Return to Greek Courtesans
"Next we must delineate her wisdom and understanding. We shall require many models there, most of them ancient, and one, like herself, Ionic, painted and wrought by Aeschines, the friend of Socrates, and by Socrates himself, of all craftsmen the truest copyists because they painted with love. It is that maid of Miletus, Aspasia, the consort of the Olympian [Pericles], himself a marvel beyond compare. Putting before us, in her, no mean pattern of understanding, let us take all that she had of experience in affairs, shrewdness in statescraft, quick-wittedness, and penetration, and transfer the whole of it to our own picture by accurate measurement."
Lucian, Imagines (XVII)
Aspasia was born in the Ionian colony of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor and immigrated to Athens about 450 BC, where she resided as a metic or resident alien. An accomplished courtesan, she was educated and trained in the art of conversation and entertainment, and may have met Pericles at a symposium. Not permitted to marry an Athenian citizen (ironically, because of legislation that Pericles, himself, had enacted shortly before Aspasia arrived), she came to live with him as his concubine after Pericles divorced his wife (c. 445 BC, if not earlier) and bore him a child of the same name. Plutarch relates that Pericles kissed Aspasia every day, both when he left the house and when he returned (Life of Pericles, XXIV.6). Indeed, Athenaeus relates that he squandered the greater part of his property on her (Deipnosophistae, XII.533). It was a relationship that the comic poets of the fifth century used to attack them both. Yet, it is this invective that provides the only contemporary and often fragmentary evidence for a life of Aspasia.
Invariably, she was attacked for her sexual allure and unseemly influence over Pericles and his political policies. Cratinus, for example, calls her "a dog-eyed concubine" and Eupolis, a younger contemporary, a whore (pornê) and mother to a bastard. Hermippus accuses her of impiety and procuring free-born women for Pericles, and Duris of Samos with having prompted him to intervene in support of Miletus in its war with Samos (441 BC). Aristophanes even blames her in The Acharnians (425 BC), his earliest surviving play, for starting the Peloponnesian War. He attributes the Megarian Decree of Pericles, which excluded Megara from trade with Athens or its allies, to prostitutes being taken from the house of Aspasia in retaliation for one of their number having been drunkenly kidnapped from Megara "and from that the onset of war broke forth upon all the Greeks: from three sluts!" Quoting these lines, Athenaeus (XIII.569) adds that she brought in large numbers of beautiful women, so that the whole country was filled with her courtesans.
It was her status as a foreigner that also freed Aspasia from the legal restraints that traditionally confined married women to their homes and allowed her to participate in the public life of Athens. Mistress of her own house (one of ill repute, as Plutarch primly points out) and hostess to friends and supporters who visited, she was witty and educated. Lucian has Socrates visit to listen to her discourse (De Saltatione, XXV). Plutarch, whose Life of Pericles conveys most of what is known about her, says that he held Aspasia in high favor because of her "rare political wisdom" and that she "had the reputation of being associated with a whole succession of Athenians, who came to her to learn rhetoric" (XXIV.3–4).
Aspasia is said by the Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, to have been "clever with regards to words," both the teacher and beloved of Pericles, and the supposed cause of both the Samian and Peloponnesian wars (alpha, 4202). Diogenes Laertius relates that Antisthenes and Aeschines, disciples of Socrates, both wrote about her. Athenaeus remarks that "Most philosophers have a natural tendency to be more abusive than the comic poets" (V.220). Certainly, Antisthenes is hostile, saying that Pericles greeted "the wench" twice a day and pleaded for her against charges of impiety, weeping "more tears than when his life and property were endangered" (Athenaeus, XIII.589), stories that Plutarch records in turn ("as they say"), although he attributes the courtroom scene to Aeschines. Cicero, in De Inventione (I.31.51-52), quotes a lost dialogue by Aeschines to demonstrate her skill in counseling Xenophon and his wife. Neither will be happy, she says, as long as they desire an ideal spouse; rather, each must be the best spouse, if their partner's wish is to be fulfilled.
"All argumentation, then, is to be carried on either by induction or by deduction. Induction is a form of argument which leads the person with whom one is arguing to give assent to certain undisputed facts; through this assent it wins his approval of a doubtful proposition because this resembles the facts to which he has assented. For instance, in a dialogue by Aeschines Socraticus Socrates reveals that Aspasia reasoned thus with Xenophon's wife and with Xenophon himself: "Please tell me, madam, if your neighbour had a better gold ornament than you have, would you prefer that one or your own?" "That one, " she replied. "Now, if she had dresses and other feminine finery more expensive than you have, would you prefer yours or hers?" "Hers, of course," she replied. "Well now, if she had a better husband than you have, would you prefer your husband or hers?" At this the woman blushed. But Aspasia then began to speak to Xenophon. "I wish you would tell me, Xenophon," she said, "if your neighbour had a better horse than yours, would you prefer your horse or his?" "His" was his answer. "And if he had a better farm than you have, which farm would your prefer to have?" The better farm, naturally," he said. "Now if he had a better wife than you have, would you prefer yours or his?" And at this Xenophon, too, himself was silent. Then Aspasia: "Since both of you have failed to tell me the only thing I wished to hear, I myself will tell you what you both are thinking. That is, you, madam, wish to have the best husband, and you, Xenophon, desire above all things to have the finest wife. Therefore, unless you can contrive that there be no better man or finer woman on earth you will certainly always be in dire want of what you consider best, namely, that you be the husband of the very best of wives, and that she be wedded to the very best of men."
