Aspasia de Mileto: Biography of the Beautiful Hetaira

Aspasia de Mileto was a teacher of rhetoric and lore, seems to have been the only woman in classical Greece who distinguished herself in the public sphere. Being a free and independent woman, unlike an Athenian wife, also meant that she was attacked, ridiculed and vilified.

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Aspasia de Mileto was a Greek woman who lived in the 5th century BC. The name of Aspasia means “the beautiful welcome”. He was born in Miletus, as were some of the early Greek philosophers such as Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. At 20, he left his hometown and moved to Athens.

It is known that she was a beautiful and intelligent woman; it is believed that it was his father who started prostitution, but unlike the pornai (prostitutes destined for vulgar men and without wealth), Aspasia de Mileto had a great intellectual formation, therefore, it became part of the heteras or hetairas (women of much culture, very respected for their wisdom).

The data about the life of Aspasia are somewhat uncertain, although its name appears in the works of authors such as Plato or Aristophanes. Aspasia had a strong influence on the political and cultural life of Athens, especially as a result of his relationship with Pericles.

The name of Aspasia not only appears in texts of the Antiquity, but also in works of modern time, especially, as inspiration for some romantic authors of the XIX. It is difficult to trace his biography, since most of the things we know are based on the assumption. Even so, we invite you to discover the importance of this woman from Ancient Greece.

Life of Aspasia de Mileto

When Aspasia moved to Athens, he began to run a brothel, which was visited by men from the most important circles of the city; among its visitors were: Socrates, Anaxagoras and Governor Pericles. Of the latter, it is said that he fell in love with her and made her his lover, leaving his wife legitimized by her.

This act provoked, in many comedians of the time, the pointing towards the couple and, as a consequence, Aspasia de Mileto was the victim of ridicule. The poet Hemipo forced her to appear before the courts under double charge: impiety and debauchery. But Pericles helped her not to be condemned, obtaining the forgiveness of her judges.

From the union of Aspasia and Pericles was born Pericles II, of whom it is said that Aspasia besides being his mother was a teacher. When he was widowed, he married Lisicles, it is said that, from this marriage, Poristes was born.

“Jealously guard your right to reflect, because even the act of wrong thinking is better than not thinking at all.”

-Hypatia of Alexandria-

Being a woman in Greece

Several contemporary authors cited her in their texts, there were those who judged her by her profession and others who remembered her because of her beauty, her intelligence and her ability in the arts of the word. Aspasia de Mileto was a very important woman in Antiquity, but under what conditions did she achieve this recognition?

The first thing to answer is what life was like for Greek women. The truth is that there were many obstacles for women and they found numerous restrictions and prohibitions in the polis. The women did not have civil rights, their tasks were limited to the care of the house and the education of the children. They were excluded from public life and only left the houses to attend large parties. It is possible that, in Miletus, the situation was somewhat different and they enjoyed more freedom than in Athens.

Being a woman meant being part of someone, being someone’s possession; The more courage the man possessed, the more women he had the right to have, that is, they were seen as a kind of “prize” or recognition to the male.

“Love has been the opium of women, like religion of the masses. While we loved, men ruled.”

-Kate Millet-

The labels of Aspasia de Mileto

Besides being a woman, Aspasia had to live with another label: being a foreigner. For the Athenians, foreigners could not, like women, participate in the decisions of the city. Our protagonist gathers in her person both conditions, two forms of alterity in a society based on the predominance of the male. However, in the case of Aspasia, thanks to her foreign status, she had an educational training different from that of the Athenians, she grew with greater freedom and culture.

Aspasia de Mileto, despite being a woman and foreigner, did not stick to the tasks assigned to her, but she developed some of the tasks associated with men.

Aspasia de Mileto carried a new label: hetaira. But, despite what one might think, this label was not negative, but the hetairas were the only women truly free. They could go out, they participated in the banquets next to the men, they even “received at home” if they were lucky enough to be maintained by a powerful man. They were the exception of the conditions for women in Athens and had a very marked difference with respect to the legitimate wives of men.

The hetairas, as far as training is concerned, were far above married women, therefore, politicians and philosophers considered them to be good interlocutors. Aspasia de Mileto was special among the courtesans, as she had the confidence of many intellectuals and important men.

This work cost him a lot of criticism, but thanks to it he rubbed shoulders with the most important men of the time, for example, Socrates, who frequented his services and recommended his disciples to study with her.

“He who knows how to think, but does not know how to express what he thinks, is on the same level as he does not know how to think.”


A great speaker

The hetairas were deeply instructed in rhetoric or oratory and Aspasia was no exception. It is said that Socrates was fascinated by his intelligence. His figure could draw Plato’s attention to the capacity of women, when they were educated outside the narrow limits that Athenian instruction had provided for them.

Thanks to this ability, she obtained some recognition and conquered Governor Pericles, who felt for her not only eroticism, but also love. It is said that he left his wife legitimized and made Aspasia his illegitimate wife or concubine because of his status as a foreigner.

The comedians of the time, like Aristophanes, critically pointed out that it was Aspasia who wrote the speeches of Pericles and who influenced the politics of her husband. For example, in a battle between Mileto and Samos, the Ionian city got preference.

After the death of Pericles, he took as his mistress the cattle dealer Lisicles, a vulgar man who, thanks to her, managed to play an important political role in Athens for some time. Demonstrating, thus, his ability in political relations and his influence to reach power with the word.

What do we know about his speeches?

Studying the role of women in Ancient Greece implies facing the absence of textual evidence of their work. Therefore, we must trace the history of their lives, almost always immersed in the testimonies relative to other thinkers and, sometimes, of dubious reliability.

“The language, the word, is one more form of power, one of the many that has been forbidden to us.”

-Victòria Sau-

In a sample of his rhetorical speech, he asks Xenophon and Filesia if they would prefer the husbands of their neighbors if they were better than their partner. When no one answers, she responds “if both wish to have the best husband and the best wife, both wish to be the best husband and the best wife, respectively.”

Here you notice, clearly the pleasure to please with the word. This rhetorical composition is not an argument that expresses logical truth, but it is a discourse that pleases the ear and invites effort in the coexistence of the couple. Something similar happens with the Pericles Funeral Speech, which was presented to people close to those killed in battle, and Aspasia confuses uniting virtuous things with real things without virtue.

Feminist figure

Aspasia de Mileto was one of the most emblematic figures of 5th century BC Greece, whose characteristics did not fit the traditional role of the woman who in Athens was considered a “good” and “honest” wife. The only role of the woman was to be the shadow of her husband and to go unnoticed. His image contrasted with that of most Athenian women of the second half of the fifth century BC. C.

Aspasia was a leading figure in the cultural sphere of democracy in Athens, played a key role in the birth of the emancipation of women. With her lessons to the new young Athenians, she led to the future intervention of these women in the public life of the city, as well as through her speeches, in which she vindicates, in a discreet way, the dignity of women.

This allows us to perceive, for the first time, the feminine in history, making Aspasia de Mileto the main representative of another way of interpreting Pericles’ Athens, showing that there was room for women.