Aspasia was an influential immigrant to Athens who was a companion of the statesman Pericles. The couple had a son Pericles the Young, but the full details of the couple's marital status are unknown.
According to Plutarch, her house became an intellectual centre in Athens, attracting the most prominent writers and thinkers, including the philosopher Socrates. It has also been suggested that the teachings of Aspasia influenced Socrates.
Aspasia was mentioned in the writing of philosophers Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and other authors of the day. Though she spent most of her adult life in Greece, few details of her life are fully known. Some scholars suggest that Aspasia was a brothel keeper and a harlot. Aspasia's role in history provides crucial insight to the understanding of the women of ancient Greece.
Very little is known about women from her time period. In fact, one scholar stated that, To ask questions about Aspasia, is to ask questions about half of humanity.
Aspasia was born in the Ionian Greek city of Miletus (in the modern province of Aydın, Turkey). Little is known about her family except that her father's name was Axiochus, although it is evident that she must have belonged to a wealthy family, for only the well-to-do could have afforded the excellent education that she received. Some ancient sources claim that she was a Carian prisoner-of-war turned slave; these statements are generally regarded as false.
It is not known under what circumstances she first traveled to Athens. The discovery of a 4th-century grave inscription that mentions the names of Axiochus and Aspasius has led historian Peter K. Bicknell to attempt a reconstruction of Aspasia's family background and Athenian connections. His theory connects her to Alcibiades II of Scambonidae (grandfather of the famous Alcibiades), who was ostracized from Athens in 460 BC and may have spent his exile in Miletus.
Bicknell conjectures that, following his exile, the elder Alcibiades went to Miletus, where he married the daughter of a certain Axiochus. Alcibiades apparently returned to Athens with his new wife and her younger sister, Aspasia. Bicknell argues that the first child of this marriage was named Axiochus (uncle of the famous Alcibiades) and the second Aspasios. He also maintains that Pericles met Aspasia through his close connections with Alcibiades's household.
According to the disputed statements of the ancient writers and some modern scholars, in Athens Aspasia became a hetaera and probably ran a brothel. Hetaerae were professional high-class entertainers, as well as courtesans. Besides displaying physical beauty, they differed from most Athenian women in being educated (often to a high standard, as in Aspasia's case), having independence, and paying taxes.
They were the nearest thing perhaps to liberated women; and Aspasia, who became a vivid figure in Athenian society, was probably an obvious example.
According to Plutarch, Aspasia was compared to the famous Thargelia, another renowned Ionian hetaera of ancient times.
Being a foreigner and possibly a hetaera, Aspasia was free of the legal restraints that traditionally confined married women to their homes, and thereby was allowed to participate in the public life of the city.
She became the mistress of the statesman Pericles in the early 440s. After he divorced his first wife (c. 445 BC), Aspasia began to live with him, although her marital status remains disputed. Their son, Pericles the Younger, must have been born by 440 BC. Aspasia would have to have been quite young, if she were able to bear a child to Lysicles c. 428 BC.
In social circles, Aspasia was noted for her ability as a conversationalist and adviser rather than merely an object of physical beauty. Plutarch writes that, despite her immoral life, Athenian men would bring their wives to hear her converse.
Though they were influential, Pericles, Aspasia and their friends were not immune from attack, as preeminence in democratic Athens was not equivalent to absolute rule.
Her relationship with Pericles and her subsequent political influence aroused many reactions. Donald Kagan, a Yale historian, believes that Aspasia was particularly unpopular in the years immediately following the Samian War. In 440 BC, Samos was at war with Miletus over Priene, an ancient city of Ionia in the foot-hills of Mycale. Worsted in the war, the Milesians came to Athens to plead their case against the Samians.
When the Athenians ordered the two sides to stop fighting and submit the case to arbitration at Athens, the Samians refused. In response, Pericles passed a decree dispatching an expedition to Samos.The campaign proved to be difficult and the Athenians had to endure heavy casualties before Samos was defeated. According to Plutarch, it was thought that Aspasia, who came from Miletus, was responsible for the Samian War, and that Pericles had decided against and attacked Samos to gratify her.
