Aspasia of Miletus (c. 464 BCE–c. 420 BCE)
Aspasia of Miletus (c. 464 bce–c. 420 bce)
One of the most famous women of the ancient Greek world, known for her philosophical and rhetorical education, political influence, and charm. Pronunciation: As-PAS-ia. Flourished around 430 bce; dates of birth and death unknown. Born in Miletus (in modern Turkey) around 464 bce; died, probably, in Athens around 420 bce; daughter of Axiochus; mother un-known; most likely attended schools of the Sophists in Miletus and Athens; attended and engaged in philosophical disputations with Socrates; mistress of Pericles, c. 442 (died 429); mistress of Lysicles, 429 (died 428); children: (with Pericles) a son, Pericles (original name unknown); (with Lysicles) a son, Poristes (name uncertain).
In Aristophanes' comedy, The Acharnians, Dicaeopolis charges that the Peloponnesian War (431–404 bce) was caused when some drunken Athenian, "going to Megara, stole a prostitute named Simaetha. Afterwards, the Megarians, raging mad, stole two of Aspasia's prostitutes in return. Whence the origin of the war upon all the Greeks: from the theft of three little wenches."
The charge is intended to be funny because it parodies the famous rape of Helen as the cause for the Trojan War. Also humorous to an Athenian audience was the lampooning of the most prominent woman in Athens and associating her with the lowest kind of prostitute. When seen for what it is, the quote illustrates many of the problems inherent in nearly all the sources we have for the life of Aspasia of Miletus.
Aspasia was born at Miletus (in modern Turkey) sometime during the second quarter of the fourth century bce. Her mother's name is not known; her father was said to be Axiochus, but he is otherwise unknown. Her family probably belonged to a respectable social class; at least she seems to have been free born. She may have attended or had contact with the schools of the Sophists (philosophers who taught for a fee) in her native Miletus before she came to Athens in the mid-440s. We know nothing else about how she spent her early years in Miletus, why she went to Athens, or whether she went alone. There is an interesting, but unlikely, possibility that she traveled together with her famous fellow Milesian Hippodamus, who also arrived in Athens in the middle of the fifth century and became friends with Pericles, the most important man in Athens between 450 and 429.
Aspasia intrigued, fascinated, and scandalized her contemporaries in Athens. Respectable Athenian women rarely left the house except for religious occasions and public ceremonies. Nor did they mingle much with men inside the house. They oversaw slaves, cooked, spun wool, made clothes, and raised their children in separate women's quarters, which, in some houses, had no physical connection to the men's rooms. A wife did not accompany her husband to drinking parties given by his friends, nor did she customarily attend her husband's own. A respectable Athenian woman may have been able to read and write—and a well-to-do woman would certainly be read to—but she was not expected to engage in serious literary or philosophical study or to be able to debate political and philosophical topics with men. In Pericles' own words, Athenian women earned praise by keeping out of sight and not being talked about by men.
But Aspasia was different. Her own thinking may have been more like that of her fellow Sophist, Gorgias of Leontini: Women should have a good reputation outside their own house but not be seen outside it. Despite her own public appearances, when she gave advice, it seems, she suggested a fairly traditional role for women. It would have been hard for Aspasia herself, however, to have conformed to the traditional, praiseworthy role of a Greek married women, for Aspasia was an outsider. As an alien woman, she would have found it difficult to survive alone in male-dominated, ethnocentric Athens. She came to the notice of Pericles—the most powerful man in an ostensibly democratic Athens—shortly after her arrival, and then became his mistress, thus ensuring that she could live in the city. Pericles had divorced his unnamed wife sometime before, but he could not actually marry Aspasia because she was not an Athenian: an official marriage was recognized only between a man and a woman whose parents had been Athenian. Thus, Aspasia, who lived openly with Pericles, was considered a woman of easy virtue. She is referred to as the noblest sort of prostitute, a hetaira, or companion, who was expected to be literate, cultured, conversant with contemporary affairs, affable, musically talented, as well as a sexual partner. A hetaira was to be intellectually, and sexually, what a wife was not. Aspasia is also called a concubine, connoting a class that was not as cultured, and was expected to provide long-term companionship. She is said to have run a brothel of the lowest sort of prostitutes and to have imported many of the best sort to Athens.
It is hard to evaluate the accuracy of these labels and charges. The sources are clear that Pericles kissed her twice a day, once upon leaving the house in the morning, and once when returning in the afternoon. This was more than the average Greek man would do with his wife. She is also said to have been Socrates' teacher in the art of erotics. Aspasia appeared in public—un-like respectable Athenian women—and she accompanied Pericles to symposia. She was visited by Socrates and other philosophers and was included in their disputations. To a Greek male—and the authors of all our sources were men, most of them Greek—such behavior was clear proof that she was a prostitute. Even if she was not a prostitute, her actions and public appearances insured that Athenian rumor mills labeled her as one.
Aspasia's relationship with Pericles was an unusual one for a woman to have with an Athenian man: open, erotic, intellectual, and mutually respectful. The biographer Plutarch (45–125 ce), who provides much information about Aspasia, though he lived much later and did not fully understand all his sources, says Pericles respected Aspasia for her wisdom and political sense. It may be, as Wolfram Martini argues, that Greek values were changing in the time of Aspasia, and that emotional relationships between man and wife were more valued than they had been before. Nevertheless, when Aspasia is mentioned in sources roughly contemporary with her, she is often treated with irony, praised only to be damned in the end.
