Aspasia (as-PAY-shih-uh) was born in the ancient Greek city of Miletus. Her father was named Axiochus; her mother’s name is unknown. Located on the southwest coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Miletus enjoyed a reputation for wealth based on extensive seaborne trade and for philosophic inquiry into the nature of the universe.
The city suffered severely in a Persian attack of 494 b.c.e. It is therefore not surprising that Miletus in 479 joined the Athenian-led league against Persia. The political and military relationship of Miletus with Athens was, however, problematic. For some years after 450, an Athenian garrison occupied the city, and toward the end (after 411) of the long-term war of Athens with Sparta, Miletus was suspected of collusion with Athens’s enemies. Nevertheless, during this same period, several Milesians left their home city to achieve prominence in Athens. Those emigrants included the city planner Hippodamus, the poet and musician Timotheus, and the most famous woman of fifth century Athens, Aspasia.
The surviving ancient sources for fifth century Athenian history do not permit a connected biography of Aspasia. The most reliable sources are a few notices in contemporary Athenian comic literature and several references to Aspasia by Socrates’ pupils (including Plato). Many details are offered by the Greek biographer Plutarch in his life of Pericles in Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 c.e.; Parallel Lives, 1579), but that brief account was written more than five hundred years after Aspasia’s lifetime.
Aspasia must have come from Miletus to Athens before c. 450 b.c.e. She first appears in the historical record about 445, when the prominent Athenian politician and military leader Pericles divorced—under, it was asserted, amicable circumstances—the mother of his two sons. Soon thereafter, Pericles began living and appearing in public with Aspasia. Ancient sources consistently identify her as a hetaera, a Greek term literally meaning “female companion” and used of women (often of slave or freedwoman status and usually of foreign origin) who were sexual, social, and occasionally intellectual nonmarital companions of prominent Athenian men.
Because of her status as a foreign-born, intelligent, articulate companion of Pericles, Aspasia was, throughout Pericles’ later political career, consistently attacked as a malign influence on his public policies and his political and military leadership. She was, for example, viewed by Pericles’ enemies as responsible for his leadership in a war Athens fought with the island of Samos, a traditional rival of Miletus. The Athenian comic poet Aristophanes, in his play Acharnēs (425 b.c.e.; The Acharnians, 1812), which amusingly, but quite seriously, expressed the Athenian longing for a peaceful resolution to military conflicts, represented Aspasia as partially responsible for provoking the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Another Athenian comic poet, Aristophanes’ peer Cratinus, referred to Aspasia on the stage as nothing but a shameless prostitute who influenced Pericles with her sex. A third Athenian comedian, Hermippus, also abused Aspasia publicly and was said to have prosecuted her for impiety in an Athenian court; Pericles, in turn, reportedly offered in court an emotional, tearful defense of his mistress. These legal episodes, however, are almost certainly apocryphal, prompted by later generations’ overly literal readings of Hermippus’s comedies.
All these accusations simply reflect the perceived influence of a woman of independent judgment, education,...