2015.07.01 | By Gregory Nagy
The story about a courtesan named Rhodōpis, according to the version told by Herodotus
§1. In the History of Herodotus, at 2.134–135 [Greek | English], we read about a beautiful hetaira or ‘courtesan’ named Rhodōpis. This woman, according to the reportage of ‘some Greeks’ as opposed to others (metexeteroi . . . Hellēnōn), commissioned the building of the third and smallest of the three pyramids at the site now known as Giza. Herodotus says that this reportage is incorrect, and he prefers to accept an alternative version, according to which it was the pharaoh Mukerinos who commissioned the building of this third pyramid. The pharaohs who commissioned the first and the second of these pyramids were Kheops and Khephrēn. As we know from Egyptian sources, the three pharaohs Kheops and Khephrēn and Mukerinos ruled during the Fourth Dynasty, dating from the third millennium BCE. By contrast, as Herodotus emphasizes, the courtesan named Rhodōpis must have lived in a much later era, during the rule of the pharaoh Amasis. As we know from both Egyptian and Greek sources, this pharaoh belongs in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, and he lived in the sixth century BCE. Then Herodotus goes on to say that the courtesan Rhodōpis, a Thracian by birth, had once been a slave of a man from the island state of Samos named Iadmōn, and that another slave owned by this Samian man Iadmōn was Aesop the logopoios or ‘maker of prose’.
§2. In reconstructing this nexus of relationships, Herodotus relies in part on his investigation of various traditions concerning the death of Aesop at Delphi, observing that a grandson of Iadmōn, also named Iadmōn, once received from the Delphians a blood-price as a compensation for their having killed Aesop, who was the former slave of Iadmōn the grandfather. But how did Rhodōpis, who, like Aesop, had been a slave of the elder Iadmōn, wind up in Egypt? According to Herodotus, the man who brought her there as a slave was not the elder Iadmōn but another Samian, named Xanthēs. We know from other sources, including Aristotle’s Constitution of the Samians, that the ownership of Aesop as slave was transferred from someone called Xanthos the Samian to another Samian, called Idmōn.  In terms of these narratives, I infer that this Xanthos the Samian is a multiform of Xanthēs the Samian (as he is called by Herodotus), while Idmōn the Samian is a multiform of Iadmōn the Samian (again, as he is called by Herodotus). And I infer further that Xanthēs was the second owner of Rhodōpis as slave and that Iadmōn was the first owner, while, conversely, the multiform Xanthos was the first owner of Aesop and the multiform Idmōn was the second owner. According to a story transmitted by Pliny the Elder, the beautiful Rhodōpis and the ugly Aesop had once been lovers (Natural History 36.17; in this version, she is acknowledged as the builder of the third pyramid at Giza).
§3. That said, let us continue with the version of story as told by Herodotus. Once she arrived in Egypt, Rhodōpis ‘worked’ as a sex-slave but later won her freedom from slavery when she was ransomed for a hefty sum of money by a man from Mytilene, which was then the foremost city of Lesbos, and this man happened to be Kharaxos, a brother of Sappho the mousopoios or ‘maker of songs’. Now a free woman but continuing to make a living as a courtesan in Egypt, Rhodōpis became very wealthy, since she was so ‘sexually irresistible’, ep-aphroditos, and she eventually gave away one tenth of her amassed wealth by sending iron spits (used for the roasting of sacrificial beef) as an offering to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. So, in the version of the story as reported by Herodotus, Rhodōpis was wealthy enough to make such an offering, but certainly not so wealthy as to be able to finance the building of the third pyramid at Giza.
§4. Only now in the narrative does Herodotus point out the place in Egypt where Rhodōpis was making her living: it was in the city of Naucratis, a Greek enclave in Egypt, and this enclave was famous for its hetairai ‘courtesans’: they were so ep-aphroditoi ‘sexually irresistible’, as Herodotus puts it. Eventually, Rhodōpis became kleinē ‘famed in song’, and that is how all Greeks came to know her name, Rhodōpis. In a later period, Herodotus adds, there was another hetaira ‘courtesan’ who became almost as aoidimos ‘songworthy’ as Rhodōpis had been throughout the Greek-speaking world (ana tēn Hellada): she was a woman named Arkhidikē, but even this courtesan was not as peri-leskhēneutos ‘talked-about in men’s clubs’ as was Rhodōpis. As we know from a variety of other narratives, a leskhē ‘men’s club’ is considered to be an ideal venue for performances of song and poetry.
