In ancient history, it’s men who were the extraordinary speakers. Women were largely excluded from public life, so public speaking and the rhetorical arts were not an option.
That’s why it comes as a revelation to learn about Aspasia of Miletus.
In a new book, Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher, classics scholar Armand D’Angour puts a fresh spotlight on Aspasia, examining recently-discovered texts that suggest she deserves a much larger role in history. He argues that Aspasia was the person who steered Socrates toward the study of philosophy.
And he notes the considerable evidence that Aspasia was the ghostwriter of Pericles’ famous funeral oration – one of the most famous speeches of all time – and the person who coached Pericles on his delivery.
This was 360 years before Cicero, the Roman statesman, lawyer, philosopher and orator who lived a distinguished public life and left behind a substantial body of written work. Cicero is universally hailed as the most accomplished rhetorician of classical antiquity.
In fifth-century Athens – the “Golden Age of Greece” – rhetorical skills were considered the province of the male elite. Women were second-class citizens who were not allowed to vote, own land, or inherit. A woman’s place was in the home, and her purpose in life was rearing children.
Aspasia played a far more prominent role than most women, winning praise for her wit, political savvy, and agility with rhetoric and argumentation. Yet at least half a dozen ancient writers attacked her and called her names.
She was known as a “hetaerae” – which some scholars have interpreted to mean a prostitute. But that’s not necessarily the case. The hetaerae were the only women in Athens with access to a good education. They could recite poetry, sing, play music, and discuss affairs of the day – which meant they served as something likes a courtesan or salon hostess.
D’Angour attributes the put-downs of Aspasia to men who resented her skill and fame. He calls it “misogynistic slander.”
Because she was a foreigner (born in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey), Aspasia was not allowed to marry in Greece. Instead she became the live-in consort of Pericles, the general, statesman, and leader of democratic Athens. Plutarch writes that Pericles kissed Aspasia every day – when he left the house and when he returned.
Pericles’ funeral oration, given in 431 BC, is one of the most famous speeches in history – right up there with the Gettysburg Address. It describes and celebrates the Athenian concept of democracy – including principles such as equality of all men under law, freedom of speech, and an open society.
Some of the evidence for Aspasia’s role as speechwriter and speech coach comes from Plato’s well-known dialogue The Menexenus, in which he describes the following exchange between Socrates and Menexenus:
Menexenus: And do you think that you yourself would be able to make the speech, if required and if the Council were to select you?
Socrates: That I should be able to make the speech would be nothing wonderful, Menexenus; for she who is my instructor is by no means weak in the art of rhetoric; on the contrary, she has turned out many fine orators, and amongst them one who surpassed all other Greeks, Pericles, the son of Xanthippus.
Menexenus: Who is she? But you mean Aspasia, no doubt.
Socrates: I do . . . I was listening only yesterday to Aspasia going through a funeral speech for these very people. For she had heard the report you mention, that the Athenians are going to select the speaker, and thereupon she rehearsed to me the speech in the form it should take, extemporizing in part, while other parts of it she had previously prepared, as I imagine, at the time when she was composing the funeral oration which Pericles delivered; and from this she patched together sundry fragments.
Because of her remarkable intellectual contributions to a male-dominated society, some have called Aspasia the first “liberated woman.”
Judy Chicago created a plate for her at her famous Dinner Party that honors accomplished women throughout history, now at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Unfortunately we have only fragmentary information about Aspasia, and everything we know comes from the writings of men. There is no record of anything Aspasia said about herself. She left no words of her own.
Historians believe that after Pericles died, Aspasia lived with another Athenian general, Lysicles, but then he too was killed in battle and all trace of her disappears. When and where she died is unknown.
But . . . what if we could say with confidence that a woman wrote one of the greatest speeches in history? How would that shift our assessment of women’s rhetorical skills?
Would women be accorded more respect when they share their ideas and opinions in public?
Classicist Mary Beard points out that in the ancient world, public speaking and oratory were practices that defined the very idea of male and masculinity – a cultural legacy, she says, that “we are still, directly or more often indirectly, the heirs.”
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