[Bust of Aspasia, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, Vatican Museums]
[Source: Wikimedia Commons]
What we know as probably true is this: Aspasia was the daughter of Axiochus* and originally came from Miletus. She was extremely well educated and highly intelligent, which may have been part of the reason she caught the eye of Pericles shortly after she moved to Athens. The two of them lived together for the rest of his life and had a son, Pericles the Younger.* She behaved as no proper Athenian wife would, participating in discussions at the symposia.*** Public sentiment towards her was not always positive, and many seem to have blamed her when Athens embroiled itself in a war with Samos on behalf of her home city, Miletus.
Given the Greeks’ concern for the sexual tethering of their women, it is unsurprising that whether she was a hetaera (courtesan) remains up for debate. It is also entirely possible that she trained young hetaerae as well. Plutarch says, however, that she was so compelling a speaker that men would take their wives to hear her speak despite her disgraceful occupation.
Many scholars call the suggestion made by contemporary sources that she was a brilliant speechwriter and teacher of rhetoric who influenced the works of Socrates, Alcibiades, and Plato a joke. Perhaps it was. Perhaps it was a case of literate men hiding the fact that a smart woman who was willing to speak publically made them uncomfortable. Later writers like Plutarch and Cicero, however, took these claims seriously. We can never know the exact truth of Aspasia’s life or the claims made about her, but it’s not just her life that was important. The interpretation of later writers tells us that no matter what people in her own time though of her, she had an enduring reputation as a highly intelligent and influential woman.
*Not that we know anything for sure about him other than that he was Aspasia’s father.
**He went on to gain Athenian citizenship, become a general, and then get executed for leaving survivors of a naval battle to drown.
***Men’s drinking parties, where not only some of the behavior you would expect at a modern drinking party took place, but also philosophical discussions and political maneuvering.
Translations of Plutarch's "Life of Pericles" (24.1-6) [I would suggest using the find function]
Plutarch's Parallel Lives - Project Gutenberg (This contains all of Plutarch's Lives.)
Pericles - MIT (This page doesn't divide by sections.)
The Life of Pericles - Penelope.uchicago.edu
Plutarch, Life of Pericles 24.1 - Perseus
Aspasia - Wikipedia
Aspasia - Nexus
Aspasia - Ancient History Encyclopedia