τὴν δ᾽ Ἀσπασίαν οἱ μὲν ὡς σοφήν τινα καὶ πολιτικὴν ὑπὸ τοῦ Περικλέους σπουδασθῆναι λέγουσι· καὶ γὰρ Σωκράτης ἔστιν ὅτε μετὰ τῶν γνωρίμων ἐφοίτα, καὶ τὰς γυναῖκας ἀκροασομένας οἱ συνήθεις ἦγον ὡς αὐτήν, καίπερ οὐ κοσμίου προεστῶσαν ἐργασίας οὐδὲ σεμνῆς, ἀλλὰ παιδίσκας ἑταιρούσας τρέφουσαν… αὐτὸς [Περικλῆς] δὲ τὴν Ἀσπασίαν λαβὼν ἔστερξε διαφερόντως. καὶ γὰρ ἐξιών, ὥς φασι, καὶ εἰσιὼν ἀπ᾽ ἀγορᾶς ἠσπάζετο καθ᾽ ἡμέραν αὐτὴν μετὰ τοῦ καταφιλεῖν.
“Aspasia, some say, was courted and caressed by Pericles upon account of her knowledge and skill in politics. Socrates himself would sometimes go to visit her, and some of his acquaintances with him; and those who frequented her company would carry their wives with them to listen to her. Her occupation was anything but creditable, her house being a home for young courtesans… Pericles himself took Aspasia and loved her with wonderful affection; every day, both as he went out and as he came in from the marketplace, he saluted and kissed her. (Plutarch, Life of Pericles 24.3 and 5–6, tr. John Dryden)
What did Aspasia, the wife of Pericles and possibly the most important woman in 5th-century Athens, one famed for her intelligence and philosophical insight, actually look like? In light of Aspasia’s intellect, to question how she looked may seem vapid; however, it is a matter of some interest that we have no extant artworks that put into public consciousness how Aspasia appeared, while we have ubiquitous depictions of her contemporary, and indeed friend, Socrates: a stout, middle-to-old-aged bearded man with a snub nose and froglike bulging eyes.
Frustratingly, descriptions of Aspasia in texts written during her lifetime are absent: we scan Plato’s texts in vain for anything relating to how she might have looked; we are duly wary of the accounts of the comic playwrights, who were keen to portray Aspasia in the most sensational way possible for the sake of humour and also to disparage Pericles. These Athenian comedies are the first literary sources to mention Aspasia, and even then they choose instead to emphasise her sexuality, presumably for comic effect.
To take the most striking instance, Aristophanes’ Acharnians (425 BC) mentions the kidnapping of two of Aspasia’s pornai (sex workers). Yet there are no references to Aspasia having been a madame outside of Aristophanes, Cratinus and a couple of other comedians similarly motivated and similarly untrustworthy. We cannot, therefore, easily cross-reference artworks of Aspasia with texts written about her in her lifetime. It is an equally futile exercise to look at texts written in praise of Aspasia during times of political change long after the one in which she lived.
In spite of the dearth of contemporaneous material about how Aspasia might have looked, since ancient times she has almost always been written about in a flattering light. To take a more recent example, in the Victorian-era American serial The Ladies’ Repository, “a monthly periodical devoted to literature, arts, and religion,” the author waxes lyrical about what Aspasia might have looked like:
Her perfectly developed form, her neat and tasteful dress, her round full head, her black flashing eyes, her light olive cheek, dimpled by the fullness of health, with every facial curve expressly turned, as it would seem, by the hand divine, and all lighted up by the fire of an intellect created to instruct her age, she must have been regarded as a superior being in whatever sphere she moved. (Saturday Pencilings 6.12 (Dec. 1846) 359–60)
The above text, rather than being faithful to how Aspasia was portrayed in written accounts since antiquity (not least because there is no surviving ancient account of her appearance), seems to want Aspasia to embody female traits of 19th-century womanhood: the “neat and tasteful dress” in accordance with mid-19th-century ideals of female restraint and restriction in dress – the silhouette of the 1840s consisted of a long-waisted bodice; a dome-shaped skirt and tight, narrow sleeves.
