In a place like ancient Athens where wives were rarely seen outside their homes, their men brought them to a house where they would listen to one of the most educated people of their time. Behind her doors this woman created a sanctuary of intellectual thinking. She was a woman said to equal the mind of Greece’s greatest philosopher; Socrates, but yet, little is heard in the history books about this particular thinker.
Not mentioned in the texts of that time’s more accurate historians, our knowledge of Aspasia’s life is instead riddled with opinions of conflicting gossip from the Ancient Greek men. It may however be a possibility that this great woman was in fact a hetaera; a form of concubine, as the society almost demands her to be such to have lived the free life she seems to have done. But to fill in the blanks and understand Aspasia, we might just discover the clues to how she may truly have lived when we study what we know about Ancient Greece.
The Ancient Greeks may have been famous for its democracy, philosophers, artists, mythology, invention of the Olympic games and important historical figures like Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, but Greece’s take on female equality holds much to be desired. At this specific place in history, democracy and rights were only meant for the few. Women for instance weren’t viewed as citizens therefore had to defend themselves in court and had no right to vote. The unfairness in the society went so far that women weren’t even allowed to leave their husband’s or father’s house, except for when went to religious events. In a country where it was once said that “the best woman was she who was mentioned nothing of, nor good or bad”, we might begin to understand why so little is written about Aspasia.
But the Ancient society gives an even more backward take on equality when we also learn that the only way for a woman to be regarded as free, was if she was a hetaera. The hetaera were required to have a good education as they were to converse fluently on academic subjects with their highly influential lovers; the most powerful men in Greece. To its further privileges holds that this form of prostitute was allowed to leave her house, pay taxes and influenced the men who stood at the very heart of what we know of Ancient Greece today. A freer woman of the time, the hetaera was still not regarded as a citizen, she held no rights to vote, and their ground purpose seems to be that of pleasing a man in every way; from helping him with his political speeches to sex. The hetaera may therefore have been viewed as the politicians’ grandest assistant and pleasurer of that time. It is debatable whether Aspasia was indeed a hetaera, but given the time and place in which she lived, it is likely.
Aspasia’s best feature was her vast knowledge, but at her time she would’ve needed a great education to achieve it. Only the rich afforded a degree and the one Aspasia must have gotten would’ve cost a great deal. Later research shows that she was indeed the daughter of the exiled and wealthy politician; Axiochus, and she grew up in the Mediterranean town of Miletus. It is debatable however how Aspasia came to Athens but the most accepted theory may be that she came to the Greek capital through her older sister who moved there with her Athenian husband, Alcibiades. Even though it holds great difficulty in separating truth from fiction regarding Aspasia, the historian Peter K. Bicknell theorizes that she got to know her future long-time lover, Athens’ big speaker and politician, Pericles, through his close connections to her sister’s family.
According to citizens at the time, Aspasia had a great influence on Pericles, from structuring his highly renowned speeches to even being said to influence his political tactics. Some historians even go to say that Aspasia is the woman who helped Pericles to remain as one of the greatest politicians of Ancient Greece. The two lovebirds were not lawfully allowed to marry though and their only son, Pericles the Young wasn’t viewed as legitimate, therefore wasn’t recognized to vote. In a society where the sole reason for a woman was to give birth to legitimate sons, it stands to show just what kind of devotion Aspasia was given by her lover. Later in their life though the laws were changed which also made their son legitimate.
With the previous sounding like a blissful life I am sad to break the bubble. Just like now, being in the spotlight came with its negative sides as well, and Aspasia and Pericles were often highly criticised. As these good and bad opinions are what we mostly know about Aspasia, it’s indeed hard to tell fiction from facts. Some critics went to the extreme and even claimed that she was the blame for wars which Athens was involved in. Even though many men took their wives to Aspasia’s home to listen to her speeches, the same husbands also claimed that she was talking their wives into pleasing Pericles’ sexual needs.
Whether she was a concubine, a manipulator or war starter one fact still rises above the gossip and that is that Aspasia was indeed one of the greatest women of Ancient Greece.