Aedesia – 5th Century – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Greece, Greece

Aedesia

Aedesia was a Greek Neoplatonist philosopher who lived in Egypt during the 5th century.

She was related to Syrianus, the head of the Neoplatonist school in Athens (alongside Asclepigenia), and apparently spent much of her life around scholars and great thinkers. She was even briefly engaged to one of his students, Proclus.

Aedesia married Hermias, also a student of Syranius, and had two sons with him, Ammonius and Heliodorus. When Hermias died she received a small state allowance which enabled her to devote herself to educating her children.

When her sons were old enough to study philosophy, Aedesia took them to Athens where she reconnected with Proclus. She was very popular among the philosophers of Athens who praised her virtue and dedication to educating her children.

Aedesia reportedly lived well into old age, though there is very little information on how she spent the rest of her life.


References:

On Wikipedia:

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Asclepigenia – fl.430 – Athens, Greece

Greece

Asclepigenia

Asclepigenia was the daughter of a philosopher called Plutarch, who headed the Neoplatonist school in Athens. He educated his daughter (and her brother, Hierius) in philosophy and mysticism. In time, (much like Hypatia in Alexandria) she too became a teacher.

Asclepigenia and her father followed a syncretic system which united traditional Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies with pagan ritual and magic.

When Plutarch died in 430, he passed the school onto his daughter. She taught metaphysics, cosmology and theology, all of which attempted to understand and predict the will of fate (or the gods) and influence the outcomes.

Asclepigenia is known to us largely because she taught the philosopher Proclus, and almost all of the information we have on her comes from The Life of Proclus by Marinus.


References:

Ancient Women Philosophers: 600 B.C.-500 A. D.M.E. Waithe

On Wikipedia:

 

Aspasia – c.470 BCE – 400 BCE – Athens, Greece

Ancient Greece

“…what great art or power this woman had, that she 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.”

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Aspasia has long been a subject of controversy when looking at life and politics in 5th Century Athens. Her fame as a female philosopher and intellect can only be matched by the notoriety of her chosen profession.

We know that Aspasia was not Athenian by birth, although she is most associated with this Greek city-state. Her origins lie in Miletus, an island which now forms part of Turkey.

Almost nothing is known of her early years, but it is likely that her family was wealthy enough to afford the education for which she is so well renowned. Traditionally, education was segregated by the sexes – boys would study philosophy, rhetoric and physical fitness, whilst girls focused on more domestic tasks with the aspiration to manage a family home. Interestingly, Aspasia is fluent in both curricula.

The reasons for Aspasia’s migration to Athens are unknown, but it is most likely that her family was sold into slavery after the Ionian Revolt.Nevertheless, we do know that she arrived in Athens alone, and sought to set herself up as an independent woman.

In 5th century Athens, however, this was no easy task. Add to this a lack of Athenian citizenship, and there are very few options open to you. Aspasia decided to become a hetaera, and it is from here that the notoriety begins.

It is important not to confuse this term with prostitution – the most accurate translation would be “companion”. Hetaerae were highly educated in the arts, and would attend male social gatherings (symposia) and discussions. Aspasia’s combination of beauty, wit and intellect was seductive and she quickly expanded her client base. She was able to buy a house in Athens, and from there she could train other young women to be hetaerae. It was around this time, also, that Aspasia met Pericles.

Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the house of Aspasia, 1861 by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the house of Aspasia, 1861 by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Aspasia became the mistress of prominent statesman Pericles in the early 440sBC, and she devoted the next chapter of her life to this relationship. Pericles was so taken with his new mistress that he divorced his wife in 445 BCE, and moved in with Aspasia.

They had a child in 440 BCE – Pericles the Younger. Being the unassailable mistress of the most powerful man in Athens certainly had its privileges, and Aspasia was now entertaining some of the greatest minds of the time – according to Xenophon, Socrates learnt rhetoric from Aspasia! Regular attendees to Pericles’ symposia included Socrates, Phidias and Anaxagoras, so Aspasia became well connected.

An example of these privileges could be argued in the legitimizing of her son. Despite never being married, Pericles the Younger was formally recognised as Pericles’ heir, and given Athenian citizenship. This was despite Pericles himself passing laws in Athens which forbade this.

Marble herm in the Vatican Museums inscribed with Aspasia's name at the base. Discovered in 1777, this marble herm is a Roman copy of a 5th-century BC original and may represent Aspasia's funerary stele.

Marble herm in the Vatican Museums inscribed with Aspasia’s name at the base. Discovered in 1777, this marble herm is a Roman copy of a 5th-century BC original and may represent Aspasia’s funerary stele.

Another indicator of influence would be in her portraits. Aspasia is one of only two women who had ever had their portraits publicly displayed in Athens. Even rarer, the portrait was sculpted by Phidias himself, the master sculptor of the 5th century. Aspasia is often pictured with Socrates, and the inference is that they are the male and female epitome of philosophical thinking.

