Aspasia

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 fifth century B.C.E. original and may represent Aspasia's funerary
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 fifth century B.C.E. original and may represent Aspasia's funerary | Source
Miletus from a map of Greek and Phoenician Settlements in the Mediterranean Basin. Perry-Castaeda Library Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd
Miletus from a map of Greek and Phoenician Settlements in the Mediterranean Basin. Perry-Castaeda Library Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd | Source

Aspasia of Miletus

A woman that some say never existed, Aspasia of Miletus’ name has endured in legends for well over two thousand years. There is vague mention of her in Plato’s dialogues and her name appears in the stories of several men that were her contemporizes in Athens. Socrates and Pericles were two of those men, one her teacher/student and the other her common-law husband. Who was this woman that conversed with philosophers, was wife to a leader of Athens, supposedly a prostitute and keeper of a brothel, a speech writer and teacher of rhetoric? She has been called the most important woman of the second half of the fifth century B.C.E. while some historians see her as a historical unperson.

Aspasia was born in Miletus in about 470 BC. Her father was Axiochus, an aristocrat. She had an older sister probably married to the Athenian Alcibiades the Elder. It is probable that she arrived in Athens about 451 B.C.E. when her brother-in –law and sister moved back to Athens.[1] It was in all probability through this connection to the notable Alcibiades family that Aspasia gained entry into the upper strata of Athenian society and became acquainted with Pericles who had been and perhaps still was married. He was married to a relative who had given him two sons, but their married life was not agreeable, so he legally bestowed her upon another man with her consent and took Aspasia as his mistress since she was a metic and therefore forbidden to wed a citizen.[2]

It is assumed that because of her family’s status in Miletus that she was educated. This assumption is also supported by Plutarch in his Life of Pericles, where we are told that she pleased the foremost men of the state and afforded the philosophers occasion to discuss her in exalted terms and at great length. Also that Aspasia was held in high favor by Pericles because of her rare political wisdom.[3]Socrates came to see her with his disciples and his close friends brought their wives to hear her discourse. There are no surviving philosophical writings of Aspasia; although it is an admitted fact that Socrates came to her for instruction and avowed to have obtained it.[4] We find mention of Aspasia as being among Pericles’ closest associates and .she is described as an educated courtesan. Pericles enemies used his relationship with her against him and alluded to her being the power behind the throne.[5] The Funeral Oration in Plato’s Menexenus Socrates credits to Aspasia as the speech she allegedly wrote for the Athenian war dead. He also claims Aspasia as his “schoolteacher in rhetoric”.[6]

Pericles was born into a foremost family of Athens with noble lineage on both sides. His father was Xanthippus, who in 479 B.C.E. had distinguished himself as commander of the Athenian force at Mycale and the defeat of the Persian forces. Pericles’ mother was Agariste, niece of Cleisthenes who had established the Athenian Constitution. By the time that Aspasia met him he had become one of the strategia (ten generals, elected yearly to govern Athens). According to the historian Thucydides, by the 430s Pericles was more than just a leader of the people, but the true ruler of Athens for while in name the state was a democracy in reality it was a monarchy. This may in fact be Thucydides’ youthful vision of a great man.[7]

Aspasia and Pericles had a son; because of the Law of Citizenship that Pericles had sponsored in 451 B.C.E. this child could not be a citizen. After the death of both of Pericles’s legitimate sons he petitioned the Assembly for citizenship for his son and finally in 429 probably after his own death the Assembly saw fit to grant his wish and make his son, Pericles a citizen. Three years later he would become a general but would lose his life after a tragedy at sea. Pericles died after a long illness in 429 B.C.E. The plague had been ravaging Athens and Pericles had been ill and fighting it for months, in the end he simply could not fight any longer.

Old comedy, a genre full of commentary about politics, provides the only known contemporary evidence for Aspasia's life. Ancient historians such as Plutarch and Duris treated these comedies as historical sources. Comedy is the core of discourses on sexuality, power, and intellect in the fifth century, discourses to which Aspasia is crucial. [8] Four writers of comedy mentioned Aspasia in at least one of their plays; all of them portray her as a prostitute near the inner circle of power. It is on these that her bios were built. Is there truth to it? Are these men trying to bring down a politician and using her to bring doubt and cloud the reputation of the politician.[9]

Most of what we know of Aspasia comes from works that have to do with Pericles. It seems more than possible that a lot of what was said about her was simply being used to bring dishonor on Pericles. At one time he was brought up on charges of embezzlement, of which he was cleared. Shortly thereafter Aspasia was charged with impiety, but Pericles id said to have pled her case with tears in his eyes.[10]

Endnotes:

[1] Matthew Dillon,Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion,(Florence, KyUSA:Routledge,2001), 186.

[2] Patricia O’Grady (PhD), “ Aspasia of Miletus,” Society of Ancient Hellenic Studies, 2005. http://home.vicnet.net.au/~hwaa/artemis4.html (accessed 22 October2010).

[3] Plutarch, “Plutarch’s Lives, Volume I, Project Gutenberg (November 2004) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14033/14033-h/14033-htm (accessed 22 October 2010).

[4] John Stuart Mill, “Subjection of Women”, (London, GBR: ElecBook, 1869), 99. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/Doc?id=2001586&ppg=97.

[5] Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People, (Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press, 1989), 89. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/Doc?id=10035919&ppg=109.

[6] Richard Hunter, “Plato’s Symposium”, (Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, 2004), 82. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/Doc?id=10103637&ppg=97.

[7] Ober , 89.

[8] Madeleine M. Henry, “Prisonerof History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition”, (Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, 995), 26. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/apus/docDetail.action?docID=10087223

[9] Henry,28.

[10] Dillon, 186.

Bibliography:

"Aspasia of Miletus." Nexus. 1997-2010. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/hetairai/aspasia.html (accessed October 22, 2010).

Dillon, Matthew. Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion. London: Routledge, 2001.

Euripides, Michael Collier, Geotgia Machemer. Medea. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, Albert Rabil. Sex, Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Henry, Madeleine M. Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

"Hetairai." Nexus. 1997-2010. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/hetairai/hetairai.html (accessed October 22, 2010).

Ober, Josiah. Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the Poeple. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

O'Grady, Patricia,(PhD). "Aspasia of Miletus." Society of Ancient Helelnic Studies. 2005. http://home.vicnet.net.au/~hwaa/artemis4.html (accessed October 22, 2010).

Plato, 427? BCE - 347 ? BCE. Phaedrus. http://infomotions.com/etexts/gutenberg/dirs/etext99/phdrs10.htm. Translated by 1817 - 1893 Benjamin Jowett. Athens: Project Gutenburg.

Plato, 427? BCE - 347? BCE. "Menexenus." Project Gutenburg. http://infomotions.com/etexts/gutenberg/dirs/etext99/mnxns10.htm. Athens: Project Gutenburg.

Plutarch. Plutarch's Lives, Volume I. Project Gutenburg. November 2004, 2004. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14033/14033-h/14033-h.htm (accessed October 22, 2010).

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