§5. Having thus highlighted the widespread fame of Rhodōpis in the song culture of the ancient Greek world, Herodotus now proceeds to wind up this part of his story by returning, in ring composition, to the relationship between this sexually irresistible woman and the man who paid for her freedom, Kharaxos of Mytilene, brother of Sappho. This man, as the lover of Rhodōpis, figures in the songs of Sappho, who sings of his relationship disapprovingly. That is what Herodotus reports, evidently linking what he says about the fame of Rhodōpis throughout the Greek-speaking world with the songs once sung by Sappho herself about the love-affair of her errant brother with this sexually irresistible courtesan. A nearly complete text of one of these songs has now come to light, and the editio princeps has been published by Dirk Obbink. In Sappho’s songs, however, as some ancient readers report, the name of the courtesan was not Rhodōpis but Dōrikha.
A different version of the story about Rhodōpis
§6. As we have noted in the passage from Herodotus about Rhodōpis, 2.134–135, ‘some Greeks’ (metexeteroi . . . Hellēnōn) accept the idea that Rhodōpis gets credit for the building of the third and smallest of the three pyramids at Giza. And, as we have also noted, Herodotus rejects this idea and accepts the alternative idea that this third pyramid had been built by the pharaoh Mukerinos.
§7. But who are these ‘other Greeks’ who accept the idea that Rhodōpis and not Mukerinos gets credit for the building of the third pyramid? I would argue that the stand-in for these ‘other Greeks’ is Hecataeus of Miletus, a predecessor of Herodotus who dates from the sixth/fifth centuries BCE. There is ample evidence to show that Hecataeus is often cited by Herodotus as his anonymous foil. In this case, Herodotus may be criticizing Hecataeus for seemingly accepting the idea that Rhodōpis, the courtesan loved by Sappho’s brother Kharaxos, commissioned a pyramid to be built.
§8. Both the idea that Rhodōpis gets credit for the building of the third pyramid and the story in which the idea is embedded are independently attested in Greek sources other than Herodotus. Whereas Herodotus, as we have seen, rejects the idea, these other Greek sources support it. I highlight as my first example a version of the story that we read in Diodorus of Sicily (first century BCE) as paraphrased from the work of another Hecataeus (fourth century BCE: he is not the Hecataeus from Miletus):
ταύτην δ’ ἔνιοι λέγουσι Ῥοδώπιδος τάφον εἶναι τῆς ἑταίρας, ἧς φασι τῶν νομαρχῶν τινας ἐραστὰς γενομένους διὰ φιλοστοργίαν ἐπιτελέσαι κοινῇ τὸ κατασκεύασμα.
This one [= this third pyramid] is said by some to be the tomb of Rhodōpis the courtesan [hetaira]. They say that some of the nomarchs [nomarkhoi] became her lovers and, on account of their obsession with their love for her, they jointly undertook the commissioning of the building.
Diodorus 1.64.14, paraphrasing from Hecataeus FGrH 264 F 25
Looking at the overall context of the text in which this passage is embedded, I note with great interest how the narration keeps stressing the diversity of Egyptian traditions regarding the historical circumstances that led to the building of the three great pyramids at Giza:
περὶ δὲ τῶν πυραμίδων οὐδὲν ὅλως οὔτε παρὰ τοῖς ἐγχωρίοις οὔτε παρὰ τοῖς συγγραφεῦσι συμφωνεῖται.
On the subject of the pyramids, there is no general agreement among the native informants or among the historians who write about it.
