A Modern Madam – Athens, 440 BC

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Painting by Hector Leroux (1682–1740), which portrays Pericles and Aspasia admiring the gigantic statue of Athena in Phidias' studio

She heard the whisper from a mouth covered by a palm. Furtive eyes looked over a delicately manicured hand. “Did you know her name means “Gladly Welcomed”? It’s most likely not even her real but her professional name. Can you imagine that?”

“That’s a laugh,” came the sarcastic female response. “She’s gladly welcomed by all the aristocratic men in the city…welcomed right into their beds!”

Her companion continued in a malicious tone of voice. “It’s said Pericles kisses her before he goes off to the agora each morning. Then, to make matters worse, he kisses her when he arrives back at home in the evening.”

“Well! I’ve never heard of such a thing!”

Her head held high, Aspasia walked on, taking one graceful step after another. It was true that Pericles kissed her each morning before he left for work and that he kissed her when he got back. There was nothing wrong with that, she had decided. Just because other women in Athens were treated as guardians of the household rather than loved wives, didn’t mean Pericles couldn’t treat her with love and respect.

Not only that but the women in Athens were much more restricted in their movements than she was. She, a so-called courtesan, moved in the highest aristocratic circles. The two chatterboxes whom she had just passed had been accompanied by a man, since it was not acceptable for women to walk alone without some form of protection. Yet, here she was, a hetaira, and she didn’t need protection nor to feel the restriction of being escorted if she went outside of her house.

She sighed. A hetaira was an educated courtesan, the nearest thing to an emancipated women in Ancient Greece. They were not only trained to give men intercourse in a sexual way but also were taught to sing, dance and play instruments. Aspasia herself had been better educated than most hetairai (a group of hetaira), but she hadn’t been born in Athens where hetairai weren’t as well-educated as hetairai elsewhere.

She had been born in Miletus, on the coast of Ionia located in Asia Minor and had consequently been given more education than women in Athens. Now, as a leader of hetairai, she taught the young women rhetoric, or skilled discourse, so they could act as intelligent companions to the men they escorted to social gatherings, or symposiums, or drinking parties where men debated political and philosophical issues.

The sun beat down mercilessly on Aspasia’s head. Like many aristocratic women in Athens, she wore her long dark hair pinned up in a jeweled haircomb at the back of her head. Soft curls strayed from it and framed her heart-shaped face. She wore fine gold jewelry, as befitted the wife of a great Athenian leader. He had divorced his first wife five years earlier, even though she had born him two sons, and therefore had been free to marry Aspasia.

The marriage, however, had been an extremely secret affair. It would have done Pericles’ career irreparable harm and pleased his political enemies to no end to know he had married a hetaira, or a call-girl. She had heard the rumors that Pericles was less of a man because he reportedly listened to her political counsel. Aspasia gave him no counsel although she felt women could rule as well as men could. Athenian society kept their women out of the public eye.

They could not enter the army or navy, or become a lawyer or enter into trade or enter the Olympic Games. Women were second-class citizens who acquired the mentality of abject slaves because they couldn’t compete on an equal level with men and face the challenges the outside world, that world outside the walls of home, presented.

Men guarded their wives with a fierce jealousy and rarely considered the concept of love with them. In this sense, Pericles and she were an exception to this unspoken rule. He loved her, had married her secretly to protect his political life … How would that look if his enemies found out he had married her? They would be outraged that such an excellent statesman could marry a woman was not Athenian. Aspasia was simply a free immigrant, an exceedingly beautiful woman with an intelligence rarely found in Athenian women. She couldn’t be faulted for using the intelligence the gods had given her at birth. Even Socrates, a philosopher of the first class, had made it known in a recent symposium, how impressed he was by the way she could hold her own during a political discussion with the leading men of the society.

She rubbed a hand over her slightly distended stomach. Pericles and she would have something else to talk about tonight. She was pregnant and this fact would present problems for both of them.

