You think it’s tough being a single woman and a foreigner in our country today? Try being an unattached non-Athenian during that Greek city-state’s Golden Age, roughly 480 to 399 B.C. Aspasia, for example, a delightful and charismatic Greek who emigrated from Miletus in Asia Minor, continuously bumped up against Athenian sneers toward nonlocals.
Having a superb education and a gift for eloquence didn’t do much to improve Aspasia’s reputation, either. She may or may not have been a courtesan or hetera—the latter being a Greek term for the classiest female companions. She was certainly labeled those things, and epithets even coarser, such as harlot and brothel keeper.
Although we have very little in the way of reliable testimony about her, one fact does seem clear: she entered into a long and loving relationship with the most brilliant political and military leader that Athens ever had. She and Pericles had what may have been the most rewarding long-term affair between consenting heterosexuals. In Athens, that was saying something.
Athens had a Hall of Famer in Pericles: canny general, brilliant politician, and truly great husband material.
Because she was a non-Athenian, she and Pericles could never marry. Thus they were in a no-man’s land in terms of legal standing—unable to be a wife, she had a shadow existence as his mistress. In Rome, there existed a legal cohabitation called concubinage between a free man and a free woman who for some specific reason could not marry. Athens, however, did not recognize that sort of arrangement; Greek concubines were slaves, not free women.
On the other hand, the idea of marriage Athens-style would not have been very appealing from Aspasia’s point of view. She was a dame who could participate deeply in the political, intellectual, and creative life of her home city of Miletus, a place where women had more independence of movement, more options, more say-so.
In Athens, marriage was something that male citizens aged thirty and up dutifully did in order to beget legitimate offspring. Everyone wanted children, despite the risks. But in marriage, the typical Athenian lass went from childhood to bride to life as a secluded matron somewhere between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. Marriage partners were arranged by the families, based on connections, wealth, who had the most sublime ancestors, and how much dowry the girl’s family was able to offer. Love and affection were very low priorities, if considered at all.
After marriage, Athenian husbands could continue to patronize prostitutes and dally with slaves of either gender. Athens nightlife consisted of a round of dinner and drinking parties, where the guests were all males and various female sex workers were on offer, from flute girls and other entertainers to heterae. The latter were independent women, most of them non-Athenians like Aspasia, who could pick and choose their lovers. And often choose their male clients, who paid for the evening’s privilege of their lively conversation, sexy flirting, eye-candy appearance, and optional sexual services.
After marriage, Athenian wives stayed home. Whether newlywed or nearly dead, married women never ever got taken out to dinner. (The only exceptions? Women from poorer families who had to work to keep bread and feta on the table.) From time to time, husbands would spend evenings at home, usually with the goal of impregnating the little woman.
Given these polarized circumstances, love, affection, and even communication between married couples was probably in short supply.
Unlike today’s couples, Aspasia couldn’t effectively argue that she and Pericles should go live in her home city, where they could be married. He was Athenian and an important man in his city. Greeks were rooted to their homes, their birthplaces. (They still are, for that matter.)
Aspasia and Pericles went on to have a son together and probably did long to wed. Ironically, however, because of a law Pericles himself had passed, stipulating that Athenians could only wed other Athenians, he had legislated away that possibility! Aspasia never complained (that we know of) about the hardships of a relationship without formal recognition or rights, or those of Pericles Junior, who was born as his dad neared fifty years of age.
Pericles had two boys from a former marriage, both of whom he saw die in the Great Plague of 430 B.C. After he was no longer leader of Athens, an anguished Pericles did some hard groveling to persuade Athenians to amend the citizenship law so that his son with Aspasia could become a citizen and legitimate heir.
Tragically, in the autumn of 429 B.C. Pericles too was stricken—the victim of the second wave of the Great Plague. (Today’s scientists now think it was an epidemic of typhoid fever or, alternatively, of the ebola virus.) Aspasia survived him but did not witness two final tragedies: the death of her son Pericles, who’d become an Athenian general; and the suicide of Socrates, Aspasia’s firm friend and supporter.