Shelved Dolls: Aspacia – Why Did Everyone Hate Her? And Which War Did She Cause?


I am going to introduce you to Aspacia with this interchange, which she had with the philosopher Xenophon’s wife.  It so impressed Xenophon that he relayed it to his friends; it also appears almost identically in the dialogues of both Cicero and Quintilian. So it’s true, is what I’m saying. This is not one one of those “supposed” discussions. This happened.

“Tell me,” Aspacia asked the wife of Xenophon, “if your neighbor’s gold jewelry was finer than yours, would you rather have hers or yours?”



“So if her gown or accessories were more costly than yours, which would you prefer?”


“Hers, of course.”


“Well then, if her husband were better than yours, would you want hers or yours?”

The point is that you would want hers. That’s the point.

Aspacia later stated that, to solve this predicament, both husband and wife must aspire to be the very best they could be individually.

I know this seems like an argument that could be made by, say, a high school debating captain with a sense of feminism. That’s probably true. But Aspacia expressed these sentiments in 430 BCE, when most women were not educated and certainly didn’t know how to read. They weren’t skimming through articles in Ms. magazine about how to be on equal terms with their partners 2,500 years ago. Most of them couldn’t read anything.

I always remember some sort of bizarre cartoon movie we had to watch in 6th grade history class wherein a head slave, being asked to do something demeaning, scoffs, “I’m a slave, not a wife!” Whether this is a fair assessment of every single relationship that occurred in ancient Greece is probably unlikely, but it is true that in the 5th century BCE women had almost no rights.

And Aspacia was still hanging out and showing up philosophers and talking about how both people in relationships have to be excellent. Like, I don’t know, some sort of Jen Dziura in a toga.  

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    • Rose

      I lovelovelove the Shelved Dolls series. Keep it up.

    • Lisa(r)

      “I think this is another reminder that if you ever stumble into a time
      machine that takes you back to basically any era, always opt to become a
      high class prostitute. Always.”

      Y’all have got to put this on a t-shirt for The Gloss.

      And this part? “if you are out killing babies that hate is real” in the Athens vs. Sparta debate, Ms. Wright is clearly on Athens’ side, eh?

    • Katie

      Oh goodness. This is just the best part of my week.

    • hmhque

      I read Stealing Athena by Karen Essex a few years ago which really got me interested in Aspasia, whom I had not heard of. A very interesting historical fiction read about the Elgin Marbles intertwined with the history of Pericles and Aspasia.

    • Aqua Access

      I really enjoyed this article, and appreciate that Aspasia is given some ‘air time.’ She was truly a remarkable woman, in any century, but given the restraints against women in ancient Greece, especially so for her time. BUT, there are a few things that I take issue with here. First, the author’s claim that “[Aspasia's exchange] so impressed Xenophon that he relayed it to his friends; it also
      appears almost identically in the dialogues of both Cicero and
      Quintilian. So it’s true, is what I’m saying.” Of course we know that this exchange was based upon *fiction* written by Plato, and Cicero and Quintilian lived 400+ and 500+ years later (respectively), so they had NO first-hand knowledge of such an exchange. They based their re-tellings on (at best) Plato’s fiction. It’s not at all like there are three independent sources confirming a story; there are zero confirmations. That’s because…

      Second, we all know that Plato just made stuff up *all the time* when he wrote his dialogues. His goal in writing was to convince others that his philosophy was superior and anyone having any other perspective was doomed and/or idiotic. Plato wrote fiction not fact. Plato also used Socrates as his mouthpiece, to espouse his (Plato’s) opinion, to give it more credibility. So Socrates wasn’t the a** that the author claims. We don’t really know much about Socrates at all. But we can say with a great deal of certainty that Plato was an arrogant guy, whose goal was to promote his ideals and minimize any others. The fact that his dialogue may paint Aspasia in ‘high regard’ may, in fact, be something else all together — not respect for Aspasia, but teasing or complete disregard for her and the “art” that she taught (e.g. ‘rhetoric is so flimsy and so shallow that even a woman can teach it.’).

      In sum, it’s important that we keep our speculations in check and be sure to give credit to whom and where credit is due. Plato’s prolific writings have preserved a lot of ideas — but they have also put words in the mouths of people as he sees fit. Just because it’s ‘written down’ doesn’t make it so. Indeed, this is one of the very reasons that Socrates is said to have objected to the art of writing at all — he didn’t want others to put words in his mouth. Plato is the a** here, not Socrates.