4/11/2008

Woman of the week - Aspasia

Name: Aspasia
Born: Miletus, a Ionian colony in Asia Minor, date unknown
Dead: Probably Athens, date unknown
Married to: None, but mistress (?) to Pericles
Children: Pericles the younger
Occupation: courtesan (?)

Most facts about this woman is unknown, or legends that has an unknown foundation in reality. She is famous for being the the woman living with the Athenian states-man Pericles. 

Aspasia came from Miletus to Athens in 450 B.C. where she lived as a metic, or resident alien. To be one of the Athenians you had to have Athenian parents. We do not know how she met Pericles, one of the most famous Athenian states-men - or much else about her for that matter. It is believed that she became Pericles mistress in the early 440's and we know the couple had a son, Pericles the younger - who later became a general and was executed after the battle of Arginusae. And we know that Aspasia was alive at the death of Pericles in 429 B.C.

The general assumption, based on later sources, has been that the couple was not married, but later scholars have sometimes questioned this. If she really was from Miletus and therefore not a citizen this would have been likely, given the fact that Athenian citizens couldn't (legally) marry women who were not citizens. But it can also be a step in defaming Aspasia by making her less important, less of a good Athenian woman. And it would serve as a suitable joke on Pericles, the man who was behind the laws that prohibited Athenians from marrying people from other cities (even including other Greek states).

Most of what is known of Aspasia comes from later sources, many aimed at criticizing Pericles, and that makes it hard to determine what is really true about her life, and what was written as rhetoric arguments. She is pictured as everything from the perfect wife to a harlot having a brothel in her own home, as a sophist that taught rhetoric to and a woman who used her beauty to trap unsuspecting men. 

And the reality is that we do not know what really is the truth about her. 

Other things we do not know is when she died since the historical sources (as scarce as they are to start with) loose sight of her with the death of Pericles. There are some that claim that she later became the mistress of another Athenian statesman, Lysicles, and that she gave birth to children in that relationship - but we do not know for sure.

The bust of Aspasia is a Roman copy in marble, based on a Greek original from Hellenistic times - that is, this picture really shows nothing of what she looked like, and is more of an image of an idea of who Aspasia was. 

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