Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.4.7

Madeleine M. Henry, Prisoner of History. Aspasia of Miletus and her Biographical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. 201. $29.95. ISBN 0-19-508712-7.

Reviewed by Robert W. Wallace, Northwestern University,

"Suppose ... that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer! We might perhaps have most of Othello; and a good deal of Antony; but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jaques -- literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women."1
As "without question the most important woman" of fifth-century Athens (Henry, p. 3), the traditions about Aspasia are an excellent and also timely topic for study. The last twenty years have seen remarkable progress in understanding the many problems posed by ancient biographies and biographical data.2 M. Lefkowitz's statement regarding the Greek poets, that "virtually all the material in all the lives is fictional," might possibly be judged "too sceptical" as she herself says. However, as a consequence of her and others' work few scholars will now accept without suspicion much that is reported about famous ancients. This new understanding of ancient biography has until now not greatly affected Aspasia. Most scholars have continued to make fairly unqualified declarations that she was an intellectual or else a hetaira, and possibly even a keeper of brothels.3 By contrast, one leaves H.'s book with the melancholy conclusion that Aspasia represents the tragedy for history of what H. might call "masculinist" sexism (see p. 127), and which V. Woolf described in the passage quoted above. For famous men at least some valid sources of information might be available to ancient biographers. During the fifth century, in extant literature, Aspasia was only ridiculed, and only as an instrument, as a way to strike at Perikles. In the next century philosophers and others elaborated different aspects of her comic persona, often again to ridicule or undercut, but in any case almost entirely for their own purposes.

In consequence, for us Aspasia herself possesses and can possess almost no historical reality. We can form no impression of her as a person. As H. says (pp. 138-139 n. 9), we cannot accept as historical the slander in ancient comedies -- hardly credible sources! -- that she was a brothel keeper and a harlot. These comic sallies were not intended to report facts about Aspasia, but to ridicule Athens' leadership and the war. We have no justification in supposing that this satirical tradition was based on anything more than the probability that, by his own citizenship law, Perikles was prevented from marrying Aspasia and so had to live with her in an unmarried state, together producing a son who was legally a bastard. As we shall see, there is reason to suppose that Aspasia in fact came from a distinguished family. We also cannot accept as historical the joke, first perhaps in the comic poet Kallias's Pedetai and later in the philosophers, that Aspasia taught Perikles how to speak and hence was a master rhetorician or philosopher. It was of course standard to say that politicians had to learn their material from others (cf. e.g. Themistokles and Mnesiphilos on Salamis, or Perikles and Damon on Perikles' proposals [Ath. Pol. 27.4]). These traditions were based on a genuine cultural phenomenon, of the wise counsellor to statesmen. However, it is abundantly clear -- and mostly is to H. as well -- that portraying Aspasia as Perikles' wise counsellor and teacher was a parody of that tradition: texts such as the Pedetai and the Menexenos were not meant seriously. There need be no more basis to the tradition that Aspasia was an intellectual than these satirical jokes. Neither Plato nor the more sympathetic Xenophon -- not even Aeschines of Sphettos -- cared at all about Aspasia as a historical character, even though some Athenians still living had first-hand knowledge of her. Hence, rightly, H.'s study begins in scepticism ("biographical anecdotes that arose in antiquity about Aspasia are wildly colorful, almost completely unverifiable, and still alive and well in the twentieth century": p. 3; "it is possible to map only the barest possibilities for [Aspasia's] life": p. 10), and ends in "aporia" (p. 128). "We can say remarkably little about Aspasia of Miletus" (p. 127).

H.'s Prisoner is the first detailed study of Aspasia, both as she may have been and as she has been portrayed. In typically clear, straightforward writing, H. presents and discusses the traditions about Aspasia in chronological order, beginning with the genesis of what she calls Aspasia's bios in Old Comedy and fourth-century philosophical dialogue. We then follow the evolutions of these representations and caricatures (some of them sympathetic) through the ages down to contemporary fiction -- including a novel by Peter Green.4 H. also discusses representations of Aspasia in ancient and contemporary art. Assessments in recent scholarship are omitted.

