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Aspasia

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

B. C. 489-420

THE MOST CELEBRATED WOMAN OF ANTIQUITY

For two thousand years Aspasia was looked upon by the learned with wonder and veneration. As men ask themselves if it could be possible that one man could conceive all the beautiful phrases of Shakespeare, so scholars, reading the encomiums of Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Thucydides, concerning the Athenian woman, inquired one of another if there would probably appear among mankind a second Aspasia, to delight with the graces of womanhood and to counsel with the wisdom of the sage.

The last two centuries have beheld the rapid intellectual development of woman, until Aspasia no longer seems a miracle, yet to account for the feelings of the ancients it would be well to point to the social conditions of the early world.

At what time subsequent to the pastoral age men began to sequestrate their women is not at present known, but at a period when Greece was inhabited by people using stone implements, the nations east of the Euphrates were well established in the arts of weaving, pottery and metal-working. They had built cities and sequestered their women. Draper, in his "Civil Policy of America," dwells upon the power of climate over men. "A similar climate makes men think alike and act alike," he says. .There-fore, the tendency of men in African and Asiastic nations to keep their women separate and unseen by the multitude is attributed to the climate. As the civilization of Egypt and Chaldaea was carried westward by the sea-caravans of the Phoenician merchants, those nations, like Athens, that traded with the eastern world were the first of Europeans to imitate the practices of the Orient and make seraglios for their women, while the more jealous and republican Spartans spurned all the luxuries of Asia and lived on in the stern simplicity of the stone and bronze ages.

At the time of Pericles, Phidias, and Aspasia, Athens had adopted all the effeminate practices of Persia. What is most notable is, that, in the enthusiasm of the student, the Athenian people not only excelled in the examples of art in architecture and sculpture, brought to them by their teachers, but set a mark for all the succeeding world that still excites the envy and admiration of mankind. It is especially because the small commonwealth of thirty thousand families rose to heights of art and philosophy that have since proved unapproachable, that Aspasia, who had so great a hand in these triumphs, became the most celebrated woman of antiquity.

But how was it possible for a woman, in an age and a land of seraglios, to rise to public celebrity ? We may profitably quote a passage from Mitford, who, in his "History of Greece," attributes wholly to a democratic government the treatment of women. It should be remembered that near by was the democratic government of Sparta, where every mother played a great part in the social drama. While Mitford makes an argument for class privilege, we may still learn from his remarks how Aspasia came to escape the seclusion of the seraglio. "The political circumstances of Athens," says Mitford, "had contributed much to exclude women of rank from general society. The turbulence to which every common-wealth was continually liable from the contentions of faction, made it often unsafe, or at least unpleasant, for them to go abroad. But in democracies their situation was peculiarly untoward. That form of government compelled the men to associate, all with all. The general assembly necessarily called all together; and the votes of the meanest citizens being there of equal value with that of the highest, the more numerous body of the poor was always formidable to the wealthy few. Hence followed the utmost condescension, or something more than condescension, from the rich to the multitude; and not to the collected multitude only, nor to the best among the multitude, but principally to the most turbulent, ill-mannered and worthless. Not those alone who sought honors or command, but all those who desired security for their property, must not only meet these men upon a footing of equality in the general assembly, but associate with them in the gymnasia and porticos, flatter them, and some-times cringe to them. The women, to avoid a society which their fathers and husbands could not avoid, lived with their female slaves in. a secluded part of the house; associating little with one another, and scarcely at all with the men, even their nearest relations; and seldom appearing in public but at those religious festivals in which ancient customs required the women to bear a part, and sacerdotal authority could insure decency of conduct toward them. Hence the education of the Athenian women was scarcely above that of their slaves; and as we find them exhibited in lively picture, in the little treatise upon domestic economy remaining to us from Xenophon, they were equally of uninstructed minds and unformed manners. To the deficiencies to which women of rank were thus condemned by custom, which the new political circumstances of the country* had superinduced upon the better manner of heroic ages, was owing that comparative superiority through which some of the Grecian courtesans attained extraordinary renown. Carefully instructed in every eligible accomplishment, and from early years accustomed to converse among men and men of the highest rank and most approved talents if they possessed understanding, it became cultivated; and to their houses men resorted to enjoy in the most polished company the charm of female conversation, which, with women of rank and education, was totally forbidden."

