Aspasia and the Life of a Foreign Woman in Ancient Greece

As Plutarch was writing about the Athenian statesman Pericles, he was amazed by “the great art or power this woman had, which she used to please the leading men of the state.” Aspasia is the woman Plutarch talks about.

Aspasia’s house was the intellectual centre of Athens. It was frequented by the most famous writers and thinkers of the time, such as the philosopher Socrates. Pericles thought she was very smart in politics, but that wasn’t the only reason he liked her.

Socrates sometimes went to see her with his students and friends, who then brought their wives to see Aspasia and hear what she had to say. Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes, among others, all wrote about how good Aspasia was at talking to people and giving advice. In short, Aspasia was known for a lot more than being Pericles’ mistress and a beautiful woman.

Bust of Aspasia at the Vatican museum
Bust of Aspasia at the Vatican museum, By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium, CC BY-SA 2.0,

But there is of course a different side to all these praises. When it was said that Aspasia wrote the epitaph that Pericles read, which would have been a big deal for women today, Pericles would have been embarrassed. The fact that the words were written by a woman instead of a man, a foreigner instead of a citizen, and a mistress instead of a wife would have been seen as a way to insult and humiliate him. The more attention was paid to Aspasia, the less powerful and manly Pericles was seen to be.

Being a foreign woman in Ancient Greece

Aspasia was a Metic woman who was born around 450 BC. She was not a citizen of Athens, so she did not have the rights that citizens usually have in the city-state where she lived. In ancient Greece, it wasn’t unusual for people like Aspasia to be from somewhere else. At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 432 BC, there were about 25,000 male metics living in Attica alone. This was about a third of the total population of the polis. About half of the free people in Athens, which was the largest city in ancient Greece at the time, were Metics.

In ancient Athens, metics were seen as less important than other people. But it doesn’t look like this was because of a lack of money or other economic problems. Instead, it seems to have been a cultural thing. Some metics were poor artists, merchants, or former slaves, while others were some of the richest people in the city. Metics couldn’t become citizens of Athens unless the city-state gave them citizenship as a gift, which didn’t happen very often. So, a metic in Athens could be fully involved in the social and economic life of the city, but they had no part in the political life and running of the city.

"The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia" by Nicolas André Monsiaux, 1800
“The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia” by Nicolas André Monsiaux, 1800

Metics also shared the responsibilities of being a citizen, but they didn’t get any of the benefits. Like any other citizen, they had to serve in the military and pay the eisphora (a special tax) and tax services, such as paying for a warship or a tragic chorus, just like wealthy Athenians. Metics also had to pay an extra tax called the metoikion. This tax was set at twelve drachmas per year for metic men and their families and six drachmas per year for metic women who lived on their own.

Even though they had the same access to the courts as people born in Athens, metics were not allowed to vote or serve on juries. Metics, unlike citizens, could also be made to go through judicial torture, and killing a metic was not as bad as killing a citizen. Metics could also be forced into slavery for a wide range of crimes, such as not paying their metoikon, not naming a citizen sponsor, or contaminating the citizen body by saying they were citizens or marrying a citizen of the city-state.

Aspasia would have had to deal with these rules because she was a metic living in Athens. She couldn’t marry an Athens citizen, so she lived with Pericles as a concubine and gave birth to a son also named Pericles.

Portrait of Aspasia by Marie-Geneviève Bouliar, 1794
Portrait of Aspasia by Marie-Geneviève Bouliar, 1794

But Aspasia’s status as a foreigner also freed her from the laws that kept married women at home and let her take part in public life in Athens. Unlike traditional Greek women of the time, she was free to learn and go to school. As the owner of her own house, which Plutarch called a “house of ill-repute,” she was free to have friends and supporters over without the rules that married Greek women had to follow.

Ancient writers and comic poets said that Aspasia ran a brothel and was a prostitute. This was likely to be slander aimed more at making fun of Pericles, who was the most important person in Athens at the time. Another thing that made people laugh was that Pericles couldn’t marry Aspasia because of a law about citizenship that he had passed himself just before he met her. This meant that he had to live with her as an unmarried man.

