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.
This innate intelligence is what I love most when reading about courtesans from ancient times. Their defining feature – and the attribute that presumably made them so desirable – isn’t that they were beautiful in some achievable way, or were all full of bizarre sex tricks, or really, anything that most women’s magazines will tell you to be. It’s the fact that they were very, very smart.
As smart as men.
And in a time when that would have been incredibly difficult to achieve.
And perhaps the more remarkable and comforting outcome is that men liked that these women were smart. Maybe it was the fact that women having any kind of intellectual ability in the ancient world was akin to seeing a dog walk on its hind legs – remarkable insofar that someone who is not supposed to be able to do that can – but still. Still.
Aspacia was really cool.
Which you might not know, because many of the rumors about Aspacia are insane.
Plutarch, following her death, wrote:
“Now, since it is thought that [Pericles] 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.”
We should discuss her! Like philosophers!
Not much is known about Aspacia’s early life, other than she was an immigrant from Miletus in Asia Minor (now Turkey) who arrived in Athens following the Persian Wars in 451 BCE. She claimed to come from a wealthy and privileged background.
This was a terrible time for immigrants in Greece. And it was an especially terrible time for female immigrants in Greece.
The statesman Pericles had passed a law which restricted Athenian citizenship to children with two Athenian parents. Metics (who would today be called resident aliens) such as Aspasia and her family had no political rights, were not allowed to own land, and could never obtain citizenship. Anyone who attempted to impersonate an Athenian citizen could be enslaved. A metic was not allowed to marry an Athenian citizen, which meant that their children could never become citizens. They would never have much in the way of security, though many foreigners did succeed in industry and accumulate great wealth. But if you couldn’t own a house, that only goes so far.
Not that being an Athenian citizen was that great if you were a woman, anyway. Females were rarely educated and were cloistered in their houses, first as children, and then later (around age 14) when they became wives. Their husbands would generally be much older, and, while wives would have some degree of dominion over their houses, they could very rarely venture outside. Walkabouts were not seen as virtuous. And they didn’t even have that much fun inside because, when men were entertaining, wives would not be invited to the party, though men would often hire a high class prostitute, or hetaerae, to provide conversation. Really, I legitimately think it was just conversation.
Obviously, Aspasia opted to become a hetaerae.
Hetaerae were their own social class, different from other women. As courtesans they had considerably more freedom to participate in city life than wives who were confined to their homes. They were independent.They had to pay taxes. They were also allowed to run brothels, which could guarantee them a source of income when they grew older. 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.
In addition to working as a companion for wealthy Athenian citizens, Aspacia also taught poetry and rhetoric. And she taught the latter so well that the philosopher Socrates claimed her as one of his teachers.
There’s even a dialogue – Oeconomicus by Xenophon – in which Socrates says that Aspasia is more knowledgeable than he about the the economic partnership between husband and wife. Socrates, I think it’s worth pointing out, was extremely stingy with his praise. If you read his dialogues, he’s pretty much an asshole to the vast majority of people with whom he interacts. Examples: When someone mentions the town he’s from, Socrates dismissively says the only good thing to come out of that town are a few racehorses. When, before he was executed, the jury asked Socrates if he could suggest an alternative punishment that would be fair to everyone (they meant exile, most likely), he said he’d be fine with the government buying him a large house and living in it.
So, Socrates wasn’t really a people person. The fact that Aspasia had his respect is high testament to her intellectual abilities.
Her house soon became the intellectual center of Athens, and it’s said that she was introduced to Pericles (the one who came up with all the laws about citizenship) by Socrates’ close friend, Alcibiades, who was said to be the handsomest man in Athens, and was constantly, comically, trying to seduce Socrates.
Pericles was seen as a stern, somewhat draconian, statesman but the people respected his policies, particularly the work he did restoring the Athenian temples that had been damaged during the Persian Wars.
Pericles and Aspasia fell immediately in love.
But because of the law he wrote Pericles couldn’t marry her, although he wanted to. However, he did move her into his home which people were not happy about. A rumor quickly spread across Athens that claimed he had divorced his virtuous wife to live with a harlot, when, in reality, he had divorced his virtuous wife about a decade prior.
The situation got worse when Athens went to war with the city state of Samos. Initially, Samos was at war with Miletus (Aspasia’s hometown) over a city called Priene. The Miletians came to Athens to plead their case, and the Athenian government said that the two sides should declare a (temporary) truce, and have the matter resolved by statesmen. Miletus was fine with that, Samos was not. As a result, Pericles dispatched an army to Samos.
The war did not go well. While Athens eventually emerged victorious, they did so with heavy casualties.
Somehow, this was all seen as being Aspasia’s fault.
Aristophanes later wrote about the circumstance in his comic play The Acharnians, in which Aspasia goads Pericles into starting the Peloponnesian war because a group of soldiers stole two prostitutes from her brothel. Basically:
“Thus far the evil was not serious and we were the only sufferers. But now 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. Then Pericles, aflame with ire on his Olympian height, let loose the lightning, caused the thunder to roll, upset Greece and passed an edict, which ran like the song, That the Megarians be banished both from our land and from our markets and from the sea and from the continent.”
This is obviously not true, and it was meant as kind of a nasty joke on Aristophanes’ part, who, I guess, did not get invited to Aspasia’s super fun parties.
The popular satirist Cratinus dubbed Aspasia “Dog-Eyed Whore”, a nasty nickname which followed her afterwards. And she was depicted on various vases and plates from the period bending over to offer up anal sex.