Diodorus 1.64.13, paraphrasing from Hecataeus FGrH 264 F 25
In fact, the version I just quoted, claiming that Rhodōpis gets credit for the third of the three great pyramids at Giza, is just the third of three main versions to be found in the text of Diodorus. According to the first version, also highlighted in the text, the three pyramids were built by three pharaohs whose names are spelled Khemmis and Kephrēn and Mukerinos. These three pharaohs correspond to Kheops and Khephrēn and Mukerinos in the separate narrative of Herodotus. So, in this version as also in the version reported by Herodotus, the third pyramid had been built by Mukerinos. But then the text of Diodorus goes on to record a radically different second version in which the three pharaohs who built the three pyramids were Armaios and Amōsis and Inarōs. Finally, the text of Diodorus gives a third version of the story, and, in this one, the third of the three pyramids was collectively built by the nomarkhoi ‘nomarchs’ of Egypt for the sake of a courtesan named Rhodōpis, as we saw in the passage I already quoted from Diodorus.
§9. But what was the Egyptian name of this Rhodōpis? Here I focus on ancient reports about a queen named Nitōkris who ruled toward the end of the 6th Dynasty, in the late third millennium BCE. The dating and the naming originate from the Egyptian historian Manetho, who lived in the third century BCE. In a surviving paraphrase from the work of Manetho, who composed in Greek, we read these further details about Nitōkris the queen:
Νίτωκρις, γεννικωτάτη καὶ εὐμορφοτάτη τῶν κατ’ αὐτὴν γενομένη, ξανθὴ τὴν χροιάν, ἣ τὴν τρίτην ἤγειρε πυραμίδα, ἐβασίλευσεν ἔτη ιβʹ.
Nitōkris was the most noble and beautiful of all the women of her generation. She was fair [xanthē] in complexion [khroia]. It was she who erected the third pyramid. She ruled for twelve years.
Manetho FGrH 609 F 2 (p. 26) lines 18–21
I translate xanthē for the moment here as ‘fair’, as in the English expression ‘fair-skinned’, but we are about see that the translation ‘blonde’ is likewise valid. According to the relevant paraphrase of Manetho by Eusebius in this context, the description of Nitōkris in the surviving Armenian translation of Eusebius’s original Greek wording is rendered in Latin as flava rubris genis ‘blonde with blushing cheeks’. These descriptions of Nitōkris correspond closely to the meaning of the Greek name Rhodōpis, ‘the one with the rosy face’—or ‘the lady with the rosy face’.
§10. In this Egyptian context, as I will now argue, it is unjustifiable to infer that Manetho describes Nitōkris as a blonde with blushing cheeks simply because he thinks that this woman from the 6th Dynasty, dating back to third millennium BCE, must be identified with a woman named Rhodōpis who dates back only as far as the sixth century BCE. Instead, as I will also argue, the appearance of Nitōkris as described by Manetho is a traditional Egyptian theme that becomes a model for describing, many centuries later, the appearance of a courtesan by way of renaming her as Rhodōpis, that is, as the one with the rosy looks.
Egyptian variations on a theme: a courtesan, a princess, a queen
§11. In the traditional chronology of Egyptian pharaohs, as we have just seen in the documentation provided by Manetho, Nitōkris figures as a female pharaoh who built the third pyramid toward the end of the Sixth Dynasty, in the late third millennium BCE. But this report as recorded by Manetho does not really contradict the other report, recorded not only by Herodotus but also by other sources such as Diodorus, according to which the third pyramid had been built by Mukerinos in the Fourth Dynasty, at an earlier point in the third millennium BCE. I say this because Mukerinos in the Fourth Dynasty had left unfinished the project of building the third pyramid, as we see in the report of Diodorus. Here I take up the argumentation advanced by an Egyptologist, Christiane Zivie-Coche, who shows that Nitōkris in the Sixth Dynasty could have been given credit not only for finishing the project but also, by way of a deliberate stretch in the narrative, for having done it all herself. We are still left, however, with a big problem here: how do we reconcile (1) the Egyptian story, as reported by Manetho, about the building of the third pyramid as a tomb for Nitōkris the queen and (2) the Egyptian story, as reported by Hecataeus by way of Diodorus, about the building of this same pyramid as a tomb for the courtesan Rhodōpis? In the case of Rhodōpis, the actual builders are the nomarchs of Egypt, who are the lovers of the courtesan: so, the courtesan herself is not the builder. In the case of Nitōkris, by contrast, she herself undertakes the project of building the pyramid.
