The More You Know: Aspasia of Miletus

The Golden Age of Greece is a time period most well known for the flourishing of arts and sciences. The magnificent Parthenon was erected as both a pious symbol to the gods, and as a symbol of the wealth and superiority of Athenian culture. You may know of the general Pericles, who ushered democracy into Athens and of Thucydides and Herodotus – historians who recorded the greatness as it happened.  I could go on and list other names: Socrates, Hippocrates, Aristophanes – but you get the point. The Golden Age of Greece got its name from all of the great minds that existed during that time, despite the fact that Athens, and other surrounding Greek city-states were experiencing political unrest. However, political unrest didn’t disrupt the flourishing of the arts and sciences, until the Greek world was plunged into the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC.

Aspasia of Miletus is a name you should know if you’ve familiarized yourself with Classical Athenian history.  If you quickly search for her on Google, you may find a heap of resources designating her as “Aspasia, Pericles’s Lover,” or “Aspacia, The Concubine.” These titles do well with tying her to Pericles, because she was, in fact, his mistress. But that’s not all she was.

Aspasia of Miletus was a foreigner to Athens. She lived in the Ionian colony of Miletus, a village on the Western coast of Anatolia prior to emigrating to Athens. It’s not extremely clear how she met Pericles, but the two were an almost inseparable pair, according to their contemporaries. Because Aspasia wasn’t considered an Athenian woman, she enjoyed more freedom than her peers. She was often credited, mostly by critics, as influencing Athenian politics and poisoning Pericles’s mind with her feminine wiles.

It’s highly likely that Aspasia came from wealth, as she is known to have been extremely educated and influential. She was such a significant presence in classical Athens that her contemporary critics even criticized her for instigating wars between Athens and other Greek city-states.

Playwrights, and socratic writers had a lot to say about Aspasia, the lover of Pericles. Although most of what was said was misogynistic and negative, it’s clear that Aspasia was a central figure in Athens, socially and politically. She’s said to have given marital advice to the likes of Xenophon, called upon by Socrates himself, and to have even advised these men on rhetoric.

Even though Aspasia lived and interacted with many great men from the Golden Age of Greece, her name is one that rarely pops up. This isn’t a surprise, given Greek (especially you, Athens) attitudes toward women, and the historical biases of 19th century European men. Next time you get into a conversation about Classical Greece, don’t forget to mention Aspasia of Miletus!

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