Aspasia (ca. 470 BC–ca. 400 BC, Greek: ) was a Milesian woman who was famous for her involvement with the Athenian statesman Pericles. Very little is known about the details of her life. She spent most of her adult life in Athens, and she may have influenced Pericles and Athenian politics. She is mentioned in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and other authors of the day.
Ancient writers also reported that Aspasia was a brothel keeper and a harlot, although these accounts are disputed by modern scholars, on the grounds that many of the writers were comic poets concerned with defaming Pericles. Some researchers question even the historical tradition that she was a hetaera, or courtesan, and have suggested that she may actually have been married to Pericles. Aspasia had a son by Pericles, Pericles the Younger, who later became a general in the Athenian military and was executed after the Battle of Arginusae. She is believed to have become the courtesan of Lysicles, another Athenian statesman and general, following the death of Pericles the Elder.
Origin and early yearsAspasia was born in the Ionian Greek city of Miletus (in the modern province of Aydın, Turkey). Little is known about her family except that her father's name was Axiochus, although it is evident that she must have belonged to a wealthy family, for only the well-to-do could have afforded the excellent education that she received. Some ancient sources claim that she was a Carian prisoner-of-war turned slave; these statements are generally regarded as false.
It is not known under what circumstances she first traveled to Athens. The discovery of a 4th-century grave inscription that mentions the names of Axiochus and Aspasius has led historian Peter K. Bicknell to attempt a reconstruction of Aspasia's family background and Athenian connections. His theory connects her to Alcibiades II of Scambonidae, who was ostracized from Athens in 460 BC and may have spent his exile in Miletus.
Life in Athens
According to the disputed statements of the ancient writers and some modern scholars, in Athens Aspasia became a hetaera and probably ran a brothel. Hetaerae were professional high-class entertainers, as well as courtesans. Besides developing physical beauty, they differed from most Athenian women in being educated (often to a high standard, as in Aspasia's case), having independence, and paying taxes. They were the nearest thing perhaps to liberated women; and Aspasia, who became a vivid figure in Athenian society, was probably an obvious example. According to Plutarch, Aspasia was compared to the famous Thargelia, another renowned Ionian hetaera of ancient times.
Being a foreigner and possibly a hetaera, Aspasia was free of the legal restraints that traditionally confined married women to their homes, and thereby was allowed to participate in the public life of the city. She became the mistress of the statesman Pericles in the early 440s. After he divorced his first wife (c. 445 BC), Aspasia began to live with him, although her marital status remains disputed. Their son, Pericles the Younger, must have been born by 440 BC. Aspasia would have to have been quite young, if she were able to bear a child to Lysicles c. 428 BC.
In social circles, Aspasia was noted for her ability as a conversationalist and adviser rather than merely an object of physical beauty.
Personal and judicial attacksPericles, Aspasia and their friends were not immune from attack, as preeminence in democratic Athens was not equivalent to absolute rule. Her relationship with Pericles and her subsequent political influence aroused many reactions. Donald Kagan, a Yale historian, believes that Aspasia was particularly unpopular in the years immediately following the Samian War. In 440 BC, Samos was at war with Miletus over Priene, an ancient city of Ionia in the foot-hills of Mycale. Worsted in the war, the Milesians came to Athens to plead their case against the Samians. When the Athenians ordered the two sides to stop fighting and submit the case to arbitration at Athens, the Samians refused. In response, Pericles passed a decree dispatching an expedition to Samos. The campaign proved to be difficult and the Athenians had to endure heavy casualties before Samos was defeated. According to Plutarch, it was thought that Aspasia, who came from Miletus, was responsible for the Samian War, and that Pericles had decided against and attacked Samos to gratify her. All these accusations were probably nothing more than unproven slanders, but the whole experience was bitter for the Athenian leader. Although Aspasia was acquitted thanks to a rare emotional outburst of Pericles, his friend, Phidias, died in prison. Another friend of his, Anaxagoras, was attacked by the ecclesia (the Athenian Assembly) for his religious beliefs. According to Kagan it is possible that Aspasia's trial and acquittal were late inventions, "in which real slanders, suspicions and ribald jokes were converted into an imaginary lawsuit". Kagan argues that even if we believe these stories, Aspasia was unharmed with or without the help of Pericles.
