Born: 470 BC
Died At Age: 70
Born Country: Turkey
Born in: Miletus, Turkey
Famous as: Pericles’ Lover
children: Pericles the Younger
Died on: 400 BC
place of death: Athens, Greece
Aspasia was a prominent immigrant living in Athens during its golden age. She was the paramour of Pericles, who was unarguably the most influential and prolific statesman, orator, and general of Athens of the time. Aspasia bore him a son, Pericles the Younger. Not all the facts are available on the couple’s marital status. Plutarch writes that her house was turned into an intellectual centre in Athens and drew some of the most eminent writers and thinkers, including the philosopher Socrates. She appears in the works of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon and others. Originally from the Ionian Greek city of Miletus, Aspasia likely belonged to a wealthy family. She was a highly educated woman, which was extremely rare at the time. While she resided in Greece for most of her life, only a few things are known about it. Several modern scholars agree with the ancient comic portrayals of Aspasia as a brothel keeper and a prostitute regardless of their innate improbability. Her contribution in history gives a quintessential perception to the comprehension of the women of ancient Greece. Most of the women of her time, despite their importance to their respective societies, are now lost to obscurity. One scholar correctly surmises, “To ask questions about Aspasia's life is to ask questions about half of humanity.”
Childhood & Early Life
Aspasia was a native of the Ionian Greek city of Miletus (located in the present day in the province of Aydın, Turkey). Her father was a man named Axiochus, who was most probably an affluent man, as only an extremely wealthy family could have financed the education she was given.
Her name translates to “the desired one” and was not probably the one she was born with. There are ancient sources that state that she was a Carian prisoner-of-war who later became a slave. These sources have largely been proven to be untrue. It is also not known when or why she made her journey to Athens.
After the discovery of the grave inscription in which the names of Axiochus and Aspasius appear, historian Peter K. Bicknell began his effort of recreating Aspasia's family background and Athenian connections.
His hypothesis links her to Alcibiades II of Scambonidae, the grandfather of the famed Alcibiades of Athens. In 460 BC, Alcibiades II of Scambonidae was put through ostracism by the Athenian authorities. He could have then travelled to Miletus.
According to Bicknell, in Miletus, Alcibiades II of Scambonidae wedded a daughter of a certain Axiochus. He subsequently came back to Athens, accompanied by his wife and her younger sister, Aspasia. He speculates that the marriage produced at least two children, whose names were Axiochus (Alcibiades’ uncle) and Aspasios.
He also holds the belief that Pericles became acquainted with Aspasia through his friendly relations with Alcibiades’ family. While living in Athens, Aspasia probably had affairs with the philosopher Anaxagoras and General Jason of Lira.
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Years in Athens
Many ancient writers and their modern supporters in academia believe that during her time in Athens, Aspasia was a hetaera and operated a brothel. An important social faction of Classical-era Greece, the hetaerae served as entertainers for the elites alongside being courtesans.
The hetaerae always epitomized the contemporary standard of physical beauty. However, what set them apart from other Athenian women was that they were often highly educated, had a significant amount of freedom, and were taxpayers.
A hetaera was the closest to an independent woman, and Aspasia, who was well-known for possessing beauty, education, liberty, and wealth, was apparently a clear example. Plutarch writes that the similarities between Aspasia and Thargelia, another famous ancient Ionian hetaera, were often evoked.
Not being an Athenian native, Aspasia enjoyed much freedom from the traditional restraints that predominantly shackled down Athenian wives to their homes and may have accepted the chance to take part in the public life of the city.
Pericles split from his first wife around 450 BC. He and Aspasia began their relationship at some point in 445 BC. While it is known that they lived together, their marital status is a matter of debate. She had given birth to their son, Pericles the Younger, by 440. She must have been quite young at the time if she had another child with Lysicles in 428 BC.
Among the elites, she was admired for her conversational and advisory capabilities alongside her physical beauty. According to Plutarch, friends of Socrates often took their wives to Aspasia, so they could listen to her conversations.
Pericles, Aspasia, and their friends were powerful people in Athens, but they were not exempt from being attacked. Importance did not guarantee immunity in the democratic Athens. The relationship between Pericles and Aspasia and the latter’s subsequent political prominence garnered a variety of responses.
According to historian Donald Kagan, Aspasia especially drew criticism after the Samian War. Pericles had launched a military campaign against Samos after the kingdom had refused to abide by the Athenian instructions to stop fighting with Miletus. The campaign turned out to be quite costly for Athens. According to Plutarch, people held Aspasia responsible for the war as she was originally from Miletus.
Before the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) broke out, Aspasia, Pericles, and their allies experienced another barrage of personal and legal attacks. The comedies of the time held Aspasia responsible for any behaviour of Athenian women that could be considered as wayward.
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Plutarch states that she was once tried for impiety, with the comic poet Hermippus serving as the prosecutor. However, the historicity of this is contested.
Aristophanes, in ‘The Acharnians’, accused Aspasia of starting the Peloponnesian War. He believed that the Megarian decree of Pericles, which banned Athenian trade with Megara, was the response for the prostitutes being forcefully taken away from the house of Aspasia by Megarians.
Because of her relationship with Pericles, she was given various bynames, including "New Omphale", "Deianira", "Hera" and "Helen”. Pericles’ own son from his first marriage, Xanthippus, an aspiring statesman himself, disapproved many of his father’s personal choices.
Later Life & Death
In 429 BC, after the Plague of Athens struck, Pericles lost several members of his family, including his two legitimate sons, Paralus and Xanthippus. Athens subsequently changed its laws to make Pericles the Younger a citizen and Pericles’ legitimate heir. Pericles passed away not long after.
Plutarch refers to the now-lost dialogue by Aeschines Socraticus to state that following Pericles’ death, Aspasia resided with the Athenian general and democratic leader Lysicles. They apparently had a son together. Lysicles perished during an expedition in 428 BC, after which she simply vanished from historical records.
It is not known if she witnessed Pericles the Younger’s execution following the Battle of Arginusae in 406 BC. Generally, the historians believe that she passed away sometime around 401-400 BC. This fits the structure of Aeschines' ‘Aspasia’, which insinuates that her death happened prior to the execution of Socrates (399 BC).
Appearances in Art & Literature
A marble herma is kept in the Vatican Museums that has Aspasia’s name carved on it at the base. This is a copy made by the ancient Romans. The fifth-century BC original, which was probably a representation of Aspasia's funerary stele, does not exist any longer. In 1794, French artist Marie Bouliard made a self-portrait as Aspasia.
Aspasia has been mentioned in the writings of Plato, Xenophon, Aeschines Socraticus, and Antisthenes. She also appears in the works of Roman authors like Athenaeus, Plutarch, and Cicero, who were writing at a time when much of the works of her contemporary philosophers and authors still existed.
In modern times, her relationship with Pericles has served as inspiration for numerous poets and writers, including Lydia Maria Child, Walter Savage Landor, Giacomo Leopardi, George Cram Cook, and Taylor Caldwell.