By Van Bryan
Yes, that’s right dear reader. It most certainly wasn’t easy being a woman during the ancient times. The classical age certainly had a lot going for it. After all, it’s been argued that the ancient thinkers laid the foundation for over two thousand years of progress in fields like philosophy, literature, historiography, and theatre.
However, progressive rights for women would not be listed among these accomplishments. Even in Athens, which was the intellectual and cultural hub of the classical age, women were often relegated to the home. Not allowed an education, the right to vote, or to participate in public discourses, the highest aspiration a woman could reasonably hope to achieve was to become a wife and bear children.
To an extent, we just have to accept that. It is rather easy for us now, blessed with thousands of years of societal evolution, to look back on the classical civilizations and think ourselves above them.
However, it takes a more nuanced mind to recognize that whatever advancements we have made as a species was only made possible because there were brave individuals, sometimes thousands of years in the past, who took the first meager steps toward progress.
Even with all that in consideration, we must realize a woman’s lack of rights in ancient times means that there are very few notable women who pop up on the classical timeline. After all, it’s hard to shape the direction of Western society when you are viewed as little more than property.
The ones who do catch the attention of history, therefore, are made all the more remarkable. Aspasia of Miletus was one such woman.
She is perhaps best described as a political woman who possessed a knack for rhetoric, a taste for philosophy, and the ear and heart of the most powerful statesman of classical Athens.
Aspasia was venerated and denigrated by the ancient writers. Viewed by some as a shrewd political player, by others as nothing more than a harlot, it was said that she was the lover of Pericles, the great aunt of Alcibiades, the supposed author of Pericles’ famous “funeral oration”, she was even reported to have taught Socrates a few lessons in philosophical argumentation!
Even though all of our sources on this mysterious woman are less than reliable, perhaps even down right fallacious, the fact that such controversy surrounds her makes her a prime candidate for our inspection, and perhaps even admiration.
It was said that Aspasia was born to the historically important island of Miletus off the coast of Asia Minor sometime in the early fifth century BC. She must have been born to a wealthy family, for it is reported that she received a first-rate education, a rare thing for a woman in ancient times. It is important to note that these two statements are the only two pieces of universal concord surrounding Aspasia. That isn’t to say that everything else is hearsay, but it sure isn’t historical fact. We are just going to have to take a leap of faith on this one.
Anyway…where was I? Oh, yes!
We can be rather certain that Aspasia traveled to Athens sometime around 440 BC. One hypothesis suggests that she made the journey while in the company of her sister and new brother-in-law, Alcibiades II (grandfather to the famous general of the same name). If this hypothesis were true, it would explain how Aspasia came to know Pericles, a man who had close ties to the Alcibiades family.
Once in Athens, it is believed that Aspasia became a hetaerae (ἑεταίρα) and probably ran a brothel. Hetairai (plural form of hetaerae) were not common prostitutes. Rather, they were highly educated, highly sophisticated courtesans who would have been skilled at dance, song, conversation, and would have likely been present in the inner circles of powerful, affluent men.
Hetairai were probably the closest thing to liberated women during this time. They were allowed to pursue education, engage in civic debate, they even paid taxes! Additionally, Aspasia had the advantage of being a foreigner. This meant she was forbidden to marry an Athenian citizen. A consequence of this was that Aspasia would not have been bogged down by the restrictions placed upon married women.
She was free, therefore, to explore the societal landscape of the Athenian elite, and explore she most certainly did.
Aspasia is perhaps best remembered as the lover of Pericles. After the famed Athenian general divorced his first wife, he came to live with Aspasia. And while it is assumed that the two were never married, we do know that Aspasia gave Pericles a son who was bestowed with his father’s name.
While we might assume that the statesman was attracted to Aspasia for her physical beauty, Plutarch tells us that he truly loved the woman and devoted himself entirely to her.
“…he (Pericles) took Aspasia, and loved her with wonderful affection; every day, both as he went out and as he came in from the market-place, he saluted and kissed her.” –Plutarch (Life of Pericles)
It is suggested, however, that Pericles might have been too devoted to Aspasia. It is likely that she advised, or otherwise persuaded, Pericles to take specific actions within his role as Stratego (general). Plutarch seems to believe that Pericles might have been motivated to declare war on the island of Samos simply because they were attacking Aspasia’s hometown of Miletus.
“Pericles, however, was particularly charged with having proposed to the assembly the war against the Samians, from favour to the Milesians, upon the entreaty of Aspasia.” –Plutarch (Life of Pericles)
While in the company of Pericles, it was said that Aspasia’s home became something of a hub for prominent Athenian figures. Generals, poets, even the philosopher Socrates was said to have visited Aspasia and Pericles’ home on a number of occasions.