In The Acharnians, Aristophanes blames Aspasia for the Peloponnesian War. He claims that the Megarian decree of Pericles, which excluded Megara from trade with Athens or its allies, was retaliation for prostitutes being kidnapped from the house of Aspasia by Megarians. Plutarch reports also the taunting comments of other comic poets, such as Eupolis and Cratinus.
Aspasia was labeled the "New Omphale", "Deianira", "Hera" and "Helen". Further attacks on Pericles' relationship with Aspasia are reported by Athenaeus. Even Pericles' own son, Xanthippus, who had political ambitions, did not hesitate to slander his father about his domestic affairs. a decision all the more striking in considering that Pericles himself had proposed the law confining citizenship to those of Athenian parentage on both sides. Pericles died of the plague in the autumn of 429 BC.
Plutarch cites Aeschines Socraticus, who wrote a dialogue on Aspasia (now lost), to the effect that after Pericles's death Aspasia lived with Lysicles, an Athenian general and democratic leader, with whom she had another son; and that she made him the first man at Athens. With Lysicles' death the contemporaneous record ends. According to Charles Kahn, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, Diotima is in many respects Plato's response to Aeschines' Aspasia. In Menexenus, Plato satirizes Aspasia's relationship with Pericles, and quotes Socrates as claiming ironically that she was a trainer of many orators. Socrates' intention is to cast aspersions on Pericles' rhetorical fame, claiming, also ironically, that since the Athenian statesman was educated by Aspasia, he would be superior in rhetoric to someone educated by Antiphon. He also attributes authorship of the Funeral Oration to Aspasia and attacks his contemporaries' veneration of Pericles. Kahn maintains that Plato has taken from Aeschines the motif of Aspasia as teacher of rhetoric for Pericles and Socrates. As Martha L. Rose, Professor of History at Truman State University, explains, "only in comedy do dogs litigate, birds govern, or women declaim".
Xenophon mentions Aspasia twice in his Socratic writings: in Memorabilia and in Oeconomicus. In both cases her advice is recommended to Critobulus by Socrates. In Memorabilia Socrates quotes Aspasia as saying that the matchmaker should report truthfully on the good characteristics of the man. In Oeconomicus Socrates defers to Aspasia as more knowledgeable about household management and the economic partnership between husband and wife.
Aeschines Socraticus and Antisthenes each named a Socratic dialogue after Aspasia (though neither survives except in fragments). Our major sources for Aeschines Socraticus' Aspasia are Athenaeus, Plutarch, and Cicero. In the dialogue, Socrates recommends that Callias send his son Hipponicus to Aspasia for instructions. When Callias recoils at the notion of a female teacher, Socrates notes that Aspasia had favorably influenced Pericles and, after his death, Lysicles. In a section of the dialogue, preserved in Latin by Cicero, Aspasia figures as a "female Socrates", counseling first Xenophon's wife and then Xenophon himself (the Xenophon in question is not the famous historian) about acquiring virtue through self-knowledge. According to Kahn, every single episode in Aeschines' Aspasia is not only fictitious but incredible.
Of Antisthenes' Aspasia only two or three quotations are extant. Antisthenes appears to have attacked not only Aspasia, but the entire family of Pericles, including his sons. The philosopher believes that the great statesman chose the life of pleasure over virtue. Thus, Aspasia is presented as the personification of the life of sexual indulgence.
