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Aspasia: The Lost "Legend"

Page history last edited by Jeanne Bohannon 12 years, 3 months ago


Jeanne L. Bohannon

Aspasia of Miletus, Real or Metaphorical: Diverse Points of View


Born/Died:  469 B.C.E – 400 B.C.E. OR Unknown, depending on which source is consulted


Primary accounts of her biography come to use through the plays of Aristophanes, the historical record of Xenophon, and the dialogues of Plato.   Aside from these accounts, scholars can offer only suppositions and educated guesses relating to her historical and rhetorical presence.  Secondary  sources are just that – secondary.  They can only suppose and postulate, based on their meta-textual analysis of primary sources.

Aspasia appears in Socratic writing of 4th century B.C. E. as an historical figure as well as a  mythical construction, almost a muse. Modern scholars such as Susan Jarratt, Judith Butler, and Richard Rorty postulate that these metaphorical references served to marginalize and even elide Aspasia’s contributions to rhetoric and history itself. 

Aspasia’s origins Miletus is significant, because “of the philosophical tradition there and its proximity to Persia.  Western philosophical speculation was only a century or so old when Aspasia was born, its very earliest contributors having come from Miletus: (Jarratt and Ong, in Lunsford’s Reclaiming Rhetorica, p.10).  They continue that Aspasia was an “unconventional” woman, a partner to Pericles, “whose passion for her was said to have sprung from her knowledge and skill in politics” (13). 

Scholars have inferred from Plato’s Menexenus, that she shared intellectual attributes with Socrates.  Plato’s recollections of Aspasia, told in his dialogues, are the best known primary source for clues to her rhetoric.  Some scholars have inferred from historical fragments that she was actually Socrates teacher and the originator of the Socratic Method.  In contrast to this characterization, historian Madeline Henry writes that “Aspasia’s reputation as teacher has repeatedly been connected with her sexual reputation as a courtesan and the mistress of Pericles” (3).  In primary sources, it appears that the male writers could not overcome their socially-embedded ideas of gender, even when they heaped accolades onto Aspasia.  Feminist scholars examining Plato’s progressive opinion of women as a true progression through his texts see the first such move in Menexenus, sections 237-238.  In these sections, Aspasia speaks against the exclusively male issue of autochthony, the rights of males born on Athenian soil:  



“For as a woman proves her motherhood by giving milk to her young ones, so did this our land prove that she was the mother of men, for in those days she was alone and first of all brought forth wheat and barley for human food, which is the best and noblest sustenance for man, whom she regarded as her true offspring.  And these are truer proofs of motherhood in a country than in a woman, for the woman in her conception and generation is but the imitation of the earth, and not the earth of the woman.”   



Jarratt and Ong argue that Plato places himself in a conundrum in this scene, as he places his character in one as well: “by reputation, she exceeds the gender boundaries of Greek citizenship; but through her, Plato ventriloquizes the very principles of exclusion she challenges” (20).  Scholars have also named Aspasia as Pericles’ political advisor and his wife.  Recent scholarship from feminist historians has examined the ways in which “Plato presents Aspasia ironically as an analyst and practitioner of a bankrupt rhetoric, a meaningless logos void of ergon” (Henry 46). So in the end, Plato’s Menexenus presents Aspasia as a character, as a metaphor – not as a real woman with real power within a masculine-dominated Foucaultian Power Regime.    



Conversely, Greek historian Xenophon writes of Aspasia and her cognitive attributes and her cognitive attributes in several of his texts that detail the contemporaneous popular culture of Athens in the 4-5th century B.C.E.   In his writings, Aspasia is a wise detector of truth who is an expert on finding and keeping lovers (and wives).  Using Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, scholars might argue that scenes from Xenophon’s Memorabilia provide examples of sexually differentiated desires, specifically towards “matchmaking.”  In a conversation with Critoboulus, Socrates discusses possible means of winning friends and lovers (2.6.28-29).  In examining the language contained within this dialogue, feminist scholars find that these “noble friendships” become sexually charged.  In section 2.6, Socrates yields to Aspasia’s counsel in regards to heterosexual courtship: “I once heard Aspasia say; for she said that the best matchmakers are skilled at bringing people into a marriage alliance” (2.6 36).  As a character in this dialogue, Socrates places Aspasia in a role that most in Classical Greece would consider a male-dominated sphere.  While women could serve in this capacity in a heterosexual circumstance, they would not be welcomed generally into the homosexual situation as such.  As a side note, Madeline Henry recalls that “a Platonic Socrates calls himself a midwife of ideas and arrogates himself to the role of matchmaker” (48).  Viewed through a performativity lens, where gender lines are blurred and gender itself becomes a destabilizing force, I would argue that in this instance, Socrates casts himself into feminine roles and places Aspasia into the male realm.  This gender role reversal serves to lift Aspasia from traditional feminine roles into one of equality with Socrates himself.  Jarratt and Ong echo this sentiment when they write that “In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates presents the male teacher/ philosopher as midwife, thus metaphorically transferring the power of physical reproduction from woman to the actions of the philosopher, who gives birth to the psyche of the beloved, the student” (19).          



