Love, magic and murder: the strange death of Philoneos in 430BC

In ancient Athens, violent ‘love’ spells, voodoo dolls and toxic potions made seduction a dangerous game. Writing for BBC History Revealed, Philip Matyszak unearths one tragic story of a love affair that turned deadly

Women in ancient Athens

It can be devastating to discover that your partner no longer loves you. But for one young woman in ancient Greece called Dilitra, this was worse than any modern romantic can imagine. For Dilitra was a slave, and her lover was also her owner.

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This owner, a man called Philoneos, informed Dilitra that he would be taking her with him on a trip to Athens. One might imagine that Dilitra was looking forward to accompanying Philoneos, enjoying a break from household routine and taking in the sights of the big city. Sadly, Dilitra would be seeing more of Athens than she would like. Philoneos was tired of her and intended to sell her to a brothel.

Dilitra would become a pornai – a common prostitute. Athenian slang for these unfortunate women translates as ‘those who hit the dirt’, a phrase similar to the modern expression ‘hitting rock bottom’.

These girls would stand naked at the doors of their dark dens, attempting to lure men inside for the cost of an obol per customer. (An obol was the equivalent of one or two loaves of bread.) Pictures on Athenian vases sometimes show the girls being encouraged to greater efforts by men wielding sticks or sandals. There was also the ever-present risk of pregnancy, which meant that a girl had either to live on her savings while she carried the child to term or had to attempt a risky drug-induced abortion.

As the concubine of Philoneos, Dilitra had a relatively easy life. Her situation as the master’s bed-mate gave her a certain status in the household, and her other tasks were the usual ones of a domestic maid – fetching water, carding wool, doing basic cookery and serving at table. She regarded her sale to the brothel with total horror. It was something that she would do anything to avoid.

Fortunately, she was not to be sold immediately on arrival in the city. First, Philoneos intended to visit a friend, and then the two would travel together to Piraeus, the port of Athens. The friend was taking a ship to the island of Naxos, while Philoneos wanted to sacrifice at the temple of Zeus. They then planned to have a convivial evening catching up on each other’s affairs. The next day, Dilitra would be sold to one of the many brothels servicing sailors and workmen at the port (the other major ‘red-lantern district’ was on the opposite side of Athens in Keremeikos), and Philoneos would set off for home, alone but somewhat richer.

Love’s labour’s cost

As far as Dilitra could see, there was only one way to escape her fate. Philoneos had to fall back in love with her. Or at least start lusting after her again – the classical Athenians had some difficulty distinguishing between the two conditions of love and lust. ‘Love’ as a spiritual bond unrelated to sex was in the ancient mind something one had for family members or perhaps a favourite horse or dog. Love between sexually compatible individuals was seldom distinguished from the act itself. What Dilitra needed, then, was an aphrodisiac, and as powerful a dose as could be procured at short notice. Once Philoneos was safely back in lust with his concubine, the immediate emergency would be over and Dilitra could start making plans for the future.

There were two ways to induce lust in an unsuspecting victim (three, if one counts old fashioned seduction). One was to use an agon spell. Such spells employed magic, usually through the power of a demon, to drive the victim mad with lust for a particular individual. A modern expert on the topic, Christopher Farone, has collected a number of these spells and notes that they differ from contemporary curses only in the desired effect on the victim.

Kolossoi (voodoo-style dolls) show the violence which underlay these rituals. One such ‘love’ doll, now in the Louvre Museum in Paris, shows a woman tied in the kneeling position with pins transfixing her eyes, stomach, breasts and sex organs.

Women were not often given a choice over their husband; that was the task of her male relatives. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Women were not often given a choice over their husband; that was the task of her male relatives. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Agon spells were generally preferred by men. Women, by and large, opted for pharmaka – drug-induced love – which the ancients considered to be a gentler alternative. Modern researchers would disagree: if you were going to inflict one upon yourself, you’d want to take your chances with a (probably) non-existent demon rather than with a chemical concoction that will certainly work, even if not as intended. Dilitra opted to take the chemical route, and duly procured a love potion. To describe what happened next we can turn to the Athenian who laid out the case in court:

Philoneos performed his sacrificial ceremony. When that was done, the woman deliberated how to administer his potion, unsure whether it would be better to do so before or after dinner. She eventually settled on afterwards…

When the meal was eaten. The pair naturally poured libations [of wine], the one as a supplement to his recent sacrifice to Zeus, and the other for a safe journey by sea. It was the concubine of Philoneos who prepared their wine while they offered their prayers – prayers that went unheard, please note – and she poured the potion with it.

Thinking herself inspired, she doubled up on Philoneos’s dose thinking that if she gave him more he would love her in proportion.

Philoneos’s friend, meanwhile got the smaller does that remained.

Women in Athenian law

“A good woman’s name should never be mentioned, neither blame nor praise.” So remarked the Athenian leader Pericles in a speech to the people explaining why Athens was superior to any other city in the world. In effect, in this utopian paradise, women were meant to be invisible.

A respectable woman stayed at home, looking after her children and organising the household. The most important person in such a woman’s life was her kyrios, a word meaning something between ‘lord’ and ‘master’. This was the senior male in a household and he had power over the family’s women, children, slaves and property.

