________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 19 . . . . May 23, 2003


The Courtesan’s Daughter.

Priscilla Galloway.
Toronto, ON: Penguin, 2003.
259 pp., pbk., $18.00.
ISBN 0-14-301384-X.

Grades 7-12 / Ages 12-17.

Review by Darleen Golke.

***1/2 /4

Reviewed from uncorrected proofs.


Anthesteria is the festival of the new wine. It is the earliest great festival of spring, when the first blossoms have begun to show and the wine from the fall harvest is ready to drink. Anesteria means "flowers," and many children wear crowns of blossoms. Dionysos, god of wine, returns from the Underworld. The Basilinna marries him and from their union the whole world is reborn.

Father, Mama and I had always celebrated Anthesteria quietly at home. We were in the minority, though. The public celebrations were open to everybody, citizens, foreign born, even slaves. This year, as usual, most people would put on their best clothes, garland their heads with wreathes, and join the crowds.

The first day was wine tasting, and the festival of the little jars. Leaders in the ceremonies were mostly men. The nine archons, Theo at their head, took turns bending over three or four of the huge jars, drawing the wine fumes into their nostrils. From their smiles, from the relaxation of their tense bodies, everybody could tell that this year's wine was good. Dionysos be praised!

Servants of the god passed out little jars, of the sweet new wine, along with water for mixing. Dora came to walk beside me as the triumphant procession formed and moved off. Trumpets brayed; cymbals clashed. Everyone cheered. As the women near me saw who I was, many cheered for me. "The Basilinna!" "Praise Dionysos, the Basilinna!" resounded in my ears.

As the “Tales of Ancient Lands” series (Annick 1997, 1999) demonstrated, Galloway writes about Ancient Greece with passion and insight. Her consuming interest in this historical period and her meticulous research continue in her latest novel aimed at young adult readers. Her research uncovered a "prosecutor's speech delivered before an Athenian jury between 343 and 340 B.C.E." about "an aging courtesan named Neaira" who was "prosecuted because she had allegedly broken the law that forbade foreigners to marry or pretend lawful marriage with an Athenian citizen." "Wrongly attributed to the famous orator Demosthenes," the speech serves as the basis for the story Galloway weaves.

     Set against the backdrop of 350 B.C.E. when Athens faces a potential invasion from Philip of Macedon, the story of 14 year old Phano unfolds. An ardent patriot, Phano insists Athens is "the city dearer to me than my own life." She lives quietly and modestly with her father, Stephanos, a disgraced civil servant, and his wife, Hera, a former courtesan from Corinth, until Phrynion, a wealthy, unscrupulous citizen, kidnaps her and Hera. They had previously been under his protection and both had suffered considerable abuse at his hands. The legal entanglements and the emotional overtones occasioned by the conflict between Hera and Phrynion actually work in Phano's favour by introducing her to Theo, a councilor and member of a respectable Athenian family.

     Phano fascinates Theo. Educated by Nera in politics as well as rhetoric, grammar, and the arts, Phano offers political opinions frankly while at the same time demonstrating "womanly acts" like spinning and weaving. When Theo is assured that Phano is indeed a citizen of Athens, of respectable lineage and a marriageable 15 years of age, he offers marriage, to Phano's delight. As her husband and archon, a magistrate of Athens, he improves the family fortunes by hiring her father as an assessor. Unfortunately, Phrynion, fueled by hatred for Hera and lust for Phano, campaigns to discredit Phano and subject her to his lecherous intentions. His numerous diabolical schemes ultimately fail, but not before providing complicated plot twists that keep the action moving at a steady pace while incorporating several subplots and secondary conflicts.

     Galloway presents a fascinating portrait of the social, cultural, religious and political structure of Athens. Admitting that "much of ancient Athens belongs to the unknowable past," she uses "what scholarship offers, and buil[ds] on it." Ceremonies, festivals, rites of passage, food, the arts, and cultural mores are interwoven with political intrigue, treachery and patriotism. No detail is too small for Galloway as she carefully describes Phano's life and times. "The feelings of people weren't all that different," she contends, "and they worked out their hopes and dreams in ways that resonate with modern readers." Much of the complex and densely woven plot revolves around the requirement of a woman's absolute respectability. Women's rights derive from those of their husbands, and only full citizens enjoy any rights. As the daughter of "two citizens of Athens," Phano enjoys rights denied to, for example, slaves like her nanny, Minta. In fact, "owners have the right to beat slaves to death for disobedience" and "the laws of Athens call for torture before a slave gives evidence." Nera, a former courtesan and a foreigner, although legally the wife of Stephanos, must, by court order, "spend the same number of days each month with Stephanos and Phrynion." "Respectability," she bitterly contends, "is the excuse Athenian men use to keep woman down."

     As narrator, Phano emerges as an appealing, strong minded young woman exposed by circumstances to unusual situations during a time of political crisis. Hers is certainly not the usual fictional "coming of age" tale. She draws people into her world, revealing her inner fears and doubts as well as her honesty and strength of character. Thanks to Nera, Phano demonstrates a remarkable grasp of politics and recognizes that Theo "would never be a consummate politician;" he was too "much a man of principle" and would need her to "keep him from some fatal misstep." At a point when one of Phrynion's plots seems to spell doom for them, she readily proposes divorcing Theo to protect him from her disgrace. The well drawn main secondary characters effectively act as a foil for Phano Phrynion is an appropriately nasty villain, Nera a feisty surrogate mother, Theo a model Athenian, and the others fulfill their roles adequately.

     Galloway does not shy away from including some of the less enlightened aspects of Athenian society like slavery, attempted rape, court sanctioned prostitution, violence, political treachery, abuse of women and children. Young readers may find The Courtesan's Daughter challenging with its complex plot and wealth of historical detail; however, those who persevere will be enriched and entertained by this glimpse into ancient Athens.

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke is a librarian living in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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