What Mitford does not understand is that climate had somewhat modified the rigors of the Persian seraglios. The mountains of Greece were certain to act toward the liberation of women, while it was the despotism and not the democracy of the Orient that had handed the custom of the seraglio to Athens. Nevertheless, Mitford, even in his own fashion, has given an excellent reason for the eminence of Aspasia. She was the wife of Pericles, as Theresa was the wife of Rousseau; she was the companion of Sophocles, Plato, and Phidias. We shall see that these men looked upon her with respect and admiration, and though little is known of the personal details of her life, we shall now enter upon her biography, which, unfortunately, has been written rather by her enemies and enviers than by her friends.

Aspasia was born at the great city of Miletus, on the Asian continent, and therefore could never be legally married to an Athenian. The city was noted for the attention it gave to the cultivation of the minds and the graces of women. What misfortunes drove her from Miletus is not known, nor could a foreign woman arrive at Athens in any other character than that of an adventuress. At this time Pericles had risen to the highest place in the state, and under his administration Greek colonies had been planted in many places. Pericles was married to the widow of a wealthy citizen, Hipponicus, and her money had probably aided him to secure the suffrages of the Athenian mob, although he was himself the inheritor of a fortune. No sooner had he seen the beautiful and learned Aspasia than he fell completely under her influence and secured a divorce from his wife, who had borne him two children. The relations which Pericles now set up with Aspasia, while still scandalous under the Athenian law, it is quite possible were of the most honorable character, for the statutes would not permit a foreign woman to be naturalized, or to marry an Athenian. And in our own age we have seen unions of educated and honorable people that were outside the law but not the less natural and right in fact. But the divorce of his wife offered an easy point of attack to the tribe of comic poets that infested Athens, and Aristophanes was soon at work for the delectation of the mob, picturing Aspasia as the siren who was enslaving the Athenian Hercules. If an evil-minded satirist, who can invent nothing whose literature lives only as the shadow of some great substance if this satirist write a witty thing, it is the cruel custom of the world to believe it, and thus probably the history of Athens has been fated to live more obviously in the wicked but brilliant slanders of Aristophanes than in the solemn pages of the Grecian scribes.

After Pericles had arrived at full power, he found it advantageous to be seen less often, while the people took their revenge in applauding the malice of Aristophanes. During this period of seclusion Pericles was in the company not only of Aspasia, but of the most celebrated philosophers of the time, whose fame still promises never to dim. In the conversation of the learned, however, the love of the arts and the desire to heighten the popular ideas were continually finding expression, and those great public works of architecture and sculpture were planned which tended to benefit the people and place their commonwealth in the vanguard of human progress for three thousand years. Through the efforts of this circle of thinkers and geniuses, the theater was made a public institution, and the tragedies of AEschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were enacted upon its stage, as well as the buffoonery of the wits. Great painters arose, whose can-vases have long since turned to dust; and from the quarries of Attic marble, Phidias, the superintendent of public architecture, not only brought forth the Parthenon and the other Athenian temples, but himself wrought such works of heroic statuary as were the subjects of admiring comment throughout the pagan world. But among all the glories of Athens, the eloquence of Pericles shone with greatest splendor, and when the violent accusations of politicians had risen to their most unseemly heights, it was openly asserted that Pericles was but the parrot or actor reciting words or thoughts learned of Aspasia. For fifteen years the great and wise man guided the Athenian people, advancing the great buildings, permitting the most open and brutal libels in the name of free speech, and diverting the multitude by naval spectacles in which large numbers of otherwise idle and mischievous citizens might be employed. For eight months in the year an exercising squadron of sixty trireme galleys was sent to cruise the Grecian seas.

