Aspasia - The Real-Life Helen of Troy? An Inspirational Courtesan’s Tale
Aspasia, who lived in ancient Greece during the fifth century BC was both admired and infamous in her time. But the truth does not lie in between: hers is a life worthy of admiration. Born in the city of Miletus on the east coast of the Aegean, Aspasia sailed west across the sea – a brave venture in those days, arriving in Athens in the early 440’s BC during the city’s Golden Age. And there began her life of infamy and intrigue.
Pericles and the Democracy of Athens
Athens, under the leadership of Pericles, was near the height of its wealth and power and in the midst of an astonishing burgeoning of cultural creativity in the arts, philosophy, and politics. There, Aspasia made her living as a hetaira (“prostitute” “courtesan”). Perhaps an unpromising beginning, but Aspasia was exceptional in ways that led her to great heights of experience and influence.
While in Athens – and likely at one of the famous Athenian symposia or drinking parties - she encountered the man who was a general, a statesman, and leader of the Athenian democracy : Pericles. He fell in love with her, and with that begins one of the great love stories of the centuries.
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With an irony that has been repeated elsewhere in history, Pericles was born an aristocrat and became leader of the Athenian democracy—the first large scale democracy of all time.
He fell in love with Aspasia so deeply that 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, Pericles and Aspasia .
Why did this man, at the top of the social hierarchy, fall so in love with Aspasia that he was willing to risk the political fallout to his reputation for integrity and morality by leaving his legitimate citizen wife for a hetaira? And a foreign woman at that, at a time when being foreign further lowered one’s place on the Athenian social ladder? Why was he willing to hazard what mattered most to him for Aspasia?
On one level, in seeking reasons for so passionate a love, one can only turn to the words in the song, “Who can explain it, who can tell you why?” (“One Enchanted Evening”). But with all due respect for that eternal mystery, Aspasia was a woman of exceptional wit and charm. It was also important that at a time when women received little education, Aspasia, for reasons that are not known, was well educated and well read, which must have heightened her allure for Pericles, who loved learning.
Women in that period lived secluded lives and were kept under the thumbs of their male relatives. Aspasia was unique in that she was independent minded and moved freely in the world of men, and Pericles loved the unique. And, as the philosopher Plato and others indicate in their writings, Aspasia was a woman of outstanding perspective and judgment. While navigating his way through Athenian politics, and the challenges of the complex Athenian alliances with other Greek cities, Pericles must have loved her perspicacity and benefited from her counsel.
This painting from the 1670s, by Michele Corneille the Younger, shows Aspasia surrounded by Greek philosophers. ( Public Domain )
When Aspasia and Pericles had a son, Young Pericles, Aspasia faced a new challenge. It is an irony that, a few years before he met and fell in love with Aspasia, Pericles had passed a law in the Athenian democratic Assembly that prevented anyone from being a citizen of Athens unless both his parents were citizens. Since Aspasia had come from Miletus, citizenship for Young Pericles seemed impossible. Undeterred, Aspasia set her mind to achieving valued Athenian citizenship for her son, and eventually she succeeded.
But all did not go smoothly for Pericles and Aspasia. Their liaison was the great scandal of the Golden Age of Athens, and knowledge of it reverberated through history down to our own time.
Insults fell upon Pericles and Aspasia from the satirical, and no-holds barred world of Athenian comic plays. Cratinus, the first Athenian comic playwright, began the anti-Aspasia vitriol in a play called Cheirones where he called her a woman born of “Shameless Lust” and said she was “a dog eyed concubine.”
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The Slander of Aspasia Begins
In 431 BC, the Peloponnesian War of Athens and her alliance against Sparta began. The war gave the comic playwrights a whole new way to vilify Aspasia. They referred to her as the new Helen of Troy —that alluring and notorious woman on whose lovely shoulders Homer placed the blame for war in the Iliad and the Odyssey . Cherchez la femme!
Aristophanes, the most famous Athenian comic playwright, in his play Acharnians, concocted an absurd and salacious set of events that pointed the finger of blame at Aspasia for causing the Peloponnesian War. Eupolis, Aristophanes’ younger contemporary, followed suit. His name and some titles of his plays are better known to us than the plays themselves, which have come down to us through fragments. Nevertheless, it is clear that Eupolis referred to Aspasia as “Helen” in his first comedy, Prospaltians, and went on to mention her by name and made other allusions to her in three more comedies. And so it continued in works by other comic poets.