Seriously, guys, the war had nothing to do with her.
I’m inclined to think that “finding a woman to blame a war on” was a bizarre ancient world game. There was just some sort of notion that women were always starting wars, because, look at Helen of Troy!
But, then again, look how common this blame game still is today. Look at how harsh we can be on the wives or girlfriends of professional sports players – or musicians – if those women are perceived to impede, or really even influence, their performance in any way that isn’t appreciated by their many devotees. Meanwhile, politicians’ wives are accused of influencing policy decisions if they appear to have any opinions of their own. Remember Eleanor Roosevelt? What about Hillary Clinton? There’s still a notion, I think, and one that Hitler would back up, that women involved with political men should only be pretty and calm and pleasant, and not opinionated in any way.
And, I mean, Aspasia’s house was the center of learning in Athens. Her courses in rhetoric were so popular that some men even brought their wives along. The jig was already up. There was no way she could pretend that she was simply Pericles’ meek plaything.
She still didn’t start any manner of war. Which did not stop an absolutely insane lawsuit.
I know we worry about being in the public eye and being unpopular today, but the worst that will happen is that websites will write nasty comments and you will cry yourself to sleep. Not so in ancient Athens where people could actually take you to court – and potentially have you executed – if they thought badly of you. If social stigma is fearful now, it seems unimaginably terrifying then. Socrates himself was accused and executed for “corrupting the youth of Athens.”
Nine years after the Samian war, at the very beginning of the the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE), the comic poet Hermippus accused Aspasia of pimping Athenian women. Even Pericles’ son, Xanthippus, slandered Aspasia and accused his father of immorality in his private life.
Aspasia was consequently charged with immorality and taken to court.
But she couldn’t appear in court, because foreigners has no legal rights. Someone had to appear on her behalf.
Remarkably – though I don’t know why I should find it remarkable when people behave well, though I seem to – Pericles spoke on her behalf in court. And he spoke so movingly – weeping, apparently, as he did – that the people of Athens agreed that Aspasia had been slandered. She was allowed to go free.
It was an unexpected outcome.
And the time in court actually brought Aspasia and Pericles closer together. Which was good because a devastating plague swept through Athens, killing about a third of the population. Pericles’ two sons were among the victims.Tragically, it was probably brought on by some of Pericles’ own policies, such as housing the army within city walls, which lead to massive overcrowding and poor living conditions in Athens.
Both Pericles and Aspasia survived, but Pericles was supposedly never the same afterwards. He was immediately ousted from office in dishonor.
I feel sad for Pericles, because he tried hard and seemed like a nice guy, even though his citizenship law was pretty stupid.
The only remotely positive thing to come out of the plague was that the citizenship law was overturned. Children needed only one Athenian parent to become citizens. (Power did have its privileges. Before the change in law, Aspasia’s son, Pericles the Younger, was granted a special exemption which meant he could become a citizen though his mother could not, despite Pericles’ requests on her behalf.)
I want to point out that public opinion never turned entirely against Pericles, despite the fact that his housing decisions killed a third of the city. Meanwhile, the public hated Aspasia and put her on trial because she was good at logic.
And a woman. Just saying.
But, also, decisions were insane and arbitrary in ancient Greece.
Soon afterwards Pericles was restored to office. However, another plague broke out and this time it did kill Pericles.
Aspasia almost immediately began seeing a rising general named Lysicles, which the citizenry . . . you know, there’s never a point when the citizenry liked Aspasia. Though she did, quite rightly, point out that as the city was still hostile, her best chance for survival was to duplicate her relationship with Pericles as closely as possible. Ironic given that relationship made the city hostile towards her in the first place. She bore Lysicles a son, before he died in battle.
After which, we know little else about Aspasia’s life. She never appears in another play, which is surprising as she appeared in so many until that point. It’s possible that she took up with a man so powerful that terrible things stopped being written about her, but it’s hard to imagine anyone more powerful that Pericles, and he had almost no influence over that. Her son, Pericles the Younger, may have protected her, though he was executed in 406 BCE after the Battle of Arginusae for failing to pick up survivors in a storm.
However, her teachings live on. Today, some scholars even suspect that the origins of Socratic dialogue may have originated with her.
Cheryl Glenn Cheryl Glenn, Professor at the Pennsylvania State University, argues that Aspasia seems to have been the only woman in classical Greece to have distinguished herself in the public sphere and must have influenced Pericles in the composition of his speeches
Most accounts seem to agree that Aspasia was an extraordinarily intelligent woman. And while it is tragic to think that, during her life, that meant only that she was made fun of and persecuted by the majority of the population, it is heartening to think that the people who we remember today – Socrates, for instance, and Pericles – admired and respected her qualities. No one now remembers Cratinus, though that “Dog Eyed Whore” nickname was really popular during his day.
And, it goes without saying, we clearly remember Aspasia well enough to write about her.
I’m not saying the moral here is “you shouldn’t worry if people hate you” because, say, if you are out killing babies that hate is real. We all do some things that are not great. But also remember that sometimes hoi polloi just have opinions that don’t prove to be true in time. If you, like Aspasia, seem to be leading your life in a way that is thoughtful, and interesting, and not really harmful to anyone, well, to hell with people like Cratinus.
Pictures via Wikipedia Commons, Creative Commons
A History of Mistresses by Elizabeth Abbot
Oeconomicus, by Xenophon
Life of Pericles, by Plutarch