Novel Set In Ancient Greece Features Real Life Historical Feminist Figure Defying Social Customs

By Yvonne Korshak

Her name was Aspasia. She lived in ancient Greece in the 5th century BC, over 2,600 years ago, and her father’s name was Axiochos. What else is known about her? Not a lot. And yet she was famous in her own time, the memory of her survived the long years of history, and in our time she is a feminist heroine, an iconic independent woman, so much so that she inspired me to write a novel to bring her to life—’Pericles and Aspasia‘. 

Born in Miletus, a city in East Greece (today Turkey). Aspasia came to Athens as a young woman where she met Pericles, a general, aristocrat, and political leader. He fell in love with her so deeply that, apparently, he divorced his legitimate citizen wife to live with her without compromise, as if she were his wife. Well, there was some compromise—he never married her. (No worries about the wife Pericles divorced; she married a man she loved who was the richest man in Athens.)

Aspasia and Pericles had a son, Young Pericles, and bearing a child to Pericles presented Aspasia with a new goal: according to Athenian law, for anyone to be counted as a citizen, both parents had to be citizens, and since Aspasia was not born in Athens, citizenship for Young Pericles was ruled out. Undeterred, Aspasia set her mind to achieving valued Athenian citizenship for her son, and eventually she succeeded. 

The drama of Aspasia’s link with Pericles is particularly intense because, on first arriving in Athens, her social status was very low. She worked as a hetaira (“courtesan,” “geisha,” “companion). In addition, even though she was Greek, the Athenians considered her “foreign” because she came from another city. Superficially, Aspasia didn’t have a lot going for her, and yet she had characteristics of personality that attracted the most important man in Athens, Pericles, a brilliant thinker and achiever, and leader of the Athenian democracy.

When they met, Pericles was in his late 40’s and she was in her late teens or early twenties, and she lived with Pericles until he died in 429 BC, a victim of a famous plague. A year later, she married another general, Lysicles, but soon after that, he was killed in battle. Aspasia lived for twenty-five or so years after Pericles’ death and in that time, she saw their son grow to manhood and, like his father, become a general. 

Aspasia was on a conversational basis with great thinkers, artists, and other leading men of Athens and, though not everything they write about her is accurate, they took her seriously. The philosopher Plato depicts her as the teacher of the famous philosopher Socrates in the art of public speaking. Others describe her as an expert on matchmaking and on harmonious relationships in marriage.

She was a woman whom men listened to: Aspasia mattered in Athens at a time when women lived secluded lives, under the thumbs of their husbands and brothers. For Aspasia in my novel, some of her most thrilling moments are when she has the joy of seeing that people are listening to what she has to say and learning from her. 

Her freedom and her liaison with Pericles made Aspasia a target of mockery and lewd allusions. The comic playwrights of Athens slandered her, claiming, for instance, that she used her influence on Pericles to involve the Athenians in two different wars, all for her personal benefit. But Aspasia and Pericles weathered the slanders, and their love endured.

Aspasia was educated but most of the women of her time were not—many could not read or write. While women were limited to spending their days in “the women’s quarters,” she moved freely among men and contributed her own ideas to their thinking. There is tradition, though somewhat uncertain, that she taught women and girls. Aspasia stands like a sculpture in high relief against the background of secluded women living constrained lives. 

While the Athenian Golden Age was a time of astonishing cultural creativity, it was also rife with paradoxes. Athens was a democracy, but the Athenian workforce included slaves, usually captives of war. Citizens participated in the democracy, listening to orators in the Assembly and voting—one man one vote: yes, it was a democracy, for male citizens. While Aspasia could converse with philosophers, she could not attend the famous Athenian theater, dedicated to the god of wine, Dionysos, in which the first great plays of western culture were produced: women not allowed. 

For a feminist today, some aspects of Aspasia’s life might not be exemplary. To a degree, her fame rests on her association with Pericles. She could do what other women could not do partly because he was a power in his city and in a position to protect her. She enjoyed the benefits of an enriched life made available by a sexual union with a rich man.

But we must look at Aspasia within the context of her time. When women were expected to lead narrow, confined lives, Aspasia was strong in the face of obstacles, courageous in the face of slander, unabashed by fame, persistent in moving toward her goals, unafraid to reveal her intelligence, and worthy of being influential. And moving beyond her own challenges and the advantages she was able to create for herself, she was a teacher, enabling the lives of others including, it seems, of women and girls.

As a woman of her time and within the limits it presented, she is a role model for women today faced with obstacles on the path to achieving what they see as good and worthy in life. And she is an inspiration.

Yvonne Korshak received her B.A. with honors from Harvard University, Masters in Classics and Classical Archaeology and PhD in Art History from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Pericles and Aspasia. As a professor at Adelphi University, she has taught Art History and topics in the Humanities, served as Chair of the Department of Art and Art History, Director of the Honors Program in Liberal Studies, and Director of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute. 

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