Aspasia of Miletus, commonly known as Aspasia (c. 470 BC), was the lover and companion of the Athenian politician Pericles, by whom she had a son, Pericles the Younger, although the full details of their marital status are not known.Ionian-born in Miletus, she took part in the public life of Athens in the classical age. According to Plutarch, her house became an intellectual center to the point of attracting the most famous writers and thinkers, including Socrates, who, in turn, is assumed to have been influenced by the teachings of Aspasia. It is mentioned in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon and others.
Although she spent most of her adult life in Greece, few details of her life are fully known. Some scholars speculate that Aspasia was a brothel keeper and a heterosexual. Aspasia”s historical role provides essential insights for understanding women in ancient Greece. Very little is known about the women of her time. Scholar Madeleine Henry states that “asking questions about Aspasia”s life is like asking questions about half of humanity.”
Aspasia was born in the Ionian city of Miletus (in the modern province of Aydın, Turkey). Little is known about her family, except that her father”s name was Assiocus, and the excellent education she received and her patronymic itself indicate that she belonged to a wealthy family. Some ancient sources claim that she was a prisoner of war named Myrtle from Caria. According to this hypothesis, she would have become a slave and would have lived with a tenant of a brothel until, after arriving in Attica, she was freed by Pericles. This “malevolent” and “fictional” supposition is however generally considered false.
It is not known under what circumstances he made his first journey to Athens. The discovery of an inscription on a fourth-century B.C.E. tomb, bearing the names of Hesiocus and Aspasius, prompted historian Peter K. Bicknell to attempt a reconstruction of Aspasia”s family background and connections to Athens. His theory connects her to Alcibiades II of Scambonides (grandfather of the famous Alcibiades), who was ostracized by Athens in 460 BC and may have spent his exile in Miletus. Bicknell speculates that, after his exile, the elder Alcibiades went to Miletus, where he is said to have married the daughter of a certain Assiochus. Alcibiades apparently returned to Athens in the spring of 450 BC with his new wife and younger sister, Aspasia. Bicknell claims that the first child of this marriage was named Assiocus (uncle of the famous Alcibiades), and the second Aspasius. He also believes that Pericles met Aspasia through his close ties to Alcibiades” family.
While in Athens, Aspasia became part of the intellectual circle of Pericles, where she had contact with his closest associates, including the sculptor and architect Phidias and the philosopher Anaxagoras.
Life in Athens
According to disputed statements by ancient writers and some modern scholars, Aspasia became an ether and probably ran a brothel. Aetheras were high-class courtesans and entertainers: in addition to physical beauty, they were distinguished from most Athenian women by the fact that they were educated (often to a very high level, as in the case of Aspasia), possessed independence and paid taxes. They were perhaps as close to free women as one could get, and Aspasia, who had become a vibrant figure in Athenian society, was clearly an example of this. According to Plutarch, Aspasia was compared to the famous Targelia, another renowned Ionian hetera of ancient times. Although Plutarch may have associated the two Milesian women in order to lead the reader to believe that Aspasia was guilty of medism, nothing implies that she had actually propagated this practice in Athens.
As a foreigner and perhaps a heterosexual, Aspasia was free from the legal constraints that traditionally confined married women to their homes: thus she was allowed to participate in the public life of the city. She became the mistress of the politician Pericles in the early years of 440 BC. After he divorced his first wife (about 445 BC), Aspasia began living with him, although their marital status remains debated. Plutarch reports that Pericles, “taking Aspasia with him, loved her with extraordinary tenderness” and “kissed her passionately whenever she left the house to attend to public affairs.” Their son Pericles the Younger should have been born around 440 BC. Aspasia must have been quite young, as she is supposed to have given birth to Lysicles” son in 428 BC. Aspasia was considered a tyrannical mother as she prevented her son Pericles from expressing the “courage of the democratic man and lover of his city that was so dear to his father”s heart when he was alive and delivered his funeral speech.”
In social circles, Aspasia was noted above all as a skilled conversationalist and counselor rather than simply an object of physical beauty. Plutarch writes that despite his immoral life, Socrates” friends brought their wives to hear Aspasia”s conversations.