So Aspasia was a courtesan. What then?

Even though later historians have argued about Aspasia’s work as a courtesan, it is still helpful to look at Plutarch’s claim that Aspasia was a courtesan and owned a house of young courtesans to see how Aspasia would live as a metic in Athens and find a way to thrive there.

Prostitution was legal in Athens as long as it wasn’t done by people who lived there. So, prostitutes would have been either slaves or people who didn’t believe in God. There was a difference between a regular pornê (a woman who can be bought) and a hetaera (companion). The hetaera was a type of courtesan who was usually more skilled and often better educated than the Greek wives and daughters who stayed at home.

Aspasia on the Pnyx by Henry Holiday (1839–1927). Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre.
Aspasia on the Pnyx by Henry Holiday (1839–1927). Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre.

Aspasia would probably have been a hetaera if she had been a courtesan. In a society where men usually married later in life and not because they were in love with uneducated, isolated women from citizen families, the role of the hetaera may have been natural and a good fit for women with more education and life experience.

In his book “The Dialogues of the Courtesans,” written in the second century AD, Lucian tells us what it would have taken to be a successful courtesan. He writes, “She dresses well and looks neat; she’s happy with all the men, without being as ready to cackle as you are, but smiles in a sweet, bewitching way;… she’s very smart when they’re together, never cheats a visitor or an escort, and She doesn’t drink too much when she gets paid to go out to dinner. She eats quietly and doesn’t stuff her face with food. When she drinks, she doesn’t gulp it down, but instead takes small sips every so often. She also doesn’t talk too much or make fun of anyone in the company. She only cares about her customer. These are the things that men like about her.”

“She dresses well and looks neat; she’s happy with all the men, without being as ready to cackle as you are, but smiles in a sweet, bewitching way;… she’s very smart when they’re together, never cheats a visitor or an escort, and She doesn’t drink too much when she gets paid to go out to dinner. She eats quietly and doesn’t stuff her face with food. When she drinks, she doesn’t gulp it down, but instead takes small sips every so often. She also doesn’t talk too much or make fun of anyone in the company. She only cares about her customer. These are the things that men like about her.”

Lucian, “The Dialogues of the Courtesans”

Since they couldn’t marry a citizen, a hetaera’s best chance was to charm a patron or patrons with her wit and beauty in the hopes that they could help her financially or use their power to help her. If the hetaera had been a slave, she might have hoped to win enough money to buy her freedom. Young men in Athens would have been told not to waste their money on a beautiful woman. This tension between what people thought was the greed of the hetaerai and what they thought was the ruinous love of Athenian men would have given gossips and scandalmongers a lot to talk about and set the stage for how people thought Aspasia and Pericles’ relationship worked.

Aspasia's salon. Details of fresco over portal of main building in University of Athens, Greece
Aspasia’s salon. Details of fresco over portal of main building in University of Athens, Greece

Alciphron writes in the voice of a courtesan in a collection of letters that are supposed to have been written by Athenians in the fourth century BC. He says, “…one of the main tricks of those who practise our profession is to keep putting off the moment of enjoyment and to keep their lovers in their power by raising hopes.”

“…one of the main tricks of those who practise our profession is to keep putting off the moment of enjoyment and to keep their lovers in their power by raising hopes.”

Alciphron

Athenaeus describes the hetaera’s seductive power by asking, “Is not a “companion” nicer than a married wife?” Yes, a lot more, and for good reason. Because the law protects the wife, she stays at home with pride and disdain, while the harlot knows that she has to buy a man with her charms or go find another one.” Demosthenes explained the difference between the roles of a hetaera and a wife in his speech at the trial of the courtesan Neaera. He said, “For this is what it means to live with a woman in marriage: for a man to have children with her and give his sons to his clansmen and people from his district, and to give his daughters as his own to their husbands. Mistresses are for fun, concubines are for taking care of our bodies every day, but husbands and wives are for making children and taking care of the home.”

