Biography and History of Ancient Greek Poet Aspasia of Miletus

About the ancient Greek female poet Aspasia of Miletus, her biography and history.

She Wrote It--He Got the Credit


Of Aspasia's physical attractions little is known, except that her hair was golden, that her voice was silvery, and that her foot was agreeably small. It is thought that she posed for her friend Phidias when he created his Athene of the Parthenon. Socrates admired her eloquence. And it is said that she wrote several of Pericles' orations, notably the memorable funeral address he made at the outset of the Great Peloponnesian War.

She was born in Miletus, managed a brothel in Megara, and arrived in Athens in 450 B.C. to conduct a school for elocution and philosophy, intended principally for young ladies. It is possible that she continued to run a brothel as a sideline. At any rate, Socrates, Anaxagoras, and Euripides joined the ladies attending her classes. When Pericles, the high-domed dictator of Athens, also attended and was enchanted, Aspasia's future was made, and she forthwith withdrew from the profession of teaching to resume her role of courtesan.

It is thought that Pericles was 40 years old, and Aspasia 25, when they met. He was at the height of his popularity. He had partially democratized Greece, and ennobled its culture. He was married, keeping a courtesan from Corinth, and he had 2 adolescent sons. Now he discarded both his wife and his Corinthian to devote his full energies to his new mistress, who was already pregnant by him. Having arranged another marriage for his former wife, Pericles brought Aspasia into his house. Since she was not an Athenian citizen, he could not marry her. But he willed his fortune to their son, Pericles II, and soon neglected his followers and the council hall for her caresses.

Pericles' enemies, and even some of his supporters, resented Aspasia, and especially the part she played in political affairs. They conspired to destroy her. Led by one Hermippus, a playwright, they accused Aspasia of impiety toward their gods, and of acting as a procuress who supplied young freeborn Athenian ladies to satisfy Pericles' lust. The trial was held in 432 B.C., before a jury of 1,500 men, and Aspasia, as a foreigner, was not allowed to speak in her own defense. When Pericles realized that the evidence was going against his beloved, and that the penalty would be death, he appeared to defend her in person. Though known for his phlegmatic, judicial, aloof manner, Pericles opened his heart to the jurors. His voice quavered with emotion. He broke down and wept. And the jurors, irrationally moved, voted for acquittal.

But Aspasia's detractors were not done. Aristophanes, who detested her, held her responsible for instigating the costly Peloponnesian War. He insisted that she was still in the brothel business, that 2 high-spirited officers from Megara had kidnapped 2 of her most valued prostitutes; and that, as a result, she had urged Pericles to attack Megara. While it is more likely that Pericles had started the conflict to secure his control of the Aegean Sea, popular feeling against Aspasia mounted.

When Pericles pulled his citizenry behind the walls of Athens, hoping that his navy might be sufficient to bring about victory, misfortune struck in the form of a plague. One out of every 4 Athenian soldiers died, and Pericles lost his 2 legitimate sons. When the war ended, Pericles was accused of having bought the peace through misappropriation of funds from the public treasury. He was convicted and fined over 1/4 of a million dollars. Nine years later he was back in power. One of his 1st acts was to force the legislature to legitimize his son, Pericles II, by then an Athenian general. Shortly after, Pericles was dead in his 60s. As for Aspasia, a month later she was consoling herself with a wealthy sheepdealer named Lysicles.

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