H.'s discussions of Aspasia's different manifestations are typically brief and to the point. A source is identified, basic bibliography is provided, its reference to Aspasia is stated, and its place in the tradition is indicated. These discussions are usually admirable in their exposition and common sense. Indeed, perhaps the greatest merit of this book is the scholarly caution with which H. handles the evidence. H. is aware how dangerous it is to attribute anything to Aspasia herself, given the weak foundations of our traditions.

Several sources are discussed in greater detail; these longer sections contain a number of perceptive analyses and observations. On Plutarch's Pericles, for example, H. brings out Plutarch's uncertainties about Aspasia, and hence the irony that his account continues to form the basis of representations of Aspasia as "the archetype of the sexually alluring and politically influential courtesan" (p. 74). She presents an innovative treatment of the Sokratic Aeschines of Sphettos, who (she argues) "contributed to the history ... of feminist consciousness" (p. 128) by writing a philosophical dialogue (the Aspasia) in which "her speech is reported ... for its own sake and not primarily to attack or support a man" (p. 41). This "may represent a particular moment in the history of consciousness, namely, an early attempt to create a female subject" (p. 45). In the most brilliant sustained argument of the book, H. shows how the Aspasia in Plato's Menexenos emerged out of her earlier portrayal as a whore by the comic poets (pp. 32-40). She includes a good discussion of the Hellenistic genre on prostitutes (pp. 58-64), even if by the end of it we discover that this has been something of a digression ("Aspasia does not much participate in this discourse; however, given the lack of sources, I cannot claim that she doesn't appear at all"). By way of interesting aperçus, H. states that Didymos's discussions of exceptional women "bring to the fore and make problematical the sexuality of women thought to be intellectually formidable: Aspasia's sexuality, like that of other women philosophers, is noticeably downplayed, whereas Sappho's is turned into a question mark" (p. 66).

With generous modesty H. states at the end of her introduction that all readers might not be "entirely sympathetic" to her treatment of Aspasia. "Any topic that is manifested over such a long expanse of time and moves among such disparate texts is bound to be unevenly developed by its first investigator ... I consider it a positive consequence to have provoked such dissatisfaction" (pp. 6-7). Though on the general point I am entirely sympathetic to her approach and conclusions, for the consideration of subsequent investigators I offer the following four observations:

1) Often, by its brevity, this work seems in places rather a catalogue of sources, supported by citations of standard bibliographies (rather than works directly relevant to Aspasia), and sometimes needing further analysis. One frequent desideratum is more extensive quotation from the ancient evidence. For example, Athenaios 219 quotes 14 lines of a poem which Herodikos attributed to Aspasia. H. discusses the poem (pp. 64-65) but does not quote it. On p. 66 H. mentions a passage in Didymos "on exceptional women from myth and history, including a sanitized Aspasia. (Didymus speculated elsewhere whether Sappho was a whore.)" It would be interesting to see these passages. More critically, on pp. 10-11 H. too briefly discusses Bicknell's article on a fourth-century Attic grave inscription that mentions the names Aspasios and Axiochos (IG II2 7394). This text permitted Bicknell the remarkable (and both H. and I think plausible) reconstruction of Aspasia's family background and Athenian connections. Bicknell concludes that when he was ostracized ca. 460, the elder Alkibiades went to Miletos, married the daughter of a Milesian aristocrat named Axiochos, and travelled back to Athens, bringing with them his wife's younger sister Aspasia (attested elsewhere as the daughter of Axiochos); the first child of this marriage was named Axiochos (uncle of the famous Alkibiades) and the second Aspasios. Perikles met Aspasia through his close connections with Alkibiades' household. Although this inscription is a major document for the historical Aspasia, H. does not quote it, or examine Bicknell's case in sufficient detail. Accordingly, instead of classifying Aspasia as a "metic" (p. 11) and "perhaps a mere war refugee placed in concubinage with an important politician" (p. 28), H. might rather have described her as an aristocratic, unmarried female member of a rich and powerful Athenian oikos. This raises the central question of whether a woman from so distinguished a family, and with such distinguished and powerful Athenian protectors, would in fact have been a pallake as H. is inclined to regard her (e.g. p. 21).

