Aspasia of Miletus


published on 02 September 2009

The only statement about Aspasia of Miletus which can be maintained as objectively true is that she was a foreign-born woman living in Athens c. 445 BCE who was the lover of Pericles and operated a salon of some sort. It is not even known if `Aspasia’ was her actual name or a `professional’ name as she seems to have been a hetaira (a high-class paid companion) and her name means `greeting with affection’ or `welcome’.  It has been famously noted by Madeleine Henry that Aspasia is depicted by ancient writers according to those writer’s individual biases and so a clear picture of who she was and what she accomplished is almost impossible to grasp. “When we need Aspasia to be a chaste muse and teacher, she is there; when we need a grand horizontal, she is there, when we need a proto-feminist, she is there also” (Prisoner of History, 128). Ancient writers from Plato to Plutarch have characterized her according to their own particular need and so a modern reader must sift and measure the various accounts in any attempt to come to terms with who Aspasia may have been. A standard depiction of Aspasia in modern times reads thusly:

A contributor to learning in Athens, Aspasia of Miletus (c. 470-401/400 BCE) boldly surpassed the limited expectations for women by establishing a renowned girl's school and a popular salon. She lived free of female seclusion and conducted herself like a male intellectual while expounding on current events, philosophy, and rhetoric. Her fans included the philosopher Socrates and his followers, the teacher Plato, the orator Cicero, the historian Xenophon, the writer Athenaeus, and the statesman and general Pericles, her adoring common-law husband.                                         (The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1992).

Ancient depictions, however, vary between Aristophanes’ comical charge in his `Acharnians’ that Aspasia started The Peloponnesian War over the abduction of “two whores” of hers to Plato’s image of her in his `Menexenus’ where she is Socrates’ teacher in rhetoric (though it must be noted that the `Menexenus’ is a satirical dialogue and when the character of Menexenus says, “I marvel that Aspasia, who is only a woman, should be able to compose such a speech” Plato is most certainly writing tongue in cheek). While Aspasia herself wrote nothing extant, her influence is apparent in the writings of her contemporaries and later writers (mainly derogatory slurs against her and her lover, Pericles, but some positive commentaries as well). Plutarch is intent on praising the accomplishments of Pericles and blaming any of his mistakes on Aspasia while Aeschines of Sphetto presents her as a clever speaker and an intellectual.

Broadly, Aspasia seems to have been a complex woman who embodied all of the virtues and defects, to greater or lesser degrees, attributed to her by the various ancient writers. She seems to have been born in Miletus and came to Athens in 470 BCE in the company of Alcibiades’ grandfather (she was his much younger sister-in-law). As a metic (a non-Athenian) she could not marry an Athenian and so was deprived of the most important social role of a woman of that time: producing children. Whether the `house’ she set up in the city was a brothel, an intellectual salon, or both, depends on which writer one reads but it seems certain that many of the most influential men of her time visited her and, among them, Pericles, to whom she bore a son (also named Pericles who, in spite of his metic mother, was granted citizenship in Athens and became a General of note).  The great speeches given by Pericles (including his famous funeral oration) have been attributed to the pen of Aspasia and it has also been suggested that she modeled the `Inductio’ (“getting one’s interlocutor to assent to a doubtful proposition that resembles the earlier one”) for Socrates and so taught him the stratagems of argument. An example of the Inductio is seen in this fragment from the dialogue of Aeschines of Sphetto in which Aspasia uses it in conversation with the wife of Xenophon:

"Tell me, please, wife of Xenophon, if your neighbor had a better piece of jewelry than you, would you prefer hers or your own?"
"Hers," said the wife.
"So -- if she should have a dress or other feminine ornament more expensive than what you have, would you prefer hers or yours?"
Hers, naturally," said the wife.
"So now: what if that woman had a better husband than you? Would you prefer hers or your own?"
Here the woman blushed. Aspasia, however, began to interrogate Xenophon himself.
(Henry, Prisoner of History, 44).

After Pericles’ death in 429 BCE, Aspasia is said to have lived with the Athenian General Lysicles and to have aided him greatly in his political career. It is generally understood that she died in 401/400 BCE based on the chronology given by Aeschines but, as with her life, this is also uncertain. In the 19th and 20th centuries, mainly owing to the literary works of Walter Savage Landor and Gertrude Atherton, respectively, Aspasia came to be viewed as a romantic heroine of the Golden Age of Athens. She is recognized today as an intellectual and teacher of enormous ability in that such a diverse array of writers found cause to mention her in their work, sometimes at length. Even Plutarch, who regularly presents her in a negative light, wrote, “Now since it is thought that [Pericles] proceeded thus against the Samians to gratify Aspasia, this may be a fitting place to raise the query 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." Whoever Aspasia was, it seems clear she was a woman of impressive accomplishments; even if it remains unclear exactly what those accomplishments were. 

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