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Aspasia of Athens

The 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 right.

Aspasia 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.

Born 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.

Aspasia 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 to go.

Pericles 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 prevented marriage.

He 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.

By 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.

They 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).

The 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).

The 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:

"If 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."

The comic poets were especially harsh. Aristophanes wrote that the war started over a dispute about prostitutes in The Acharnians the war:

when some drunken youths went for the whore, Simaetha, and stole her away, then 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.

She may also have been the model for the main character in the comedy Lysistrata. Lysistrata 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!' "

Her 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.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Socrates seeking Alcibiades in the house of Aspasia, 1861.

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