It is in times of peace that the people fail to discriminate between the merely noisy and the great As the Parthenon rose and its interior was decorated or sanctified with ivory statues of the gods on which golden ornaments hung rich and heavy, the weight of the public taxes began to cause discontent, and the influence of Aspasia was alleged as the cause of the departure of Athens from the simpler and less expensive methods of olden times. It was alleged that the sculptors had engraven their own features on the faces of the gods, and the builders were accused of enriching themselves by slighting the work and underweighing the gold in the temples. At the time of the grossest libels, it was the custom of the great men of Athens to frequent the house of Pericles and Aspasia, where even Socrates did not hesitate to advance his oratory under the lessons of that patriot. This overturning of social customs, along with the practical usurpation by Pericles of the chief executive power, could not fail to en-kindle the deepest resentments, and when Pericles intervened with his triremes, in the war between Miletus and Samos, the comic poets, now appearing as citizens and complainants, alleged that the war into which Athens had entered would never have come but for the Milesian woman who had so long possessed the ear of the Athenian chief. Again, arousing religious prejudices, it was alleged that the philosophers Zeno, Socrates, Anaxagoras, Pythagoras, and the rest held heretical views of the future life and questioned the direct power of the gods, so that while they were so often together and so highly favored by Pericles, the very religion of the nation might be over-thrown and some new and impious worship established, as they had already seen that Aspasia's new condition had been made honorable, and women who feared the gods had been retired to the deepest obscurity.

With this argument the comic poet Hermippus, having failed to seriously embarrass the great Pericles with his buffoonery, now appeared before the judges with the criminal indictment of Aspasia, both as an impious woman and an offender against the social laws of the republic. At the same time very deeply contrived prosecutions were leveled against Anaxagoras and Pericles, so that the idea might seem general that Aspasia was an immoral woman, Anaxagoras a heretic, and Pericles a thief or embezzler. A decree was passed directing Pericles to give in his ac-counts and to submit to a trial before fifteen hundred jurors. It was evident that the prosecutors believed their evidence was very weak, as there was a clause in the decree which provided that the offense imputed to Pericles might be described either as embezzlement, or, by a more general name, as coming under the head of "public wrong."

It does not seem that any save the case of Aspasia came to trial, and Pericles pleaded her cause. He evidently found the Athenians seriously prejudiced against her, and Athenaeus says that so serious were his efforts to clear her that he burst into tears and probably wrought her deliverance almost entirely by personal influence. We hear no more of his own trial, "yet," says Thirlwall, in his "History of Greece," "it was a persuasion so widely spread among the ancients as to have lasted even to modern times, that his dread of the prosecution which hung over him, and his consciousness that his expenditure of the public money would not bear a scrutiny, were at least among the motives that induced him to kindle the war which put an end to the thirty years' truce."

At the end of the first campaign in the Peloponnesian war Pericles delivered to the memories of the slain that oration, reported by Thucydides, which Anthon declares to be "the most remarkable of all the compositions of antiquity," wherein the character of a good citizen, such as he who had fought valiantly and died for his country is depicted with thrilling eloquence and singular felicity. And this brings us to that most important and best known aspect of the life of Aspasia, for we have an account of her eloquence, and her skill in teaching it to Pericles, whom she loved, who so loved her, and this account appears in the words of Socrates, as related in Plato's book called "Menexenus." Now, although the words were possibly not spoken by Socrates, as the dates are confused and many of Plato's alleged writings are at-tacked as spurious, still we may assuredly obtain an instructive view of how sincerely the ancients believe that Aspasia was the true source of the noblest thoughts and utterances of Pericles.

Menexenus asks : "Do you think, Socrates, that you would be able to speak, yourself, if it were requisite, and the council were to select you ?"

Socrates : It would be nothing wonderful, for my teacher happens to be a woman by no means contemptible in oratory, but who has made many other persons good speakers, and one of them superior to all the Greeks Pericles, the son of Xanthippus.

Menexenus : It is plain that you mean Aspasia.

Socrates : I do mean her. Only yesterday I heard Aspasia going through a funeral oration, for she had heard what you tell me, that the Athenians were going to choose the person to speak. And then she went through partly on the instant what it would be proper to say, and partly what she had formerly thought of when, it seems, she was composing the funeral oration that Pericles pronounced, and was gluing together some scraps from that.

Menexenus: Could you remember what she said?

