Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition

Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition

Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition

Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition

Synopsis

According to legend, Aspasia of Miletus was a courtesan, the teacher of Socrates, and the political adviser of her lover Pericles. Next to Sappho and Cleopatra, she is the best known woman of the ancient Mediterranean. Yet continued uncritical reception of her depiction in Attic comedy and naive acceptance of Plutarch's account of her in his Life of Pericles prevent us from understanding who she was and what her contributions to Greek thought may have been. Madeleine Henry combines traditional philological and historical methods of analysis with feminist critical perspectives, in order to trace the construction of Aspasia's biographical tradition from ancient times to the present. Through her analysis of both literary and political evidence, Henry determines the ways in which Aspasia has become an icon of the sexually attractive and politically influential female, how this construction has prevented her from taking her rightful place as a contributor to the philosophical enterprise, and how continued belief in this icon has helped sexualize all women's intellectual achievements. This is the first work to study Aspasia's biographical tradition from ancient Greece to the present day.

Excerpt

The decline of Athens after the end of the Peloponnesian War would see the demise of tragedy as a viable art form and the movement of comedy from its major bases of surrealism and sexualized political invective to a greater focus on domestic drama and mythological travesty. The nascent form of philosophical dialogue adopted motifs from both tragedy and comedy in its use of historical and mythological characters to articulate and argue its own generic points of view. Many such dialogues were set in the heyday of Athens' greatness; therefore, some of the same individuals who were historical actors and comic butts in the fifth century reappeared as participants in philosophical discourse.

The Socratic dialogues of the fourth century, the next locus of Aspasia's bios, took up the comic claim that Pericles spoke with Aspasia's tongue. The function of female characters in Greek drama has been thoroughly, though certainly not definitively, discussed by many scholars; but study of the function of female characters in philosophical discourse and the intersection of these characters with philosophical definitions of femaleness and femininity is rather new terrain. In the fourth century, Aspasia's biographical tradition becomes centrally entwined with these dialogic discussions of politics, sexuality, and gender, and it may be central to them. These conversations have a particularly Athenian cast, however, in that philosophical discourse almost exclusively represents male discussants engaged in an examination of the good life as lived in a community dominated by men. Perhaps philosophical discourse's long neglect of feminist concerns is due both to philosophy's self-validating claim to objectivity, which functions as a . . .

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