As with all high-profile power couples, not everyone was a fan. Aspasia had many enemies who criticized her influence over Pericles, and even accused her of writing Pericles’ speeches. Being so close to the political sphere – an exclusively male space – was intolerable to many, and her critics sought to bring her down.

Aspasia was brought to trial on charges of impiety, but was eventually acquitted. It is rumoured that Pericles became so overwrought during Aspasia’s trial that he wept openly in court. Despite these setbacks, Aspasia was resolute in maintaining her relationship (and arguable influence) with Pericles, and this flourished until his death.

After Pericles, Aspasia became the mistress of Lysicles, a cattle farmer. As their relationship developed, Lysicles became an orator and quickly rose to prominence in Athenian politics, due in part to Aspasia’s tutelage and connections. She had a child with him, but remained at the forefront of Athenian politics until her death. She also maintained her school for hetaerae, and Plutarch records her teachings:

“they have imprisoned women in a world of superfluous interests and tasks because they fear the power women would have if female sexuality became augmented by a developed intellect and spirit.”

This entry was a guest post by G. Harvey.


References:

Gardner, P.; A female figure in the early style of Phidias (1918)

Glockhammer, H.; The apprenticeship of a hetaera; gender and socialisation in Wieland’s ‘Geschichte des Agathon’ (1988)

Lefkowitz, M. and Fant, M.; Women’s life in Greece and Rome: a source book translation (1982)

Vermeule III, C.; Socrates and Aspasia: new portraits of Late Antiquity (1958)

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

  • Philothea by Lydia Maria Child is a classical romance set in the days of Aspasia and Pericles.
  • Pericles and Aspasia by Walter Savage Landor
  • Aspasia by German author Robert Hamerling is about the manners and morals of the Age of Pericles.
  • Giacomo Leopardi published a group of five poems known as The Circle of Aspasia. The poems were inspired by the author’s unrequited love for a woman named Fanny Targioni Tozzetti, who he calls Aspasia.
  • The Athenian Women is a play by George Cram Cook which portrays Aspasia leading a strike for peace.
  • The Immortal Marriage by Gertrude Atherton tells the story of Pericles and Aspasia and illustrates the period of the Samian War, the Peloponnesian War and the Plague of Athens.
  • Glory and the Lightning by Taylor Caldwell  is another novel that portrays the historical relationship of Aspasia and Pericles.
  • Italian writer Daniela Mazzon wrote the biographical essay “Aspasia maestra e amante di Pericle” and in 2012 she produced the drama in ancient style “Desiderata Aspasia. Rapsodia mediterannea”.

Ennigaldi – fl. 547 BCE – Ur, Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia

The ultimate career woman, Ennigaldi devoted her life to no less than three full time occupations, including archaeologist and curator of the world’s first museum – “For the marvel of the beholders”.

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A day in the life of Princess Ennigaldi:

The Mesopotamian princess would have woken and eaten breakfast in her private quarters within the Palace at Ur, known as E-Gig-Par (now in Iran). Ennigaldi might then have gone to oversee the Priestess School which she administrated as High Priestess. The upper class women who were educated there were literate and learned a dialect known as Emesal, which was a special women’s language.

Ennigaldi was a beloved educator, spending less time than her predecessors had on the corporal punishment of her students. She herself loved to learn, and had a particular passion for history. Her father, King Nabonidus took an interest in antiques and restoration – in fact he is considered the first serious archaeologist, undertaking a number of excavations during his reign. The King clearly passed this fascination on to his daughter, who was inspired to create the first museum known to history.

The museum was built in the Palace complex, close to Ennigaldi’s living quarters. It contained artefacts excavated by her father, and some originally collected by famous Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Many of them were centuries old by Ennigaldi’s time and she used them to educate others on the history of Mesopotamia and her dynasty’s heritage.

The antiquities were arranged neatly side by side, as in many modern day museums. Each individual piece was labelled with a description– carefully translated into a number of languages. Ennigaldi’s name is also inscribed throughout the museum as ‘Bel-Shalti-Nannar’, which is the title she was given after her ascension to High priestess. King Nabonidus shows an obvious affection and pride for his daughter, with whom he shared this common interest, writing:

I built anew the house of Bel-shalti-Nannar, my daughter, the priestess of Sin. And: May Bêl-shalti-Nannar the daughter, the beloved of my heart, be strong before them; and may her word prevail.

In her evenings, Ennigaldi would attend to her duties as High priestess. She worshipped Nanna (also known as Sin) the moon god in the Great Ziggurat of Ur, an enormous pyramid shaped Temple. She carried out her religious rituals and prayers in a small temple at the top of the Ziggurat known as the giparu, which her father had restored especially for her.


References:

The story behind the world’s oldest museumAlasdair Wilkins

Ur Excavations vol. IX: The Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods Sir Leonard Woolley

On Wikipedia:


Notes:

Emesal – Meaning “fine tongue” or “high-pitched voice”, though often translated as “women’s language.” It is used exclusively by female characters in some literary texts. In addition, it is dominant in certain genres of cult songs.