Quintilian, in referring to this exchange in his own discussion of rhetoric, says that the appropriate answer would have been for the wife to prefer an ornament, not better but of the same quality as her neighbor (Institutio Oratoria, V.11.27-29).
This relationship between love (eros) and virtue (arete) also can be seen in Xenophon, whose mention of Aspasia may have derived from Aeschines. In the Memorabilia (II.6.36), Socrates quotes Aspasia as saying that the matchmaker should report truthfully on the good characteristics of the man and woman and never praise them falsely to the other. And in Oeconomicus (III.14), which Cicero considered so useful that he translated it when he was twenty years old (De Officiis, II.87), Socrates defers to Aspasia as more knowledgeable about household management and the economic partnership between husband and wife (understandably, given Socrates' own shrewish wife). In Menexenus (235e, 236b), Plato even has Aspasia be the instructor of Socrates in rhetoric (cf. Athenaeus, V.219) and the author of Pericles' famed funeral oration.
In 430 BC, at the beginning of the second year of the Peloponnesian War, a disastrous plague broke out in Athens. It killed the two sons of Pericles by his first wife, and he asked for an exemption from the law to permit his son by Aspasia to be legitimated and made a citizen, which was granted. The next year, Pericles, himself, died from the plague, and Aspasia was left alone. She soon found another protector in Lysicles, who rose to prominence under her tutelage (a spiteful story probably derived from Aeschines). But he died a year later, and nothing more is known of this fascinating woman.
Even though one can catalog citations in the literature, the reality is that, as Wallace comments in his review of Henry's book, "Aspasia herself possesses and can possess almost no historical reality. We can form no impression of her as a person." Certainly, the ridicule of comic poets intended to criticize Pericles through his foreign-born mistress cannot be trusted. The Socratic writers often were even more malicious or ironic in their comments. (It is Aeschines who pronounces that "the women who come from Ionia are adulterous and avaricious," Athenaeus, V.220.) Management of the household was the province of the wife, and yet Socrates introduces Aspasia as an authority on domestic matters. When she expounds on the proper relationship between husband and wife, it may be because more respectable women, secluded in the home, cannot be called upon. And when Aspasia is said to have composed the epitaph delivered by Pericles, the words are spoken by a woman, not a man; a foreigner, not a citizen; a prostitute, not a wife; the parent of a bastard, not a citizen.
Henry, herself, concludes that "remarkably little" can be said about Aspasia and that whatever can be known was the reaction of men to what she did or said at the time, which must have been memorable, indeed, to have provoked such comment. Plutarch, too, questions "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."
The discovery of a fourth-century grave inscription that mentions the names of Axiochus and Aspasius has led Peter Bicknell to conjecture that, when the elder Alcibiades was ostracized about 460 BC, he went to Miletus, where he married the daughter of a certain Axiochus. The first child of this marriage was named Axiochus (after his maternal grandfather) and the second, Aspasius. Ten years later, the elder Alcibiades returned to Athens with his family and his wife's younger sister, Aspasia. Pericles was guardian to the more celebrated Alcibiades and may have met Aspasia because of this connection to the grandfather's household. If this supposition is correct (and it is based on the fact that both Alcibiades' son and Aspasia's father share an uncommon name not previously attested to), Aspasia, far from being a resident alien and concubine, would have been a member of a powerful and aristocratic Athenian family, related by her sister's marriage to Alcibiades, himself.
In the Life of Pericles, Plutarch relates that Aspasia of Miletus was so celebrated that the Persian satrap Cyrus (the Younger) gave the name to his favorite concubine, Milto of Phocaea (on the northern coast of Ionia) (XXIV.7). Virtuous and proud, when first brought before Cyrus, she did not even bother to bathe. But her defiance only made him more enchanted with her, whom he called the Wise (Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes, cf. Athenaeus, XIII.576). Captured by Artaxerxes II after the death of his brother Cyrus in the battle of Cynaxa (401 BC, described by Xenophon in the Anabasis, I.8), he too fell in love with her. In time, having declaring his son Darius to be the next king, Artaxerxes was obliged by custom to grant him any request. Darius demanded Aspasia, which so distressed Artaxerxes that he dedicated her as priestess to Artemis, thus assuring her chastity. Incensed, Darius conspired to overthrow his father and was killed in the attempt (cf. Justinus, X.2).
Aelian repeats the story of Aspasia of Phocaea in his Historical Miscellany (XII.1), adding that, when given a beautiful necklace by Cyrus, she returned it, saying that it was more worthy of his mother. By such gestures, "This woman was unreservedly admired both for her physical beauty and even more for her nobility of character." The aesthetic of that beauty can be gained from Aelian's description of her as having blond hair, large eyes, an aquiline nose, and small ears, as well as pretty ankles, fair skin, and a pleasant voice.
