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Ancient Greek Courtesan Aspasia as a Feminist Heroine

Aspasia and Pericles
Ancient Greek Courtesan Aspasia as a Feminist Heroine: Then and Now. Credit: Patrick Gray / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Aspasia was born in Greece in the fifth century BC. She and Pericles, the great general and politician, fell deeply in love.

By Yvonne Korshak

What else is known about her? Not a lot. And yet she was famous in her own time, the memory of her survived the long years of history, and in our time, she is a feminist heroine, an iconic independent woman, so much so that she inspired me to write a novel to bring her to life: ‘Pericles and Aspasia: a Story of Ancient Greece’.

Aspasia, the Greek courtesan whose influence on and love affair with General Pericles shaped the Golden Age

Born in Eastern Greece in the city of Miletus, as a young woman Aspasia sailed across the Aegean Sea and, rounding Cape Sounion, arrived in Athens. There she met Pericles, a general, aristocrat, and political leader. He fell in love with her so deeply that, apparently, he divorced his legitimate citizen wife to live with her without compromise, as if she were his wife. Well, there was some compromise—he never married her, a tension that plays out in my novel. There is no need to be concerned about Pericles’ wife, though: she married the richest man of that time in Athens, whom she loved.

Aspasia and Pericles had a son, Pericles the Younger, and bearing a child to Pericles presented Aspasia with a new goal: according to Athenian law, for anyone to be counted as a citizen, both parents had to be citizens, and since Aspasia was not born in Athens, citizenship for Pericles the Younger was ruled out. Undaunted, Aspasia set her mind to achieving valued Athenian citizenship for her son, and eventually she succeeded.

The drama of Aspasia’s link with Pericles is particularly intense because, on first arriving in Athens, her social status was very low. She worked as a hetaira (“courtesan” or “companion”). In addition, even though she was Greek, the Athenians considered her “foreign” because she came from another city. Superficially, Aspasia didn’t have a lot going for her, and yet she had personality traits that attracted the most important man in Athens, Pericles, a brilliant thinker and achiever, and leader of the Athenian democracy.

When they met, Pericles was in his late 40’s and she was in her late teens or early twenties. She lived with Pericles until he died in 429 BC, a victim of the famous plague that occurred near the start of the Peloponnesian War. A year later, she married another general, Lysicles, but soon after that, he was killed in battle. Aspasia lived for twenty-five or so years after Pericles’ death and in that time, she saw their son grow to manhood and, like his father, become a general.

The teacher of Socrates

Aspasia conversed with great philosophers, artists, and other leading men of Athens and, though not everything they write about her is accurate, they took her seriously. There is a strong tradition that she was a teacher. According to Plato, she instructed none other than Socrates in the art of public speaking! Others describe her as an expert in matchmaking and on harmonious relationships in marriage. She was a woman whom men listened to: Aspasia mattered in Athens at a time when women generally lived secluded lives, under the thumbs of their male relatives.

For the Aspasia of my novel (Pericles and Aspasia: A Story of Ancient Greece) some of her most thrilling moments are when she has the joy of seeing that people are listening to what she has to say and learning from her.

Did Pericles learn from her? Surely, he did. Plato, speaking through the voice of Socrates in one of his dialogues, went so far as to credit Aspasia with composing Pericles’ speeches. Plato probably implies this to discredit the oratorical skills of Pericles, the great democrat—Plato was not friendly to the Democracy. Still, for the claim to have weight among Athenians, Aspasia must have been known as a wise, learned, and articulate woman. And these are qualities that Pericles, who loved learning, must have appreciated.

There is a remarkable disconnect between what we know of Aspasia and of Pericles’ undeniable devotion to her, and what he says about women in his famous funeral oration for the victims of battle during the first year of the Peloponnesian War. While these are not Pericles’ exact words, it is his speech as remembered and interpreted by the historian Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War.

Pericles gives this advice to the widows: “Your great glory is not to be inferior to what God has made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you.” “Least talked about by men”…… was Pericles staving off the threat to social cohesion from what, then, was thought of as women’s excessive grief? Or, although a far-reaching visionary, was he conventionally -minded where women were concerned—other women, that is. His Aspasia was an exception. Love does that.

Because “least talked about by men” —that was certainly not Aspasia. While some allude to her wisdom and learning, others speak of her in less complimentary ways. Her relative freedom, in comparison with other women in Athens, and her liaison with Pericles, made Aspasia a target of mockery and lewd allusions. The comic playwrights of Athens slandered her, claiming, for instance, that she used her influence on Pericles to involve the Athenians in two different wars, all for her personal benefit.

Aspasia and Pericles weathered the slanders, and their love endured.

Aspasia was educated, but most women of her time were not—many could not read or write. While women were limited to spending their days in “the women’s quarters,” she moved with relative independence among men and contributed her own ideas to their thinking. There is a tradition, though somewhat uncertain, that she taught women and girls. Aspasia stands like a sculpture in high relief against the background of secluded women living constrained lives.

The time of Pericles was one of astonishing cultural creativity in Athens, but it was also rife with paradoxes. Athens was a democracy, yet the Athenian workforce included slaves, usually captives of war. Citizens participated in the democracy, listening to Pericles and other orators in the Assembly and voting—one man, one vote: yes, it was a democracy, for male citizens. While Aspasia could converse with philosophers, she could not attend the famous Athenian theater of Dionysos in which the first great plays of western culture were produced: women were not allowed.

For a feminist today, some aspects of Aspasia’s life might not be exemplary. To a degree, her fame rests on her association with Pericles. She could do what other women could not do partly because he was a power in his city and in a position to protect her. She enjoyed the benefits of an enriched life made available by a sexual union with a rich man. But we must view Aspasia within the context of her time.

When women were expected to lead narrow, confined lives, Aspasia was strong in the face of obstacles, courageous in the face of slander, unabashed by fame, persistent in moving toward her goals, unafraid to reveal her intelligence, and worthy of being influential. And moving beyond her own challenges and the advantages she was able to create for herself, she was a teacher, enabling the lives of others including, it seems, of women and girls. As a woman of her time and within the limits it presented, she is a role model for women today faced with obstacles on the path to achieving what they see as good and worthy in life. And she is an inspiration.

Find Yvonne Korshak’s book “Pericles and Aspasia” here.

About Yvonne Korshak

Yvonne Korshak received her B.A. with honors from Harvard University, Masters in Classics and Classical Archaeology and PhD in Art History from the University of California, Berkeley. As a professor at Adelphi University, she has taught Art History and topics in the Humanities, served as Chair of the Department of Art and Art History, Director of the Honors Program in Liberal Studies, and Director of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute.

She has written and spoken widely on topics of Greek art and archaeology and on European painting, particularly on van Gogh, Courbet, and David. Her blog, “Let’s Talk Off-Broadway,” focuses on art and theater.

She has excavated at Old Corinth, Greece, and has visited almost all the cities, towns, landscapes, and seascapes in Greece—and what today is Turkey—that figure in Pericles and Aspasia.

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