SummaryAspasia was the mistress of Pericles, the leader of Athens during the Classical Age. She was a hetaira, a trained and paid companion who accompanied upper-class men to the symposiums. According to some ancient sources she was skilled in rhetoric and took part in the intellectual discussions of the leading men in Athens, including Socrates. As the mistress of Pericles, she suffered attacks from his political enemies. Aspasia and Pericles had one son, who was later legitimized. After the death of Pericles she married Lysicles a man of humble birth who became a successful politician in Athens through her assistance. Factual information about Aspasia is difficult to locate in the ancient sources. Playwrights, biographers and other ancient authors use Aspasia to illustrate their views on philosophy, rhetoric and Pericles.
FamilyModern scholars agree that the basic facts of Aspasia's life as recorded by Diodoros the Athenian (FGrHist 372 F 40_rpar;, Plutarch (Plut. Per. 24.3) and the lexicographers are correct. She was born in the city of Miletus between 460-455 B.C., the daughter of Axiochus. Miletus, part of the Athenian empire, was one of the leading cities in Ionia, an area of Greek settlement located along the coast of Asia Minor. It was probably in Ionia, before she left for Athens, that Aspasia was educated. Women in that part of the Greek world were generally given more of an education than women in Athens. As a hetaira she would have been trained in the art of conversation and of musical entertainment including singing, dancing and playing instruments.
BiographyArriving in Athens as a free immigrant around 445 B.C., Aspasia worked as a hetaira. In fact Aspasia, which meant “Gladly Welcomed,” was probably her professional name. Hetairai were much more than just high-class prostitutes. According to ancient literary sources and scenes from vase paintings, many hetairai were intelligent, beautiful, well-dressed and had fewer restrictions on their lives than the respectable, married women in Athens (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 583f.). This description would also apply to Aspasia. As a hetaira, however, she would not have had financial security or any legal or family protection. As the paid companion of aristocratic men Aspasia attended symposiums, drinking parties combined with political and philosophical discourse. At the symposiums she met the most influential and powerful men in Athens, including Pericles. Sometime around 445 B.C. Aspasia began to live with Pericles, who at that time was the leader of Athens. He had been divorced from his wife for five years, with whom he had two sons. According to Plutarch, it was an amiable divorce because the marriage was not a happy one (Plut. Per. 24.5). Plutarch relates more information about Aspasia than any other ancient author. Unfortunately, Plutarch's Lives are full of distortions and historical inaccuracies. His purpose in the Lives was to exemplify the virtues and vices of great men, not to write history. In respect to Aspasia and Pericles he states that Pericles valued Aspasia's intelligence and political insight, but he emphasizes that Pericles' feelings for her were primarily erotic. This may be an attempt on Plutarch's part to remove the stigma from Pericles of having been overly influenced by a woman. Plutarch describes the relationship between Aspasia and Pericles as a very happy one. He states that she was so loved by Pericles that he kissed her everyday when he left the house and again when he returned (Plut. Per. 24_rpar;. Plutarch portrays Aspasia as the influential courtesan. He writes that Aspasia was trying to emulate Thargelia, a famous Milesian courtesan whose lovers were the most powerful men in Greece. Using her influence over these men Thargelia helped win Thessaly over to the Persians at the time of Xerxes' invasion. Plutarch blames Aspasia for Pericles' decision to start the war against Samos, a wealthy and powerful member of the empire. The Milesians and the Samians were involved in a border dispute. The Samians refused to submit the conflict to Athenian arbitration. Supposedly, Aspasia pressured Pericles to take military action against Samos (Plut. Per. 25.1). Although it would have been natural for Aspasia to take the side of her native city, she and Pericles both must have realized that the loss of Samos to the empire would have meant the rapid end of Athenian domination of the Aegean. The exact status of Aspasia's relationship with Pericles and her position in Pericles' household is disputed. While some say that she was his a παλλακή (concubine), Plutarch (Plut. Per. 24) seems to imply, and Diodorus the Athenian (FGrHist 372 F 40_rpar; says, that she was his ἄκοιτις. She and Pericles had one son also named Pericles. As the mistress of Pericles' household and hostess to his friends and supporters, Aspasia participated in discussions revolving around politics and philosophy with the leading men of the Athenian empire. According to several ancient authors, Socrates respected her opinions (Plut. Per. 24.3; Xen. Ec. 3.15; Cicero, De Inventione 31.51_rpar;. As a pallake she would have been outside of the legal, traditional role of an Athenian wife. Freed from the social restraints