This article was written by Marie.
The “Cinderella and the slipper” story – a humble girl marrying into royalty – is a very old one.
The Romans even had their own version; only it was set in Egypt – the most fabulously wealthy land of the ancient world. The pharaoh of the story was one of the Ptolemies; a Greek family descended from a general of Alexander the Great and rulers of Egypt from 305 to 30 BCE. (The last of the dynasty was Cleopatra, one of the most famous women in history.)
In the ancient world’s version of Cinderella, the lead character was a beautiful servant girl called Rhodopis. She was bathing in the Nile when an eagle – sent by the god Zeus – swooped down, snatched her sandal and then dropped it into the lap of the king himself.
A woman’s sandal falling from the sky was not something that happened every day. The king of Egypt knew better than to argue with the gods because only they could have sent this sign from heaven. He searched out the owner and made her his queen.
The Rhodopis of the fairy tale is based on a real woman – but sadly, she lived several centuries too early for the story to be true. The historical Rhodopis was not even Egyptian. She actually came from Thrace (modern Bulgaria). And finally, she never became a queen. The real reason why the historical Rhodopis was so famous? It was because she was the celebrity call girl of the ancient world.
As a girl, Rhodopis was sold into slavery to Iadmon, a slave dealer from the Aegean island of Samos. One of his other purchases was supposed to be Aesop, the golden-tongued teller of fables and the temptation to make lovers of the two slaves proved too much for later legend. True love was not allowed to run its course because they were separated and Rhodopis sold to another dealer who took her far away, to Egypt.
She ended up in the trading station of Naukratis, about 80 km (50m) inland and the official outlet for all Greek merchants wanting to trade in Egyptian grain and luxury goods. Here Rhododis got the lucky break that propelled her from sex slave to celebrity courtesan. So how did this sudden change in her fortunes come about? Ancient Greek and Roman historians assumed, reasonably enough, that she found herself a wealthy benefactor in Naukratis.
They even gave him a name: Charaxos. The only reason they knew his name was because of his connections to another famous woman – his sister, Sappho of Lesbos who wrote her poems of love around the year 600 BCE.
Sappho tells us that – somewhere, somehow – this brother became entangled with a mysterious woman who gave him a great deal of grief. Sappho also tells us that Charaxos traded wine in Naukratis – which was exactly where Rhodopis plied her master’s business. For ancient historians wanting to explain Rhodopis’ change of luck, there were enough coincidences here to think Charaxos fitted the bill.
The romantic plot deepened further. A lovestruck Charaxos is supposed to have bought Rhodopis from her owner, and then set her free. But he’d struck a poor bargain if he thought his Thracian beauty was going to follow him home. Because, given the chance of a new life on her own terms, Rhodopis grabbed it. She had no intention of leaving Egypt.
There’s one problem with this version of the story, and we can thank Sappho for it. The famous poetess threw a hissy fit and railed against the woman who had used her bedroom skills to fleece her brother of his wealth. And she gave the mystery woman a name: Doricha.
Doricha, of course, cannot be the Rhodopis of history. In this case, they are two entirely different women, and the historical Rhodopis has nothing to do with Sappho and her family. However, there are some modern historians who claim this is not a problem and Rhodopis, which means Rosy Cheeks, was just a professional name that Doricha used when entertaining her clients.
So we will never know the truth of whether Rhodopis was freed by Sappho’s infatuated brother or not. But what we do know is that Rhodopis built a new life for herself in Egypt, and prospered there as a high-class call girl (heteira). When it came to advertising her success, the business world of Naukratis was far too small for her. A donation to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi on the Greek mainland, on the other hand, would propel Rhodopis from the provincial margins of the Greek world to its exclusive epicentre.
Herodotus commented that she “wanted something no one else” had given to the god. This suggests an independent streak of mind that belied her one-time status as a slave – and was, perhaps, one of her charms.
The gift she finally chose was truly unique: a medley of iron spits used to roast sacrificial meats. The spits, which cost her one-tenth of her wealth, were set in a marble stand with an inscription publicising to the world that “Rhodopis dedicated” these to Apollo.
The spits certainly made her a talking point – even if many people felt she had won her fame on the cheap – and were still being pointed out in Roman times, when the geographer Strabo turned her into the original Cinderella.
Long before Strabo came to spin the magic of his fairy tale, Greeks were pointing out a small pyramid in the Nile delta as the tomb of the charming Rhodopis. The local story was that when she died, her grief-stricken lovers clubbed together to share the building cost. It had only taken a few generations for Sappho’s gold-digger to be reinvented – as the hooker with a heart of gold. Between them, her lovers made sure Rhodopis was buried like a queen.