Personal and Judicial Attacks
Although they were influential, Pericles, Aspasia and their friends were not immune to attack. Preeminence in democratic Athens, in fact, did not equate to absolute dominance. His relationship with Pericles and the resulting political influences, aroused many reactions. The accusations to which Aspasia was subjected were intended to cover her with infamy, but the main objective was clearly to weaken the political power of Pericles. Donald Kagan, a Yale historian, believes that Aspasia was particularly unpopular in the years immediately following the Samos War.
In the year 440 BC. Samos was at war with Miletus over Priene, an ancient Ionian city at the foot of Mount Mycale. Defeated in the war, the Milesians went to Athens to present their case against the Samians. When the Athenians ordered the two factions to stop the conflict and submit to the arbitrariness of Athens, the Sami refused. Consequently, Pericles issued a decree sending an expedition to Samos. The campaign proved difficult and the Athenians had to endure heavy losses before the defeat of Samos. According to Plutarch, it was thought that Aspasia, who was originally from Miletus, was responsible for the war in Samos and that Pericles, in order to please her, had decided to take sides against and attack Samos.
According to some later accounts, before the Peloponnesian War broke out (431 BC-404 BC), Pericles, some of his closest associates (including the philosopher Anaxagoras and the sculptor Phidias), and Aspasia faced a series of personal and legal attacks. Aspasia, in particular, was accused of corrupting the women of Athens in order to satisfy the perversions of Pericles. According to Plutarch, she was sued by the comic poet Hermippus and put on trial for impiety and lenocyny. Excluding the fact that Aspasia had practiced lenocyny for economic reasons, it could be assumed that the only motivation for this illicit activity was to obtain personal information about the lovers who frequented her courtesans. The accused, in addition to being a woman and therefore unable to stand alone in court, was also foreign and straight. For these reasons and because he was directly involved in the accusations about his sexual habits, Pericles took care to defend himself Aspasia and, with the oratorical skill learned from her, he was able to acquit her. From what the sources report, Pericles would not have convinced the judges only with his speech, but he would have even pitied them by shedding tears. According to the testimonies, in order to defend themselves from the accusations, the citizens resorted to the “motion of the affections” arousing pity in the judges. The historical nature of the accounts of these events is disputed, and it seems that no harm was done to them as a result.
Plutarch, while claiming not to know how the facts really went, reports that the process to which Aspasia was subjected could have challenged the leadership of Pericles, so, to divert public opinion from his personal affairs, the strategist would start the Peloponnesian War. Aristophanes, in his play The Acarnesians, blames Aspasia for causing the Peloponnesian War. He argues that Pericles” Megara decree, which excluded Megara from trading with Athens or its allies, was in retaliation against the Megareans for prostitutes being kidnapped from Aspasia”s house. Aristophanes” portrayal of Aspasia as being responsible for personal reasons for the outbreak of war with Sparta may reflect the memory of the earlier episode involving Miletus and Samos. Plutarch also reports the taunts of other comic poets, such as Eupolis and Cratinus. According to Podlecki, Duride seems to have proposed the idea that Aspasia had instigated both the Samos and Peloponnesian wars.
Aspasia was portrayed as the new “Onphale,” “Deianira,” Plato and other comic poets depict Pericles as a libertine and slave to lust and the ether Aspasia. The myth of Aspasia spread throughout Asia Minor into the imperial age; literati and artists used it to represent an alarming advent of women in politics that heralded an ominous gynecocracy.
Further attacks on the relationship between Pericles and Aspasia are reported by Athenaeus. Even Pericles” son Santippus, who had political ambitions, did not hesitate to ridicule his father for his domestic discussions and with the sophists.
