Aspasia of Miletus
Aspasia of Miletus was not only the famous and important woman of Athens in fifth century but also a person who played a key role in the intellectual development of Greece in that era. Though we will find no books of Aspasia, the character of this woman was lampooned in comedies, and was described and analyzed by Greek philosophers. The lifestyle of Aspasia is always connected with a notorious woman. Her sexual reputation as a courtesan is depicted in comedy, philosophy, art, and historiography.
The historical information of Aspasia’s lifetime that we possess today came from ancient sources and is, unfortunately, more like colorful anecdotes about Aspasia that arose in antique times and live still in our century. It is difficult but necessary to examine the tradition during her own life until modern times in order to comprehend the personality of this great woman who influenced many aspects of Greek intellectual history.
Aspasia was born in the ancient Greek city of Miletus.
Her father was named Axiochus; her mother’s name is unknown. Located on the southwest coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Miletus enjoyed a reputation for wealth based on extensive seaborne trade and for philosophic inquiry into the nature of the universe. The city suffered severely in a Persian attack of 494 B.C. It is therefore not surprising that Miletus in 479 B.C. joined the Athenian-led league against Persia. The political and military relationship of Miletus with Athens was, however, problematic. For some years after 450 B.C., an Athenian garrison occupied the city, and toward the end (after 411 B.C.) of the long-term war of Athens with Sparta, Miletus was suspected of collusion with Athens’ enemies. Nevertheless, during this same period, several Milesians left their home city to achieve prominence in Athens. Those emigrants included the city planner Hippodamus, the poet and musician Timotheus, and the most famous woman of fifth century Athens, Aspasia (Henry 1995).
The surviving ancient sources for fifth century Athenian history do not permit a connected biography of Aspasia. The most reliable sources are a few notices in contemporary Athenian comic literature and several references to Aspasia by Socrates’ pupils (including Plato). Many details are offered by the Greek biographer Plutarch in his Life of Pericles, but that brief account was written about A.D. 100, more than five hundred years after Aspasia’s lifetime (Henry 1995).
Aspasia must have come from Miletus to Athens before c. 450 B.C. She first appears in the historical record about 445 B.C. as the mother of two sons of the prominent Athenian politician and military leader Pericles (c. 495-429 B.C.). Soon thereafter, Pericles began living and appearing in public with Aspasia. Ancient sources consistently identify her as a hetaera, a Greek term literally meaning “female companion” and used of women (often of slave or freedwoman status and usually of foreign origin) who were sexual, social, and occasionally intellectual nonmarital companions of prominent Athenian men (Eisler 3).
The Athenian girl was brought up, or understood to be brought up, to know and see as little of the world as possible, until she was married; her own choice was not consulted as to the husband to whom she was first consigned; and, in case of widowhood, she was subject to be transferred to another – at least when property was involved – with scarcely more ceremony than a chattel; and it could be publicly inferred by Pericles himself as axiomatic that, her life throughout, the less cause or occasion she ministered for being mentioned at all among men, whether for good or evil, the more creditably her duty was fulfilled. The world has never known a state of society in which these maxims have been even partially carried out without provoking rebellion in manners, and in literature the scoffing disrespect of marriage which is virtually a protest, from the new comedy of Athens to the drama of modern France (Henry 1995).
By the set of rules which Pericles enforced himself, it was not competent for Pericles to contract a legal marriage with Aspasia. And even though her original position had not precluded it, she occupied, however, the place of a wife so far as possible. This was of course not without scandal that was made the most of by enemies, not without difficulties, which Pericles adjusted his life to overcome, as best he might, but was nearly succumbing to at last. It was only at the risk of rumor. Pericles himself never accepted an invitation abroad,- never but once, to the marriage of Euryptolemus, a relative, and then he left immediately after the libations which concluded the ceremonial nuptials. To the son whom she bore to him, he gave his own name Pericles, the most public acknowledgment conceivable (Henry 1995).
Because of her status as a foreign-born, intelligent, articulate companion of Pericles, Aspasia was, throughout Pericles’ later political career, consistently attacked as a malign influence on his public policies and his political and military leadership. She was, for example, viewed by Pericles’ enemies as responsible for his leadership in a war Athens fought with the island of Samos, a traditional rival of Miletus. The Athenian comic poet Aristophanes, in his play Acharnians (425 B.C.), which amusingly, but quite seriously, expressed the Athenian longing for a peaceful resolution to military conflicts, represented Aspasia as partially responsible for provoking the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Another Athenian comic poet, Aristophanes’ peer Cratinus, referred to Aspasia on the stage as nothing but a shameless prostitute who influenced Pericles with her sex. A third Athenian comedian, Hermippus, also abused Aspasia publicly and was said to have prosecuted her for impiety in an Athenian court; Pericles, in turn, reportedly offered in court an emotional, tearful defense of his mistress. These legal episodes, however, are almost certainly apocryphal, prompted by later generations’ overly-literal readings of Hermippus’s comedies (Henry 1995).
