(b. circa 470 B.C.E., Miletus, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey); d. circa 410 B.C.E., location unknown)
Aspasia of Miletus was a scholar and philosopher whose intellectual influence distinguished her in Athenian culture, which treated women as second-class citizens during the 5th century B.C.E. She used her status to open a school of philosophy and rhetoric, and she is known to have had enormous influence over such prominent leaders and philosophers as Pericles, Plato, and Socrates.
As she was from Miletus, Aspasia was able to circumvent the legal restrictions on Athenian women, who lacked the most basic rights and were sheltered from public life. Whereas the majority of Greek women were illiterate, and would never have been welcomed into the philosophical and academic circles associated with Plato and Socrates, Aspasia arrived in Athens in the mid-440s B.C.E. as an educated woman, schooled by her father, Axiochus. She established an academic center for the exchange of ideas, which served as a school for elite young women in Athens.
Aspasia’s writing, and her knowledge of philosophy and local politics, drew the most powerful citizens in Athens, including notable writers and thinkers, to listen to her lectures. Aspasia was acclaimed for her intellect and charisma, and Socrates, in his writings, credits her as his instructor in rhetoric. Though none of Aspasia’s own writings exist, many of the most famed ancient Greek scholars have featured her in their texts, acknowledging her as their muse.
Aspasia is commonly remembered for her romantic relationship with Pericles, the leader of democratic Athens. As his mistress, and the reputed reason for his divorce, Aspasia was also an objectionable figure to many Athenians, who believed she had too much political influence. Pericles and Aspasia were never married; she lived as his companion and was consulted as an equal. Socrates and Plato both noted Aspasia’s influence, which was evident in Pericles’s resounding oratory style and in the composition of his legendary 430 B.C.E. Funeral Oration, the chief ceremonial component of a funeral ritual commemorating those who had died in the first year of the Peloponnesian War.
Aspasia at The Dinner Party
In her place setting, Aspasia is represented through elements commonly found in the art of ancient Greece. Her plate shows a blooming floral pattern, suggestive of her femininity, and done in earth tones used in the art and architecture of 5th century B.C.E.
The runner references the types of clothing and jewelry that both men and women wore during Aspasia’s time. One of the most familiar elements of ancient Greek attire, the Greek chiton (similar to a Roman toga) is suggested in the draped fabric on the front and back of the runner. Two embroidered leaf-shaped pins hold the draped fabric to the runner, similar to the jeweled clasps the Greeks would have used to fasten their robes.
On the back of the runner are six black palmettes, embroidered as a stylized version of a honeysuckle or palm tree frond, a dominant motif in Ancient Greek paintings, pottery, and architectural detail. The floral vine pattern, stitched in gold, silver, and black on the runner’s edges, mimics motifs found on many Greek vases and urns. This pattern is also repeated in the illuminated letter “A” on the front of the runner.
Plato: Menexenus. Xenophon: Memorabiliai and Oeconomicus. Aeschines Socraticus and Antisthenes: Aspasia (fragments).
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Fornara, Charles W., and Loren J. Samons II. Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Henry, Madeleine Mary. Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Just, Roger. Women in Athenian Law and Life. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.
Keuls, Eva C. Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
Levine, Caroline, trans. Children of Athena: Athenian Ideas about Citizenship and the Division Between the Sexes by Nicole Loraux. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Lunsford, Andrea A., ed. Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press;1995.
Winkler, John J. Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Desire in Ancient Greece. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.
Place Setting Images
Related Heritage Floor Entries
PBS : “The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization”
PBS : “The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization” : Aspasia