Like the great Athenian tragic plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and others, the comedies were performed at festivals before live Greek in the amphitheater dedicated to the god of wine Dionysos situated on the south side of the Athenian acropolis . How did Pericles feel when he attended the production of Cratinus’ Cheirones, hearing the vulgar allusions to his beloved Aspasia and endured hearing his own character vilified and himself referred to as a “tyrant.” All this he would have had to withstand while seated in full view of 17,000 of his fellow Athenians. It must have been a grueling test of self-control.
Aspasia would not have been in the Theater of Dionysos with Pericles—women did not attend the theater at this time—but she would surely have known what happened there, as would all Athenians in this face-to-face society. A constant concern for Aspasia would have been fear that the public ridicule and aspersions cast on her liaison with Pericles would harm his standing among the Athenians and weaken him politically. He must have worried about that, too. And she likely feared as well that, facing those political risks, Pericles might abandon his relationship with her. But Pericles’ love did not falter. In spite of the scandals, the liaison between Aspasia and Pericles endured.
Pericles died in 429 BC, probably of the plague that struck Athens early in the Peloponnesian War, so he would not have heard most of the anti-Aspasia and anti-Pericles “jokes” that continued in the Athenian theater, but they would have been well known to Aspasia.
About a year after the death of Pericles, the Athenian general Lysicles became Aspasia’s protector or possibly her husband, but Lysicles died soon after in battle. Aspasia and their son named Pericles lived in Athens amidst the slanders to nearly the end of the century.
The Debate Of Socrates And Aspasia by Nicolas-Andre Monsiau. ( Public Domain )
And then there is the “good” Aspasia.
In striking contrast to the negative view of Aspasia in comedy, there is an alternate and vastly contrasting historical memory which sees her as a woman of admirable personal qualities—and luckily, it is this tradition that shapes the view of Aspasia in our time.
Aspasia, according to many accounts in classical literature, conversed with the greatest artists and philosophers and other leading men of Athens’ Golden Age , and although not everything they wrote about her is accurate, it is clear they took her seriously.
For Aspasia in my novel, Pericles and Aspasia , some of her most thrilling moments are when she has the joy of seeing that people are not only listening to what she has to say, they are learning from her.
The strong historical tradition that views Aspasia as a highly intelligent, wise and exemplary woman is fortified by none other than the philosopher Plato—that most influential author of western thought. Plato credits Aspasia with being intelligent, literate, astute, and a skilled instructor of the art of speaking in public.
In his philosophical dialogue Menexenus, written after the death of both Pericles and Aspasia, Plato dramatizes a conversation between the philosopher Socrates and his friend named Menexenus. Socrates, in this dialogue, recites an oration that he claims he learned from Aspasia . It is the type of speech that honors Athenians killed in battle and recalls a famous funeral oration that Pericles had given at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War. Responding to Menexenus’ enthused response to Aspasia’s recounted speech, Socrates promises to recite for him even more speeches composed by Aspasia—she seems to have had quite a portfolio!
Plato’s motives for his characterization of Aspasia and her brilliance in oratory are worth considering. It is likely that he was fostering a view of Aspasia as skillful in teaching oratory to discredit the oratorical skills of Pericles, the great visionary of democracy - Plato, an elitist, was unfriendly to Athenian democracy. Still, for the claim to have a meaningful impact among his readers, Aspasia must have been known as a wise, learned, and articulate woman.
Other authors near to the Socratic circle describe Aspasia as an expert on matchmaking and on harmonious relationships in matrimony—again in striking contrast to her characterization in the comic plays.
Will the “real” Aspasia please stand up?
To a large degree, Aspasia’s fame in the historical tradition rests on her association with Pericles. She could do what other women could not do, partly because he was in power in his city. The benefits of the rich cultural life of Athens were available to her partly through her union with a wealthy and important man.
But let us view Aspasia within the context of her time. When social norms confined women to narrow, confined lives, Aspasia engaged actively and effectively with the culture around her. She was strong in the face of obstacles, courageous in the face of slander, unabashed by both fame and notoriety, persistent in moving toward her goals, unafraid to reveal her intelligence, and worthy of being an influence on the most important man of his time. And beyond her own challenges and the advantages she was able to create for herself, she was a teacher, supporting the goals of others. She is an inspiration.
Top image: El Pedagogo, Aspasia y Pericles, by José Garnelo , 1893. Source: Public Domain