Ancient History & Civilisation

Thargelia of Miletus:
Mistress of the marriage-go-round

As the top-tier professionals of Aphrodite, the Greek sex goddess, heterae had their own stringent rules for business success: don’t fall in love with the johns, and (Hera forbid!) don’t marry the customers!

For years during the era of Persian king Cyrus the Great (576 to 530 B.C.), a spectacular courtesan named Thargelia topped the hetera popularity charts. Hailing from the Ionian Greek city-state of Miletus on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, Thargelia was gorgeous and then some. She also had a solid reputation for charisma, shrewdness, and brains; nevertheless, she kept ignoring her coworkers’ advice about marriage. According to the Greek sophist Hippias in his book A Collection, Thargelia tied the knot fourteen times!

Ms. T. wed a variety of well-known men and rulers, including Antiochus, the king of Thessaly. But all that pillow talk garnered her quite a bit more than wedding rings. The Mata Hari of her time and place, the spice in Thargelia’s life largely came from double-agenting, not sex or marriage proposals. Among her male allies (if not her spouses), she was said to have included Cyrus the Great, for whom she did spying and intrigue.

Greek historian Plutarch, in his Parallel Lives biography, noted that “Thargelia, a great beauty, extremely charming and at the same time sagacious, had numerous suitors among the Greeks. She brought all who had to do with her over to the Persian interest, and by their means, being men of the greatest power and station, she sowed the seeds of the Median [that is, Persian] faction up and down in several cities.”

Since the Greeks and the Persians were at each other’s throats for centuries, notably the fifty-year (with time-outs) Persian War, from 498 B.C. to a peace treaty in 449, small wonder that the Athenians and other citizens of Greek city-states came to regard Thargelia’s name as synonymous with “traitor.”

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Like Thargelia, her fellow citizen of Miletus, Aspasia was an independent female who lived for philosophy and politics. Athenians loved to slander this intimate companion of Pericles.

The Athenians had extra-long memories. Nearly two hundred years after Thargelia, another beauteous and clever woman from Miletus came under deep suspicion for her role in politics—and her influence on men of power.

Her name was Aspasia; although a well-educated woman and the longtime live-in lover of Pericles, Athens’ top politician and general, she was a non-Athenian and therefore a metic, or resident alien. As such, she was accused of persuading her man to wage war against the Greek island of Samos. Her alleged motive? The Samians had refused to call off their war against Miletus.

It helps to know that the city-states of the ever-belligerent Greeks fought nonstop with one another. Their quarrels often flamed into actual warfare, with resultant loss of life, atrocities, enslavements, and other gruesome outcomes. They hardly needed women such as Thargelia and Aspasia to incite them—but outspoken, sexually independent gals did make very convenient scapegoats. (And doubtless excellent spies, if they chose to be.)

Thargelia doesn’t seem to have incurred official wrath. But Aspasia, invariably compared to her countrywoman Thargelia, certainly did. During her twenty years with Pericles, she got slandered onstage and off by poets, playwrights, and politicians galore.

When Athens went to war with Sparta in 431 B.C., the political climate got even nastier. Accusers lobbed a trumped-up charge of impiety against Aspasia. This delightfully vague accusation about ticking off the gods could legally be made by any citizen. Someone found guilty of impiety could receive the death penalty. As a non-Athenian, Aspasia couldn’t even testify on her own behalf. Instead, her lover Pericles made an emotional plea regarding her innocence, and the case was dismissed.

Contempt for metics (and women who did not keep their lips buttoned) ran deep among the Athenians. Sadly, most of what little we “know” about Aspasia is malicious gossip, invention, and mud-slinging largely aimed at her dedicated love partner, Pericles. (More details about Aspasia in the entries Mediterranean on kissing and on Pericles and Aspasia as a couple.)

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