Last years and death
In 429 BC during the plague in Athens, Pericles witnessed the death of his sister and both of his legitimate sons, Paralus and Santippus, who were born to his first wife. With his spirits shattered, he burst into tears, and not even the company of Aspasia could comfort him. Shortly before his death, moved by the dramatic events suffered by their most prominent politician, the Athenians granted a change in the law of citizenship of 451 BC that allowed the son had with Aspasia to become a citizen, and to legitimize her, thus avoiding the extinction of his name and his lineage for lack of heirs, this was a rather surprising decision, considering that it was Pericles himself to propose the law that restricted citizenship only to those who had both parents Athenians. Pericles died of the plague in the autumn of 429 BC.
Plutarch quotes Aeschines Socraticus, who wrote a dialogue about Aspasia (now lost) according to which, after the death of Pericles, Aspasia lived with Lysikles, an Athenian strategist and democratic leader, by whom she had a son: thanks to her, Lysikles would become the most important man in Athens. Some comic poets, in particular Eupolis, saw the passage of Aspasia from Pericles to Lysikles as “a metaphor for the transition from the Periclean age to that of the demagogues”. Lysicles was killed in battle in 428 BC, during an expedition to collect subsidies imposed on the allies. With the death of Lysicles, contemporary annotations ended. It is not known whether Aspasia was alive when her son Pericles was elected general, or when he was executed after the Battle of Arginuse. Most historians give Aspasia”s date of death (about 401400 BC), based on the observation that it occurred before the execution of Socrates in 399 BC, a chronology implicated in the structure of Aeschines” Aspasia.
Aspasia appears in the philosophical writings of Plato, Xenophon, Socratic Aeschines, and Antisthenes. Some scholars claim that Plato was so impressed by her intelligence and wit that he based his character Diotima in the Symposium on her, while others speculate that Diotima was actually a historical figure. According to Charles Kahn, professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, Diotima is in many ways Plato”s response to Aeschines” Aspasia.
In the Menessenus, Plato is ironic about Aspasia”s relationship with Pericles, and quotes Socrates ironically stating that he was the teacher of many orators and that since Pericles was instructed by Aspasia, he should have received a superior education in rhetoric than those who were instructed by Antiphon. He also credits Aspasia with the authority of the epitaph for the dead of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, and attacks his contemporaries for their veneration of Pericles. Plato reports that under the urging of Aspasia Socrates learned his speech by heart. Kahn argues that Plato took from Aeschines the theme of Aspasia as a teacher of rhetoric to Pericles and Socrates. Plato”s Aspasia and Aristophanes” Lysistrata (the protagonist of the play of the same name) are two exceptions to the rule of women”s oratorical inability, although these fictional characters tell us nothing about the actual status of women in Athens. In particular, Martha L. Rose, a professor of history at Truman State University, argues that “only in comedy do dogs fight, birds rule, and women declaim.”
In his Socratic writings, Xenophon mentions Aspasia twice: in the Memorables and the Economist. In both cases, Socrates recommends his advice to Critobulus, son of Crito. In the Memorables, Socrates mentions Aspasia stating that the paraninfo should report sincerely the good characteristics of the man. In the Economist, Socrates refers to Aspasia as being the most knowledgeable about household management and economic cooperation between husband and wife.
Both Aeschines and Antisthenes composed Socratic dialogues entitled Aspasia, which have survived only in fragmentary form. Aeschines characterizes Aspasia positively, presenting her as a teacher and inspirer of excellence and tying these virtues to her status as an ether. Our primary sources for Aeschine”s Socratic Aspasia are Athenaeus, Plutarch, and Cicero. In Aeschine”s dialogue, Socrates advises Callia to send his son to Aspasia for instruction. When Callia recoils at the idea of a female teacher, Socrates points out that Aspasia had positively influenced Pericles, and after his death, Lysicles as well. In a section of the dialogue preserved in Latin by Cicero, Aspasia appears as a “Socrates”: asking questions first of Xenophon”s wife (probably not the famous historian), and later of Xenophon himself, she demonstrates that it is possible to acquire virtue through self-knowledge. The questions concern “whether the best things that belong to others are better than those that one possesses” or “whether or not it is permissible for one to seek out the partners of others as well, in case one believes them to be better than one”s own”; Aspasia concludes that everyone has as a goal the search for the best partner, but this cannot be achieved if one does not in the meantime also seek to implement personal improvement. For Kahn, every single episode of Aeschine”s Aspasia is not only fictitious, but even unbelievable. Of Antisthenes” Aspasia only two or three quotations exist. In this dialogue Aspasia is negatively characterized because the author takes her as a negative example of a life devoted to pleasure. The dialogue also contains anecdotes regarding the biography of Pericles: it seems that Antisthenes did not attack only Aspasia, but the entire family of Pericles, including his children. The philosopher thinks that the great strategist chose a life of pleasures at the expense of virtue. Therefore, Aspasia is represented as the personification of a life of sexual indulgence.
