Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Aspasia of Miletus

Episode Summary

Aspasia of Miletus (c. 470-410 BCE) was a philosopher and master of rhetoric in Athens.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

In case you’re just tuning in, here’s the deal. Every weekday we’re telling the story of a woman from history who you may not know about, but definitely should. Every month is themed. This month we’re talking about Beautiful Minds -- intellectual giants whose work had an extraordinary impact.

Today’s story takes us back to Ancient Greece. This beautiful mind was a master of rhetoric whose teachings influenced the likes of Pericles, Plato, and Socrates. Yet she is often completely forgotten today. Meet Aspasia of Miletus. 

Aspasia was born in Miletus around 470 BCE. Miletus was a powerful city on the coast of what’s now Turkey. She moved to Athens in the mid 440s BCE. 

While Aspasia had been educated by her father, women in Athens were generally uneducated and treated as second-class citizens. They were largely illiterate and kept out of the public sphere. This made Aspasia a fairly unique figure in Athens based on education alone. 

In Athens, Aspasia founded a school of philosophy and rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking. In Ancient Greece, and particularly in Athens which considered itself the “city of words”, great oration or speech-making was considered one of the most important political and intellectual skills one could attain. Aspasia also started a learning institution for daughters of the elite in order to open up educational opportunities for women in the city.

Aspasia was a powerful writer and orator  whose work, understanding of local politics, and philosophical insights attracted the rich and powerful of Athens to her lectures. She is even credited with being Socrates’ rhetoric teacher, something that must have been quite extraordinary during a period when most women were barely seen in public.  Many of the most famous Greeks of the period wrote about Aspasia in their works, including Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon. 

Yet the gender norms of the era have mostly erased Aspasia from the modern memory. Her influence is generally  underappreciated, or barely recognized, when compared with the legacies of her male contemporaries.

In her book, Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition, classics scholar Madeleine Mary Henry wrote, “Like Socrates, Aspasia was criticized in comedy, enjoyed a reputation as a sophistic philosopher, and was an mportant figure in fourth-century philosophical dialogue. Yet history has largely considered only Plato and other men to be philosophers; women philosophers are footnotes, freaks, groupies, and martyrs—anything and everything but philosophers.” 

Instead, Aspasia is more often remembered for her romantic relationship with Pericles, the most prominent  Athenian statesman of his age, and her influence on his career. 

The relationship between Pericles and Aspasia may have begun while he was still married to his first wife, which was apparently objectionable to many upper class Athenians, though Classical Greece was hardly an age of deep monogamy.   This probably had more to do with Aspasia’s social status than Pericles’ marital status. It is believed that the couple never married, but they did have a son together, Pericles the Younger. 

Pericles consulted Aspasia as an equal and was a great admirer of her intellectual gifts. However, other members of the Athenian elite felt that Aspasia had vastly too much influence over public affairs. This belief, along with with her foreignness and gender, led to negative representations of Aspasia in the comedies of the time. 

Aspasia likely died around 410 BCE. 

Nothing that Aspasia wrote has survived, but her legacy has been upheld by her presence and reference in many ancient works. Her story is a prime example of how women have been left out of the history books, even when their contributions match, if not surpass, those of their male contemporaries. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Also big thanks to Andi Kristins, who has composed each month’s original theme music. 

Talk to you tomorrow!