Aspasia was a woman of formidable intelligence and eloquence who influenced many of the important writers, thinkers, and statesmen of her time.
By Dr. Joshua J. Mark
Professor of Philosophy
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 which suggest Miletus where women of means could receive higher 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. While this charge is not something which would trouble anyone of the modern day, in ancient Greece it would have been a grav einsult; 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 is 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 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, which is 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. Other later writers, however, such as the rhetorician Quintilian (35-100 CE) held her in high regard as did the satirist Lucian (125-180 CE), both of whom cited her as an eloquent and intelligent teacher. Lucian calls her “a woman of wisdom and understanding” while Quintilian thought enough of her work to lecture about her to his classes.
In more modern times, Aspasia’s reputation has continued to be regarded highly and has undergone a dramatic (and, initially, romantic) renaissance. Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864 CE) published his popular Pericles and Aspasia in 1836 CE; a work of fictional letters between the two in which Pericles, erroneously, dies in the Peloponnesian War. This work received wide acclaim which later inspired the writer Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948 CE) to write and publish her equally popular novel The Immortal Marriage in 1927 CE, presenting a positive image of Aspasia as a strong and highly cultured woman who made Pericles the popular speaker and statesman he was.
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” and argues (as Durant and others claimed earlier) that Aspasia was Socrates’ teacher (3). 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, he claims he was instructed in love by a woman who came to Athens “in the days before the plague” and who 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, writer, and teacher of reknown and the equal of any intellectual of her time.
- Atherton, G. The Immortal Marriage. (Boni & Liveright, 1927).
- Baird, F.E. & Kaufman, W. Ancient Philosophy: Philosophic Classics, Volume I. (Prentice Hall, 2008).
- Durant, W. The Life of Greece. (Simon & Schuster, 1939).
- Henry, M. M. Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographers. (Oxford University Press, 1995).
- Landor, W.S. Pericles & Aspasia. (J. M. Dent And Co., 1890).
Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 01.18.2012, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.