published on 18 January 2012
Aspasia was born around 470 BCE in Miletus in Asia Minor. She was likely born into a wealthy family because she was known to have been highly educated.. How she arrived in Athens is the source of some debate among scholars. A few sources suggest that she traveled there when her older sister married Alcibiades, who had been ostracized from Athens, and had spent his expulsion in Miletus.
When Aspasia became a little older, she might have spent some time as a hetaera, a sort of concubine, companion, or even a prostitute. Life as a hetaera would have allowed her to branch out from the ordinary life of an Athenian woman and not be confined to the home. In her position, she was an active participant in the public life of Athens and she was a taxpayer, two things that ordinary Athenian women certainly were not. Eventually, it is though by some that Aspasia even ran her own brothel.
Having spent her childhood in Miletus where the mores regarding the freedoms of women were somewhat more relaxed than in Athens, Aspasia would have adapted to the hetaera lifestyle quite well. She was known for having been quite outspoken. This did not make her popular among most Athenians. But it did catch the eye of Pericles.
Aspasia's incredible beauty, her intellect, and her powers of persuasion attracted the Athenian general, who was divorced from his first wife. Aspasia's status as either a hetaera or a non-Athenian meant that they could not marry, so they did the next best thing: they lived together. They were very much in love, and they had one son, also named Pericles.
Aspasia's brain and potential influence over Pericles in matters of administration were likely quite threatening to other Athenians, and she and Pericles were often the target of scandalous rumors and personal attacks. Nonetheless, there was a faction of Athens that held Aspasia in quite high esteem, including Socrates. People listened to Aspasia, and some Athenian men even brought their wives to her in hopes that they would gain some insight and intellect from her words.
Aspasia endured a great amount of revulsion for living her life on her own terms and speaking out on issues. And her influence must have been great, since she was blamed for Athens' role in a war between Samos and Miletus (her homeland) in 430 BCE; she was even accused of having incited the Peloponnesian War.
In 430 BCE, a plague struck Athens, killing one third of the population, including Aspasia's great love Pericles (in 429 BCE). Some records indicate that Aspasia went on to marry another Athenian general, Lysicles and had a son with him. Lysicles died in 427 BCE, and nearly no record of Aspasia exists after that. Her son, Pericles, became a general in his own right, but was killed in 406 BCE. Some historians place her death shortly before that.