Aspasia of Miletus – queen of the Athenian salon

Unfairly maligned in her lifetime, Aspasia of Miletus, wife of Pericles and friend to philosophers, was a remarkable woman in her own right.

An 1858 engraving of Aspasia of Miletus by Francis Holl.
An 1858 engraving of Aspasia of Miletus by Francis Holl. Credit: Getty Images.

Aspasia is perhaps the best known and the most unfairly misrepresented woman in classical Greek antiquity. She lived in Athens during the so-called Golden Age of the fifth century BC, when that city under the leadership of the ambitious general Pericles grew to be the vibrant centre of a maritime empire that stretched across the Aegean, dominating hundreds of poleis (city-states). Aspasia was to become Pericles’ beloved companion and adviser for over a decade, but she was not an Athenian by birth: she had been born in Miletus, a city-state in Ionia (on the western coast of modern Turkey), which for a century had been the intellectual hub of the ancient Greek-speaking world. Nothing certain is known about Aspasia’s early life in Miletus, and much of her biography must be pieced together from various sources and conjectures; but her later trajectory suggests that she was no stranger to the intellectual currents of her native city. 

Miletus had been founded by Athenian and other Greek settlers around 1000 BC, and grew to be a flourishing cultural and commercial centre. Milesian thinkers of the sixth century BC such as Thales and Anaximander were credited (by Aristotle among others) as being the first philosophers. These men applied their minds to speculation about matters outside the run of daily life: to questions about the origins of the cosmos, the nature of time, and the prime elements of the natural world. In the course of the sixth century BC, Miletus succumbed to Persian imperial domination, and eventually (after a failed revolt) was destroyed wholesale in 493 BC, with its surviving inhabitants forced to flee into exile. Fourteen years later, in 479 BC, the invading Persians were repulsed from Greece, and life started to return to the restored city.

Among the returnees was Aspasia’s father Axiochus, whose lineage may be traced to that of an Athenian aristocratic family called the Alcmaeonids (of which Pericles was a member). Around a decade later, in 470 BC, Aspasia was born: the meaning of her name in Greek – ‘welcome’– may indicate that her birth came as an unexpected joy. Growing up, she evidently acquired the kind of literary and philosophical education (denied to most Greek women) that enabled her to become a fluent speaker, eloquent thinker, and admired teacher. Athenians associated intellectual pursuits and rhetorical ability, which they considered suspect, with non-Athenians whom they classed as xenoi (‘foreigners’), whose luminaries – men such as Protagoras and Gorgias – they gave the title of ‘sophists.’ Such attributes in a woman, however, were almost unthinkable. They would have been looked on with distaste by Athenians, who tended to think of ‘honest’ wives as home-makers and mothers with no call on or right to intellectual aspirations. 

When she was about 20, Aspasia emigrated to Athens in the company of her sister, who was married to an Athenian aristocrat (also an Alcmaeonid) and politician called Alcibiades. Ten years earlier, in 460 BC, Alcibiades had been the target of the procedure known as ostracism, whereby a quorate vote by Athenian citizens led to the expulsion from Athens, for a ten-year period, of an unpopular or politically embattled figure. He had left for Miletus with his wife and family; and they returned bringing with them his wife’s sister, the beautiful and clever Aspasia, most likely with a view to finding her a high-class match. At 20, however, Aspasia would have been considered past her prime to make an honourable marriage, as Athenian girls were usually betrothed in their early teens. 

As both a woman and a foreigner, Aspasia’s intellectual abilities were bound to raise eyebrows among Athenian men and women. They generally associated such qualities with a more disreputable class of women, courtesans (hetairai). The latter lived a far more liberated life than house-bound Athenian women, which naturally tended to make them more interesting and sought-after companions for educated married men than their own wives. But Aspasia was not shy to flaunt her unusual eloquence and, not least, emotional intelligence. She established in her home (or that of Alcibiades) a therapeutic practice aimed at advising elite Athenian men and women about human relationships, in particular about love and marriage. In this she could cite the example of an Athenian sophist, Antiphon, who had set up a ‘talking cure’ in the city of Corinth with the aim of advising and consoling the bereaved.

According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, among those who visited Aspasia’s salon was the young Socrates, who was closely contemporary in age to Aspasia. At this stage of his life, Socrates had not yet developed a fully-fledged philosophical personality. The son of a wealthy stoneworker, he was training to be a hoplite (heavy-armed) soldier, and he was attending the lectures of sophists who promoted their speculations about time, the universe, and physics. Socrates shared with Aspasia, however, a fascination with the mysteries of human relation­ships and conduct, which offered a more feasible path for philosophical examination than abstruse physics, and one that he was wholly to follow in his later philosophy. 

Clearchus (a pupil of Aristotle) states that Aspasia and Socrates ‘had a relationship’ before Aspasia became a companion of Pericles. As both cut unusual figures in Athens – Aspasia with her foreign background and uncommon intellect, and Socrates with his mental condition that made him hear voices as well as his rejection of the paths of political or financial success that were open to him to pursue – they may have been drawn together by a mutual sense of being different to those around them. Socrates’ pupil Plato clearly had Aspasia in mind when he constructed the figure of ‘Diotima’ (otherwise unknown and unattested, but the name means ‘honoured by Zeus,’ and ‘Zeus’ was Pericles’ common nickname) in his dialogue Symposium. Diotima is described as a ‘clever’ woman with the eloquence of an ‘accomplished sophist,’ who was visited by Socrates on several occasions so that she could instruct him on the topic of love (Eros).