Socrates : Unless I do her wrong, at least I learnt it from her; listen, then, for she spoke, commencing, as I think, with the mention of the dead themselves in this manner : "As regards our acts, these patriots have received all the honors due to them ; and, after receiving them, are now proceeding on their fated road, having been sent onward by the state in common and individually by their families and friends. But as regards our words, the honor still left undone the law enjoins us to pay to the men; and it is meet to do so. For of deeds performed nobly the remembrance of a well-spoken speech is an honor paid to those who have acted from those who hear. There is need, then, of such a discourse as shall praise sufficiently the dead and kindly advise the living, by exhorting the descendants and brethren of the dead to imitate their valor and by comforting their fathers and their mothers and whoever of their ancestors more remote are still alive. From whence shall ye rightly begin to praise those great men, who, when living, delighted their friends with their valor, and bartered their death for the safety of those who survived?

"To me it seems that we must praise them on the ground of their nature, as they were by nature good. Now, they were good by being sprung from the good. Let us then celebrate, in the first place, their noble birth; in the second, their nurture and education; and afterwards let us show forth their conduct in practice, how they proved it to be honorable and worthy of those advantages.

"In the first place, the commencement of their nobility was in the birth of their ancestors, not being incomers, but sprung from the earth.

"Thus born and educated, lived the ancestors of these persons, after having framed a polity, which it is well to bring in a few words to your recollection. For a polity is the nurse of men ; a good one of good men and the contrary of bad. It is necessary then to show that our ancestors were brought up under a good polity through which they became good and those also who live now. The same polity of men was then, as it now is, an aristocracy, under which we still live as citizens, and for the most part have done so from that time to this. One person calls it a democracy, another by another name, such as he pleases. But it is in truth a government by the best, combined with a good opinion of the people. For kings have ever existed with us, at one time hereditary, at another elected, but the people, possessing for the most part the power of the state, have delegated the offices and government to those who were successively deemed to be the best ; and no man has ever been excluded because he had influence or wealth or was ignorant of his parentage, nor held in honor for the contrary reasons, as is done in other cities; but there was only one limitation, that he who was deemed to be wise and good should possess the power and office. Now the cause of this polity is the equality of birth. For other states are made up of men of every country and of unequal conditions, so that their polities, as well tyrannies as oligarchies, are of unequal character. They therefore lived, some considering. each other as slaves, some as masters, but we and ours, born all brethren, from one mother, consider ourselves neither the slaves nor the lords of each other; but that the equality of our purse, according to nature, compels us to seek an equality of government, according to law, and to yield to each other upon no other ground except the reputation of valor and of mind. Hence it is that the fathers of these men, and ours also, and themselves, too, being thus nurtured in all freedom, and nobly born, have exhibited before all men many and glorious deeds, both in private and public, deeming it their duty to fight for freedom, and in behalf of Greeks even against Greeks, and against Barbarians in defence of Greeks combined. But such acts as no poet has yet thrown round them a renown suited to their worth, it seems I ought by praising to call to mind, and by introducing them to others make them a subject for strong and other kind of poetry, in the manner becoming the actors. When the Persians were taking their leave of Asia and attempting to enslave Europe, the children of this soil and our forefathers arrested their course. Now a person living at that period would have known what men of valor they were, who at Marathon punished the pride of all Asia and taught that all wealth and all numbers must yield to valor. I say then that these men were the fathers not only of our bodies, but of the liberty, likewise of ourselves and of all together on this continent."

Later on in the oration there was this touching passage ( Socrates, quoting Aspasia) : "It is meet, then, to hold in remembrance those two who died in that civil war by each other's hands, and to reconcile them as we best can, by offering prayers and sacrifices on these occasions to the deities, who now have them in their power, forasmuch as we, ourselves, are reconciled. For not through malice and hatred did they lay hands on each other, but through íheir evil fortune, for, being of the same family with them we have forgiven each other for what we have done and suffered.

