“…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.”
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
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.
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.
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)
- 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”.