§12. We can find a solution to the problem, I argue, if we think of these two Egyptian traditions anthropologically in terms of myths that express the shifting dynamics of wealth, power, and prestige. From my lengthy experience in the study of ancient Greek myths, I have learned that their historical value is all too often ignored by modern researchers who fail to see them for what they really are, that is, as symbolic expressions of social realities. A tell-tale sign of such ignorance is the supercilious use of such vague terms as “legend” and “folklore” in referring to ancient Greek myths. Applying my experience to the study of ancient Egyptian myths, I argue that, here too, the stories we read about such figures as Nitōkris the queen and Rhodōpis the courtesan must not be dismissed as merely “legend” and “folklore.” Instead, we may view such stories as myths that explore the shifting social ideologies of pharaonic Egypt through the ages.
§13. Using the term “myth” in such a modified way, I now apply it to another story about the building of a pyramid. This time, the protagonist is not a queen or a courtesan but a princess. And, in this myth, the princess takes on the role of a courtesan.
§14. The story is actually embedded in the History of Herodotus, at 2.126.1–2, where we read that the pharaoh Kheops, builder of the first and largest of the three pyramids at Giza, had a daughter whom he forced into prostitution, and that this daughter, using the proceeds that she earned as a prostitute, financed the building of a small pyramid for herself, situated in front of her father’s great pyramid.
§15. So, we see here a third variation on the theme of building a pyramid. In the first case, we saw that the pyramid is meant for a courtesan named Rhodōpis. Then, in the second case, it is meant for a queen named Nitōkris. And here, in the third case, it is meant for an unnamed princess.
§16. Thus Herodotus, who denies that the third pyramid was built for a courtesan named Rhodōpis, nevertheless affirms that a small pyramid next to the first pyramid was actually built for the daughter of a pharaoh.
§17. And there is also a related context elsewhere in the History of Herodotus, at 2.100.1–4, where the historian tells about the building of a grand hall by Nitōkris the queen, who takes vengeance on the killers of her brother by destroying them inside this hall, thus transforming her building into a tomb. As one commentator has remarked, “Thus even in the History, Nitocris [Nitōkris] builds something like a pyramid.”
From Nitōkris to Rhodōpis
§18. On the basis of all the variations I have analyzed so far, I reconstruct an Egyptian myth that tells about a beautiful queen named Nitōkris, renowned for her fair complexion, who gets credit—one way or another—for the building of the third pyramid at Giza. But now I must confront another big problem: how are we to account for the naming of this Egyptian woman Nitōkris as Rhodōpis in the Greek language? Granted, the naming is apt, since the Greek form Rhodōpis means ‘she with the rosy face’, as we have already seen, and thus the Greek renaming of Nitōkris as Rhodōpis actually matches the primary aspect of this woman’s beauty as described in terms of the Egyptian tradition preserved by Manetho: ‘she was fair [xanthē] in complexion [khroia].’ But the question remains: how did Nitōkris get a Greek name that translates, as it were, a description of her appearance as reported in the Egyptian traditions?
§19. For an answer, I argue that we need to reconstruct the Egyptian traditions forward in time, all the way from the early era of the queen Nitōkris in the Sixth Dynasty, that is, in the third millennium BCE, up to the far later era of a courtesan named Rhodōpis who lived under the rule of the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, in the sixth century BCE. Here it becomes essential to highlight a detail in the relevant narrative of Herodotus, at 2.134–135: according to this narrative, as we have already seen from the start, Rhodōpis made her living as a courtesan in the city of Naucratis. This city, as we have also seen, was a Greek enclave in Egypt, and, I must now add, it had been created through the patronage of the pharaoh Amasis, whom Herodotus describes elsewhere as a philellēn ‘phil-Hellene’. In the sixth century BCE, which was the era of Rhodōpis, this city Naucratis functioned as a grand emporium (emporion) consolidating the economic and political efforts of various Greek city-states, and two of these member states were Mytilene, the most important city on the island of Lesbos, and the island-city of Samos. As we have already seen, Mytilene was the city of Sappho’s brother Kharaxos, who was the lover of Rhodōpis, while Samos was the city of Iadmōn and Xanthēs, who had once been the slave-owners of this same Rhodōpis.