that tied married women to their homes and restricted their behavior, Aspasia was able to participate more freely in public life. Strong evidence that Aspasia's role in Athens went beyond that of mistress to Pericles is given by Plato in the Menexenus. In this dialogue Plato has Socrates recite a funeral oration composed by Aspasia that glorifies the Athenians and their history. The Menexenus is a humorous vehicle for Plato to make a serious, but negative comment on rhetoric and popular opinion in Athens. Everything in Aspasia's speech is selected, arranged and stated by Plato in order to produce the greatest possible irony. By satirizing a speech “written” by Aspasia, Plato acknowledges her role as a leader of rhetoric in the Greek Classical Age. In Cicero's book on rhetoric he uses as an example of the Socratic method a dialogue attributed to Aspasia by Aeschines a student of Socrates. In this dialogue Aspasia skillfully proves to a husband and wife that neither one of them will ever be truly happy with the other because they each desire the ideal spouse. Aeschines and another student of Socrates, Antisthenes, both wrote dialogues titled Aspasia. Unfortunately, only fragments of these works survive. (Diogenes Laertius, Antisthenes 6.16.) Several ancient authors state that Aspasia herself operated a house of courtesans and trained young women in the necessary skills (Plut. Per. 24.3). Aristophanes and others refer to “Aspasia's whores” (Aristoph. Ach. 527). Although as Pericles' pallake she was taken care of financially, Aspasia may have been preparing for her future after the death of Pericles. According to Plutarch, she was known in Athens as a teacher of rhetoric. Perhaps these women were her pupils (Plut. Per. 34). Aspasia's hetairai would have had as patrons the elite men of Athens, especially the supporters of Pericles. Around 438 B.C. Pericles' political enemies began attacking those close to him in court and eventually brought charges against Pericles himself. Soon Aspasia became a target. She was brought to trial on charges of impiety and of procuring free women. She was acquitted thanks to a passionate and tearful defense by Pericles (Plut. Per. 32.1-3). Although her political wisdom was valuable to Pericles, not having an Athenian citizen as a legal wife, but rather living with a foreign hetaira in an unofficial marriage may have been a political liability for him. In the contemporary comedy The Acharnians, Aristophanes parodies the imputations that Aspasia had undue influence on Pericles' political decisions. One of his characters blames the start of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C. on the abduction of two of Aspasia's hetairai (Aristoph. Ach. 527-530). The joke worked because the audience knew that Aspasia had some influence on Pericles, but not enough to start a war. The plague in Athens in 430 B.C. killed both of Pericles' sons by his first wife. This led him to ask for an exemption from the citizenship law, which he himself had enacted, for his illegimate son by Aspasia. The citizenship law decreed that only persons whose father and mother were both Athenians could be legal citizens. The people of Athens agreed to Pericles' request. His son was legitimized and made a citizen of Athens. He later became a general, but was executed in 406 B.C. In 429 B.C. Pericles died from the plague. A year later Aspasia became involved with a sheep seller named Lysicles in another unofficial marriage. He was an uneducated man of humble birth who rose to prominence thanks to her guidance. She taught him how to speak in public and gave him the benefit of her valuable insights and personal contacts in Athenian politics (Plut. Per. 24.6; Scholia to Plato, Menexenus 235E). He was one of the new type of political leaders who came to prominence after the death of Pericles. This was probably the same group who had led the earlier attacks against Pericles and his friends, including Aspasia herself. Questions remain regarding Aspasia's decision to marry so quickly after Pericles' death. She might have been in need of a protector from Pericles' enemies. The selection of another politician as her husband might also suggest a desire to remain involved in the politics of Athens. There is no information about Aspasia's life after this point. Although the actual extent of her influence on Athenian politics and society during Athens' most glorious period will never be certain, she did become one of the few women in the ancient Greek world to be noted and remembered. She became so famous that Cyrus, a prince of Persia, Athens' most hated enemy, gave the name Aspasia to his favorite concubine. Through the succeeding centuries ancient authors, including playwrights and biographers, used Aspasia as a well-known historical figure to illustrate their views on philosophy, politics, rhetoric, Pericles and Socrates.
The primary sources give little information about Aspasia. Plutarch relates more than the other ancient authors, but he seems almost wholly dependent on Athenian comedy and stories from the Socratic circle for his information, all of which is difficult to verify. The secondary sources tend to discuss Aspasia in relation to Pericles or Athenian politics and society.