All these accusations simply reflect the perceived influence of a woman of independent judgment, education, intelligence, and resourcefulness. She may well have been, as were other hetaerae, the owner and operator of a brothel. She was certainly Pericles’ mistress, but other prominent Athenian men of the time also enjoyed relationships with similar “companions.” For example, Pericles’ political opponent, the great Cimon-whose own sister, Elpinice, had once been the object of Pericles’ attention-reportedly had liaisons with two hetaerae. In a later generation, the Athenian rhetorician Isocrates was reported to have had a similar female “companion”.
More significant than the political abuse she attracted as Pericles’ partner is the strong tradition that Aspasia was skilled at oratorical composition, instruction, and philosophic conversation. Pericles himself is recorded as praising her wisdom and sense of politics. Thus, several ancient authorities imply or allege that Aspasia advised Pericles on his own acclaimed public speeches (including the famous funeral oration of 430 B.C., reported in the works of Thucydides), and several sources state that she participated actively in philosophic argument with Socrates (Abbot 46).
Aspasia had a child by Pericles. The son’s irregular status had been defined by Pericles’ own law denying Athenian citizenship to anyone who did not have two Athenian citizens as parents. Pericles’ eldest son by his wife, Xanthippus (with whom his relationship was said to be tense), died in the great plague that struck Athens in 429 B.C.. Before Pericles’ own death later that year, therefore, the Athenian democracy bestowed a special exemption so that his son born of Aspasia could become a Athenian citizen. Pericles the Younger, as he was called, grew to maturity and served the Athenian democracy as a general at the naval victory of Arginusae in 406 B.C. Soon thereafter, however, he was among the generals executed by the Athenians for having failed to rescue naval crews after the battle. After Pericles’ death, Aspasia virtually disappears from the historical record. A single reference mentions that she became the companion of another rising politician, a man named Lysicles, who died in 428 B.C. (Abbott 1895).
Other sources say that immediately after Pericles’ death, Aspasia married Lysicles, a “sheepdealer.” At least he is implicitly described as such by Aristophanes in Knights, and Socrates is supposed always to have addressed him in terms of próbata (“sheep”) and kō + ́idia. According to Aeschines Socraticus, Aspasia bore Lysicies a son, taught him ( Lysicles) to speak in public (just as she had supposedly taught Pericles), and thanks to her he became a successful politician, the “first man in Athens.” Lysicles was a general and was killed collecting tribute in Caria in 428/27 B.C. It is probably indeed the case that “stories of Lysicles’ political ‘primacy’ and relationship with Aspasia reached Aeschines through comedy and must therefore be taken at something less than face value,” but in the present context this is all to the good (Vickers 194).
In his philosophic dialogue Menexenos, written after 387 B.C. and therefore after the life and prominence of its characters, Plato portrayed Socrates as praising Aspasia’s literary and oratorical skills. Indeed, Plato presented Socrates as reciting a brief funeral oration claimed as Aspasia’s own composition. Plato’s depiction of Aspasia in this dialogue is sarcastic-Aspasia is said to have composed speeches well, for a woman-and typical. For Plato manifestly enjoyed pretending that some aspects of his master Socrates’ knowledge were derived from sources other Athenians would have thought unlikely. Thus, in his dialogue Symposium, composed before 378 B.C., Plato asserted that Socrates learned the philosophic basis for and logical consequences of love from Diotima, a probably fictitious woman identified as coming from a rural Greek setting. Plato’s mention of Aspasia, and the rhetorical exercise he attributed to her-along with the tradition about Aspasia maintained by other contemporaries in the circle of Socrates-turned her memory into a rhetorical commonplace: She became the ideal philosophic woman, one who could influence statesmen and converse on equal terms with philosophers (Blundell 1995).
This process of idealization began with Socrates’ students Antisthenes and Aeschines, both of whom wrote philosophic dialogues entitled “Aspasia.” The process continued in Greek philosophical and rhetorical schools down through the fourth century A.D. Aspasia’s likeness adorned Roman gardens; much later, in the nineteenth century, she became the idealized figure of an educated ancient Greek woman and was represented in numerous academic paintings and historical novels. More recently, she has become a symbol of independence for the North American feminist movement; for example, Aspasia is prominently depicted in artist Judy Chicago’s multimedia work The Dinner Party (1979).
