Thaïs first came to the attention of history when, in 330 BC, Alexander the Great burned down the palace of Persepolis after a drinking party. Thaïs was present at the party and gave a speech which convinced Alexander to burn the palace. Cleitarchus claims that the destruction was a whim; Plutarch and Diodorus recount that it was intended as retribution for Xerxes' burning of the temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens in 480 BC (the destroyed temple was replaced by the Parthenon of Athens)
"When the king [Alexander] had caught fire at their words, all leaped up from their couches and passed the word along to form a victory procession in honour of Dionysus. Promptly many torches were gathered. Female musicians were present at the banquet, so the king led them all out for the comus to the sound of voices and flutes and pipes, Thaïs the courtesan leading the whole performance. She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. As the others all did the same, immediately the entire palace area was consumed, so great was the conflagration. It was remarkable that the impious act of Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the acropolis at Athens should have been repaid in kind after many years by one woman, a citizen of the land which had suffered it, and in sport."
It should be noted that the people in the palace were given enough time to leave the building; there is no record of loss of life.
Thaïs was the lover and possibly a wife of Ptolemy I Soter, King of Egypt. Her subsequent career is unknown.
Her larger-than-life persona has been the subject of many novels, the most famous of which are listed below.
Anatole France wove a historical novel, Thais (1890) about the figure of Thais, in which the ascetic Paphnutius, a hermit from the Egyptian desert tries to convert the libertine beauty of Alexandria, but finds himself enmeshed in his own pride in reforming the famous beauty. Actually, however, this novel is not about Greek Persia, but about Roman Egypt, not about the hetaera, but about the saint, i.e., Thaïs (saint).
Thais is also the heroine of a novel by the Russian author Ivan Efremov, called Thais of Athens. It chronicles her life from meeting Alexander The Great to her death as queen of Memphis in Egypt. Similarly to Mika Waltari's Sinuhe (known in the U.S. as The Egyptian), Ivan Efremov's well researched novel is a great introduction in the history, customs and geography of the ancient world, since it follows Thais' travels throughout the Hellenic lands.
Thais is a supporting character in two novels by Mary Renault about Alexander the Great: "Fire from Heaven" and "The Persian Boy", as well as in Renault's biography of Alexander, "The Nature of Alexander."
In The Divine Comedy, Thaïs is one of just a few women whom Dante Alighieri sees on his journey through Hell. She is located in the circle of the flatterers, plunged in a trench of excrement, having been consigned there, we are told by Virgil, for having uttered to her lover that she was "marvellously" grateful to him.