In 1836, Walter Savage Landor, an English writer and poet, published Pericles and Aspasia, one of his most famous books. Pericles and Aspasia is a rendering of classical Athens through a series of imaginary letters, which contain numerous poems. The letters are frequently unfaithful to actual history but attempt to capture the spirit of the Age of Pericles. Robert Hamerling is another novelist and poet who was inspired by Aspasia's personality. In 1876 he published his novel Aspasia, a book about the manners and morals of the Age of Pericles and a work of cultural and historical interest. Giacomo Leopardi, an Italian poet influenced by the movement of romanticism, published a group of five poems known as the circle of Aspasia. These Leopardi poems were inspired by his painful experience of desperate and unrequited love for a woman named Fanny Targioni Tozzetti. Leopardi called this person Aspasia, after the companion of Pericles.
In 1918, novelist and playwright George Cram Cook produced his first full-length play, The Athenian Women, which portrays Aspasia leading a strike for peace. Cook combined an anti-war theme with a Greek setting. American writer Gertrude Atherton in The Immortal Marriage (1927) treats the story of Pericles and Aspasia and illustrates the period of the Samian War, the Peloponnesian War and the Plague of Athens. Taylor Caldwell's Glory and the Lightning (1974) is another novel that portrays the historical relationship of Aspasia and Pericles.
A historical fiction book by Elise Garrison, professor emeritus of Texas A&M University, entitled The Milesian Mistress, was published in 2005. It follows the life of Aspasia as courtesan and Garrison claimed that she wanted to provide the reader with a look into fifth century BCE Greek life.
Fame and assessmentsAspasia's name is closely connected with Pericles' glory and fame. Plutarch accepts her as a significant figure both politically and intellectually and expresses his admiration for a woman who "managed as she pleased the foremost men of the state, and afforded the philosophers occasion to discuss her in exalted terms and at great length". A Syriac text, according to which Aspasia composed a speech and instructed a man to read it for her in the courts, confirms Aspasia's rhetorical fame. Aspasia is said by the Suda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia, to have been "clever with regards to words," a sophist, and to have taught rhetoric. On the basis of such assessments, researchers such as Cheryl Glenn, Professor at the Pennsylvania State University, argue that Aspasia seems to have been the only woman in classical Greece to have distinguished herself in the public sphere and must have influenced Pericles in the composition of his speeches. Some scholars believe that Aspasia opened an academy for young women of good families or even invented the Socratic method. However, Robert W. Wallace, Professor of classics at Northwestern University, underscores that "we cannot accept as historical the joke that Aspasia taught Pericles how to speak and hence was a master rhetorician or philosopher". According to Wallace, the intellectual role Aspasia was given by Plato may have derived from comedy. Roger Just, a classicist and Professor of social anthropology at the University of Kent, believes that Aspasia was an exceptional figure, but her example alone is enough to underline the fact that any woman who was to become the intellectual and social equal of a man would have to be a hetaira. This is the reason modern scholars express their scepticism about the historicity of Aspasia's life. According to Charles W. Fornara and Loren J. Samons II, Professors of Classics and history, "it may well be, for all we know, that the real Aspasia was more than a match for her fictional counterpart". For these reasons historian Nicole Loraux questions even the testimony of ancient writers that Aspasia was a hetaera or a courtesan. Fornara and Samons also dιsmiss the 5th-century tradition that Aspasia was a harlot and managed houses of ill-repute. According to historian William Smith, Aspasia's relation with Pericles was "analogous to the left-handed marriages of modern princes". Historian Arnold W. Gomme underscores that "his contemporaries spoke of Pericles as married to Aspasia".
δ. According to Kahn, stories such as Socrates' visits to Aspasia, along with his friends' wives and Lysicles' connection with Aspasia, are not likely to be historical. He believes that Aeschines was indifferent to the historicity of his Athenian stories and that these stories must have been invented at a time when the date of Lysicles' death had been forgotten, but his occupation still remembered.
ζ. Athenaeus quotes Antisthenes saying that Pericles pleaded for her against charges of impiety, weeping "more tears than when his life and property were endangered".