Similarly, there exist several artworks said to depict Aspasia, created across many different epochs of history. Yet these inevitably reveal to us more about the age in which they were made than about the subject herself. Still, through observing them from a critical standpoint we may attempt to piece together a portrait or even a ‘shared vision’ of Aspasia through the eyes of those who have been inspired to depict her in art.
Both in her own time and even in the several centuries that followed, there is not much to go by. There exist a couple of marble busts said to be of Aspasia, which tally with each other at least in visual appearance, and which we must use as our starting point. A ‘head of Aspasia’ is displayed in the Old Royal Prussian Collection of the Antikensammlung – one of the most important collections of classical art in the world, held in the Altes Museum and Pergamon Museum in Berlin. This is noted to be a Roman copy of a 5th-century Greek original (now, it would seem, lost). In this work, Aspasia is lightly draped in a kalumma (head-veil), which covers the back of her head: her hair is still visible, boasting almost Botticellian waves. Aspasia here has a calm, almost grave expression; her lips, though full, reveal no sensuality, and her very straight nose is famously typical of statues of the period.
Similarly austere in facial expression is the bust of Aspasia that is now displayed in the Vatican: discovered in 1777, it is a marble herm and a Roman copy of a Greek original from the 5th century BC, and is said possibly to represent Aspasia’s funerary stele (now, of course, lost).
These busts would provide the prototype and reference for depictions of Aspasia in art over the centuries that followed – ancient, medieval and modern. Numerous engravings of these statues were included as frontispieces for Renaissance texts about Aspasia; her curly hair with the centre parting (as portrayed in both busts above and referred to as being in the ‘melon’ style) can be recognised in a 16th-century print housed in the British Museum; the description reads “An architectural façade with four caryatids and four telamones, a colossal bust of Aspasia above the doorway and two men gesturing below.” In the centuries that followed the Renaissance, however, Aspasia would gain something of a new lease of life in the depictions of her that flowered in the 18th and 19th centuries.
To show how their attitudes varied, let us look at three portrayals of Aspasia in art: the painting Socrates Seeking Alcibiades at the house of Aspasia by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1861); Aspasia Surrounded by Greek Philosophers, a painting by Michel Corneille (1670); and finally Aspasia a sketch by French artist Eugène Delacroix (c.1820).
In her 1994 article “Sex, Lies and Manuscript: Refiguring Aspasia in the History of Rhetoric”, Cheryl Glenn describes how Jean-Léon Gérôme portrayed Aspasia in his painting Socrates seeking Alcibiades at the house of Aspasia (1861). She gives particular attention to how Aspasia is shown reclining: in a seductive pose, she is draped over Alcibiades’ lap, her back bared, her hair in an ornate chignon, her hand clasped to her mouth in a dainty, feminine manner, as though she has just been told the most titillating bit of gossip. Glenn relates how the artist has chosen to depict Aspasia as an odalisque – a female slave or concubine in a harem. Not shown are Aspasia’s powers in holding court among her equals and “betters”: here she is merely a pretty plaything; a mute companion; a living doll, depicted as part of the wider tradition of the 19th-century art movement of Orientalism.
Socrates can be seen to the right of the painting, a bearded old man. We raise an eyebrow at this, knowing that Socrates was Aspasia’s contemporary and not her elder, although she here is shown in the flower of youth. I agree with Glenn that this depiction of Aspasia debases her as a person: she is stripped of her agency, portrayed only as a decorative prop. As this goes clearly against what ancient written accounts of Aspasia say about her, we cannot consider this a good likeness in which her personality shines through. Nevertheless, given the inevitable separation between looks and personality, it is possible that we as viewers, in determining that this is not a good ‘likeness’, are in fact deviating into the realms of physiognomy.
