Pericles' Funeral Oration...or was it Aspasia's?

In 430B.C., at the end of the first year of the war against the Spartans, the Athenians gathered, according to their custom, for a commemoration service in honor of their fallen.

Pericles stepped forward, and proceeded to deliver possibly the greatest speech we have from the ancient world. There are speeches from Rome to compare, but none is as well known as Pericles' Funeral Oration.

Pericles not only praised the dead, but set forth everything that Athens was, and hoped to be, everything that made an Athenian proud of his city: the democracy, equality of all men under law, freedom of speech, and their open society. It all sounds remarkably modern. This is the speech in which Pericles called Athens, "the school of Greece," a phrase which reverberated through history so strongly that 1,900 years later during the Renaissance, Michaelangelo et al. were referred to as belonging to the school of Athens. It's also where Pericles said, "the whole earth is the tomb of heroes."

The only comparable speech in history would be the Gettysburg Address. The parallels are so strong, some people have speculated how much Pericles may have influenced Lincoln. Though Pericles's speech is much longer, the structure of the two is almost identical.

Except...it might not have been Pericles influencing Lincoln. It might have been his girlfriend, Aspasia.

Aspasia of Miletus was, to put it mildly, a remarkable woman. She probably arrived in Athens as a hetaera: a combination of high class prostitute and salon hostess. The rich and powerful of Athens clamoured to get invitations to the parties held by the best hetaerae. The hetaerae were the only women in Athens with access to a good education; they needed it, to be able to recite poetry, sing, play music, discuss the affairs of the day with the men running things, and keep those men amused. What set Aspasia apart from the others was that she was very, very smart, and her particular skill was rhetoric.

Pericles met Aspasia at some point in the 440s, presumably at one of those parties, and fell madly in love with her. It's not known whether they formally married, but Aspasia was very happy to put away her old profession and move in with him. They remained a close couple until the day he died. In fact, it was an open scandal that every morning, Pericles was seen to kiss Aspasia goodbye at the door to their house, before he set off for work. The scandal was not that Pericles had taken up with a hooker, but that we was pashing her in public; definitely not the done thing in those days.

Aspasia's brilliance shone through at once, to the point at which men like Socrates turned up at Pericles' house to talk with her, not him. Socrates credited Aspasia with being his teacher in rhetoric. Interestingly for anyone who's read my first book (not many yet, but we're working on it...), the only other woman Socrates credits among his teachers is a certain priestess from Mantinea, called Diotima.

After Pericles had delivered the Funeral Oration, the rumor went round that Aspasia, not Pericles, had written it.

We know the rumor because Plato passed it on in his book Menexenus, which relates the usual Socratic dialogue between Socrates and...you guessed it...Menexenus. Starting from section 235e, from the Perseus Digital Library, it says:

Menexenus
And do you think that you yourself would be able to make the speech, if required and if the Council were to select you?

Socrates
That I should be able to make the speech would be nothing wonderful, Menexenus; for she who is my instructor is by no means weak in the art of rhetoric; on the contrary, she has turned out many fine orators, and amongst them one who surpassed all other Greeks, Pericles, the son of Xanthippus.

Menexenus
Who is she? But you mean Aspasia, no doubt.

Socrates
I do and; also Connus the son of Metrobius; for these are my two instructors, the one in music, the other in rhetoric. So it is not surprising that a man who is trained like me should be clever at speaking. ...[snip]... but I was listening only yesterday to Aspasia going through a funeral speech for these very people. For she had heard the report you mention, that the Athenians are going to select the speaker; and thereupon she rehearsed to me the speech in the form it should take, extemporizing in part, while other parts of it she had previously prepared, as I imagine, at the time when she was composing the funeral oration which Pericles delivered; and from this she patched together sundry fragments.

Menexenus
Could you repeat from memory that speech of Aspasia?

Socrates
Yes, if I am not mistaken; for I learnt it, to be sure, from her as she went along.

Plato(!) has just said that Aspasia wrote the most important speech of the ancient world. Now Plato put many of his own words into Socrates' mouth, but he has no axe to grind here, the odds are fair he is reporting something Socrates actually said, and Socrates was in a position to know the truth of which of them wrote it. Furthermore, among Plato's readers were certainly men who had stood before Pericles when he delivered the speech. There's no way Plato could have got away with this claim unless it was a common belief.

It's easy to see how this could happen. Imagine you are Pericles; you have an important speech coming up, but you also have to run a city in a dire state of war. At home, your wife just happens to be the world's greatest living exponent of rhetoric. Why would you not, when you got home that night, say, "Honey, run me up a speech, will you?"

Though we can never know for certain, the evidence is strong that the speech which defined the legacy of Athens was written by a former high class hooker from Miletus.



1 comment:

Taymalin said...

Awesome post Gary--I love hearing about the contributions of women in Ancient Greece. I'm fairly ignorant on the topic, apparently I've been reading too much Hesiod and not enough Plato.