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Aspasia of Miletus - Prisoner of History, by Madeleine Henry

From N.S. Gill,
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Aspasia, Ancient Philosopher and Teacher of Athens

According to Madeleine Henry's work on Aspasia of Miletus, Prisoner of History, an Alcibiades was ostracized from Athens in 460 B.C. This Alcibiades was the grandfather of the far more famous Alcibiades notorious for his behavior during the Peloponnesian War. Once ostracized, Athenians went into exile. Alcibiades (grandpère) may have spent his exile in Miletus, in Ionia (modern Asia Minor), where he met and married the older daughter of Axiochus of Miletus. Ten years later, at the expiration of his sentence of exile, Alcibiades, his wife, and two sons returned to Athens, along with his young, orphaned sister-in-law, Aspasia.

Female Metics and Citizens
During Alcibiades' exile, Athens passed the Periclean Citizenship Law (451/450 B.C.). According to this new law, no children born to a citizen (by definition, a male) with a foreign born (metic) wife could be Athenian citizens. Her children would be considered illegitimate, making her no better than a concubine. The law wasn't retroactive, so Alcibiades' sons from a marriage made before 451 B.C. were counted as legitimate even though their mother was a metic, but since Aspasia, also a metic in Athens, had not been grandfathered into a pre-Citizenship Law marriage, her marriage prospects were suddenly limited.

Career Choices for Women in Ancient Athens
What choices for relationships did Aspasia of Miletus have? To be a concubine? A prostitute? A madam? Aspasia was accused of all of these. But she was thwarted in the normal aspirations and expectations [see Jill Kleinman article] for aristocratic women like herself whose primary responsibility was to produce legitimate offspring. Since Aspasia could not produce legitimate children, there was no reason for any Athenian male citizen [Brian Arkins, 1994. "Sexuality in Fifth-Century Athens," Classics Ireland Volume 1] to marry her. Thus, any sexual relationship Aspasia entered into could be viewed as improper. That she chose to enter into a relationship with the Athenian leader Pericles put her, too, in a position of power, but also a position particularly vulnerable to criticism.

Critics of Aspasia

    "Even Aspasia, who belonged to the Socratic circle, imported large numbers of beautiful women, and Greece came to be filled with her prostitutes, as the witty Aristophanes notes in passing, when he says of the Peloponnesian War that Pericles fanned its terrible flame because of his love for Aspasia and the serving-maids who had been stolen from her by Megarians...."
    Athenaeus - Deipnosophists

    Aspasia, some say, was courted and caressed by Pericles upon account of her knowledge and skill in politics. Socrates himself would sometimes go to visit her, and some of his acquaintance with him; and those who frequented her company would carry their wives with them to listen to her. Her occupation was anything but creditable, her house being a home for young courtesans. Aeschines tells us, also, that Lysicles, a sheep-dealer, a man of low birth and character, by keeping Aspasia company after Pericles's death, came to be a chief man in Athens. And in Plato's Menexenus, though we do not take the introduction as quite serious, still thus much seems to be historical, that she had the repute of being resorted to by many of the Athenians for instruction in the art of speaking.
    Plutarch - Life of Pericles

Next page > Aspasia of Miletus and Greek Comedy > Page 1, 2, 3

Henry, Madeleine M., Prisoner of History

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