The woman with whom Lucian's character is so enamored in the quotation above is Panthea of Smyrna, mistress of Lucius Verus, who met her in Antioch, having come there in AD 162 to direct the Parthian War. The Historia Augusta relates that he cut off his beard to please her. Indeed, Marcus Aurelius advanced the wedding of his daughter and Verus to AD 164, possibly because he had heard stories of the affair. (And yet her devotion to Verus was remarked upon by Aurelius, who in his Meditations, VIII.37, rhetorically asks whether she still sat by his tomb.)
She had, says Lucian (Imagines, X), the same name as Panthea of Susa, who was reputed to have been the most beautiful woman in Asia. The wife of Abradatas, she was captured by Cyrus, who refused to visit her for fear of being seduced by her beauty. Rather, she was respected as a brother's wife until restored to her husband, who was so appreciative that he allied himself with Cyrus, dying in his service. Grief stricken, Panthea killed herself over her husband's body (Xenophon, Cyropaedia, V.1.1ff, VI.1.31ff, VII.3.1ff).
If Lucian gives Panthea the wisdom of Aspasia, he takes from the statue of Aphrodite Sosandra ("Savior of Men") by Calamis her modest demeanor, grave half-smile, and simplicity of dress, but not, he says, the veil on her head, which was to remain uncovered (Imagines, IV.19). Located on the Acropolis, the Sosandra of Lucian may be the same statue remarked upon by Pausanias in his Description of Greece (I.23.2).
The veiled head in the Louvre Museum (which, regrettably, is not currently on display) is an example of the Sosandra/Aspasia type, a severe style in which the hair is parted in the middle, descending in long parallel waves to the temples and framing the forehead in a triangular pattern. Conventionally identified as Aspasia, the figure also may represent Europa, from an inscription on a statuette in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Demeter, who also was worshiped as Europa.
A more likely representation of Aspasia is the marble herm pictured above, which is in the Vatican Museums and inscribed with her name on the base. Discovered in 1777, it is a Roman copy of a fifth century BC original and may represent her funerary stele, although the "melon" hairstyle, in which the hair was parted in the middle and pulled back in parallel tresses, was more common later. Often presumed to be beautiful, there is, in fact, no description of Aspasia, who here has an austere, meditative expression..
An unfinished Roman copy of the Sosandra (c. 460 BC), found in the Roman baths at Baiae in 1954 and now in the National Archaeological Museum (Naples), this portrait shows the goddess heavily draped in a long flowing himation over a chiton.
This fragment, which is in the Palatine Museum (Rome), is another example of the type, showing the veiled head and parted wavy hair. It is a Roman copy from the time of Hadrian of a Greek original dating to about 460 BC.
Described as "Athena in classical style of fifth century BC," but sculpted in the first or second century AD, this bust, which is in the Archaeological Museum at Aphrodisias (Turkey), would seem to have the characteristics of Aphrodite Sosandra. In fact, the hair is parted differently and what seems to be a veil presumably is the fragment of a helmet.
References: Aristophanes: Acharnians (1998) translated by Jeffrey Henderson (Loeb Classical Library); Xenophon: Memorabilia and Oeconomicus (1953) translated by E. C. Marchant (Loeb Classical Library); Cicero: De Inventione (1949) translated by H. M. Hubbell (Loeb Classical Library); Quintilian: The Orator's Education (2002) translated by Donald A. Russell (Loeb Classical Library); Aelian: Historical Miscellany (1997) translated by N. G. Wilson (Loeb Classical Library); Plutarch: Pericles (1916) translated by Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb Classical Library); Plutarch: Artaxerxes (1926) translated by Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb Classical Library); Plato: Menexenus (1929) translated by R. G. Bury (Loeb Classical Library); Lucian: Essays in Portraiture (Imagines) (1925) translated by A. M. Harmon (Loeb Classical Library); Cyropaedia (1947) translated by Walter Miller (Loeb Classical Library); Lives of the Later Caesars (1976) by Anthony Birley; Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists (1937) translated by Charles Burton Gulick (Loeb Classical Library); Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (1989) by Anthony Birley; Marcus Junianus Justinus: Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus (1853) translated by the Rev. John Selby Watson.
Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition (1995) by Madeleine M. Henry (see also the review by Robert W. Wallace in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 96.4.7); Xenophon Oeconomicus: A Social and Historical Commentary (1994) by Sarah B. Pomeroy; The Athenian Woman: An Iconographic Handbook (2002) by Sian Lewis; "Axiochus Alkibiadou, Aspasia and Aspasios" (1982) by Peter J. Bicknell, L'Antiquité Classique, 51, 240-250; Art and Experience in Classical Greece (1972) by J. J. Pollitt; The Severe Style in Greek Sculpture (1970) by Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway; The Portraits of the Greeks (1965) by Gisela M. A. Richter.
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