Women Writing for Men: Pericle's Funeral Oration by Aspasia

About the Funeral Oration credited to Pericles but probably written by the woman Aspasia of Miletus.

She Wrote It--He Got the Credit

What do Pericle's "Funeral Oration," Homer's Odyssey, and St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews have in common? In all probability they were written by women and credited to men.

Aspasia of Miletus (See Close-Up: Aspasia, following this article) was the author of the noted "Funeral Oration" given by the great Athenian statesman Pericles at the conclusion of the war between Athens and Samos. She was perhaps the most remarkable woman of antiquity--a person of rare intellect and vision. Mighty in her use of the spoken and written word, Aspasia was the mentor of Socrates and other great men: Pericles, Phidias, Anaxagoras, Sophocles, and Euripides. Her unforgettable eulogy honored the young men of Athens who had died in battle. So eloquent and persuasive were her words that Pericles thereby strengthened the people's morale at a crucial time. He had been accused of starting the Samian War upon the entreaty of Aspasia, whose compatriots were at war with Samos. The oration temporarily silenced his enemies and saved his career.

There is no doubt that Aspasia was a powerful political influence in Athens, as well as a gifted rhetorician. The comic poets satirized her hold over Pericles. Plutarch mentions her "knowledge and skill in politics," and regards it as historical that she was reputed to be the instructor of many Athenians--including Pericles--in the art of speaking.

Praising her "goodness, wisdom, and varied accomplishments," H. J. Mozans, in Woman in Science, writes: "She is said to have written some of the best speeches of Pericles--among them his noted funeral oration over those who died in battle before the walls of Potidaea."

Describing her discourses as "not more brilliant than solid," Eliza Burt Gamble, in The Sexes in Science and History, writes: "It was believed by the most intelligent Athenians, and amongst them Socrates himself, that she composed the celebrated funeral oration pronounced by Pericles in honour of those that were slain in the Samian War."

Indeed, if Aspasia had been a man instead of a woman, the "Funeral Oration" would be credited to her as a matter of course because, in Plato's Menexenus, Socrates identifies her as the author, stating that she had composed "the funeral oration that Pericles pronounced." He then gives the text of one of her model funeral orations.

In his essay, Dio, Synesius of Cyrene (5th century A.D.) compares the model oration of Aspasia recorded in the Menexenus and the speech of Pericles, recorded in Thucydides. Both display Aspasia's mastery of rhetoric and interest in politics.

In both orations, we detect a viewpoint consistent with feminine authorship. In Pericles' speech, we may note the defense of culture and refinement, and the claim that an "easy and elegant way of life" is not necessarily antagonistic to bravery in war. The author consoles the younger parents of boys slain in battle by reminding them they might have more children. Widows are advised to behave decorously.

Aspasia's model oration in the Menexenus describes the nation as the "natural mother" of native Athenian youths slain in war. To those of alien birth, their "adopted land" is a "step-mother." The state is reminded of its responsibility to act as guardian and nurse to the wives and children of the dead. Fathers and mothers are consoled with remembrance of their children's bravery. Thus, unlike most Greek funeral orations, these 2 reveal a concern for women; Plato, a liberated philosopher, was not afraid to say that Aspasia wrote them.

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