By Jennifer Brainard
She was the most famous woman in Ancient Athens. She gathered to her the greatest philosophers, intellectuals, and artists of Greece ‘s golden age, and she was the life-long companion of the great leader, Pericles.
Born in Ionian Greece (today, Turkey ), Aspasia (desired one) was born a citizen of Miletus , but was either orphaned or unwanted. It is possible that her father offered her to the Temple of Aphrodite , an honorable way to get rid of unwanted female children, where she would have served Aphrodite with her body. In any event she probably became a hetaira, a kind of courtesan or geisha.
Hetairai were much more than prostitutes. Greek women did not normally receive much of an education. It was considered unnecessary and undesirable, since they remained in the home. A man did not expect to get an intellectual companion when he married. Conversation was for other men or the hetairai. These women were educated in philosophy, history, politics, science, art and literature, and often had a great deal more independence than other Greek women.
It is not known for sure how she came to be in Athens . But when she met the leader Pericles, Aspasia began a new life as the first woman of the city. Though Pericles could not formally marry her because of the citizenship laws, they lived as husband wife in what was clearly a loving relationship. He openly flouted convention to live with her and treat her as an equal.
This was unseemly for a respectable man, and for a man of Pericles’ standing, unheard of. He was often criticized for his relationship with Aspasia, and for his obvious reliance on her help and judgment. Women were not part of Athenian public life. Plutarch (Life of Pericles) and Athenaeus (the Deipnosophistae), who later wrote about Pericles, commented that he was so smitten that he kissed her when he left in the morning and again when he returned at night. Apparently this was not how men treated their wives or mistresses. She clearly was a great influence on him and through him worked on public affairs. Her influence was so great that Plato later joked that she had written Pericles’ most famous speech, The Funeral Oration.
They had a son together (also called Pericles), who because of their illegal relationship, could not be a citizen. Later, after his legitimate sons had died in the plague, Pericles unsuccessfully made an emotional plea to the Assembly to grant citizenship status to his son – it was not until after his death that a grateful city granted his wish.
Gossip in Athens was always vicious, and almost everyone in public life was held up to ridicule at one time or another. Pericles and Aspasia were popular targets. She was called, among other things, a “dog-eyed whore.”
Many felt that Aspasia had too much influence on Pericles. Some accused her of persuading Pericles to go to war with Samos in order to help her native Miletus . Some even blamed her influence for the war with Sparta (the Peloponnesian War).
The busy tongues of Athens also called her a “Socratic.” This was not a complement. The Athenians did not like the funny looking little man who is often called the father of ethical philosophy and he too was a favorite object of ridicule. He admired Aspasia, thought her to be intelligent and witty and enjoyed her company. Though Socrates did not write down his teachings, his students (the most famous was Plato) wrote Socratic dialogues that contained his teachings. She appears in one called Aspasia (by Aeschines of Sphettus), where she argues for the radical idea of greater equality in marriage:
“If your neighbor had gold that was purer than yours,” Aspasia asked Xenophon’s wife, “would you rather have her gold or yours? “Hers,” was the reply. “And if she had richer jewels and finer clothes?” “I would rather have hers.” “And if she had a better husband than yours?” At the woman’s embarrassed silence, Aspasia began to question the husband, asking him the same things, but substituting horses for gold and land for clothes and asking him finally if he would prefer his neighbor’s wife if she were better than her own. At his embarrassed silence, reading their thoughts, she said, “Each of you would like the best husband or wife: and since neither of you has achieved perfection, each of you will always regret this ideal.”
She may have been the model for the main character in the comedy Lysistrata. Lysistrata is the outspoken woman who leads the women of Athens to a creative solution to end the Peloponnesian War – they simply denied the men their beds until they made peace.
5th century Athens must have been a remarkable place to be. Here democracy reached its full form. They invented the tragedy and western theater. Socrates taught that there was a higher plane of existence. Other philosophers were creating western science. Sculpture and architecture blossomed and some of the world’s most precious art and inspiring buildings were created here. And Aspasia was in the midst of this flowering for 20 years, encouraging it, guiding it, helping to bring it forth.
Aspasia – the first woman of Athens – a remarkable woman in an amazing place at just the right time.