As an important example of the need sometimes for more detailed analysis, one of the best-known traditions about Aspasia is her alleged trial for impiety by the comic poet Hermippos. The historicity of this trial has been challenged by a number of scholars, who argue that the tradition (reported only by Aeschines of Sphettos) is based on an illegitimate deduction from a play by Hermippos, which e.g. may have portrayed Aspasia on trial. H. of course mentions this tradition, and on p. 16 she states that she will argue in the section on comedy that the trial was probably a fantasy. In her discussion of Hermippos, however, while citing discussions on both sides of the debate (pp. 24-25), she states for her own part only that the historicity of the trial cannot be decided, and then shifts immediately into the unrelated topic of the possible historical basis of comic accusations against Perikles for sexual impropriety. The reader could certainly have profited from a discussion of the arguments regarding this trial. (It could be noted, for example, that the single source for it is a philosophical dialogue -- a genre not normally considered a reliable source of historical information. In addition, were non-Athenians such as Aspasia expected to conform to Athenian religious beliefs?) In a note on a later chapter (p. 160 n. 32), H. criticizes one argument of P. Stadter in favor of the trial; that is all I have found. Among other points, a historical trial might conceivably help the case that Aspasia was an intellectual. But I myself am also a doubter.

One of the two most significant oversights in the book is H.'s failure directly to discuss, as she does with a number of other authors, what may be the fifth-century tradition in the comic poet Kallias (*21 K-A) that Aspasia taught Perikles how to speak. This is surely a crucial passage, revealing that the intellectual role Aspasia was given by Plato and others may have derived from comedy. Yet we get no quotation of this text, no discussion of it and no dating, but allusions only (pp. 27-28, 35). Though H. mentions baldly "Callias' statement, in the Pedetai, that Aspasia taught Pericles to speak," in fact the scholiast to Pl. Men. 235e does not make crystal clear which of the preceding remarks are attributable to Kallias.

The second urgent requirement is a detailed discussion of Aspasia's marital status. Scholars disagree whether marriages between Athenians and foreigners were actually outlawed by Perikles' citizenship law, as they certainly were by the later fourth century. Accordingly, some believe that Perikles and Aspasia were married: only their offspring was affected by the law.5 H. says little of all this. On the basis of a comic passage H. believes that Aspasia was probably a pallake, as I have indicated. However, she includes no discussion of the status of pallake -- which for example C. Patterson considers "a servile one".6 All remains vague and unresolved. However, so far from being a pallake, one could even suggest that in marrying Aspasia -- if he married her -- or else consorting with her, Perikles was continuing a distinguished Athenian aristocratic tradition of marrying (or consorting with) well-connected foreigners. As the history of Britain and France reveal, this would not be a unique instance of the contradictory behavior of aristocratic politicians in a democracy.

Hence, I think the book would have benefited by being longer.

2) H.'s chronological arrangement by sources would certainly seem to make sense, at least prima facie, as a straightforward means of arranging the material. However, this arrangement sometimes proves difficult to work with, because the same events are discussed at different places depending on different sources' dates. For an important example, on p. 26 H. -- I think rightly -- argues against the view that Aspasia helped cause the Peloponnesian War, in part on the grounds that this "sounds suspiciously like the charge attributed to Duris [as reported by Plutarch] that she was responsible for the Samian War." However, H.'s statement is also puzzling, for how could a charge heard already in Aristophanes' Acharnians be inspired by a Hellenistic writer? My confusion was reinforced in the later Hellenistic section (p. 58), where H. states that "Duris was probably the first to allege that Aspasia was implicated in Athens' involvement in the conflict between Samos and Miletus." Already on p. 15 H. had written that "no evidence established as contemporary illuminates the possibility" of Aspasia's "political influence upon Pericles" (though on p. 10 she had stated more generally that "comedy provides the only fifth-century evidence that she influenced Pericles' political policies"). It is only in the notes for p. 58 (p. 154 n. 3) that H. states what is surely a correct supposition, that "Duris ... used comedy as a source for Plutarch's report that Aspasia caused Athens to become involved in the Samian War." I agree, and if so, the discussion of Aspasia and the Samian War might better belong altogether in the chapter on Aspasia in Old Comedy. (In addition, H. might have noted the suggestion -- I now forget whose! -- that criticisms of Perikles and Aspasia during the Samian War led to the ban on comedy between 439 and 437.)