Few women participated in the intellectual life of ancient Greece. Aspasia has emerged as an exceptional hero in a new rhetorical narrative. Aspasia was an active member of the most famous intellectual circle in Athens, her influence extending to Plato and his concept of rhetoric as well. Like Aspasia, Plato taught that belief and truth are not necessarily the same, a sentiment he makes evident in his Gorgias when Gorgias admits that rhetoric produces mere “belief without knowledge” (Plato 1925, 44). Plato also agrees with Aspasia that rhetoric, which is the daughter of truth-disclosing philosophy, does not always carry on the family tradition; rhetoric can be used to obscure the truth, to control and deceive believers into belief. In the Gorgias, his Socrates says, “[R]hetoric seems not to be an artistic pursuit at all, but that of a shrewd, courageous spirit which is naturally clever at dealing with men; and I call the chief part of it flattery” (Plato 1925, 76). And in the Phaedrus, Plato writes that “in the courts, they say, nobody cares for the truth about these matters [things which are just or good], but for that which is convincing; and that is probability” (Plato 1925, 56).
Poor Aspasia was a perfect godsend to the comic poets. Hitherto it had always been rather difficult to find any jokes about Pericles, beyond comparing his “Olympian” manner and, latterly, the powers which the Assembly heaped on him, with the powers, manner, and presumed appearance of God Almighty; or suggesting that his known partiality to wearing a helmet in public (as general) was due to a desire to conceal the way his head stuck out at the back. Now the Olympian Zeus had his Hera, who could be worked into obscene parodies of the old genealogies of the gods; or she could be thinly disguised as Omphale or Deïaneira, two of the women who softened the pride of Herakles. The average sensual Athenian was delighted to hear that Pericles had his weaknesses, and comedians and enemies were soon toying with the idea that, since he was not, after all, without tender emotions, he must be promiscuous (Blundell 35).
Aspasia believed in women’s rights. That is, she thought women were as good as men, a notion that is always cropping up here and there. The position of women in Athens was not perfect, but it might have been worse. A married lady was permitted to dine with her husband unless there was company, when she was expected to keep to her own quarters. At ordinary meals she sat on a chair and he reclined on a sofa because he was all tired out discussing Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Justice, Freedom, and Moderation with his men friends. Aspasia never got far with her women’s rights movement. As time went on, though, women were allowed to eat at the family table even if guests were present. Later still, they were permitted to cook the meal and wash the dishes afterwards.
Aspasia of Miletus inscribed her self and her texts on rhetorical history, but males quickly appropriated her inscriptions. Although she herself avoided the traditional limitations of her gender, she did not avoid those who reinscribed her. As a result, only today are we rereading Aspasia of Miletus as a teacher of rhetoric, as influential to the thinking of famous philosophers such as Plato, Socrates, and Pericles. Today we can see the fault line of gender that reveals that Aspasia has, indeed, participated in and contributed to the rhetorical tradition. And only now we discover that the fault line reverberates down the corridors of past scholarship to the foundations of the Greek intellectual tradition. Aspasia’s contributions to rhetoric, one of sex expectations and violations, brings to the fore the whole notion of woman’s place in the history of rhetoric. And the story of this woman also foregrounds our rediscovering of that history.
Wilamowitz’s later view, considerably less jaundiced than his early pronouncement that the question of her intellect or intellectual curiosity was neither an answerable nor a proper one, still connected Aspasia inextricably to her sexuality and strictly confined her importance as a historical actor to her relationship with a man. The twentieth century has seen attempts both to free Aspasia from her relationships with men and to focus more pruriently upon her sexuality. It is needless to sentimentalize Aspasia. She was such as her world had made her. In the days of her prosperity she is said to have kept a household of other “girl companions,” such as she herself had chosen to be, as a commercial proposition (Henry 232). But she made Pericles happy during the years of the making of the great buildings; she was the mother of the best of his sons; he was very much in love with her, and when he had her living with him, used to kiss her (people noted with avidity) on entering the house or on leaving to go to his office; and the other thing that is remembered about her was that she could hold her own in conversation with intelligent men, and that Socrates was one of those who enjoyed talking to her.
New educational opportunities did emerge after Aspasia’ life, but the consequences for a female who sought such opportunities were never without risk. A learned woman, especially a woman who sought to express her wisdom outside the role of motherhood, was often deemed an “unsexed” or “masculinized” woman. As Aspasia noted, many men seemed to fear that “the more a woman’s understanding is improved, the more apt she will be to despise her husband” (Blundell 50). Aspasia reinforced a new view of woman’s sphere. Some women began to envision different lives for their daughters than they themselves had experienced, and out of that parental desire came many individual but collectively significant changes.
Abbott Evelyn. Pericles and the Golden Age of Athens. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1895.
Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. London: British Museum Press, and Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Eisler Riane. “Sex, Art and Archetypes.” The Women’s Review of Books 8:6 (March 1991): 16
Henry, Madeleine. M. Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Plato. Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus. Trans. H. N. Fowler. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1977.
Plato. Symposium, Lysis, Gorgias. Trans. W. R. M. Lamb. Cambridge: Harvard-Heinemann, 1925.
Vickers, Michael. Pericles on Stage: Political Comedy in Aristophanes’ Early Plays. University of Texas Press: Austin, TX, 1997.
Cite this Aspasia of Miletus
Aspasia of Miletus. (2016, Jul 30). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/aspasia-of-miletus/