“I’m pregnant,” Aspasia said to Pericles as they reclined on a couch and ate grapes and sheep cheese. The best way to tell him was to be forthright. That was how she was since she didn’t tolerate simpering female fools.

Pericles stopped chewing even though his mouth was full. His warm brown eyes asked the question but she answered.

“We just weren’t careful enough, I suppose. But I want to give you a son.” She ran a hand through his thick beard, knowing it tickled him. All men in Athens had a fashionable beard.

Pericles finished the food in his mouth. And swallowed. His eyes clouded over with anger.

“How could you let such a thing happen? Do you know what kind of position that puts me in?”

For once, Aspasia held her tongue. She had thought Pericles would have been happy to know she was carrying his child – his son. Something was wrong though. He rarely got angry about anything.

“I just spent six months pushing for the Assembly’s acceptance of a law. Now I have to look the other way while my wife, nay, rather my concubine, a non-Athenian, gives birth to my son and makes a fool of me. Do you know what I proposed?” His eyes glared at her.

“I know,” Aspasia murmured, fixing her eyes on his. It wasn’t for nothing that she was known as a woman who had no fear into entering a political debate.

“Perhaps you didn’t hear about it,” he said as if he hadn’t heard her. “I proposed a law that considers sons with full citizen rights, legitimate only if both the mother and father are citizens of Athens. The Assembly passed this law and now look what I’m confronted with! A non-Athenian woman carrying my son! What will I do to explain this to the Assembly?” He paused to think, his brows knitted together.

As if a storm had blown through and wreaked minimal damage, his shoulders relaxed. “You may have a daughter and then there would be nothing to worry about. We’ll just wait for the outcome of your pregnancy – son or daughter.” With that he got up and stalked out of the room without kissing her as he usually did.

Aspasia fell into a stupor, staring at the plate filled with grapes and the cup filled with white wine. What had made Pericles so angry? She had known about the law but the same way their marriage was secret, the presence of a child could be kept hidden for a little while. Perhaps circumstances would change to allow Pericles to accept his son or daughter.

The plague rampaged through Athens in the year 430 BC. It killed many hundreds of Athenians. Among the list of dead were Pericles’ two sons by his first wife. He mourned their loss for he was now left without a heir, without a son to follow in his footsteps.

That year, Aspasia gave birth to a son, whom Pericles and she named after Pericles. She watched as the great statesman humbled himself in front of the Assembly and requested that citizenship be granted to his young son even though his mother was not an Athenian citizen. Aspasia knew that if his request was granted, her son could hold Athenian citizenship and would also become his father’s heir.

Women were not allowed into the Assembly area but she heard about Pericles’ humble petition from several men who were part of the Assembly. He had made an eloquent speech, telling the assembled leaders that both his sons of a former marriage had been taken by the gods and now he was left without an heir to carry on after him. His petition had been so powerfully emotional and logical, that the Assembly granted his wish. Little Pericles, son of Pericles the Athenian statesman and of Aspasia, the non-Athenian from Miletus, became an Athenian citizen. Aspasia was not to know that after she died, he would become a general but would be executed.

Aspasia became known in Athens as a teacher of rhetoric, a post hitherto held only by men. She burst out of her confines and did what other women in Athens could only dream of as they cooked, spun, and supervised their slaves. It was a form of control for the men to protect their wives by confining them to the house. If a woman dared to leave her house, she was subjected to a type of ostracism and became morally vilified in that she might be carrying on with another man.

If the woman was of aristocratic birth, and was caught in the act of adultery, her protector was called forth to assist her. Adultery was an abominable offense, punishable, in theory, by being killed in the act by a citizen for having sex with his wife. In practice, other punishment was meted out. The true crime was purported to occur against the wife’s husband because ancient Greek culture was predicated on a man’s honor. How could a husband be certain his children were legitimate if his wife had relations with others? Consequently, aristocratic women led a very restricted life.

