Common Errors (10): Aspasia

Aspasia (Archaeological Museum of Izmir)

Aspasia (Archaeological Museum of Izmir)

Aspasia was the lover of the Athenian politician Pericles. Born in Miletus, she was a metic, a non-Athenian living in Athens. In the later 430’s, when the politicial opponents of the elder Pericles (a/o Hagnon) tried to accuse him of impiety, Aspasia was also mentioned as someone acting impiously, but she was not convicted. After the death of her lover in 429, Aspasia lived together with his friend Lysicles, but this affair was ill-fated: her second lover was killed in action during a campaign in Caria in 428/427.

This is all we know. Although the philosopher Aeschines, a pupil of Socrates, wrote a dialogue that was titled Aspasia (now lost), no author has ever written about Aspasia herself. If she is mentioned, it’s because she was Pericles’ partner. She is in fact a historical unperson.

Still, she is mentioned several times. In Athenian comedies, she is called a harlot and a brothel keeper and is supposed to have had great influence on her husband’s policy. In 425, Aristophanes parodied the prologue of Herodotus‘s Histories, suggesting that the Archidamian War had broken out because a group of Megarians had taken away two girls from Aspasia’s brothel (quote).

Compared to the way Aristophanes portrayed Cleon, Euripides, and Socrates, the comedian is kind towards Aspasia. But that does not make these remarks reliable biographical information. They were meant to strike at Pericles, who, it is suggested, shared his lover with other men, something that was considered to be a stain on his honor. And a man without honor, it was believed, could not command an army or lead the city.

The remarks also tell something about the Athenian contempt for a metic woman who seems to have played a role in the cultural life of her adopted hometown. “Seems”: although several sources portray Aspasia as a woman of great intellectual powers who “taught Pericles how to speak” (and was, therefore, a philosopher and an orator in her own right), this is again parody. Any Greek politician was believed to have learned the tricks of the trade from someone else; making Pericles the pupil of a woman was again a form of mud-slinging.

So we are left with a rather disappointing conclusion: nothing is certain about Aspasia. She was the lover of Pericles, and that is all we know.


Madeleine M. Henry, Prisoner of History. Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition (1995)

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One Response to Common Errors (10): Aspasia

  1. Have you considered the meaning of her name?

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