§20. It is in the cosmopolitan context of this Greek city Naucratis-in-Egypt, as it flourished during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis in the sixth century BCE, that we can finally come to terms with the kind of Greek-Egyptian cultural convergences that could lead to the translation of Nitōkris, as a concept, by way of a name like Rhodōpis. But my point remains that the Thracian hetaira or ‘courtesan’ named Rhodōpis was not the model for this concept. Just the opposite, Rhodōpis was modeled on the courtesan or princess or queen of pre-existing Egyptian traditions centering on the multivalent figure of Nitōkris.
§21. That is why, even though the courtesan loved by Sappho’s brother was named Dōrikha in the songs of Sappho, she was renamed or even rethought as Rhodōpis in the narrative of Herodotus. True, the historian did not accept the identification of this Rhodōpis with the queen who built her own pyramid in the Egyptian traditions, but he still thought of such an exotic Rhodōpis as the model for the courtesan so dearly loved by Sappho’s brother.
From Rhodōpis back to Nitōkris
§22. In the context of the Greek-Egyptian cultural syncretism that evolved in the city of Naucratis during the sixth century BCE, the place of origin for the Egyptian woman who somehow had a pyramid built for herself can actually get transferred to the Greek city of Naucratis. A shining example is the retelling of the story by Strabo, 17.1.33 C808. While describing the third pyramid at Giza, Strabo identifies this building as ‘the tomb of the courtesan [hetaira]’, and the text makes a reference here to the many erastai ‘lovers’ of this courtesan, all of whom contributed to the making of the pyramid. This reference corresponds to what we have read earlier in the text of Diodorus about the nomarchs of Egypt who were lovers of Rhodōpis, and, so far, we see once again a convergence of traditional Egyptian themes centering on the idea of a pyramid built for a courtesan. Moreover, the text of Strabo even links the courtesan buried in the third pyramid with the woman known as Dōrikha—that is what he calls her—who lived in Naucratis and who was loved by Sappho’s brother Kharaxos. But then the text of Strabo narrates a myth that shifts the focus from the many lovers of this courtesan to a single lover who will now have the power to make her a queen. In this myth as retold in the text of Strabo, Dōrikha is at this point rethought as Rhodōpis and described as a young girl who lives in Naucratis. One fine day, this girl is taking a bath outdoors, quite naked, while her clothing is being guarded by her handmaidens, and then, all of a sudden, an eagle swoops down and carries away one of her sandals, flying all the way to Memphis where it drops the sandal into the lap of the pharaoh, who is rendering judgments in the courtyard outside the palace. The king so admires the shape of the sandal (it shows a rhuthmos that apparently conveys the beauty of the girl’s dance-steps) that he sends emissaries everywhere throughout Egypt in search of the woman to whom the sandal belongs. When Rhodōpis is finally found in Naucratis, she is brought to the pharaoh in Memphis. The king now makes Rhodōpis his queen and eventually provides for the pyramid that will house her body. So, once again, we have returned to the traditional variations on the theme of an Egyptian woman whose identity modulates from courtesan to princess to queen. 
§23. We have seen two Greek markers for this Egyptian woman. The first of these is her place of origin, which is the Greek city of Naucratis. And her second Greek signature is the name that tells about her irresistible sexuality. It is the Greek name Rhodōpis—a name that becomes for the Egyptian queen an eternal sign of her fair skin, her rosy complexion.
Asheri, D., A. Lloyd, and A. Corcella. 2007. A Commentary on Herodotus Books I–IV. Ed. O. Murray and A. Moreno; trans. B. Graziosi et al. Oxford.
Austin, C., and Bastianini, G., eds. 2002. Posidippi Pellaei quae supersunt omnia. Milano.
Gera, D. L. 1997. Warrior Women: The Anonymous Tractatus de Mulieribus. Mnemosyne Supplement 162. Leiden.
Lidov, J. 2002. “Sappho, Herodotus and the Hetaira.” Classical Philology 97:203–37.
Lloyd, A. 2007. Commentary on Herodotus Book 2. In: Asheri, Lloyd, Corcella 2007:221–378.
Nagy, G. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore.