Aspasia was one of the lucky few who could and did break these confines … but there was a price to pay …

Pericles, and many of his friends were accused of one crime or another in an attempt to gain political control of Athens. Aspasia herself was not immune from this bickering. Athens might have been the crucible of democracy but it didn’t make politicians any less vindictive than they had been in any other period of history.

Around 438 BC, Pericles’ political enemies began attacking him, his friends and Aspasia in the courts of law. Aspasia was charged with impiety and with procuring free women. These may have been trumped up charges, and only Pericles, the accusers and Aspasia could assert the truthfulness of the charges.

For the charge of procuring women, Aspasia knew there were five classes of prostitutes in Athens. There were slaves in brothels; street walkers who consisted of foreign women, slaves and poor Athenian women; dancers at symposiums who made music and pleasured men; concubines who usually entered into long-term relationships and were exempt from being taxed; and courtesans (or hetairai) who high-class and educated.

There was no shame attached to prostitution simply because it was a man’s world and aristocratic women weren’t available for casual sex. Men demanded cheap prostitution to satisfy themselves both sexually and intellectually and so the supply was cheap – usually costing one drachma which was the daily wage of a laborer. Prostitutes who attended symposiums charged two drachmas.

To make matters even less comprehensive to us, there was no shame attached to being heterosexual or homosexual. For an aristocratic Greek man, sex was sex, whether it was with a woman or a young boy. They were not considered two separate categories, as they are now. This lack of distinction might be difficult to grasp but it was there. Ancient Greek society didn’t revolve around gender differences but rather around the predominance of males and the concept of virility. Because a man was a man and a citizen, he had sexual precedence. His needs had to be satisfied.

Athenian women had marriages arranged for them at the age of fourteen. This seems a very early age to marry for us but in Ancient Greece, when the lifespan was between twenty-eight and thirty-two years of age, this can no longer be seen as a discrepancy. It was a hard and cold reality.

Men had a different attitude towards their wives than they do now as well. Some of this has already been discussed in an earlier article. Ancient Greek men believed that the function of marriage was to create legitimate children. The popular saying of the day was “Courtesans we love for the sake of pleasure and concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives we love to bear us legitimate children and be trusted guardians of our household.”

Athenian women had no power outside of the little they exercised within the confines of their homes. In fact the greatest praise a woman could receive was, as Pericles wrote, “the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about, whether for praise or blame”. It is interesting that he said this, having had Aspasia for a concubine or wife (historians are uncertain whether he married her or not, but for purposes of poetic license, it is acceptable to presume they were married). The modern but outdated saying, “Keeping a woman barefoot and pregnant,” probably wouldn’t be far off the mark in male-dominated Ancient Greece.

For the second time, Pericles faced the court but this time, instead of defending himself against the charges of his enemies, he made an impassioned and tearful plea on Aspasia’s behalf and begged for her acquittal. This could not have been easy for the great statesman but it does show the depth of his love for her. She was finally exonerated. Pericles died in 429 BC from the plague raging though Athens.

A year passed. Aspasia entered another unofficial marriage, this time with a sheep seller named Lysicles. He had no schooling but Aspasia gave him the benefit of her experience and knowledge of having been with Athenian politicians. She taught him how to speak in public. Lysicles may have been a member of the group who had led the earlier attacks on Pericles. He became one of the new types of leaders who rose to power after the statesman’s death.

Historians question why Aspasia entered another unofficial marriage with such haste after Pericles died. Many believe she was in need of protection, since a hetaira had neither financial security nor male protection. Her attachment to Lysicles hints at the possibility that she wished to stay involved in politics.

Unfortunately, nothing more is known about Aspasia’s life. Historians do not know when she died, or if she had children by Lysicles. However they do know that Aspasia must have been a strong-willed woman to have been remembered in Ancient Greek history. Perhaps Prince Cyrus of Persia did it best. He gave his favorite concubine Aspasia’s name.