Socrates’ famous claim was that ‘all he knew was that he knew nothing’; but in the case of love, he says, he did know the truth – because he learned it from Diotima. The doctrine of love that Diotima expounds in the Symposium proposes that love starts with physical attraction to another body, and then proceeds to an attraction to many bodies; but that it then moves upwards (as if on a ladder) to ethically higher forms of love (hence the term ‘Platonic’ love). A lost dialogue with the title Aspasia by a pupil of Socrates (Aeschines), quoted by the Roman orator Cicero, preserves a scenario that took place in one of Aspasia’s salons: in it, Aspasia too argues for a similar ethical, rather than physical, focus in relationships between man and woman, as being the basis for a successful marriage.

One of the higher forms of love remarked on in Plato’s Symposium is patriotic love. Aspasia may have felt that she was doing a service of love to her adopted city of Athens when in 445 BC, around five years after her advent there, she entered into a relationship with Pericles and moved to his home as his wife. Pericles had been divorced for many years from his first wife, and was smitten by Aspasia, who at 25 was just half his age; the unusual public affection he bestowed on her (‘he embraced her every morning and evening on leaving and returning to his home’) was noted by contemporary observers. But Pericles found himself in a quandary, because only six years earlier, in 451 BC, he had pro­posed and carried a law in the Athenian Assembly with the aim of discouraging marriages between Athenian men and non-Athenian wives: it decreed that the children of such a union would not receive Athenian citizenship. He appealed to the Athenians, successfully, to reverse the law in the case of his own son by the Milesian Aspasia, Pericles Junior.

However, Pericles had also acquired enemies and detractors over the period of his roughly 30-year ascendancy in Athenian politics. Aspasia’s entry on to the scene infuriated his foes. The comic playwrights of the day, whose plays reflected political raillery from the viewpoint of conservative Athenians who despised populist politicians such as Pericles, hurled insults and vituperation at the couple. In surviving comic passages, Aspasia is called a ‘whore,’ ‘brothel madam,’ and ‘mother of a bastard,’ and reviled for her allegedly malign influence over Pericles (who successfully proposed a censorship law in 439 BC, though it was repealed shortly afterwards). In particular, she was accused of instigating Pericles to conduct an expedition by land and sea against the island of Samos (a trade rival of her native city Miletus), leading to a bitter ten-month campaign in 440-39 BC that ended with the island’s bloody subjugation. Nine years later, in 431 BC, the Athenians again went to war, this time with Sparta, as a result of a number of proxy disputes, including one with the neighbouring city of Megara. The greatest comic play­wright of the day, Aristophanes, lampooned Pericles in his comedy Acharnians for having started the war (the ‘Peloponnesian War’) to appease his ‘brothel madam’ Aspasia, allegedly because some Megarians had ‘run off with two prostitutes’ from her bordello.

Absurd and avowedly comedic though such scenarios are, they have been taken at face value for centuries. However, two sober contemporary biographers of Socrates, Plato and Xenophon, portray Aspasia as only a respect­ed teacher of eloquence and expert on matters of human relationships. Neither says anything about her being a ‘prostitute,’ and not a single ancient source calls her a hetaira. That term has been attached to her by subsequent writers uncomfortable with the more pejorative appellations applied to her by comedians, but unprepared to recognise the truth of her reputable portrayal by Plato and Xenophon. Plato’s dialogue Menexenus claims that Aspasia was instrumental in composing the famous ‘Funeral Speech’ preserved by the words put into Pericles’ mouth by the historian Thucydides. If so, she was certainly a woman of extraordinary eloquence as well as influence; but not in the way the comic plays depict her.

After more than 15 years together, Aspasia lost Pericles in 429 BC when he succumbed to the plague of Athens. The following year she remarried a man called Lysicles, who was a general, perhaps known to the late Pericles as a fellow officer. Lysicles too is lampooned by the comedians as a ‘sheep-dealer,’ no doubt to suggest his low mercantile associations and Aspasia’s grasping character (sheep-dealing may simply have been a visible source of his wealth). Lysicles died the following year on active service in Phrygia, leaving Aspasia a widow for the second time. 

Thereafter we hear nothing more of Aspasia. She might have remarried again; and she might have lived to see Socrates executed in 399 BC. But her figure hovers over one sad historical episode, the execution of her son Pericles in 406 BC, after his joint command of the Athenian fleet at the naval battle of Arginusae. Although it was an Athenian victory, a storm prevented the generals arranging to collect the dead bodies, and the furiously grieving Athenians voted to execute the ten commanders en masse. It was a dubious procedure, and the President of the Council tried hard but unsuccessfully to persuade them it was illegal not to try the commanders individually. That president was Socrates, serving in the only civic office he ever undertook in his whole life. Perhaps he had been persuaded to stand for office so late in life only because Aspasia, the woman he had once loved (‘with a passion’, according to the third-century BC poet Hermesianax), had reached out to him, begging him to do what he could to spare the life of her son.


Armand D'Angour