Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2012
Aspasia of Miletus (470-410 BCE, approximately) is best known as the consort and close companion of the great Athenian statesman Pericles. She was a metic (a person not born in Athens) and, accordingly, was not allowed to marry an Athenian and had to pay a tax to live in Athens. She bore Pericles a son, also named Pericles, out of wedlock. Her life is inextricably bound up in that of Pericles and yet there is ample evidence to suggest she was a woman of formidable intelligence and eloquence who influenced many of the important writers, thinkers and statesmen of her time.
Aspasia was born sometime between 470 and 460 BCE to a wealthy family of Miletus (so assumed because of references to her level of education). Her name means “greeting with affection” or “welcome” and it has been suggested that `Aspasia’ was not her real name but, rather, a “professional” name as she worked as a hetaira, a high-class paid companion. She operated a salon (which her critics called a `brothel’) and a girl’s school (also cited by her detractors as either a brothel or a house in which she secured young girls for Pericles’ pleasure). Enemies of Pericles made much of his relationship with Aspasia the metic and hetaira even going so far as to claim that Aspasia “taught Pericles how to speak” and was the actual author of his famous Funeral Oration(something which would not trouble anyone of the modern day but which, in ancient Greece, would have been a grave insult. No Athenian statesman, nor any man in general, would wish it known that he was indebted to a woman for his success). Socrates, however, who seems to have generally held women in higher regard than most men in ancient Athens, “marvelled at her eloquence, and credited her with composing the funeral oration that Pericles delivered after the first casualties of the Peloponnesian War” and, further, claimed that he, Socrates, had learned from Aspasia “the art of eloquence” (Durant, 253. This assertion also stated in Plato's dialogue Menexenus, 235e). Even so, the conservative enemies of Pericles kept up their attacks on Aspasia and, through her, on Pericles, claiming that she showed disrespect for the gods, and going so far as to bring a charge of impiety against her. “At her trial, which took place before a court of fifteen hundred jurors, Pericles spoke in her defense, using all his eloquence, even to tears; and the case was dismissed”(Durant, 254). Although she was exonerated, Durant goes on to point out that, after his performance in court on Aspasia’s behalf, Pericles “began to lose his hold upon the Athenian people and when, three years later, death came to him, he was already a broken man.” Whether this was a direct result of the court case, however, is certainly not agreed upon by all.
After Pericles’ death from the plague in 429 BCE, Aspasia became the companion of his friend Lysicles, whom she found as an uneducated sheep merchant, and helped transform him into an Athenian political leader. Lysicles was killed in action in the campaign of Caria in 428/427 BCE and nothing else is known of Aspasia after that with any certainty, not even her date of death. Aeschines (a pupil of Socrates) wrote a dialogue `Aspasia’ about her (now lost save for a few fragments) which seems to have been a favorable portrayal but Aristophanes, the comic poet, features her unfavorably in his work(as do many of his contemporaries) where he calls her friends “Aspasia’s whores” and generally speaks ill of her (Baird & Kaufmann, 62). The writer Plutarch claims Aspasia held undue influence over Pericles, seduced him into going to war and was ultimately to blame for every mistake Pericles made.
In more modern times, however, Aspasia’s reputation has undergone a dramatic (and, initially, romantic) renaissance. Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) published his popular Pericles and Aspasia in 1836 (a work of fictional letters between the two in which Pericles, erroneously, dies in the Peloponnesian War) to wide acclaim which later inspired the writer Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948) to write and publish her equally popular novel Pericles and Aspasia in 1927, presenting a positive image of Aspasia as a strong and highly cultured woman who made Pericles the speaker and statesman he was famous for being. The historian Madeline Henry, more recently, writes, “Aspasia of Miletus, a key figure in the intellectual history of fifth-century Athens, is without question the most important woman of that era”(3) and argues (as Durant and others claimed earlier) that Aspasia was Socrates’ teacher. She could even be the model for the character Diotima from Mantinea, the woman who taught Socrates the meaning of love, in Plato’s dialogue Symposium, in which Socrates delivers a speech on the true nature of Eros and how he was instructed in it by a woman who came to Athens “in the days before the plague” and helped the Athenians in their sacrifices (Baird & Kaufmann, 195). Whatever her contemporaries may have thought of a woman wielding influence over men, Aspasia’s reputation seems secure today as a thinker and teacher of reknown and the equal of any intellectual of her time.