η. Omphale and Deianira were respectively the Lydian queen who owned Heracles as a slave for a year and his long-suffering wife. Athenian dramatists took an interest in Omphale from the middle of the 5th century. The comedians parodied Pericles for resembling a Heracles under the control of an Omphale-like Aspasia. Aspasia was called "Omphale" in the Kheirones of Cratinus or the Philoi of Eupolis.
ι. Cratinus (in Dionysalexandros) assimilates Pericles and Aspasia to the "outlaw" figures of Paris and Helen; just as Paris caused a war with Spartan Menelaus over his desire for Helen, so Pericles, influenced by the foreign Aspasia, involved Athens in a war with Sparta. Eupolis also called Aspasia Helen in the Prospaltoi.
Primary sources (Greeks and Romans)
- Aristophanes, Acharnians. See original text in Perseus program
- Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae. Translated by the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center
- Cicero, De Inventione, I. See original text in the Latin Library.
- Diodorus Siculus, Library, XII. See original text in Perseus program.
- Lucian, A Portrait Study. Translated in sacred-texts
- Plato, Menexenus. See original text in Perseus program.
- Plutarch, Pericles. See original text in Perseus program.
- Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, I and III. See original text in Perseus program
- Xenophon, Memorabilia. See original text in Perseus program
- Xenophon, Oeconomicus. Translated by H.G. Dakyns.
- A Cyclopaedia of Female Biography
- The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C. - A.D. 1250
- Die Fragmente Der Griechischen Historiker: A. Biography
- A Companion to European Romanticism edited by Michael Ferber
- Cyclopedia of American Literature
- Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles
- Listening to Their Voices
- Essays in Greek History & Literature
- Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One: The Authors by Philip A Greasley
- Reclaiming Rhetorica edited by Andrea A. Lunsford
- Readings in English Prose of the Nineteenth Century
- Prisoner of History. Aspasia of Miletus and her Biographical Tradition
- Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy
- The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War
- Plato and the Socratic Dialogue
- The Socratic Movement edited by Paul A. Vander Waerdt
- Women in Athenian Law and Life
- La Grèce au Féminin (in French)
- Spoken Like a Woman: Speech and Gender in Athenian Drama
- Citizens on Stage: Comedy and Political Culture in the Athenian Democracy
- Plato's Democratic Entanglements
- The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics
- The Cambridge Ancient History edited by David M. Lewis, John Boardman, J. K. Davies, M. Ostwald (Volume V)
- Paparrigopoulos, Konstantinos (-Karolidis, Pavlos)(1925), History of the Hellenic Nation (Volume Ab). Eleftheroudakis (in Greek).
- Perikles and His Circle
- The Greek World
- The Staff of Oedipus
- Politics and Persuasion in Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae
- A History of Greece
- The City in Time and Space
- A Commentary on Plutarch's Pericles
- Symposium (Introduction and Comments) -in Greek
- Plato: The Man and His Work
- Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria
- The Peloponnesian War
- The Immortal Marriage
- Aspasie de Milet (in French)
- Aspasia: a Romance of Art and Love in Ancient Hellas
- Pericles And Aspasia
Aspasia in Bengali: আসপাসিয়া
Aspasia in Catalan: Aspasia
Aspasia in German: Aspasia (Antike)
Aspasia in Spanish: Aspasia de Mileto
Aspasia in Basque: Miletoko Aspasia
Aspasia in French: Aspasie
Aspasia in Galician: Aspasia
Aspasia in Icelandic: Aspasía
Aspasia in Italian: Aspasia di Mileto
Aspasia in Hebrew: אספאסיה
Aspasia in Georgian: ასპასია
Aspasia in Latin: Aspasia
Aspasia in Dutch: Aspasia
Aspasia in Japanese: アスパシア
Aspasia in Norwegian: Aspasia
Aspasia in Polish: Aspazja
Aspasia in Portuguese: Aspásia de Mileto
Aspasia in Russian: Аспазия
Aspasia in Finnish: Aspasia
Aspasia in Swedish: Aspasia
Aspasia in Turkish: Miletli Aspasia