes of Sinope, whom the Greeks surname the Dog. Before the city is a grove of cypresses called Craneum. Here are a precinct of Bellerophontes, a temple of Aphrodite Melaenis and the grave of Lais, upon which is set a lioness holding a ram in her fore-paws.

There is in Thessaly another tomb which claims to be that of Lais, for she went to that country also when she fell in love with Hippostratus. The story is that originally she was of Hycara in Sicily. Taken captive while yet a girl by Nicias and the Athenians, she was sold and brought to Corinth, where she surpassed in beauty the courtesans of her time, and so won the admiration of the Corinthians that even now they claim Lais as their own."
-Pausanias, AD c. 110 – c. 180 ): Description of Greece, Book II: Corinth. 2.2.4-2.2.5 

Alciati's image of lioness and ram on Lais' tomb does not show to full subjugation of the ram that is found on the coin.

"What tomb, whose urn is this? - It belongs to Lais of Ephyre (aka Corinth). - Ah, was not the goddess of Fate ashamed to destroy such loveliness? - She had no beauty then. Age had already worn it away. She had become an old woman and had already wisely dedicated her mirror to Venus. - What’s the meaning of the ram carved there, which a lioness holds tight, gripping its hind-quarters with her claws? - It is there because she too would hold her captive lovers in just this way. The male of the flock is the ram. The lover is held by the buttocks.
- Andreae Alciati v.c. Emblemata 1492-1550 

At first glance I mistook the obverse for a coin of Augustus and the image on the back an odd portrayal of a she-wolf or fox? I suppose Augustus would not want to know that I confused him with Aphrodite or a coin honoring a Corinthian courtesan. The Greek verb "korinthiazesthai" to play the part of a Corinthian - implying the role of courtesan (female or heterein) or pimp (male or mastropeuein). The reverse of this coin shows the tomb of Laϊs of Corinth (late 5th-early 4th century BC), a famous hetaira (courtesan). A hetaira was a well educated, entertainer, courtesan or mistress.

Achaea, Corinthia, Corinth, during the reign of Hadrian, AD 128/38, AE 21mm 7.15g

Obv: Ηead of Aphrodite (?) Laϊs(?), with earring and necklace, right, hair brought back and tied behind, leaving loose ends

Rev: COL L IVL COR, lioness standing, left, over prostrate ram, on capital of Doric column; very little of the fluted shaft is shown

Ref: RPC Vol. III 247 same dies as the example in RPC, very rare with 5 specimens known in RPC, SNG Copenhagen (vol. XV, Corinth) 294

Note: "The head on the obverse of the coin may be intended either for Aphrodite or for Lais herself." (Imhoof-Blumer Commentary on Pausanias 1887 p.19)

This coin seems to have some interesting Danish provenance - from the information on the collector's slip that came with the coin it was purchased from Bruun-Rasmussen and was part of a collection of coins that were owned by Peter Flensborg, who appears to have purchased it from Otto Madsen in 1987. 1987 was the year that the previous owner died, Johan Christian Holm (1914-1987). In the early 60’s, Mr. Holm exchanged a unique and extremely important early Danish coin for many boxes of the Copenhagen museum’s Greek duplicates that were not published in SNG Copenhagen. Many of these coins were purchased for the BCD collection from Holm in the 1960s and 1970s.

This coin a local provincial bronze coin of Corinth that does not show the emperor. ACSearch doesn't turn up much with a query for "corinth lioness" - 3 coins with a similar reverse and none of this specific coin. All three in show the lioness facing right.

This coin of Septimius Severus from a Nomos Auction in 2019 that sold for $365 (and a second one of the same type from Leu in 2019 in worse condition at half the price)

and a very fine example from the time of Hadrian similar to my coin that sold for >$6000 despite some modern "smoothing":

A related coin from the time of Hadrian with similar obverse and Aphrodite on the reverse is shown in the references below - from a paper from Excavations in Corinth.

The reverse with a proud lioness standing over the ram, a fitting image for the wealthy woman who conquered men.The tomb of Laϊs celebrated on a Roman provincial coin ~5 centuries after her death, is a testament to the deep legacy long after Greek Corinth was replaced by a roman colony.

Public domain image - from Don Croner’s World Wide Wanders

Corinth was a city of travelers with ports facing east to the Gulf of Corinth and west to the Saronic Gulf. Aelius Aristides describes is as a common city for all Greeks:

"It receives all cities and sends them off again and is a common refuge for all, like a kind of route or passage for all mankind , no matter where one would travel, and it is a common city for all Greeks, indeed as it were, a kind of metropolis and mother in this respect."
-Aelius Aristides (117–181 AD), Orationes, 46.22

Strabo describes the city:

"Corinth is called "wealthy" because of its commerce, since it is situated on the Isthmus and is master of two harbors, of which the one leads straight to Asia, and the other to Italy; and it makes easy the exchange of merchandise from both countries that are so far distant from each other."
"And the temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves, courtesans, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess. And therefore it was also on account of these women that the city was crowded with people and grew rich; for instance, the ship captains freely squandered their money, and hence the proverb, “"Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth."
-Strabo, Geography, 8.6.20 

In Hadrian's time, the time of the coin above, Corinth was a Roman city. The Greek city was destroyed in 146 BC by Roman general Lucius Mummius and in 44 BC Julius Caesar reestablished Corinth as a Roman colony.

Athenaeus also describes: "And Lais was a rival of Phryne, and had an immense number of lovers, never caring whether they were rich or poor, and never treating them with any insolence." and tells this story of Lais and two of her lovers, Aristippus and Diogenes:

And when Diogenes said, "Since you, O Aristippus, cohabit with a common prostitute, either, therefore, become a Cynic yourself, as I am, or else abandon her;" Aristippus answered him- "Does it appear to you, O Diogenes, an absurd thing to live in a house where other men have lived before you ?" "Not at all," said he. "Well, then, does it appear to you absurd to sail in a ship in which other men have sailed before you?" "By no means," said he. "Well, then," replied Aristippus, "it is not a bit more absurd to be in love with a woman with whom many men have been in love already."

The metaphor of house and ship connect well with Corinth as a town of hospitality to travelers - places of short term stays.

"Phryne", by José Frappa, AD 1903, public domain via WikiMedia.

Phryne from 4th century Athens became one of the wealthiest women in Greece. The painting that opens these notes shows the trial of Phryne for impropriety where according to various accounts she or her lawyer, realizing that her cause was not gaining sway with the jurors, found a way to convince the jurors of her innocence, by exposing her breasts.

Roman marble copy of Praxiteles' Aphrodite of Knidos in the Museo Nazionale Romano Ludovisi Collection, public domain image via WikiMedia. Phryne was the model for the much copied Aphrodite of Knidos.

Returning to Lais, by one account in Athenaeus, she was murdered in the temple of Aphrodite by jealous Thessalian women. Photius references an account of "the courtesan Lais, who choked on an olive-stone."

Athenaeus also writes of her tomb in Thessaly:

"her tomb is shown on the banks of the Peneus, having on it an emblem of a stone water-ewer, and this inscription:

This is the tomb of Lais, to whose beauty,
Equal to that of heavenly goddesses,
The glorious and unconquered Greece did
Love was her father, Corinth was her home,
Now in the rich Thessalian plain she lies;

so that those men talk nonsense who say that she was buried in Corinth, near the Craneium."

References (in addition to those cited in line)

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