Aspasia (c. 470 – after 428 BC)


Marble bust of Aspasia, bearing an inscription with her name. Roman copy of a Hellenistic statue. Vatican Museum, Rome.

Aspasia (c. 470 – c. 400 BC) came from Miletus and was famous for her relationship with the famous Athenian politician Pericles. Little is known about her life. She spent most of her adult life in Athens and there is a possibility that she influenced, through Pericles, the politics of the Athenian state. Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon and other writers of the time refer to her in their works.

Contemporary bust of Aspasia in Athens

The Greek Aspasia was a philosopher, orator and writer.

According to a tradition dating back to the fourth century BC, Aspasia was a skilled orator. In this painting by Nicolas-André Monsiau, he speaks while Socrates and Pericles listen intently.

Some of them argue that Aspasia kept a brothel, while she was a prostitute herself. However, modern scholars are wary of this issue, given that it is a claim by writers (among them comic poets) whose aim was to defame Pericles. Some scholars even dispute the tradition that Aspasia was a courtesan, arguing that the couple were actually married. Aspasia had a son with Pericles, who was also named Pericles. The latter later became a general of the Athenian army and was executed after the Battle of Arginusae. After the death of Pericles the Elder, Aspasia is believed to have become the consort of Lysicles, another Athenian politician and soldier.


Aspasia was born in the Ionian city of Miletus, in the present-day province of Aydin in present-day Turkey. Little is known about her family, other than that her father was called Axiochos. However, it is believed that she came from a wealthy family, as Aspasia possessed an excellent education. Some sources state that she was a prisoner of war from Karya. Generally this view is considered wrong.

The circumstances under which he traveled to Athens are not known. The discovery of a funerary inscription, dated to the 4th century BC. and which mentions the names Axiochus and Aspasios, led historian Peter K. Bicknell to attempt to recreate Aspasia's family background and possible connections with Athens. His theory links it to Alcibiades II of the Scambonids, who was ostracized from Athens in 460 BC. and perhaps lived the years of his exile in Miletus. Bicknell speculates that, after his dismissal, Alcibiades went to Miletus, where he married the daughter of someone named Axiochus. Eventually Alcibiades 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), while the second was Aspasios. He also speculates that Pericles met Aspasia because she maintained close relations with Alcibiades' household.

The philosopher Socrates seeks Alcibiades at Aspasia's house. Work by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1861)

Her life in Athens

According to the questionable accounts of ancient writers and some modern scholars, in Athens Aspasia became a courtesan and possibly a brothel owner. Courtesans were professionals who entertained upper class men and were also their concubines. Apart from their outward beauty, they differed from other Athenian women in that they were educated (often at a high level, like Aspasia), independent, and paid taxes. They were perhaps the closest thing imaginable to liberated women, and Aspasia, who became a shining figure in Athenian society, was probably an obvious example. According to Plutarch, Aspasia was compared to the infamous Thargilia, another famous courtesan from ancient Ionia.

As a foreigner and perhaps a courtesan, Aspasia was free from the legal obligations that traditionally confined married women to their homes, and was thus allowed to participate in the social life of the city. She became the mistress of the eminent statesman Pericles in the early 440s BC. After his divorce from his first wife (c. 445 BC), Aspasia began cohabiting with him, although there is no generally accepted opinion as to whether or not they married. Their son, Pericles, had come into the world around 440 BC. Aspasia must have been very young, judging by the fact that she bore a child to Lysicles around 428 BC.

In social circles Aspasia was known for her skill in speech and advice, rather than simply her physical beauty.[15] According to Plutarch, her house became a center of culture in the city of Athens, attracting eminent writers and thinkers, if directly including the philosopher Socrates. Plutarch reports that despite her "immoral" life, the Athenians brought their wives along to hear her talk.

Political and legal attacks

Pericles, Aspasia and their friendly environment were not immune from attacks, as in the Athenian Republic the person who took the lead in political life was not inviolable. Her relationship with Pericles and her subsequent involvement in political life provoked many reactions. Donald Kagan, a historian at Yale University, believes that Aspasia was not at all popular in the period following the Samian War. In 440 BC, Samos was at war with Miletus over Priene, an ancient Ionian city in the foothills of the hills of Mykali. When they lost the war, the Milesians asked the Athenians to mediate on their behalf in their dispute with Samos. When the Athenians ordered the two sides to cease hostilities and entrust them with arbitration, the Samians refused. Pericles therefore caused a resolution to campaign against Samos. The campaign proved difficult, and the Athenians suffered heavy casualties before finally subduing Samos. According to Plutarch, it was rumored that Aspasia, who was born in Miletus, instigated a war that Pericles did not wish for, and ultimately did so to please her.

And these are no small pleasures, but they are prostitutes Simeitan, Megarade, young, stealing drunkards, when the people of Megara, in agony and suffocation, caught two prostitutes from Aspasias, on each side at the beginning of the war, all of them were Greeks from three Lykastris. Then the wrath of Pericles, Olympius, scurrying across Greece, set forth laws written as scholia, as in the time of Megara, neither on earth nor in the market, nor in the sea, nor in the sky do they remain.

Aristophanes, Acharnes (523–534)

Before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC – 404 BC), Pericles, some of his close associates and Aspasia faced a series of personal and legal attacks. Aspasia in particular was accused of corrupting young girls in order to satisfy the perversions of Pericles. According to Plutarch, he was tried for impiety, with the comic poet Hermippus as public accuser. These accusations were probably nothing more than baseless slander, yet the whole experience left the great Athenian statesman with great bitterness. Although Aspasia was acquitted thanks to an unusual emotional outburst by Pericles, his sculptor friend Phidias died in prison. Another friend of his, Anaxagoras, was attacked by the Church of the Municipality for his religious beliefs. Kagan considers it possible that the very account of Aspasia's trial and acquittal is a forgery, "in which real-life slander, suspicion, and crude jokes were turned into a fictional litigation." Anthony J. Podlecki, Professor of Classics at the University of British Columbia, Canada, claims that Plutarch or his source misunderstood a scene from a play. Kagan concludes that even if one believes these stories, Aspasia emerged unscathed with or without Pericles' help.

In the comedy "Acharnis", the comedian Aristophanes blames Aspasia for the Peloponnesian War. He argues that the Megarian Edict issued by Pericles, which prohibited the Megarians from conducting trade with the Athenians and their allies, was an act of revenge because some Megarians had kidnapped prostitutes from the house of Aspasia. Aristophanes' attribution of blame for the Peloponnesian War to Aspasia may reflect memories of the earlier episode with the war between Miletus and Samos. Plutarch also mentions the satirical comments of other comic poets, such as Eupolis and Cratinus. According to Podleski, the tyrant of Samos, Duris, is said to support the view that Aspasia was responsible for the outbreak of both the Samian and Peloponnesian Wars.

Aspasia was sometimes called "New Omphalis", "Deianeira", "Hera" and "Helen". Additional attacks against the couple are reported by Athenaios. Even Pericles' son Xanthippos, who had ambitions in politics, did not hesitate to slander his father about his personal life.

Last years and death

In 429 BC, a year in which Athens was being tested by the plague of Athens, Pericles witnessed the death of both his sister and his two legitimate children by his first wife, Xanthippus and his beloved By the way. With morale particularly low, he fell into deep sorrow, and not even Aspasia's company could comfort him. Shortly before his death, the Athenians allowed a change in the law concerning Athenian citizenship of 451 BC, so that his son by Aspasia, Pericles, who was half Athenian, to acquire full political rights and become his heir. It is impressive that it was Pericles who proposed the law according to which full political rights were granted only to persons with both Athenian parents. Pericles died of the plague in the fall of 429 BC.

Plutarch reports information from Aeschines the Socratic, who wrote a dialogue on Aspasia (now lost), according to which after the death of Pericles Aspasia lived by the side of Lysicles, with whom she had another son, and which made him the first man of the city. Lysicles was killed in the line of duty in 428 BC. With the death of Lysicles, the reports of contemporary writers stop. It is unknown, for example, whether she was still alive when her son Pericles was elected general or when she was executed after the Battle of Arginusae. Her death is placed around 401 - 400 BC. by historians, due to the assumption that he was already dead when Socrates was executed in 399 BC, a dating derived from the structure of Aeschines' Aspasia.

References to literary texts

Ancient philosophical works

Aspasia appears in the philosophical texts of Plato, Xenophon, Aeschines, Socratic and Antisthenes. Some scholars speculate that Plato was so impressed by her wit that he based Diotima, a character in his "Symposium," on her. However, there are others who consider Diotima a real person. According to Charles Kahn, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, Diotima is in many ways Plato's answer to Aeschines' Aspasia.

In "Menexenus", Plato satirizes Aspasia's relationship with Pericles and refers to an ironic saying of Socrates, that Aspasia taught many rhetoricians. Socrates' intention is to tarnish Pericles' reputation as an orator, ironically arguing that since he was taught by Aspasia, the Athenian politician would be superior in rhetoric to one taught by Antiphon. He also attributes the writing of the famous "Epitaph" of Pericles to Aspasia and criticizes the reverence of his contemporaries in the face of Pericles. Kahn argues that Plato adopted Aeschines' view that Aspasia taught rhetoric to Pericles and Socrates. Plato's Aspasia and Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" are two exceptions to the notion that women have no rhetorical skills, although these two fictional characters tell us nothing about the real position of women in Ancient Athens.[44] As Martha L. Rose, Professor of History at Truman State University, observes: "only in comedies do dogs go to court, birds rule, and women preach."

On the occasion of Aspasia's grace, he did what Samius said, so that if it was time to speak about man, I had such skill or power that I had among the politicians, leading them in hand, and to the philosophers, he did not give a word, not even a little above it.

Plutarch, Parallel Lives, "Pericles" (XXIV)

Xenophon mentions Aspasia on two occasions in his Socratic works: in the "Memoirs" and in the "Economy". In both cases, Socrates suggests that Critoboulos consult her. In the "Memoirs" Socrates mentions a saying of Aspasia, that the person making a courtship should honestly mention the good qualities of a man. In "The Economy" Socrates admits that Aspasia possesses more knowledge about the management of a household and the financial relationship between the two spouses.

Both Aeschines the Socratic and Antisthenes called a Socratic dialogue "Aspasia", although only a few fragments survive today. Our main sources for Aeschines' "Aspasia" are Athenaeus, Plutarch and Cicero. In the dialogue, Socrates suggests that Callias send his son Hipponicus to Aspasia for guidance. When Callias objects to the prospect of a female teacher, Socrates responds that Aspasia positively influenced Pericles and, after his death, Lysicles. In a fragment of the dialogue preserved in Latin by Cicero, Aspasia appears as a "female Socrates", advising first Xenophon's wife and then himself (this Xenophon is not the famous historian) on the acquisition of virtue through self-knowledge. Aeschines presents Aspasia as a teacher and inspirer of perfection, linking these virtues to her status as a courtesan. According to Kahn, each of the episodes in Aeschines' Aspasia is not just fake, but incredible.

Only two or three passages survive from Antisthenes' Aspasia. This dialogue contains a lot of mudslinging, but also anecdotes about the life of Pericles. Apparently, Antisthenes did not launch an attack only against of Aspasia, but against the whole family of Pericles, including his sons. The philosopher believes that the great statesman chose pleasure over virtue. By extension, Aspasia is presented as the personification of a life given over to sexual pleasures.

Self-portrait of Marie Bouliard, posing as Aspasia, 1794.

Modern literature

Aspasia appears in many important works of modern literature. Her romantic connection with Pericles inspired some of the most famous novelists and poets of recent centuries. Especially the representatives of romanticism in the 19th century and the writers of historical novels in the 20th century found in her story an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

In 1835 Lydia Maria Child, an American abolitionist, author and journalist, published Philothea, a classic romance set in the time of Pericles and Aspasia. This particular work is considered the author's most successful and elaborate, because the female characters, and especially Aspasia, are presented with particular beauty and delicacy.

In 1836, Walter Savage Landor, an English writer and poet, published Pericles and Aspasia, one of his most famous books. This work is a representation of classical Athens through a series of imaginary letters, containing numerous poems. The letters often deviate from the actual events but try to capture the spirit of the Golden Age of Pericles.

Robert Hammerling is another writer who drew inspiration from Aspasia's personality. In 1876 he published the novel Aspasia, a book on the manners and morals of the age of Pericles, as well as works of cultural and historical interest.

The Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, inspired by the Romantic movement, published a set of five poems known as "the Aspasia Cycle". These poems are inspired by the painful experience of desperate and unfulfilled love for a woman, Fanny Tarzoni Tocetti. Leopardi calls this woman Aspasia, after Pericles' companion.

In 1918, the novelist and playwright George Cram Cooke presented his first play, The Athenians, featuring Aspasia as the leader of a peace movement. Cook combined the anti-war sentiment of his day with the setting of Ancient Athens.

The American writer Gertrude Atherton in the work "The Immortal Marriage" (1927) deals with the story of Pericles and Aspasia, making reference to the periods of the Samian War, the Peloponnesian War and the Plague of Athens.

Reputation and criticism

Aspasia's name is closely associated with the glory and fame of Pericles. Plutarch recognizes her as an important figure among statesmen and intellectuals, and expresses his admiration for a woman who "handled as she pleased the greatest men of the state and caused the philosophers to speak flatteringly of her at length".[19 ] The author states that Aspasia's fame was such that even Cyrus the Younger, who was involved in a war with King Artaxerxes II of Persia, named one of his concubines after her. When Cyrus died in battle, this woman was given as a spoil to the king, over whom she exercised great influence. Lucian calls Aspasia "a model of wisdom" and extols "her knowledge of politics, her foresight, her intelligence and her perspicacity." A text of Syrian origin, according to which Aspasia composed a speech and asked a man to read it for her in court, confirms her reputation for rhetorical prowess. A 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia, the Souda, mentions that Aspasia used words cleverly, was a sophist and a teacher of rhetoric.

Based on the above assessments, a number of scholars argue that Aspasia was, apparently, the only woman in classical Greece who managed to distinguish herself in public life, influencing Pericles in the writing of his public speeches. Some historians are of the opinion that Aspasia founded an Academy for girls from wealthy families or even that she is the inventor of the Socratic method. However, Robert G. Wallace, Professor of Classics at Northwestern University, emphasizes that "we cannot accept as historical truth the anecdote of the time, according to which Aspasia taught Pericles to speak, so he was an important orator or philosopher." Wallace suggests that Plato probably assigns this role to Aspasia under the influence of comedy. Kagan in turn describes Aspasia as a "beautiful, independent, highly intelligent young woman, able to participate on equal terms in a conversation among the greatest minds of Greece, as well asto discuss and clarify any question with her husband." Roger Just, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Kent, believes that Aspasia was an extraordinary person, but her example alone is enough to highlight the fact that for a woman to be a man's intellectual and social equal she had to she was a partner. According to philosopher and professor Prudence Allen, Aspasia pushed the prospect of a woman philosopher one step further than the poet Sappho.


As Jonah Ledering points out, the main problem for modern scholars is that most of what is known about Aspasia's life is mere speculation. Thucydides does not mention her at all. Our only sources are unreliable representations and assumptions recorded by writers and philosophers, who had no interest in Aspasia as a historical figure. By extension, we have a series of conflicting reports about her person: sometimes she is a good wife like Theano and sometimes a combination of concubine and prostitute, like Thargilia. For the above reasons, there are doubts as to whether this is a real person.

According to Wallace, "for us, Aspasia has and can have almost zero historical significance". For this reason, Madeleine M. Henry, Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa, states that "the biographical anecdotes circulated in antiquity about Aspasia are highly fictional, with almost zero verifiability, and remain alive well into the 20th century." . He concludes that "it is possible to map only the simplest possibilities about her life".