Aspasia is said to have been part of Socrates' circle. Socrates supposedly listened to her advice on matchmaking and on the qualities of a good wife. She is said to have taught him rhetoric and to have been the author of public funeral speeches, including the famous one delivered by Pericles in 431 bce. It is difficult to know what to make of these assertions. Aspasia may well have known the Sophists' theories of rhetoric, but when Plato makes Socrates say in the Menexenus that he learned rhetoric from Aspasia, Plato is being ironic. Socrates claims that anyone can give a funeral oration over Athenians in Athens, even a woman. The irony is two fold, however: it is against Aspasia and also against Pericles. Neither Plato nor Socrates favored Pericles' politics; neither favored Pericles' democracy (which put Socrates to death); and neither thought highly of rhetoric. Aspasia was probably learned in rhetoric, but it is difficult to believe that the misogynistic Athenian men would have thought they could learn about rhetoric—public discourse—from a woman.
Aspasia owed part of her prominence in Athens to the fact that she was Pericles' mistress. This gave her visibility and some degree of status. Nevertheless, her relationship with him did not confer the honor and respect accorded to Athenian married women. Still, to later generations, who did not know the specific rules governing legitimate marriage at Athens, it could seem that Aspasia and Pericles were married. They did have a son, who must have been born between 445–440, yet due to Aspasia's status as a foreigner, the boy was not automatically allowed to become an Athenian citizen. He failed to qualify under Pericles' own citizenship law of 451–450, which specified that both parents had to be Athenian citizens.
Because of her association with Pericles, Aspasia was the subject of much abuse, aimed at harming Pericles as well. The opening quote from Aristophanes represents the type of attacks that could be made. In 431–430, she was prosecuted in court on a charge of sacrilege, which was a common accusation against the Sophists (and against Socrates). The sources treat the charge as an attack against Pericles, but suggest that Aspasia was known for her philosophic views. As a woman, she could not defend herself in court, so Pericles defended her—"with copious tears"—and secured her acquittal. Some sources charged that Pericles started the great Peloponnesian War by having a decree passed against the Megarians just to satisfy Aspasia (a slightly different version of what the comedic quote alleges), or to draw attention away from the political attacks that were being launched against him and his friends.
In 429, a plague devastated Athens. It took the lives of Pericles' two legitimate sons. At this time, the Athenian Assembly took pity on Pericles and, in an unprecedented move, voted to circumvent Pericles' own citizenship laws and allow his and Aspasia's son to be enrolled as a citizen. The son's name was changed to Pericles. Aspasia thus enjoyed the honor of having a son who was an Athenian citizen—an honor not shared by any other foreign woman at the time. Later, her son Pericles became a general. Unfortunately, he was one of the ten generals defeated in a naval battle at Arginusae in 406, and the Athenian Assembly tried him along with the other generals and condemned them all to death.
Approximately six months after Pericles saw his and Aspasia's son become a citizen, Pericles, too, died from the plague. Aspasia then lived with a popular leader (sometimes called a sheep-dealer) named Lysicles. One source claims that Lysicles' relationship with Aspasia was the reason he became the first man in Athens after Pericles' death. They had a son, whose name is given as Poristes, but that may also be a joke name, meaning "Moneymaker," a reference to the activities of Lysicles. Unfortunately, Lysicles died the next year and in 428 Aspasia was on her own again, this time with two young sons.
After 428 we do not know what happened to Aspasia. She may have been alive when Aristophanes mentioned her in the Acharnians (produced in 425), but we cannot say for sure. We do not know whether she saw her son Pericles become a general and be condemned. It is worth noting that her friend Socrates happened to be a president of the Assembly when the case against the generals was brought before it. He strenuously opposed the plan to try all the generals together and then put them all to death—an illegal process—but he could not save his friend's son. Aspasia died and was buried in Attica, in the region of Athens, and her grave site was famous in antiquity.
Aspasia has fascinated writers, artists, and philosophers from her own time to the present day. Perhaps the fragmentary and suggestive statements we have about her have made her all the more intriguing. As a result, she is one of the best known, and least typical, women of ancient Greece.
Plato. Menexenus. Translated by R.G. Bury with accompanying Greek text, in Plato. Vol. VII. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press & Heinemann, 1929.
Plutarch. Life of Pericles. Translated by B. Perrin with accompanying Greek text, in Plutarch's Lives. Vol. III. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press & Heinemann, 1916.
Coventry, Lucinda. "Philosophy and Rhetoric in the Menexenus," in Journal of Hellenic Studies. Vol. 109, 1989, pp. 1–15.
Halperin, David M. "Why is Diotima a Woman," in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality. London: Rout-ledge, 1990, pp. 113–151.
Henry, Madeleine M. Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Martini, Wolfram. "Aspasia as Heroine and Lover: Images of Women in the High Classical Period," in Apollo. Vol. 140, July 1994, pp. 12–17.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. NY: Shocken, 1975.
Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. Edited by Elaine Fantham, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H. Alan Shapiro. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Robert W. Cape , Jr., Assistant Professor of Classics and Director of Gender Studies, Austin College, Sherman, Texas