"Thus far the evil was not serious and we were the only sufferers. But now some young drunkards go to Megara and carry off the courtesan Simaetha; the Megarians, hurt to the quick, run off in turn with two harlots of the house of Aspasia; and so for three whores Greece is set ablaze. Then Pericles, aflame with ire on his Olympian height, let loose the lightning, caused the thunder to roll, upset Greece and passed an edict, which ran like the song, That the Megarians be banished both from our land and from our markets and from the sea and from the continent."From Aristophanes' comedic play, The Acharnians (523–533)
Before the eruption of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC–404 BC), Pericles, some of his closest associates 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 Pericles' perversions.[ε] According to Plutarch, she was put on trial for impiety, with the comic poet Hermippus as prosecutor.[στ] All these accusations were probably nothing more than unproven slanders, but the whole experience was bitter for the Athenian leader. Although Aspasia was acquitted thanks to a rare emotional outburst of Pericles,[ζ] his friend, Phidias, died in prison. Another friend of his, Anaxagoras, was attacked by the ecclesia (the Athenian Assembly) for his religious beliefs. According to Kagan it is possible that Aspasia's trial and acquittal were late inventions, "in which real slanders, suspicions and ribald jokes were converted into an imaginary lawsuit". Anthony J. Podlecki, Professor of Classics at the University of British Columbia, asserts that Plutarch or his source possibly misunderstood a scene in some comedy.
Kagan argues that even if we believe these stories, Aspasia was unharmed with or without the help of Pericles.
In The Acharnians, Aristophanes blames Aspasia for the Peloponnesian War. He claims that the Megarian decree of Pericles, which excluded Megara from trade with Athens or its allies, was retaliation for prostitutes being kidnapped from the house of Aspasia by Megarians.
Aristophanes' portrayal of Aspasia as responsible, from personal motives, for the outbreak of the war with Sparta may reflect memory of the earlier episode involving Miletus and Samos. Plutarch reports also the taunting comments of other comic poets, such as Eupolis and Cratinus. According to Podlecki, Douris appears to have propounded the view that Aspasia instigated both the Samian and Peloponnesian Wars.
Aspasia was labeled the "New Omphale",[η] "Deianira",[η] "Hera"[θ] and "Helen".[ι] Further attacks on Pericles' relationship with Aspasia are reported by Athenaeus. Even Pericles' own son, Xanthippus, who had political ambitions, did not hesitate to slander his father about his domestic affairs.
In 429 BC during the Plague of Athens, Pericles witnessed the death of his sister and of both his legitimate sons, Paralus and Xanthippus, from his first wife. With his morale undermined, he burst into tears, and not even Aspasia's companionship could console him. Just before his death, the Athenians allowed a change in the citizenship law of 451 BC that made his half-Athenian son with Aspasia, Pericles the Younger, a citizen and legitimate heir, a decision all the more striking in considering that Pericles himself had proposed the law confining citizenship to those of Athenian parentage on both sides. Pericles died of the plague in the autumn of 429 BC.
Plutarch cites Aeschines Socraticus, who wrote a dialogue on Aspasia (now lost), to the effect that after Pericles's death, Aspasia lived with Lysicles, an Athenian general and democratic leader, with whom she had another son; and that she made him the first man at Athens.
Lysicles was killed in action in 428 BC.
With Lysicles' death the contemporaneous record ends. It is unknown, for example, if she was alive when her son, Pericles, was elected general or when he was executed after the Battle of Arginusae.
The time of her death that most historians give (c. 401 BC-400 BC) is based on the assessment that Aspasia died before the execution of Socrates in 399 BC, a chronology which is implied in the structure of Aeschines' Aspasia
Aspasia appears in the philosophical writings of Plato, Xenophon, Aeschines Socraticus and Antisthenes. Some scholars argue that Plato was impressed by her intelligence and wit and based his character Diotima in the Symposium on her, while others suggest that Diotima was in fact a historical figure.
According to Charles Kahn, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, Diotima is in many respects Plato's response to Aeschines' Aspasia
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