Aspasia (c.470 – c.400BC)
16″ x 20″ oil on canvas
It is believed that Aspasia, who was born in Miletus in eastern Greece to a wealthy family. She arrived in Athens around 450BC. The circumstances that brought her to Athens are unknown. At that time only women of Greek citizenship could marry. Since Aspasia was a foreigner, by law she was not allowed to marry. She became what was known as hetaerae, female companions or courtesans who were highly educated, and because they could not marry, were free to participate in public life.
Aspasia was known for her genius and great beauty. She opened a school of philosophy and rhetoric in Athens and her home became the most popular salon of its time. Leading scholars, politicians and artists including Plato, Socrates and Pericles were influenced by her. During her lifetime Athens became a democratic state and reigned as the intellectual and artistic center of the country.
Pericles (the most prominent and influential Greek statesman, orator and general of Athens during the Golden Age) fell in love with Aspasia, but because she was not of Athenian birth he could not marry her. Aspasia acted as his political advisor and confidante. Eventually Pericles divorced his wife and he lived with Aspasia until his death of the plague in 429BC. Just before his death Pericles enacted a law making his son by Aspasia, Pericles the Younger, an Athenian citizen. Young Pericles became an army general. Aspasia was also instrumental in changing the laws restricting women’s roles in Greek society.
After Pericles death, Aspasia lived with Lysicles, an Athenian general and democratic leader, with whom she had another son. Lysicles died in battle in 428BC. Little is known about the remainder of Aspasia’s life. Most historians give her date of death as c.401BC-400BC.
Only fragments of historical writings remain to tell us about Aspasia. But the fact Aspasia appears in the philosophical writings of Plato, Xenophon, Aeschines Socraticus and Antisthenes is remarkable. Many historians argue that Aspasia seems to have been the only woman in classical Greece who distinguished herself in the public sphere.