Trying Neaira is just what one would NOT expect an historical nonfiction book to be: witty and easy to read, with little bizarre bits that one just MUST read out loud! Furthermore, her writing style is light and makes a normal dry subject (the ancient Athenian judicial system) interesting and comprehensible.
Neaira was a prostitute in the 4th century, who grew up in Corinth and eventually found herself in a stable relationship as the long-time mistress of an influential Athenian, Stephanos. Unfortunately, Stephanos had an equally influential enemy (or at least rival) Apollodoros. They battled back and forth in the courts, and eventually Apollodoros hit on a different way to attack Stephanos--through Neaira.
Athenian laws were quite strict about foreigners and allowed no intermarriage. Apollodoros set out to prove that Neaira was living with Stephanos as his wife, instead of as his mistress, and that their children were being given the rights of Athenian citizens--which, as Neaira's children, they never could be.
Using Apollodoros speech to the jury, Hamel recreates Neaira's life, while using other sources to fill out the story with interesting details about prostitution, jury duty, social customs and Athenian law.*
Hamel approaches Neaira's life (via the speech) as a detective would, piecing together bits, shifting out obvious falsehoods, and in the end presenting a surprising full picture of one woman's life.
This is an excellent book for anyone who is, or who is NOT, interested in ancient Athenian law. I, myself, had not the least curiosity in said subject and yet found myself fascinated, all the while being constantly entertained by her sly wit and bizarre trivia. I learned enough from this book to become quite interested in Athenian history and I feel it will have the same effect on any other casual historian.
*to qoute from the Preface:
Apollodoros'speech, inevitably hostile to Neaira, must be the principal source for her biography, though we will need very often to question and reject the information he provides. Where what he tells us is not inherently unlikely, however, or contradicted by other sources, and when lying about the issue under discussion would not have furthered the prosecution's case, we can feel reasonably confident about accepting Apollodoros'testimony. Fleshing out Neaira's story, too, will require frequent dips into other source material.