Ancient history can be so romantic, so literately romantic. During the time of Aspasia, who immigrated to Athens around 450 BC, escorts were called courtesans, and prostitutes called harlots. Much like the geishas of Japan and our current cultural trend with educated, upscale escorts, courtesans were beautiful women trained in the art of conversation. They were generally educated, somewhat feminist and liberal for their time, and an accepted part of Greek social culture.
But Aspasia took the role of the courtesan to a new status in Greece. At a local symposium Aspasia met Pericles, a respected statesman and general. Little is known about their initial exchange, but they quickly fell into a relationship of mutual love and respect. He divorced his wife so that he could live with Aspasia, whom he could not legally marry because of an act he had himself enforced stating that no alien could marry an Athenian citizen. But the two seemed relatively comfortable with their arrangement, with Pericles “keeping her” as his concubine until his death 20 years later.
Theirs was a true love story. He was known to kiss her goodbye every morning upon departing, and kiss her again upon coming home. Educated and wise, she would give him her opinion on matters of state, and often he would heed her advice and counsel. Many poets and historians would write about her later in life, noting how her knowledge of keeping a home and a balanced relationship was much wiser and more cultured than many Athenian women of her time.
This, of course, did not put her in favor with the many men who worked with Pericles, seeking his wisdom and reliant on the decisions he made politically. She was blamed for more than one war and political upheaval. Nor did the whole of Athenian women take to Aspasia, as her relationship with Pericles took him off the market for Athenian-born women who were legally free to marry the prestigious leader. She was sometimes called a whore, an even baser word than harlot or prostitute. She was also rumored to be what we now call a madam, bringing in other escorts and concubines from her native Miletus (now is a province of Turkey). A “brothel” is how some poets penned her home.
Most likely this was ancient, juicy celebrity gossip. Modern historians view the accusations made by poets and politicians a biased result of their own legal interests in Pericles’ work. Not to mention a bit of jealously for the power and influence Aspasia had not only on Pericles but on other statesmen of the time. Because she was not a legal Athenian citizen, she was not bound by the laws that kept women at home and out of the public social circle. She was able to entertain whomever she wanted, and could give her opinion freely without social constraint.
Those who spent time with her, including the practically immortal Socrates, regaled her for her political wisdom and wit with words. Politicians and philosophers would sit and actually listen to her wax on about current issues, philosophy and politics—topics women were rarely allowed to speak so freely on, especially with men held in such esteem.
Thousands of years later, the non-native concubine would be dubbed by historians as “The First Lady of Athens”.
Not bad for an escort, right?
At some point during their partnership, Pericles’ two sons from his former marriage died during a plague. He asked for citizenship of his son with Aspasia, who had been considered by those outside their social circle a bastard child, so that he could have a proper heir. This legality was granted, only for Pericles himself to die a year later.
Aspasia then fell under the protection of Lysicles, another Athenian general who said to grow under Aspasia’s counseling until his own death, again one year later.
After his death, no one really knows what happened to the infamous concubine.
What’s deliciously fascinating about Aspasia is her effect on the men in power during her time in Athens. From a contemporary viewpoint, we could easily brand her a feminist. In the 1970′s in the United States, escort services started transitioning from shady, hush-hush companies seen in the back pages of newspapers to high-end services that employed educated, intelligent, classy women. In Aspasia’s time, she was just that and offered herself in such service. She was respected by Pericles, who may have started out as a client. Her profession was questioned by rivals, not by those who knew her well.
And while there were most likely women during the time who took pleasure by calling her our modern equivalent of hooker or streetwalker, history shows us that, instead, she was a beloved courtesan, a concubine, an escort, a woman to be respected and revered by a man who loved her very much, and his powerful, intelligent friends.