Aspasia also figures into the comedies of Aristophanes, although in more satirical and caricatured way.  Taking up the popular topic of prostitution, Aristophanes uses Aspasia’s historical strengths against her.  Henry summarizes Archarnians:



“Pericles' relationship with Aspasia is made antithetical to his married life; the explicit opposition of mistress to wife had heretofore been absent and is found here in an anecdote. Aspasia is warmonger and dominatrix, instrument and symbol of Pericles’ and Athens; tryphe (excessive luxury); she becomes part of a moralizing tale about a man who leaves his wife for a prostitute.  Interestingly, Aspasia and the foreign graidion (little old lady) who attended Callias’ deathbed are the only women mentioned in the remains of this treatise; both the notorious courtesan and the anonymous crone represent the social isolation and bad end to which each man comes” (60).


It should be noted here that Aristophanes also lampooned Socrates in his comedy as well, perhaps further equating attributes of Aspasia and Greece’s chief philosopher. 


Scholarship on Aspasia of Miletus is sparing at best.  Feminist scholars have attempted to recover her both within the rhetorical canon and within the field of Women’s Studies.  Her contributions as a rhetorician and philosopher come to us only as fragments, through the words of male writers who immortalized her diversely as an intellectual equal, renowned teacher, and power-driven courtesan.    


References and Additional Sources


Cornelius C. Vermeule III.  Socrates and Aspasia: New Portraits of Late Antiquity.  The Classical Journal, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Nov., 1958), pp. 49-55

Gardner, Percy.  A Female Figure in the Early Style of Pheidias, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 38 (1918), pp. 1-26

Glenn, Cheryl.  Remapping Rhetorical Territory, Rhetoric Review, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Spring, 1995), pp. 287-303

Glenn, Cheryl.  Sex, Lies, and Manuscript: Refiguring Aspasia in the History of Rhetoric.College Composition and Communication, Vol. 45, No. 2 (May, 1994), pp. 180-199

Henry, Madeleine Mary. Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus And Her Biographical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Hornblower, Simon. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Array Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Jarratt, Susan. Rhetoric and Feminism: Together Again.  College English, Vol. 62, No. 3 (Jan., 2000), pp. 390-393

Lunsford, Andrea A. Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women In the Rhetorical Tradition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.

Plato, and Benjamin Jowett. Dialogues. Array Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953.

Smith, A.H.  The Tomb of Aspasia, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 46, Part 2 (1926), pp. 253-257

Sodipo, J.O..  From Aischines' to 'Aspasia.' Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Mar., 1961), p. 51

Wider, Kathleen.  Women Philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle, Hypatia, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 21-62

Xenophon. Xenophon: Apology And Memorabilia I. Oxford: Aris & Phillips, 2008.

Comments (3)

TG Pelham said

at 5:05 pm on Sep 23, 2009

Socrates claims to have learned rhetoric from her, and repeats a speech of her's to Menexenus. Menexenus and Socrates are talking politics and the dialogue turns into a recitation of Aspasia's funeral oration--its very similar to Pericles'.

jamiso_t@... said

at 6:44 pm on Sep 26, 2009

I see that you got your text to wrap around the picture!:-) Your site is complete and reads like a bibliographic entry. The only thing I might do later would be to put links to the sources so that others can click to it and read it.

Laurissa Wolfram said

at 5:07 pm on Sep 28, 2009

I love that someone else composed an entry about a woman who is significant to Greek rhetoric (although I have to give you the credit - since your choice in topic inspired mine)! I inserted a link in my wiki entry of Diotima to direct readers to yours. The existence of Diotima as a historical figure has been debated by scholars, and some argue that she is a fictional creation of Plato, based on Aspasia.

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