Should a woman find herself without a kyrios, it was the job of her nearest male relative to either find her one or marry the woman herself in order to assume that position. Generally speaking, a woman had little choice in her husband. It was assumed that love would follow marriage rather than precede it. Also, because of her legal status, a woman had no place in the courtroom. Even if on trial for her life, a woman had to rely on her kyrios to represent her in court before male judges and jury.

The plan backfires

As cunning plans go, this one was a disaster. After gulping down his drink, Philoneos perished on the spot, literally dying for love.

The friend lasted three weeks and then died too. It was not exactly difficult for the authorities to work out the facts of the case, and probably also extract a confession from the distraught girl. Thereafter – probably because every Athenian nurtured a secret dread of being poisoned by a domestic slave – Dilitra was horribly tortured and executed.

There the tale might have ended,
= a sordid story with a tragic aftermath. But there was a twist, one which took over a decade to come to light. Philoneos’s friend had a son who was only a boy when his father died. Once he became an adult, the son astonished Athenians by launching a prosecution against his stepmother for the poisoning. According to this new allegation, his father was not the collateral damage from a love potion gone wrong but the intended victim of a deep-laid murder plot. It was Philoneos, and to some extent the unfortunate Dilitra, who were in fact the incidental victims of a cold-blooded killing.

The accuser testified that his stepmother and his father had been on bad terms before they discovered that Philoneos and Dilitra would be visiting. When the stepmother heard of the dreadful fate awaiting Dilitra, she sensed an opportunity. After talking to the girl and pretending to sympathise with her predicament, the stepmother admitted all was not well in her marriage also.

It was the wicked stepmother, claimed the prosecutor, who suggested administering a love potion to both men. In fact, she not only made the suggestion, but even supplied the lethal dose. Yet the stepmother never had love in mind. What was given to her accomplice was poison, pure and simple. The intention was that both Philoneos and the stemother’s husband would get an equal dose, and neither man would awaken the next morning. And there would be the unsuspecting Dilitra, ready to take the fall for her crime.

As is often the case, human nature prevented the execution of a perfect plan. Once Philoneos had consumed a double dose of poison, there was not enough to immediately kill his friend.

That friend was brought back to his home, where his vindictive wife could not refrain from gloating over her victim. Her boasting amounted to a full confession – a confession which the dying man managed to gasp out to his young son just before he perished.

Thereafter, that son had to live in the house of his father’s murderer. He pretended to get along with her and his stepbrothers, but always with the intention that once he had grown up and left home he would bring the true story of his father’s murder to light.

Such is the case for the prosecution, the details of which we know because the text prepared for the court has been preserved and can still be read today. The speech, by Antiphon of Rhamnus, is long on rhetoric and short on facts. It is even shorter on actual evidence. Indeed, even the stepmother’s alleged confession has to be inferred from the context of the speech, a flavour of which is given here.

This woman oversaw the death of her husband without pity, with no hint of mercy. Now, in the name of justice you should do the same to her. She was the murderer who deliberately plotted his death, he the defenceless victim who perished from her violence. I repeat gentlemen – a violent death under a friend’s roof, just as he was on the point of sailing. She planned the murder, she sent the poison, and arranged that he should drink it. If she is without shame or respect for the Gods, why should such a woman deserve sympathy from you or anyone else?

In another renowned trial on the Areopagus, the courtesan Phryne is said to have been disrobed to illicit the sympathy of the elders. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
In another renowned trial on the Areopagus, the courtesan Phryne is said to have been disrobed to illicit the sympathy of the elders. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Skewed justice

The prosecution offers a gripping narrative that would have resonated with the male audience, all of whom could easily place themselves in the sandals of the deceased Philoneos or his friend.

A modern courtroom would probably dismiss thecharges out of hand. In terms of evidence (none) and witnesses (ditto, since Dilitra was executed a decade before), the case is very thin. The supposed confession was relayed by a dying man, possibly not of completely sound mind, to someone with an interest in the stepmother being found guilty (there may have been an inheritance involved).

In the modern era, we have seen stories of sexual assault survivors being believed despite the lack of evidence or witnesses. While those so accused today are often found guilty only in the court of public opinion, Athenian courts were close to being exactly that. Whether the stepmother was actually found guilty or innocent, we will never know – the trial’s outcome is unknown. Knowing what we do about women’s lives in Ancient Greece, we may suspect that her chances were not good.

The source of the scandal

All we know of this dramatic murder trial, brought years after Philoneos’s poisoning, is a speech by one Antiphon of Rhamnus (a village in Attica, outside Athens). It is quite possible that this Antiphon was himself the son of the poisoned husband and brought the case on his own behalf.

However, we also know that Antiphon (480–411 BC) was a professional speech-writer. In fact he is the author of an extant text of rhetorical speeches designed to serve as templates of speeches in court.

It is therefore possible that Antiphon wrote this speech for a client to deliver, because in Athenian courts the prosecution and defence worked without lawyers and spoke directly to the judges.

The historian Thucydides (author of The History of the Peloponnesian War) tells us that Antiphon had a reputation for clever sophistry that made him both distrusted by the public yet sought out by those seeking to make the maximum impact in a courtroom or in a public assembly. As such, he would just as likely work on behalf of a suitor presenting his case for marriange as he would on imploring a court to avenge a father’s deathbed wish for justice.

Philip Matyszak has a doctorate in Roman history from St John’s College, Oxford and is the author of many books on classical civilisation.

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This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed