Now, since it is thought that he proceeded thus against the Samians to gratify Aspasia, this may be a fitting place to raise the query what great art or power this woman had, that she managed as she pleased the foremost men of the state, and afforded the philosophers occasion to discuss her in exalted terms and at great length. - Plutarch, Pericles (XXIV)
One year ago today, in my biography of the famous courtesan Phryne, I described the state of prostitution in Athens of the Golden Age and even mentioned Aspasia, the mistress of the great Athenian leader Pericles. It is therefore fitting that today I present a biography of that lady, quite possibly the best-known of all the hetaerae, who is thought to have died just ten years before Phryne was born. So famous and respected is she, in fact, that as I discussed in Thursday’s column some whore-haters are now trying to convince the world that she was not a courtesan at all.
Aspasia was born about 470 BCE in Miletus, the wealthiest Greek city-state of its time. She was the daughter of the wealthy Axiochus and was superbly educated, then moved to Athens in her late teens. The reason for the move is unclear, but it is possible she accompanied her older sister, who had married an Athenian statesman. In any case her beauty and education allowed her to become a hetaera, and she may also have owned a brothel but this is not certain. Sometime in her early twenties she became Pericles’ mistress, and after he divorced his wife in 445 BCE she moved in with him, bearing his son Pericles the Younger a few years later. Aspasia soon became as noted for her intelligence, erudition and aptitude at conversation as for her beauty, and she not only served as an advisor to her lover but inspired others as well; Plutarch wrote that Athenian men would bring their wives to visit in hope that they would learn the art of conversation from her. They were able to do this because she opened Pericles’ house to visitors, attracting the best and brightest of Athenian society (including the philosopher Socrates).
Like all politicians Pericles had his enemies, and though the ancient Greeks were far more sensible about sex and whores than modern Americans, Aspasia was still a tempting target. Since the hetaerae were well-respected it was not enough to merely point out that Pericles lived with a courtesan, but brothel-keeping was considered mere crass commercialism, so the stories of her keeping a brothel may have been either invented or embellished in order to imply conflict of interest on her part (in the same way a First Lady’s business deals might be scrutinized or ridiculed today). Aspasia became especially unpopular when in 440 BCE Athens sent troops against Samos in support of Miletus; the campaign was difficult and the Athenians sustained heavy losses, and many critics claimed that Pericles’ decision to enter the war was based solely on the fact that Miletus was Aspasia’s native city.
Over the next ten years, Pericles’ political opponents spread a number of slanders against him, some of which made their way into comic poetry and plays of the time, and a few of which resulted in lawsuits and spurious criminal charges not just against Pericles but also against his friends. Aspasia was charged with “corrupting the morals” of Athenian women to entice them into “satisfying Pericles’ perversions”, and though she was acquitted (thanks to an impassioned defense by Pericles) not all of his friends fared so well; the great sculptor Phidias was accused of embezzling gold which he should have used on the statue of Athena in the new Parthenon, and thanks to a false witness he was convicted and died in prison in 430 BCE. When the Peloponnesian War broke out in 431, some people found a way to blame Aspasia again; the war resulted from Sparta’s attacking Athens in defense of its ally Megara, against which Pericles had declared a trade embargo. The poet Aristophanes claimed that the embargo had been declared in retaliation for the abduction of two of Aspasia’s employees; he wrote, “…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.”
In 429, plague broke out in Athens; the exact disease is unknown but it claimed both Pericles’ sister and his two legitimate sons, and later the great man himself. The loss of so many dear to him cast him into a deep depression in which he spent the last few months of his life; Aspasia could not console him, and his low spirits almost certainly contributed to his death. When it became clear that Pericles was near death, the Assembly granted citizenship to his son by Aspasia (Athenian citizenship required that both parents be citizens) so he would have an heir, and that son later became a general himself as his father had been. After Pericles’ death Aspasia was kept by another general and statesman named Lysicles, to whom she bore a son in 428; that same year Lysicles was killed in battle, and there are no contemporary accounts of Aspasia’s life thereafter. Most historians believe she died around 400 BCE because she was a friend of Socrates’ and was well-known to his student Plato, but died before Socrates’ execution in 399.
Even in the male-dominated world of ancient Athens, Aspasia was admired for her intellect, learning and oratorical skills; she appears as a character in a number of plays and dialogues, including those of Plato. Socrates is known to have recommended her as a teacher (pointing out her positive influence on Pericles), and to defer to her as being more knowledgeable than he in the area of male-female relations. Even her enemies respected her; one comedic attack on Pericles portrayed him as politically incompetent without her, and a more vicious one claimed that his choosing to live with a hetaera full-time (rather than to marry an ordinary woman and visit a courtesan as needed) was a sign of sexual degeneracy.
It is striking that, though absolutely nobody in ancient times questioned Aspasia’s superior mind and abilities, some modern scholars (though supposedly more egalitarian than the ancients) have done so on the grounds that a mere harlot couldn’t possibly be all that; others whose neofeminist bias is more pronounced have proclaimed the opposite, that no woman who was so learned and respected could possibly have been a courtesan because all “prostituted women” are humiliated, degraded and victimized by the Patriarchy. Both of these groups claim her portrayals in the contemporary comedies as their “evidence”, ignoring the fact that descriptions of both her intellectual abilities and her status as a hetaera exist outside of the comic literature. And as Roger Just of the University of Kent points out, the fact that she was so educated and accomplished proves that she was a courtesan, because only women who were outside the normal social sphere were so educated. Wives were defined as below men, but hetaerae were not. Fortunately, the courtesan deniers are but a small minority, and their silly notions will in a few decades be largely forgotten as the twisted belief system which spawned them fades into history. As the real Aspasia eventually triumphed over those who would destroy her, so will her reputation eventually triumph over those who would deny her status as one of the greatest whores of history.