You wouldn’t think that enthusiastic kissing would set off such a scandal. But even during the glory days of ancient Athens, it did. The couple caught in the act were celebrities around town; Pericles, the most brilliant political and military leader of his time; and Aspasia, the witty, well-spoken foreigner from the Greek city of Miletus.
Such public displays of affection were taboo in that era. And independent, eloquent women, even more so. Well-bred matrons shunned the public eye. Sneered at Aspasia, called her harlot and worse. Some secretly envied her, and the steadfast affection their leader had for her. Each morning, with the neighbors as witness, Pericles soundly kissed his love; and each evening, when he returned, he embraced her again before their jealous eyes. I’m willing to bet they had the most loving, full-bodied relationship of any couple we know from ancient times. Without being wed, either.
She was a many-faceted woman, Aspasia; deeply curious about life, a seeker of philosophical knowledge, she befriended Socrates and other men of note. Naturally this racy behavior made more trouble for her. Like her earlier Milesian countrywoman, the much-wed courtesan Thargelia, she weathered spiteful attacks from playwrights and politicians; shrugged them off.
Things grew worse as Athens got embroiled in conflict. First with the islanders of Samos, where Aspasia was accused of using womanly wiles to persuade Pericles to wage war against them. In 431 B.C., a war with Sparta erupted, turning the political climate even nastier.
Seeing her as a high-visibility scapegoat, opponents threw a charge of impiety (a vague but serious accusation) against Aspasia, which could have brought the death penalty. As a non-Athenian, she couldn’t even testify in her own defense. Pericles stepped up, making a tearful, impassioned plea about her innocence. Case dismissed!
More joy, mixed with tribulations, awaited. When her sweetheart was nearly 50, the two had a son together. Pericles longed to wed Aspasia; in a cruel irony, he’d passed legislation earlier that prohibited him from marrying a non-Athenian! Eventually, after some serious groveling, Pericles persuaded his fellow Athenians to amend the law so at least his son with Aspasia could become a citizen.
This devoted couple, gifted with such intelligence and spirit and bravery of love, had just two more years together before the Great Plague hit, tearing Pericles from her arms.
Little reliable testimony remains to tell us Aspasia’s story, and almost nothing from her point of view; but we can still hope for future finds. And relish the tatters we know of, the bold kisses we know they shared, defying the world around them.
Author and historical detective Vicki Leon has spent 40 years, joyously researching her passions, from unsung female achievers to the ancient world. Leon also aspires to be uppity but feels that her impertinence still needs work. (www.vickileon.com)