Aspasia; an impious prostitute?

Wearing a saffron outer garment and her hair modestly veiled, Aspasia stands with Perikles and admires the Parthenon (west) frieze where Pheidias points out relevant details. So did Lawrence Alma-Tadema depict Aspasia in 1869 in his oil painting, Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon. She is not depicted here as a hetaira but as Perikles’ mistress; she is a respectable woman (with veiled hair), except that perhaps the saffron dress – the colour of sexuality for the ancient Greeks – hints at her status. And she is not portrayed as out of place in what is – or will become – the temple of Athens’ virgin goddess, Athena herself. Whether this painting accurately reflects the historical situation or not remains to be seen.

Aspasia was from the Greek city of Miletos on the Asia Minor coast, probably coming to Athens in 451 BC or the following year. In the surviving ancient portrait of her, she is respectable, with her hair partly covered; it has been suggested that this herm is a copy of a funeral monument, which could account for her serious expression. She was said to have been involved in the philosophic discourses of her time, and Perikles’ admiration and attraction to her may well have been primarily (though not necessarily exclusively) intellectual rather than sexual.

Routinely, modern historians describe her as a hetaira, but there are no real grounds for this description, as she is not once described by the ancient sources as such. She was a free non-Athenian woman, who lived with Perikles at Athens after he divorced his wife, by whom he had had two sons (Paralos and Xanthippos). By Aspasia, Perikles had Perikles (Junior), who was made a citizen by special decree in 430/29; his father’s citizenship law of 451/0 provided that only those with two Athenian parents could be citizens.

It is highly probable, on the basis of a funerary inscription, that the elder Alkibiades was married to Aspasia’s sister, whom he may have met in Miletos during his period of ostracism from Athens.

Antisthenes and Aischines (not the orator), pupils of Socrates who was sentenced to death in 399 BC, each wrote a Socratic dialogue entitled Aspasia. Antisthenes wrote that Perikles went in and out of Aspasia’s house twice a day to greet her, and wept more when speaking on Aspasia’s behalf in the courts when she was prosecuted for impiety (asebeia) than when his own life and property were in danger, and brought about her acquittal through his tears.

Plutarch also gives the charge as that of impiety, with Hermippos the comic poet as the prosecutor, who further accused Aspasia of procuring free women for Perikles’ sexual gratification. This charge is reflected in the previous gossip that he had his way with the citizen women who came to the acropolis to admire the work of the artist Pheidias on the Parthenon.

The motivation behind her trial for impiety was presumably political in nature, in line with the prosecutions of another two of Perikles’ associates – Pheidias for embezzlement, and Anaxagoras for impiety. Plutarch dates the trial of Aspasia to about the same time as the prosecution of Pheidias, c. 438–436 BC, and it probably occurred at approximately the same time as Diopeithes’ decree that those who didn’t believe in the gods or who taught scientific theories about the heavens were impious, which was obviously aimed at Anaxagoras.

Simply because Hermippos was a comic poet does not mean that there was an imaginary scene in a play in which Aspasia was prosecuted for impiety, and that later authors reading this play thought that there had been a real trial for impiety. The evidence for an impiety trial is quite contemporary: Antisthenes and Aischines. Her involvement in numerous philosophical discourses with the Socratic circle and the extremely strong tradition of her as a Socratic interlocutor make it probable that Aspasia was tried about her notions concerning divinity, whatever these might have been: perhaps they were similar to Anaxagoras’.

That she was tried for impiety because she had entered the Parthenon is unlikely. In addition, the inscribed lists of dedications from the Parthenon list a woman named Aspasia as having dedicated a gold tiara; and this is probably (but not certainly) Perikles’ Aspasia.

Thucydides, a great admirer of Perikles, does not mention her once, and the first literary reference to her is in a play (written c. 440–430 BC) by Kratinos, who refers to her as a ‘dog-eyed’ pallake (pallake kynopis), a concubine; as a metic and non-Athenian woman, her status as Perikles’ sexual partner could be nothing else.

Aspasia was said to have influenced Perikles’ political decisions, such as Athens’ war against Samos, the enemy of Miletos, Aspasia’s hometown, this anecdote being first found in the writings of Duris of Samos. She was also (in Aristophanes’ Acharnians, produced 425 BC) the cause of the Peloponnesian War that convulsed the Greek world from 431 to 404 BC.

Eupolis referred to her as Helen, a clear reference to Helen’s role in causing the Trojan War and Aspasia’s in the Peloponnesian. The Athenian ideal of the decorous wife, encapsulated by Perikles’ own advice in his Funeral Oration as recorded by Thucydides, meant that Aspasia could not have been popular in Athens.

In Eupolis’ Demes, produced in 411 BC, Perikles asks, ‘Is my nothos (illegitimate son) alive?’ and is told, ‘Yes, and he would have been a man long ago, except for the evil of having a porne as a mother.’ After Kratinos’ probably correct reference to her as a pallake, Eupolis, his younger contemporary, referred to her after her death as a porne.

As we have seen, this was a pejorative term for a lowclass, cheap prostitute, and clearly was used posthumously to attack Aspasia’s reputation. Aspasia, in modern parlance, was Perikles’ ‘de facto wife’ but could never aspire to legitimate marriage. There is no reason to doubt that she made a dedication to the virgin goddess in the Parthenon; and her reputation (and/or Perikles’ position) led to an impiety trial, not because of her sexual status, but as an attack on her lover.

Aphrodite Hetaira

prostitute
Picture: Aphrodite Hetaira

Philetairos in a play referred to there being a shrine (hieron) to ‘the Companion’ (Hetaira) everywhere, but that there was none to ‘the Wife’ (Gamete) in all of Hellas. This ‘Companion’ was Aphrodite Hetaira as she was called by the Athenians. But Apollodoros in his On the Gods argued that Aphrodite Hetaira referred to the less specific meaning of hetairoi and hetairai, as ‘friends’, and that Aphrodite Hetaira brought friends of both sexes together; Athenaeus adds that Sappho called her friends hetairai.

Hesychius mentions a shrine at Athens where male and female hetairai, friends, went; Philetairos is limiting the meaning of hetaira in order to make a comic point, and this cult was not one concerned with prostitutes.

The Magnesians celebrated the Hetairideia festival, because Jason, when he had formed the band of Argonauts, sacrificed to Zeus Hetaireios (Zeus of the Companions); the Macedonian kings also celebrated the Hetairideia. Ephesos also had a temple dedicated to Aphrodite Hetaira. But Aphrodite Porne – Aphrodite the Whore – did have a shrine at Abydos: the legend was that a porne, common prostitute, had brought freedom to the city, and in gratitude the city founded the temple to the goddess.

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