As Jona Lendering points out, the main problem that remains is that most of what we know about Aspasia is based on mere speculation. Thucydides does not mention her; our only sources are the unreliable representations and speculations recorded in literature and philosophy by authors, who were not at all interested in Aspasia as a historical figure. Therefore, we get a series of contradictory representations of Aspasia: she is both a good wife like Theanus and a courtesan-prostitute like Targelia. This is the reason why modern scholars express their skepticism towards the historicity of Aspasia”s life.
According to Wallace, “for us, Aspasia possesses and can possess almost no historical reality.” Therefore, Madeleine M. Henry, professor of classical studies at Iowa State University, argues that “the biographical anecdotes that emerged in antiquity about Aspasia are frantically colored, almost entirely unverifiable, and still alive and well in the twentieth century.” Finally, he concludes that “it is possible to illustrate only meager speculations of her life.” According to Charles W. Fornara and Loren J. Samons II, professors of classical studies and history, “it may well be, for all we know, that the real Aspasia was even better than her fictional counterpart.”
Aspasia”s fame is closely linked to that of Pericles, the most influential politician of the fifth century BCE. Plutarch accepts that Aspasia was a politically and intellectually significant figure, and expresses his admiration for a woman who “managed the most important men in the state at will, provided philosophers with the opportunity to speak about them in exalted terms and in depth.” The biographer reports that Aspasia became so famous that even Cyrus the Younger, who went to war against King Artaxerxes for the throne of Persia, named one of his concubines after her, previously named Milto. When Cyrus fell in battle, this woman was captured by the king and with him gained great influence. Lucian ascribes to Aspasia the epithet of “model of wisdom,” “the admired of the admirable Olympius,” and praises “her political knowledge and insight, her cunning and depth.” A Syriac text, according to which Aspasia composed a speech and commissioned a man to read it for her in the courts, confirms Aspasia”s rhetorical reputation. According to the Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, Aspasia was “skilled in words,” a sophist, and a master of rhetoric.
Kagan describes Aspasia as “a beautiful, independent, brilliantly witty young woman, able to hold conversations with the best minds in Greece and to discuss and illuminate all kinds of issues with her husband.” Roger Just, a classicist and professor of social anthropology at the University of Kent, believes that Aspasia was an exceptional figure, but her unique case is enough to underscore the fact that any woman, in order to become intellectually and socially equal to a man, had to be a heterosexual. According to Sister Prudence Allen, a philosopher and seminary professor, Aspasia shifted the potential for women to become philosophers one step beyond the poetic inspirations of Sappho.
In modern literature
Aspasia appears in several significant works of modern literature. Her romantic connection with Pericles has inspired some of the most famous poets and novelists of recent centuries. In particular, nineteenth-century Romantic authors and twentieth-century historical novelists found their love story an inexhaustible source of inspiration. In 1835, Lydia Child, an American abolitionist, novelist and journalist, published Philothea, a classic novel set in the time of Pericles and Aspasia. This book is considered to be the author”s most elaborate and successful work, as the female characters, particularly Aspasia, are depicted with great beauty and delicacy.
In 1836, English writer and poet Walter Savage Landor published Pericles and Aspasia, one of his most famous books. Pericles and Aspasia is a description of Athens in classical times through a series of imaginary letters, containing numerous poems. The letters are often unfaithful to actual history, but attempt to capture the spirit of the age of Pericles. Robert Hamerling is another poet and novelist who was inspired by the personality of Aspasia. In 1876 he published his novel Aspasia, a book about the ethics and customs of the age of Pericles and a work of moral historical interest.
The Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, influenced by Romanticism, published a series of poems under the name of Aspasia Cycle. In composing these poems, Leopardi was inspired by the traumatic event of his desperate and unrequited love for Fanny Targioni Tozzetti. Leopardi called this woman with the pseudonym of Aspasia, taking the name of the companion of Pericles.
In 1918, novelist and playwright George Cram Cook produced his first full-length play, The Athenian Women, an adaptation of Lysistrata, in which he portrays Aspasia leading a strike for peace. Cook exposes an anti-war theme in a context set in ancient Greece. American writer Gertrude Atherton in her The Immortal Marriage (1927), treats the story of Pericles and Aspasia and illustrates the period of the Samos War, the Peloponnesian War, and the plague of Athens. Glory and the Lightning (Glory and Splendor, 1974) by Taylor Caldwell is another novel that portrays the historical relationship of Aspasia and Pericles.
Aspasia also appears as a character in several musical operas: Aspasie et Périclès (1820), Louis Joseph Daussoigne-Méhul”s debut opera in the opéra-comique genre, which stages the love story between Aspasia and Pericles; Phi-Phi by Henri Christiné (1918), an operetta whose protagonists are Aspasia, Phidias and Pericles.
In the visual arts
In addition to writers, Aspasia has inspired other artists as well. The earliest post-classical image of Aspasia can be found in Raphael Sanzio”s School of Athens (1509-1511), in which she is depicted in profile, arranged behind the figure of the Berber philosopher Averroé. In his work Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum of 1553, Guillaume Rouillé illustrates the woodcuts on imaginary coins with the portraits of Aspasia and Pericles. In his work Iconografia Cioè Disegni d”Imagini de Famosissimi Monarchi, Regi, Filosofi, Poeti ed Oratori dell”Antichità of 1669, Giovanni Angelo Canini depicts the glyptic profile of Aspasia, engraved on a jasper stone with the inscription Aspasou. The gemstone belonged to a certain lady named Felicia Rondanina. Around 1710, the French cabinetmaker André-Charles Boulle produced a pair of decorated cabinets, with the figures of Socrates and Aspasia represented on the doors. In 1773, Johann Wilhelm Beyer sculpted 32 statues (some say there were 36) about 2.45 m tall, commissioned for the garden of Vienna”s Schönbrunn Palace. One of these is the statue of Aspasia.
The first woman inspired by Aspasia in the visual arts was Marie Bouliard, who painted a self-portrait as Aspasia in 1794 and exhibited it in 1795 at the Paris Salon, where she received the Prix d”Encouragement (Encouragement Prize). Nicolas-André Monsiau depicts Aspasia in the company of men in his 1798 painting Aspasie s”entretenant avec Alcibiades et Socrate (Aspasia conversing with Alcibiades and Socrates). For the Salon of 1806, Monsiau created another painting, Aspasie s”entretenant avec les hommes les plus illustres d”Athènes (Aspasia conversing with the most illustrious men of Athens), in which he shows Aspasia surrounded by important men. Jean-Léon Gérôme painted for the 1861 Salon the painting Socrates allant chercher Alcibiade dans la maison d”Aspasie (Socrates goes to see Alcibiades in the house of Aspasia), in which he depicts Aspasia lying next to Alcibiades, giving her an image of a courtesan. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema depicts Aspasia in his 1868 painting Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, where she is depicted in the company of Phidias and Pericles.
In 1973, Greek sculptor Mara Karetsos sculpted a bust of Aspasia that was later installed in the pedestrian area of the University of Athens. The 1979 art installation The Dinner Party, created by feminist Judy Chicago, also reserves a place for Aspasia among its 39 depictions.
Aspasia appears in the video game Assassin”s Creed: Odyssey as the main antagonist. She is the leader of the secret organization the Sect of Cosmos that plans to conquer the Greek world.