3) The constantly frustrating lack of reliable information about Aspasia has sometimes tempted H. to speculate, sometimes on the basis of general patterns that some have hypothesized in women's lives. "If, as the tradition suggests, [Aspasia] was highly intelligent, the love of a powerful and wealthy man could have protected and nurtured her, allowing her to develop her mind in ways not open to other women" (13). To support this hypothesis H. cites Gerda Lerner, that sometimes (though rarely) in history "highly intelligent women have benefited from nurturant and mutually respectful relationships with spouses or partners." But -- for starters -- what good evidence is there that Aspasia was intelligent? Though H. is perhaps rightly cautious about Aspasia's marriage with Lysikles, what do we gain from the suggestion (p. 16-17) that since a lone woman could occasionally act on her own behalf, "Aspasia may have chosen Lysicles herself"? Again, "no physical description of Aspasia has survived, and she may have been quite ordinary in appearance" (p. 17) -- or she may not have been. On pp. 61-62 H. discusses Aristophanes of Byzantion because he wrote books on drama and prostitutes. "Aspasia may have been mentioned therein" -- but equally she may not have been. Setting out what H. justifies as "the possibilities" of Aspasia's life adds little of value, since we can never know where Aspasia may have been untypical. The fundamental point of this book is that virtually all statements about Aspasia -- that she was beautiful, or looked intellectual, etc., etc. -- are based on invalid evidence, they are part of the Aspasia tradition and cannot be taken as historical reality. Sometimes also H. herself states what apparently she accepts as facts about Aspasia, without demonstrating them. On p. 127, for example, she calls Aspasia "a gifted woman" and refers to "her achievements." And did she see the dust jacket assertion, that Aspasia's construction as a "sexually attractive and politically influential female ... has prevented her from taking her rightful place as a contributor to the philosophical enterprise"? On one reading, this is altogether a statement that H. by her own principles should question. Finally, on p. 16 H. should probably not just repeat from Aeschines of Sphettos that Aspasia's second husband Lysikles was a "sheepdealer" (probatokapelos). Surely this probably also derives from comic slander against a prominent general and politician. (On the subject of Lysikles, I must add that if with H. [p. 43] we accept Ehlers' clever explaining away of their son Poristes ["Provider"], this eliminates the need for a terminus post quem of ca. 470 for Aspasia's birth as Bicknell thought [see p. 10].)

4) It should be noted that H.'s study does not exhaust the pertinent bibliography, quite understandably on the many broader topics it treats where Aspasia is relevant (e.g., Plato's Menexenos), but also on Aspasia herself. H.'s method is to find one solid recent treatment for some of the broader topics (B. Ehlers on Aeschines of Sphettos; H. D. Rankin on Antisthenes) and discuss it critically. Particularly noticeable is the omission of anything written in Italian, except Decleva Caizzi's edition of Antisthenes. Some Italian work at least possibly ought to have been considered. Thus, e.g., in Sileno 14 (1988) 41-61, R. Laurenti, "Aspasia e Santippe nell'Atene del V Secolo," argues (p. 50) among other points that in Greece courtesans' fathers' names are not recorded but Aspasia's father's name is, and therefore she was neither a courtesan nor a madam. There is no mention of Pierre Brule, "Des femmes au miroir masculin," Mélanges Lévêque II (Paris 1988), arguing the influence of Perikles' Aspasia on later portraits of the Aspasia of Phokaia who became mistress of Cyrus I. There is no mention of V. Jarkho, "Zu dem neuen Mimos-Fragment (P.Oxy. 53,3700," ZPE 70 (1987) 32-34, on a comic representation of Aspasia and Perikles as Omphale and Herakles.