The painting is, however, a product that testifies more to the circumstances of its creation than to its chosen subject. It was commissioned by Sultan Abdulaziz, who ruled in Ottoman Turkey between 1861 and 1876. Born in (then) Constantinople, Abdulaziz received an Ottoman education but was nevertheless an ardent admirer of Western art: he was the first sultan to travel to Western Europe, visiting a number of important European capitals in 1867, including Paris, London and Vienna. Later, Abdulaziz would become a champion for the arts: impressed by the museums in Paris, Abdulaziz would order the establishment of an imperial museum in Istanbul: the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. As Sultan Abdulaziz had his own harem, it may well be that he chose to build on the Athenian comedian tradition of Aspasia being a brothel-keeper to elevate her status to that of a sultan’s favourite concubine: beautiful to look at, and with stimulating conversational gambits.
Contrast this painting with images depicting Aspasia made closer to her own time: a bronze relief from Pompeii, now in the National Museum of Naples, shows her seated with an attendant Eros, who holds what appears to be a vanity case. Socrates appears just nearby, holding and indeed held up by his staff. However “womanly” and inconsequential Aspasia’s depicted action may seem – the undertaking of her toilet is rendered a ritual of importance, given the alertness with which Aspasia views Socrates – she does not bow her head in a show of modesty, nor hide behind her hand a la Aspasia of Jean-Léon Gérôme, but rather her glance is upturned and quizzical, as if to match Socrates’ own quick wit. For centuries, the female figure shown was assumed to be a priestess called Diotima: she was mentioned in Plato’s Symposium, when Socrates reports what she has taught him about love to the assembled guests. However, there is no information about Diotima outside of Plato’s text, and Armand D’Angour’s 2019 book Socrates in Love suggests that the character of Diotima was a stand-in for Aspasia herself.
Aspasia is portrayed very differently in Aspasia surrounded by Greek philosophers, a painting by Michel Corneille the Younger (1670). Here, Aspasia is the embodiment of dignity as she presides over an assembly of philosophers, all craning forward as though rapt by her insights.
Corneille (1642–1708) was a member of the French Royal Academy and painted for King Louis XIV at Versailles and Fontainebleau. To have the patronage of a French king, and especially during one of the country’s most brilliant periods, was no small matter: although the Sun King ruled some 20 million subjects, his building of Versailles was regarded as extravagant even by its proudest supporters. That this painting of Aspasia was commissioned to be displayed in Versailles attests to the prestige that she held in that age.
In terms of appearance, Corneille’s Aspasia is almost Madonna-like: the brilliant blue colour of her cloak is reminiscent of ultramarine. This substance was typically used for the mother of Jesus, as it was the rarest colour in the palette, more expensive than gold and made from lapis lazuli (“the stone of heaven”), a mineral mined in Afghanistan. The scroll in Aspasia’s hand denotes her learnedness; her finger pointing heavenwards evokes Leonardo da Vinci’s St John the Baptist (1513/16), who holds the same pose: the pointing gesture of the latter suggests the importance of salvation. Perhaps here Corneille wishes to include Aspasia in the tradition of theological thought: in looking at the painting, viewers may consider Aspasia’s discussion with the surrounding philosophers as one that touches upon the soul, the afterlife and metaphysics. A couple of centuries – and Revolutions – later, another French artist would depict Aspasia again. In doing so, he would strip her of both a Grecian landscape and any surrounding philosophers. His name was Eugène Delacroix.
A simple pencil drawing on paper by the painter, draughtsman, aquarellist and pioneering photographer Eugène Delacroix shows a woman in dress typical in the early-to-mid-19th-century France: titled Aspasia, the piece resides in the collection of the Louvre Museum. Its simplicity lies partly in the fact that it was a preparatory sketch for a painting, again entitled Aspasia, which was completed in around 1824. That work is a formal-style portrait in oils on canvas, which gives a rather dark, sombre feel to it. In front of a muted, muddy-coloured background, the sitter appears to rest upright in a carver-style chair, hair loose behind her shoulders, bosom exposed by a white chemise seemingly falling to the ground.