"Aspasia" by Eugène Delacroix, 1824
“Aspasia” by Eugène Delacroix, 1824

For all of these depictions of the hetaera, almost none of them were from Athens, because girls in Athens were never taught to have lives outside of their immediate families when they were young. So, if Aspasia was a cortesan, she would have used her wit and charm to set herself apart from the Greek wives. She would have been well-educated, so this would have been easy for her to do. She would have used whatever skills she had to stay alive and get noticed by the powerful men she hung out with, who would then make her his mistress or concubine, protect her, and take care of her needs.

Scapegoating the foreign companion of Athen’s leading citizen

The Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopaedia, says that Aspasia was “smart with words” and that she was a sophist who taught rhetoric. Diogenes Laertius says that Socrates’ students Antisthenes and Aeschines both wrote about Aspasia. Athenaeus, on the other hand, says that “most philosophers tend to be more rude than funny poets.”

When Plutarch says that Pericles kissed Aspasia every day, both when he left and when he came back, he was probably trying to show that Aspasia was Pericles’ mistress. If Aspasia had been a good wife, Pericles wouldn’t have been so sweet to her. Athenaeus tells us in his book Deipnosophistae that Pericles has wasted most of his money and property on her. Antisthenes is clearly against Aspasia when he says that Pericles met “the wench” twice a day and defended her against accusations of immorality by crying “more tears than when his life and property were in danger.”

"Pericles and Aspasia in the studio of Phidias" by Louis Hector Leroux, 19th century
“Pericles and Aspasia in the studio of Phidias” by Louis Hector Leroux, 19th century

Some ancient authors wrote bad things about Aspasia because she was attractive and had too much power over Pericles and his politics. They may have done this to make Pericles seem less manly. For example, Cratinus calls her a “dog-eyed concubine,” and Eupolis, who lived at the same time but was younger, calls her a whore and a mother a bastard.

Hermippus says that she got Pericles women who were born free. Athenaeus says that she also brought in a lot of beautiful women, so that the whole country was full of her courtesans. In his first play that we still have, The Acharnians, which was written in 425 BC, Aristophanes says that she even started the Peloponnesian War.

Even before the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), Pericles, his wife Aspasia, and some of his closest friends were attacked personally and in court. Aspasia was put on trial for asebeia, which means impiety. The funny poet Hermippus was in charge of the case. Aspasia was from Miletus, and she was especially disliked in the years right after the Samian War.

Vienna, Schönbrunn gardens, statue Aspasia as Minerva
Vienna, Schönbrunn gardens, statue of Aspasia as Minerva

In 440 BC, Samos and Miletus were at war. They were fighting over Priene, an old city in the foothills of Mycale that was once part of Ionia. The Milesians went to Athens to plead their case against the Samians and ask for help. When the Samians didn’t want the Athenians to step in and tell the two sides to stop fighting and bring the case to Athens for a judge to decide, Pericles sent an expedition to Samos.

The campaign turned out to be hard, and the Athenians had to lose a lot of people before they could beat Samos. Plutarch says that Aspasia was to blame for the Samian War because Pericles decided to attack Samos to make her happy.

Bust of Pericles wearing a Corinthian helmet. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original.
Bust of Pericles wearing a Corinthian helmet. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original.

Aristophanes blames Aspasia for the Peloponnesian War by saying that the Megarian decree of Pericles, a set of economic sanctions put on the city of Megara around 432 BC by the Athenian Empire that stopped Megara from trading with Athens or its allies, was a response to the Megarians stealing the prostitutes that Aspasia liked.

Aristophanes’s idea that Aspasia started the war with Sparta on her own may have been influenced by what happened between Miletus and Samos in an earlier story. Douris agreed with this point of view. He also said that Aspasia started both the Samian and Peloponnesian Wars.

At the start of the second year of the Peloponnesian War in 430 BC, a plague hit Athens and killed Pericles’s two sons from his first marriage. Soon after this, Pericles asked for an exception to the law so that his son with Aspasia could be recognised as his own and become an Athens citizen. This permission was given because of how powerful Pericles was.

 Pericles died of the plague the next year, and Aspasia quickly found another protector in Lysicles, an Athenian general with whom she had another son. In 428 BC, Lysicles was killed in battle while on an expedition. With Lysicles’ death, the records of Aspasia’s time come to an end.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s