Obbink, D. 2014.“Two New Poems by Sappho.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 189:31–50.
Rose, V., ed. 1886. Aristoteles: Fragmenta. Leipzig.
Voigt, E.-M., ed. 1971. Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta. Amsterdam.
Yatromanolakis, D. 2007. Sappho in the Making: The Early Reception. Hellenic Studies 28. Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC.
Zivie-Coche, C. 1972. “Nitocris, Rhodopis et la troisième pyramide de Giza.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale 72:115–38.
 Herodotus 2.134.1.
 Again, Herodotus 2.134.1.
 Again, Herodotus 2.134.1.
 Herodotus 2.129–133.
 The narrative of Herodotus about the three pyramids at Giza begins at 2.124 and extends into 2.134.
 Herodotus 2.134.2.
 Herodotus 2.134.3.
 Herodotus 2.134.4.
 Herodotus 2.135.1.
 Aristotle F 573 (ed. Rose 1886); see also Plutarch On the delays of divine vengeance 556f.
 Herodotus 2.135.1.
 Herodotus 2.135.2.
 Herodotus 2.135.2–5; there is a reference to these spits in Cratinus F 269 K-A.
 Herodotus 2.135.5.
 Herodotus 2.135.5
 See for example the pseudo-Herodotean Life of Homer (Vita 1.141–146), as quoted and analyzed by Nagy 2009|2010:37; see also Yatromanolakis 2007:321–25.
 Herodotus 2.135.6.
 Obbink 2014.
 Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1800; Posidippus 122 ed. Austin and Bastianini, quoted in Athenaeus 13.596c; Strabo 17.1.33 C808 (I will comment on this text at a later point). On [Δ]ωρίχα at line 11 of Sappho F 15V, see Yatromanolakis 2007:330–31.
 Herodotus 2.134.1.
 Again, Herodotus 2.134.1.
 Here I agree with the view of Lidov 2002:214.
 Nagy 1990:67 = 2§30, 191, 224 = 8§13n54, 321 = 11§15, 331 = 11§29, 335 = 11§35.
 In this connection, I note a fragment of Hecataeus (FGrH 1 F 358 via Athenaeus 9.410e) where he refers to an exotic word (χειρόμακτρα, as a luxurious form of headwear for women) that we find attested in the songs of Sappho (F 101.1V). I think that Hecataeus may actually be referring here to the usage of Sappho.
 FGrH vol. 3a p. 44 lines 11–13.
 FGrH vol. 3a p. 44 lines 8–9.
 Diodorus 1.63.2–1.64.9. In 1.64.10–11, there is an added detail: the three pharaohs each built three other pyramids, smaller ones, for their gunaikes ‘women’ (I avoid assuming that all these women are ‘wives’). The paraphrasing in these passages of Diodorus derives from Hecataeus FGrH 264 F 25.
 Again, Herodotus 2.124–2.134
 Diodorus 1.64.13–1.64.14. Again, the paraphrasing in these passages of Diodorus derives from Hecataeus FGrH 264 F 25.
 Diodorus 1.64.14, paraphrasing from Hecataeus FGrH 264 F 25.
 The chronology here is further supported, it seems, by Eratosthenes, who lived in the third/second centuries BCE: see FGrH 610 F1 κβ. See also Dio Cassius 62.6.
 Diodorus 1.64.7–8, paraphrasing from Hecataeus FGrH 264 F 25.
 Zivie-Coche 1972:130, 134.
 Gera 1997:103.
 Again, Manetho FGrH 609 F 2 (p. 26).
 Herodotus 2.178.1. See also Zivie-Coche 1972:135.
 Herodotus 2.179.
 Herodotus 2.178.2–3. On the roles of Mytilene and Samos in the Hellēnion at Naucratis, the primary source is Herodotus 2.178.2. There is a useful commentary by Lloyd 2007:373 on the special importance of the Samian presence at Naucratis.
 Here I repeat my opinion, as expressed at the beginning, that Hecataeus of Miletus is a missing link in what Herodotus has to say about the courtesan Rhodopis.
 This myth is also attested in Aelian Varied Inquiries 13.33.
Image via Wikimedia Commons in the public domain