Summer is almost over… but our weekly appointment with Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris is not! Today’s Mulier Clara is Leaena, a Greek courtesan who got tangled up in a political assassination.
One version of the story states that Leaena (in Greek Λέαινα, meaning “lioness”) was the mistress of either Aristogeiton or Harmoudius, who later became known as the Tyrannicides. This relationship soon became fatal to the courtesan: the two men were plotting the assassination of Hipparchus and Hippias, two Athenian tyrants, to install democracy, thus indirectly involving Leaena. After succeeding in killing Hipparchus, their failed attempt at assassinating Hippias led to the tyrant holding Leaena captive and torturing her so that she would eventually give up the names of the culprits. In order to avoid confessing any details, Leaena bit her tongue off, thus successfully preserving the identity of the Tyrannicides. The Greek tradition saw the Athenians wanting to honour this act of loyalty; a statue of a lioness with her tongue cut off was later placed in the Acropolis of Athens.
Boccaccio too praises Leaena for her courage and loyalty, stating that classic writers should overcome their revulsion towards Leaena’s profession, focusing instead on her honorable actions.
“Leaena”, illumination from the manuscript “De Mulieribus Claris”, decorated by Robinet Testard, ms. Français 599, f. 44v, 1488-1496, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Paris.
Historically and mythologically speaking, being in a powerful position (and perhaps also a…