Aspasia is perhaps the most famous woman ancient Athens produced. She was born in the Ionian colony of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor and immigrated to Athens about 450 BC, where she resided as a métoikos or resident alien. She was an accomplished hetaira, educated and trained in the art of conversation and entertainment, and the companion of the great leader of democratic Athens, Pericles.
It is not known under what circumstances she first traveled to Athens. In fact, very little is known about her life and her as a person. We do suspect that she ran a brothel and worked as a hetaira until her marriage to Pericles. As a hetaira, she would have recieved and offered a very extensive education in order to be able to provide conversation for the many men who attended the ancient Hellenic symposia. As such, she was a well known figure in the ancient Athenian culture and hosted many parties which many famous men attended. According to Plutarch, her house became an intellectual centre in Athens, attracting the most prominent writers and thinkers, including the philosopher Socrates. It has also been suggested that the teachings of Aspasia influenced Socrates. Aspasia was mentioned in the writing of philosophers Plato, Aristophanes, Xenophon, and other authors of the day.
Her status as a foreigner freed Aspasia from the legal restraints that traditionally confined married women to their homes and allowed her to participate in the public life of Athens. Mistress of her own house and hostess to friends and supporters who visited, she was witty and educated.
It is attested that Pericles met Aspasia at a symposium and fell for her. She came to live with him as his concubine after Pericles divorced his wife (c.445 BC, if not earlier) and bore him a child of the same name. She was not permitted to marry an Athenian citizen--ironically, because of legislation that Pericles, himself, had enacted shortly before Aspasia arrived--and would remain his concubine until Pericles died of the plague in 429 BC. He lived with her as her husband and treated her as an equal. In fact, it's said he always kissed her goodbye and hello whe he left and came home. This was unseemly for a respectable man, and for a man of Pericles' standing, unheard of. He was often criticized for his relationship with Aspasia, and for his obvious reliance on her help and judgment.
Aspasia is said by the Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, to have been 'clever with regards to words', a sophist, and to have taught rhetoric. Cicero, in De Inventione, quotes a lost dialogue by Aeschines to demonstrate her skill in counseling Xenophon and his wife. Neither will be happy, she says, as long as they desire an ideal spouse; rather, each must be the best spouse, if their partner's wish is to be fulfilled.
"All argumentation, then, is to be carried on either by induction or by deduction. Induction is a form of argument which leads the person with whom one is arguing to give assent to certain undisputed facts; through this assent it wins his approval of a doubtful proposition because this resembles the facts to which he has assented. For instance, in a dialogue by Aeschines Socraticus Socrates reveals that Aspasia reasoned thus with Xenophon's wife and with Xenophon himself: "Please tell me, madam, if your neighbour had a better gold ornament than you have, would you prefer that one or your own?" "That one, " she replied. "Now, if she had dresses and other feminine finery more expensive than you have, would you prefer yours or hers?" "Hers, of course," she replied. "Well now, if she had a better husband than you have, would you prefer your husband or hers?" At this the woman blushed. But Aspasia then began to speak to Xenophon. "I wish you would tell me, Xenophon," she said, "if your neighbour had a better horse than yours, would you prefer your horse or his?" "His" was his answer. "And if he had a better farm than you have, which farm would your prefer to have?" The better farm, naturally," he said. "Now if he had a better wife than you have, would you prefer yours or his?" And at this Xenophon, too, himself was silent. Then Aspasia: "Since both of you have failed to tell me the only thing I wished to hear, I myself will tell you what you both are thinking. That is, you, madam, wish to have the best husband, and you, Xenophon, desire above all things to have the finest wife. Therefore, unless you can contrive that there be no better man or finer woman on earth you will certainly always be in dire want of what you consider best, namely, that you be the husband of the very best of wives, and that she be wedded to the very best of men." [I.31.51-52]
In 430 BC, at the beginning of the second year of the Peloponnesian War, a disastrous plague broke out in Athens. It killed the two sons of Pericles by his first wife, and he asked for an exemption from the law to permit his son by Aspasia to be legitimated and made a citizen, which was granted. The next year, Pericles, himself, died from the plague, and Aspasia was left alone. She soon found another protector in Lysicles, who rose to prominence under her tutelage. Sadly, he died a year later. The time of her death that most historians give (c. 401 BC-400 BC) is based on the assessment that Aspasia died before the execution of Socrates in 399 BC, a chronology which is implied in the structure of Aeschines' Aspasia.