08 March 2016

A Short History of Aspasia of Miletus

Those of you who've glanced at the "About Me" section to the right of this column have probably noticed my name is Aspasia. Yes, it is my real name ;) It came to me by way of my grandmother, who in turn was named after her grandmother. I would love to know how far down the line this tradition extended but, unfortunately, record keeping was pretty much nonexistent in Greece during centuries of Ottoman occupation. Sometimes, though, I wonder if the line of Aspasias in my family could possibly stretch all the way back to the first known Aspasia: Aspasia of Miletus.

Aspasia of Miletus was born in 470 BCE and died in 400 BCE. Although born in Miletus (in present-day Turkey), she found her way to Athens, where she made an impression. At a time when Athenian women led severely constricted lives, Aspasia was independent, outspoken, publicly active, and renowned for her intelligence (she influenced and impressed intellectuals and philosophers, including Plato and Socrates). At some point she caught the eye of Pericles of Athens ("...arguably the most prominent and influential Greek statesman, orator and general of Athens during the Golden Age...") and they fell in love. Unable (or unwilling) to marry, they chose to live together as partners.

Aspasia is commonly thought to have been a hetaera, which many people have wrongly interpreted as meaning a prostitute. In reality hetaerae were trained companions, more akin to the geishas of Japan. As an occupation, it would have appealed to a woman used to more independence and freedom than what was allowed in ancient Athens. My opinion on the matter, however, is that whether Aspasia was a hetaera or not, the term "whore" was, is, and unfortunately probably always will be applied to strong, outspoken women by people, cultures, and societies that don't approve of strength and outspokenness in women. Not always popular among her contemporaries in Athens, Aspasia was an easy target for such insults, as well as a number of unfounded allegations. At one point she was put on trial for impiety (she won). She was also accused of being responsible for the Samian War, the Peloponnesian War, and even for corrupting the women of Athens.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to be completely certain of the accuracy of what is known of Aspasia's life. But the fact that her memory has survived at all (particularly through millennia of patriarchal bias and the suppression of Hellenistic culture by the Greek Orthodox Church) is kind of amazing. In some cases, she's even been honoured: a species of orchid, a type of viola, and a butterfly have been named after her. On International Women's Day, Aspasia of Miletus is still a source of inspiration.

Aspasia lunata
Viola 'Aspasia'

Parantica aspasia
To read more about Aspasia, check out these links:






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