Sunday, May 21, 2017

Shadows of a Timeless Myth Aspasia Chosen of Pericles


470 B.C.

SPASIA, daughter of Axiochus, was a native of Miletus, beautiful, well-educated, and ambitious. She resided at Athens, and is affirmed, though upon very doubtful evidence, to have kept slave-girls to be let out as courtesans. Whatever may be the case with this report, which is probably one of the scandals engendered by political animosity against Pericles, it is certain that, so remarkable were her own fascinations, her accomplishments, and her powers, not merely of conversation, but even of oratory and criticism, that the most distinguished Athenians of all ages and characters—Socrates among the number—visited her, and several of them took their wives along with them to hear her also. The free citizen-women of Athens lived in strict and almost Oriental recluseness, as well after being married as when single: everything which concerned their lives, their happiness, or their rights, was determined or managed for them by male relatives; and they seem to have been destitute of all mental culture and accomplishments. Their society presented no charm nor interest, which men accordingly sought for in the company of the class of women called Hetæræ, or courtesans, literally female companions who lived a free life, managed their own affairs, and supported themselves by their powers of pleasing. These women were numerous, and were doubtless of every variety of personal character; but the most distinguished and superior among them, such as Aspasia and Theodote, appear to have been the only women in Greece, except the Spartan, who either inspired strong passion or exercised mental ascendancy.

Pericles had been determined in his choice of a wife by those family considerations which were held almost obligatory at Athens, and had married a woman very nearly related to him, by whom he had two sons, Xanthippus and Paralus. But the marriage, having never been comfortable, was afterwards dissolved by mutual consent, according to that full liberty of divorce which the Attic law permitted, and Pericles concurred with his wife's male relations (who formed her legal guardians) in giving her away to another husband. He then took Aspasia to live with him; had a son by her, who bore his name; and continued ever afterwards on terms of the greatest intimacy and affection with her.

Without adopting those exaggerations which represent Aspasia as having communicated to Pericles his distinguished eloquence, or even as having herself composed orations for public delivery, we may well believe her to have been qualified to take interest and share in that literary and philosophical society which frequented the house of Pericles, and which his unprincipled son Xanthippus, disgusted with his father's regular expenditure as withholding from him the means of supporting an extravagant establishment, reported abroad with exaggerated calumnies, and turned into derision. It was from that worthless young man, who died of the Athenian epidemic during the lifetime of Pericles, that his political enemies and the comic writers of the day were mainly furnished with scandalous anecdotes to assail the private habits of this distinguished man. The comic writers attacked him for alleged intrigues with different women; but the name of Aspasia they treated as public property, without any mercy or reserve: she was the Omphale, the Dejanira, or the Here, to the great Heracles or Zeus of Athens. At length one of these comic writers, Hermippus, not contented with scenic attacks, indicted her before the dikastery for impiety, as participant in the philosophical discussions held, and the opinions professed, in the society of Pericles by Anaxagoras and others. Against Anaxagoras himself, too, a similar indictment is said to have been preferred, either by Cleon or by Thucydides, son of Milesias, under a general resolution recently passed in the public assembly at the instance of Diopeithes. And such was the sensitive antipathy of the Athenian public, shown afterwards fatally in the case of Socrates, and embittered in this instance by all the artifices of political faction, against philosophers whose opinions conflicted with the received religious dogmas, that Pericles did not dare to place Anaxagoras on his trial. The latter retired from Athens, and a sentence of banishment was passed against him in his absence. But Pericles himself defended Aspasia before the dikastery: in fact, the indictment was as much against him as against her. One thing alleged against her, and also against Pheidias, was the reception of free women to facilitate the intrigues of Pericles.

He defended her successfully, and procured a verdict of acquittal; but we are not surprised to hear that his speech was marked by the strongest personal emotions, and even by tears. The dikasts were accustomed to such appeals to their sympathies, sometimes even to extravagant excess, from ordinary accused persons; but in Pericles, so manifest an outburst of emotion stands out as something quite unparalleled, for constant self-mastery was one of the most prominent features in his character.

Article compiled from sources in the public domain.

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