"These were the words of those who lie buried here and the rest who have died for the state. Imagine, then, you hear them speaking what I now relate as their messenger : O children ! That ye are indeed the offspring of courageous fathers the present deed itself declares. For when it was in our power to live with dishonor, we chose to die with honor, rather than to bring you and those after you into disgrace, and shame our own fathers and all our ancestors, conceiving that to him that dishonors his family life is no life; and that to such a fellow there is no man or God upon earth a friend while living, nor under it when dead. It behooves you, then, to keep these our words in remembrance ; and if you practice anything else to practice it with valor, well knowing that, deficient in this, all other possessions and pursuits are base and wrong. For neither does wealth bring honor to him who possesses it with a want of manliness, since such a one is rich for another and not for himself, nor do beauty and the strength when they dwell with a coward and a knave, appear becoming, but unbecoming, rather, and make the possessor more conspicuous and show off his cowardice."

The orator concludes with a noble eulogy of the old proverb "Nothing too much" that is, moderation in all things. How that the man of moderation is the man of courage, such as they hold themselves to be; they there-fore entreat their sorrowing parents to adopt the same sentiments. "For our condition is about to have an end which is the most honorable among men; so that it is becoming rather to glorify than to lament it.* Keeping, then, these things in mind, you ought to bear your calamity more lightly, for then you will be most dear to the dead and living, and most ready to receive comfort.

"And now, do you and all the rest, having in common, according to custom, wept fully the dead, depart."

Menexenus : By Zeus, Socrates, you proclaim Aspasia to be a happy person if, being a woman, she is able to compose such speeches as these.

Socrates : If you do not credit it, follow me and you shall hear her speak it herself.

The plague as well as war now came upon Greece and the two sons of Pericles, by his first wife, died, and Pericles procured the passage of a law by which the children of illegal marriages might be made legitimate. His son by Aspasia was thus empowered to assume his father's name. The Peloponnesian war had reached only its second year when the great statesman died, and the remainder of Aspasia's history is too obscure to offer reasonable grounds for surmise. It is apparent, however, that to the last day of his life the pair stood together, in heart and deed, two of the very greatest souls, man and woman, that have taken each other by the hand on the public theater of the world.

If you look on the hills of Athens; if you see any building with pillars about it oblong in form; any Parthenon, anywhere, you see Pericles, the sublime of speech; who speaks to you with Phidias for amanuensis, and the chisel of Phidias for pen or stylus. As the Acropolis burst into architectural beauty and the Jupiter of Phidias gleamed with a rich nation's store of gold, the demagogues set up the cry of extravagance. "Put my name on these edifices," cried Pericles, "and I will pay their cost." Such was Pericles at the summit of august Athenia's glory. Had not Pericles builded, Byron could not have sung. And if you open the history of the Peloponnesian war, you may read the eleven chapters or paragraphs wherein Thucydides has embalmed the glorious remains of an eloquence that once stirred the pride of Attica and the alarm of Sparta Pericles, the genius of Democracy. He knew by instinct that the natural rule among men was the best. He corrected his own impatience, and held himself so dear to the sight of the citizens that they, improving their rare opportunities to hear him, dwelt seriously on the wise things which he advised. As no one at home could rival his genius, so the other Greek republics hearkened to their forebodings and began the war which ruined all. The plague, handmaiden of war, followed, and the Athenians, to increase their ills, humiliated their great heart.

But though Athens might spring upon her leader from the ambuscade of folly and ingratitude; though Pericles might be deprived of command and stripped of property, he still possessed the self-denying fidelity of Aspasia, and though Athens might afterward contritely restore him, whose absence endangered her poor security, he needed no reinstatement to that feminine devotion which he had both enjoyed and deserved. The love and esteem which Aspasia bore to Pericles silenced the scruples of woman-hood and defied the voice of scandal. She waived the honors which the statutes denied, and by her devotion to her lord and her fealty to Athens preserved in history a place among the great and virtuous women of the world.

Pericles and Aspasia law-makers, statesmen, demagogues, could not put them asunder ; history married them with the solemn march and ceremony of time; religion, patriotism, philosophy, art, and affection venerated and exalted their names; love, leading them through sorrow and disasters, which failed to reach their inner hearts, at last, with his golden arrow, inscribed their names upon the immortal scroll that lovers read with fond eyes forever.

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