To see the painting is to see Aspasia looking cowed: she regards us, the viewer, with an air of suspicion and maybe a soupçon of fatigue. This look is carried over from the pencil sketch, in which the sitter views the onlooker from something of a contrapposto pose, her eyelids relaxed, her mouth betraying very little hint of emotion. In fact, she perhaps indicating the so-called ‘archaic smile’, which we interpret in the modern day to be an actual (if muted) smile, with the lips being gently upturned;, and with a general expression that seems immutable. The term originates from the expressions perceived on kouroi (Ancient Greek κοῦρος, plural kouroi), the modern term given to free-standing ancient Greek sculptures of nude male youths which first appear in the Archaic period of Greece. The ‘archaic smile’, it is said, was indicative not that the kouroi were happy but rather that it was intended that they appear alive and well.
Delacroix would have been in his early twenties when he painted Aspasia: he had studied at the Lycée Pierre Corneille in Rouen, where he steeped himself in classical literature, before training as an artist with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, whose work included many classical subjects and themes such as Aeneas relating to Dido the disasters of Troy (now in the Louvre) and Phaedra and Hippolytus (also in the Louvre).
It is hard to mention Delacroix without thinking of his most influential work, Liberty leading the people. Painted in 1830, this famous work commemorates the July Revolution of that year and depicting Parisians marching forward together under the Tricolore in the footsteps of a symbolic female figure, Liberty. Holding the flag aloft and advancing over the bodies of slain warriors, she glances back at the people with a look of both solidarity and encouragement. Her breasts are bared; she is shoeless; her hair is roughly combed back and, upon it, she sports the Cap of Liberty. Her dress is that of a classical goddess: a stola made up of swathes of white and pale yellow fabric billowing about her form, fastened casually at the waist with a crimson tie. Delacroix illuminates the whole figure of Liberty: she is the only way forward, for to go back is to return to the blustery smoke and darkness of the hinterland depicted in the background of the scene.
The feminine ideal for Delacroix and his contemporaries, then, was a far cry from Pericles’ silent and unspoken-of woman, but instead a glowing steward and inspiration in times of great unrest and upheaval. It is little wonder, we might think, that the artist chose to portray Aspasia looking so bold, even if she does seem to exude an air of tiredness and suspicion. Her décolleté is perhaps indicative of her freedom in a wider, more meaningful sense: like Liberty, Aspasia represents the freedom awarded by the power of knowledge, and as such she does not need to cover her body as the sitter of a portrait of a noblewoman might; instead, her physical form is representative of an allegorical ideal, and cannot be constrained by mortal clothing. Of course, it is possible that Delacroix wanted to draw attention to Aspasia’s seductive nature by revealing her décolleté, but the spirit of the times in which he lived was such that it is impossible to conclude that such suggestiveness was his sole, or even primary, intent.
Of all the artworks depicting Aspasia that we have knowledge of today, Delacroix’s Aspasia is, to me, the most powerful. It challenges us to view Aspasia upfront and personal: there is no intermediary, no male figure present to mitigate her raw power. We have to decide, while holding Aspasia’s gaze, what we are to make of her; how we are to interact with her; what the balance of power is to be.
Frances Forbes-Carbines is an art critic and has previously written for UnHerd, the Daily Telegraph and the Art Newspaper. She holds an MA in Classics from the University of Bristol and is a life model for art classes, specialising in poses found in the statuary of 5th-century Athens.
The painting at the head of this article is Henry Holiday’s Aspasia on the Pnyx (1888), now in the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre in London.
Madeleine M. Henry, Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition (Oxford UP, 1995).
Armand D’Angour, Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher (Bloomsbury, London, 2019).
Cheryl Glenn, “Sex, lies, and manuscript: refiguring Aspasia in the history of rhetoric,” College Composition and Communication 45 (1994) 180–99.