Aspasia of Miletus (/æˈspeɪʒ(i)ə, -ziə, -ʃə/; Greek: Ἀσπασία Greek: [aspasíaː]; c. 470 - c. 400 BC) was an influential metic woman in Classical-era Athens who, according to Plutarch, attracted the most prominent writers and thinkers of the time, including the philosopher Socrates, to her house, which became an intellectual centre in Athens. Socrates described her as a skilled teacher of rhetoric. She was the companion of the statesman Pericles, with whom she had a son, Pericles the Younger, but the full details of the couple's marital status are unknown. Aspasia is mentioned in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and others.
Although she spent most of her adult life in Greece, few details of her life are fully known. The ancient sources about Aspasia's life are scant, of often of questionable reliability and contradictory, with some portraying her as an intellectual luminary, rhetorician, and philosopher and others portraying her as a brothel keeper or hetaera. Aspasia's role in history provides crucial insight into understanding the women of ancient Greece. Very little is known about women from her time period. One scholar stated that, "To ask questions about Aspasia's life is to ask questions about half of humanity."
Origin and Early Years
Aspasia was born in the Ionian Greek city of Miletus (in the modern province of Aydın, Turkey). Little is known about her family except that her father's name was Axiochus. It is apparent that she belonged to a wealthy family, because only the well-to-do could have afforded the excellent education that she received. Her name, which means "the desired one", was not likely to be her given name.
Some ancient sources claim that she was a Carian prisoner-of-war turned slave; these statements are generally regarded as false.
It is not known under what circumstances she first traveled to Athens. The discovery of a fourth-century grave inscription that mentions the names of Axiochus and Aspasius has led historian Peter K. Bicknell to attempt a reconstruction of Aspasia's family background and Athenian connections. His theory connects her to Alcibiades II of Scambonidae (grandfather of the famous Alcibiades), who was ostracized from Athens in 460 BC and may have spent his exile in Miletus. Bicknell conjectures that, following his exile, the elder Alcibiades went to Miletus, where he married a daughter of a certain Axiochus. Alcibiades apparently returned to Athens with his new wife and her younger sister, Aspasia. Bicknell argues that the first child of this marriage was named Axiochus (uncle of the famous Alcibiades) and the second child was named Aspasios. He also maintains that Pericles met Aspasia through his close connections with the Alcibiades household.
Later years and death
In 429 BC, during the Plague of Athens, Pericles witnessed the death of his sister and of both his legitimate sons from his first wife, Paralus and Xanthippus. With his morale undermined, he wept and not even Aspasia's companionship could console him. Just before his own death, the Athenians allowed a change in the citizenship law of 451 BC that made his half-Athenian son with Aspasia, Pericles the Younger, a citizen and legitimate heir, a decision all the more striking in considering that Pericles was the one to have proposed the law confining citizenship to those of Athenian parentage on both sides. Pericles died of the plague in the autumn of 429 BC.
Plutarch later cites Aeschines Socraticus, who wrote a dialogue on Aspasia (now lost), to the effect that after Pericles's death, Aspasia lived with Lysicles, an Athenian strategos (general) and democratic leader, with whom she had another son; and that she made him the first man at Athens. Lysicles was killed in action on an expedition to levy subsidies from allies in 428 BC. That dialogue ended with the death of Lysicles.
It is not known whether Aspasia was alive when her son, Pericles the Younger, was elected general or when he was executed after the Battle of Arginusae. The time of her death that most historians give (c. 401–400 BC) is based on the assessment that Aspasia died before the execution of Socrates in 399 BC, a chronology that is implied in the structure of Aeschines' Aspasia.