Pericles and Aspasia
Pericles and Aspasia
Pericles was only fifteen years of age when Sparta led all the Greeks against the invading Persians. But nineteen years later, when he became the undisputed leader of Athens, he led his people to mastery of the seas and the military power that came with it. He also brought forth a wealth of prosperity and the arts that came to be known as the Golden Age of Athens.
All of these things tell us about Pericles in his role as Athens' leading citizen. But to see Pericles the man, we need to spend a few moments with him and the love of his life, a young woman named Aspasia.
"[Pericles] took Aspasia, and loved her exceedingly. Twice a day, as they say, on going out and on coming in from the market-place, he would salute her with a loving kiss."
Lives: Pericles XXIV
Pericles and Aspasia lived together for many years, and his political enemies took note. When they saw he could not be attacked personally because of the high regard in which he was held by the people of Athens, they attacked him through Aspasia. She was accused of being a corrupting influence on other women, and was put on trial. The nature of this corrupting influence? Her accusers tried to make it about sex because she was a woman who entertained socially -- which did sometimes involve sex. But they had no case since many other women did this as well, and were not put on trial for it. They might have had better luck with her real crime, which was that she was well-educated at a time when education was mainly reserved for men. By becoming educated she was setting a "bad example" that was "corrupting" other women.
In any event, Pericles came to the aid of the woman he loved. Known for being a man who kept his emotions under control and relied only on even-keeled, logical arguments to get his way, Pericles spoke at the trial and was so surprisingly passionate in her defense that those present had no choice but to find in her favor.
"Aspasia he begged off, by shedding copious tears at the trial, as Aeschines says, and by entreating the jurors."
Lives: Pericles XXXII
Pericles delivering an oration with the Acropolis in the background
Pericles was said to have been so committed to Aspasia that he even had Athens go to war with Samos at her request. Samos was at war with Miletus, and Aspasia was born in Miletus before coming to Athens. So in the public mind, there was a connection. How much of a connection there was in real life is not known.
All of these things make Pericles seem more human and more real to us. Because in reality he was not just a leader who won votes, and a great general who won battles. He was also a man involved in a serious relationship who worked through things day by day.
The more we learn about the Golden Age of Athens, the more fascinating it becomes.
For additional reading:
Plutarch's Lives of Themistocles, Pericles et al -- The Harvard Classics (trans.Arthur Hugh Clough) New York: Grolier, 1980.
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This page updated on February 15, 2019.
Aspasia and Pericles
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Pericles and Aspasia
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