Aspasia’s connection to Socrates is significant, because there is evidence to suggest that she might have been one of the philosophers first, and best, teachers in the art of rhetoric. Plato says as much within his dialogue, Menexenus.
“That I should be able to speak is no great wonder, Menexenus, considering that I have an excellent mistress in the art of rhetoric,—she who has made so many good speakers, and one who was the best among all the Hellenes.” –Socrates (Plato’s Menexenus)
It is even suggested within this dialogue that Aspasia, not Pericles, was the true author of the now famous “funeral oration”, found within the pages of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.
“I heard Aspasia composing a funeral oration about these very dead. For she had been told, as you were saying, that the Athenians were going to choose a speaker, and she repeated to me the sort of speech which he should deliver, partly improvising and partly from previous thought, putting together fragments of the funeral oration which Pericles spoke, but which, as I believe, she composed.” –Socrates (Plato’s Menexenus)
We must consider the possibility that Plato’s use of Aspasia in this dialogue was intended as a humorous device. The idea of a woman teaching rhetoric to a man? Ha! How fanciful!
Still, the fact that Plato felt Aspasia’s name was worthy of mentioning at all speaks volumes for the type of reputation she must have had as a rhetorician.
Additionally, there are other sources that claim Aspasia was well versed in what would become known as Socratic dialogue, and may even have taught Socrates a thing or two about winning an argument.
Cicero tells us that Aspasia might have been the one to teach Socrates the rhetorical tool Inductio, or getting people to agree to a statement by having them agree previously to similar statements.
Cicero writes of a supposed conversation between Aspasia, a man named Xenophon (not the historian), and Xenophon’s wife.
“Please tell me, wife of Xenophon, if your neighbour had a better gold ornament than you have, would you prefer that one or your own?”
“That one, ” she replied.
“Now, if she had dresses and other feminine finery more expensive than you have, would you prefer yours or hers?”
“Hers, of course,” she replied.
“Well now, if she had a better husband than you have, would you prefer your husband or hers?”
At this the woman blushed. But Aspasia then began to speak to Xenophon. “I wish you would tell me, Xenophon,” she said, “if your neighbour had a better horse than yours, would you prefer your horse or his?”
“His” was his answer.
“And if he had a better farm than you have, which farm would your prefer to have?”
“The better farm, naturally,” he said.
“Now if he had a better wife than you have, would you prefer yours or his?”
And at this Xenophon, too, himself was silent.
Then Aspasia: “Since both of you have failed to tell me the only thing I wished to hear, I myself will tell you what you both are thinking. That is, you, madam, wish to have the best husband, and you, Xenophon, desire above all things to have the finest wife. Therefore, unless you can contrive that there be no better man or finer woman on earth you will certainly always be in dire want of what you consider best, namely, that you be the husband of the very best of wives, and that she be wedded to the very best of men.” –Cicero (De Inventione)
By having her listeners assent to questions with similar circumstances, she entraps her opponent into conceding a later, sometimes embarrassing, admission that proves her point. This was a technique that Socrates would make famous several years later.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Aspasia, with her keen political mind and ability to outmaneuver men during conversation, would garner some personal attacks.
Plutarch tells us in Life of Pericles that the Athenian comic playwright Cratinus referred to Aspasia as “a harlot” in one of his plays. Additionally, she was put on trial by the comedian Hermippus. She was accused of impiety and of corrupting the women of Athens with her strange and unhealthy life style.
Interestingly, these charges were remarkably similar to the ones lodged against Socrates in 399 BC. Unlike Socrates, Aspasia was saved from execution by a rare emotional outburst from Pericles.
Other ancient critics, Plutarch only refers to them as “some of the Megarians”, believed that many of Pericles’ military blunders were actually the fault of Aspasia. A woman, after all, ought to have no place in military affairs!
It is suggested, however, by the author and modern historian Madeline Henry that Aspasia’s critics would have had their own personal reasons for attacking the outspoken woman. After all, a political woman in the age of classical Athens was a subject of great frustration for many powerful men.
Even with her critics, Aspasia enjoys a sterling reputation in our modern age. She was arguably one of the most important intellectual figures during the height of Athenian power, and she was undoubtedly the most remarkable woman to have ever lived during that age.
She is perhaps best described by Lucian in his a Portrait Study…
“We could choose no better model of wisdom than Milesian Aspasia, the admired of the admirable ‘Olympian'; her political knowledge and insight, her shrewdness and penetration, shall all be transferred to our canvas in their perfect measure.