As for technical questions, the book contains a half-dozen typos and several missing words. The makra in Greek words are not indicated, which in particular obscures genitive plurals. The book frequently neglects French accentuation (something Zeph Stewart once called "rather ignorantly barbarous, as if it makes no difference"), and completely ignores cedilles. The use of backslashes, as in "should/ought," seems out of place in formal writing. I noticed a number of slips (including the less than systematic checking of citations: e.g., Acharnians 515-529, not 516-539, are quoted on p. 25). On. p. 23 the first version of Clouds is dated 421. Also on p. 23 Eupolis' Demes is dated 411, but to 412 in n. 22 on this paragraph (412 is widely accepted, but either date is speculative). On p. 91 the suggested identity of the French artist M.-G. Bouliar's father (which H. uses to speculate that B.'s life followed a common pattern among female artists) is doubted in the notes. On p. 92 Ann Sutherland Harris (elsewhere correctly named) becomes Linda. On p. 93 Fontainebleau is missing its first e. Finally, it is unclear how even in Walter Savage Landor, Aspasia could summarize Roman history (p. 100) -- though maybe she did!

I have endeavored in this review to mention most of the critical questions about the historical Aspasia (was she a hetaira or an intellectual? was she tried for impiety? did she cause the Samian or Peloponnesian War?). Though these questions of fifth-century history are in some ways not the strongest aspect of H.'s treatment (which is best on the Aspasia tradition), as a consequence of H.'s work it should no longer be possible, with one recent scholar, straightforwardly to describe Aspasia as "a beautiful, independent, brilliantly witty young woman capable of holding her own in conversation with the best minds in Greece and of discussing and illuminating any kind of question with her husband."7 As H. herself states, this book marks a start -- and I think a good start -- in opening new avenues of research, to recover traditions both ancient and modern about the woman with whom Perikles lived. Through the silencing of women's voices, the doors shut upon women, we can never know more about her. History has thus been impoverished beyond our counting.


  • [1] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, Harcourt, Brace, and World, New York 1929 (repr. 1957), pp. 144-145.
  • [2] See J. Fairweather, "Fiction in the biographies of ancient writers," Ancient Society 5 (1974) 234-255; M. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets, Baltimore 1980 (the following quotes are from p. viii); and also the superb study by Alice Riginos, Platonica: The Anecdotes concerning the Life and Writings of Plato, Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 3, Leiden 1976.
  • [3] For Aspasia as hetaira, see, e.g., D. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love, New York 1990, 122; E. Keuls, The Reign of the Phallus, New York 1985, 198 ("the best known hetaira of the Classical age ... she undoubtedly started as a prostitute ... [and] appears to have traded in prostitutes"). For A. as intellectual, see, e.g., P. Stadter, "Pericles among the intellectuals," ICS 16 (1991) 123 ("It is only her sex and her profession which have kept her from being recognized as a major intellectual and cultural influence on Pericles ... Do we have any right to argue that her ideas on persuasion, on art, on foreign policy, or internal politics were any less important to Pericles' than those of Anaxagoras or Damon?"). However, for a more sceptical assessment, see C. W. Fornara and L. J. Samons II, Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles, Berkeley 1991, 162-165.
  • [4] Achilles His Armour, London 1955. As H. describes it (p. 117), in Green's novel "a dark succubus, [Aspasia] violently seduces the protagonist Alcibiades, who is barely an ephebe; after achieving orgasm, 'Her face returned to its normal lazy expression.'"
  • [5] See for example Fornara and Samons (n. 3 above) p. 163, which however takes the odd position that Perikles married Aspasia but his "citizenship law declared [her] to be an invalid mate."
  • [6] C. Patterson, Symposion 1990, Vortrage zur griechischen und hellenistischen Rechtsgeschichte, ed. M. Gagarin, Cologne and Vienna 1991, 281-287.
  • [7] D. Kagan, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, New York 1991, 182.