by Jennifer Brainard
most famous woman of Ancient Athens was Aspasia, the companion
of the great leader of democratic Athens, Pericles. Because she
was a courtesan, Pericles was not permitted to marry her, but in
every way she was his partner and an important Athenian in her own
was probably a hetaira. There is no English word to accurately
translate hetairai, but they were more than courtesans.
They were indeed sexual partners, but they were also companions,
better educated than other Greek women. They were educated in philosophy,
history, politics, science, art and literature, so that they could
converse intelligently with sophisticated men. Aspasia was considered
by many to be the most beautiful and intelligent of the city's hetairai.
in Ionian Greece (today,Turkey), Aspasia (desired one)
was born a citizen of Miletus, but was either orphaned or unwanted.
It is possible that her father offered her to the Temple of Aphrodite,
an honorable way to get rid of unwanted female children, where they
would serve Aphrodite with their bodies. Or she may have come to
Athens as an orphan when Alcibiades returned from exile. In any
event, she became a courtesan.
entertained the most powerful men of Athens at her symposia
(dinner parties). Though men openly attended such parties,
wives did not. The women at these parties were hetairai.
Aspasia's house became a fashionable place for the elite of Athens
met Aspasia and immediately moved in with her. He may have divorced
his wife to make this possible but in any event, they lived together
as man and wife until Pericles died of the plague. The city's laws
lived with her as her husband and treated her as an equal. This
was unseemly for a respectable man, and for a man of Pericles' standing,
unheard of. He was often criticized for his relationship with Aspasia,
and for his obvious reliance on her help and judgment. Women were
not part of Athenian public life, and there was a place for hetairai,
but it was in the bedroom and dining room, not in politics.
all accounts Pericles loved Aspasia with a passion that brought
him to openly flout such conventions. Plutarch (Life
of Pericles) and Athenaeus (The Deipnosophistae),
who later wrote about Pericles, commented that he was so smitten
that he kissed her when he left in the morning and again when he
returned at night. Apparently this was a very unusual practice.
had a son together called Pericles, who because of their illegal
relationship, could not be a citizen (later, after his legitimate
sons had died in the plague, Pericles unsuccessfully made an emotional
plea to the Assembly to grant citizenship status to his son - it
was not until after his death that his wish was granted).
gossip in Athens was always vicious, and Pericles and Aspasia were
popular topics. They and their illegitimate son were ridiculed.
She was called, among other things, a "dog-eyed whore."
Many felt that Aspasia had too much influence on Pericles. Some
accused her of persuading Pericles to go to war with Samos in order
to help her native Miletus. Some even blamed her for the war with
Sparta (the Peloponnesian War).
busy tongues of Athens also called her
a "Socratic." This was not a complement. The
Athenians did not like the funny looking little man who is often
called the father of ethical philosophy. Socrates and Aspasia conversed
often and probably influenced each other. Though Socrates did not
write down his teachings, his students (the most famous was Plato)
wrote Socratic dialogues which contained his teachings. She appears
in one called Aspasia (by Aeschines of Sphettus),
where she argues for more equality in marriage:
your neighbor had gold that was purer than yours," Aspasia
asked Xenophon's wife, "would you rather have her gold or
yours? "Hers," was the reply. "And if she had richer
jewels and finer clothes?" "I would rather have hers."
"And if she had a better husband than yours?" At the
woman's embarrassed silence, Aspasia began to question the husband,
asking him the same things, but substituting horses for gold and
land for clothes and asking him finally if he would prefer his
neighbor's wife if she were better than her own. At his embarrassed
silence, reading their thoughts, she said, "Each of you would
like the best husband or wife: and since neither of you has achieved
perfection, each of you will always regret this ideal."
comic poets were especially harsh. Aristophanes wrote that the war
started over a dispute about prostitutes in The
Acharnians the war:
some drunken youths went for the whore, Simaetha, and stole her
the Megarians, garlicked with the pain,
stole in return two whores of Aspasia.
Then the start of the war burst out
for all Hellenes because of three strumpets.
Then Pericles, the Olympian, in his wrath
thundered, lightened, threw Hellas into confusion..
may also have been the model for the main character in the comedy
is the outspoken woman who leads the women of Athens to a creative
solution to end the war - they simply denied the men their beds
until they made peace.
All the long time the war has lasted, we have endured in modest
silence all you men did; you never allowed us to open our lips.
We were far from satisfied, for we knew how things were going;
often in our homes we would hear you discussing, upside down and
inside out, some important turn of affairs. Then with sad hearts,
but smiling lips, we would ask you: Well, in today's Assembly
did they vote peace?-But, "Mind your own business!"
the husband would growl, "Hold your tongue, please!"
And we would say no more. …But presently I would come to
know you had arrived at some fresh decision more fatally foolish
than ever. "Ah! my dear man," I would say, "what
madness next!" But he would only look at me askance and say:
'Just weave your web, please; else your cheeks will smart for
hours. War is men's business!' "
influence was so great that Plato later joked that she had written
Pericles' most famous speech, The
Funeral Oration. Both Aspasia and Percales. were
intellectually curious and on the cutting edge of philosophy, art,
architecture and politics. They entertained intellectuals at their
home. With her help and support Percales. built magnificent public
spaces such as the Parthenon. They lived together for nearly twenty
years and ushered in the "golden age of Greece,"
that flowering of culture which continues to inspire us.