Inside Iowa State
Nov. 7, 1997
Unlikely subject lands faculty member a national book award
by Steve Sullivan
You'd think the woman who taught philosophy to Socrates would be the subject of a shelf full of books. But, alas, only two have been written about Aspasia of Miletus.
The first was published nearly a century ago by a French scholar. The second, the only detailed study of Aspasia in English, was written by Madeleine Henry, associate professor and chair of foreign languages and literatures.
Henry's book, Prisoner of History: Aspasia of Miletus and Her Biographical Tradition, was named an Outstanding Academic Book of 1996 by Choice magazine, which reviews scholarly publications. Aspasia and Henry's book also were the subjects of a special panel at the 1996 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Henry describes herself as a "politicized radical feminist scholar." Her book has helped put the life of Aspasia in a new and possibly more positive light. While her name is not as familiar, Aspasia contributions and legend are on par with her ancient Greek counterparts, Cleopatra and Sappho, Henry said. Aspasia usually has been portrayed as a prostitute who got to hang around some legendary Greek guys.
Henry became aware of Aspasia in the 1970s as a grad student studying Greek comedy. Aspasia is mentioned in some of these works -- and not always flatteringly.
She also is the only real woman from history who serves as a character in dialogues by Plato. These, however, are the few sources of information on Aspasia and the ones that perpetuate the mythology that she may have been just a hanger-on. One writer referred to Aspasia as "Pericles' 'intellectual girlfriend.'"
But Aspasia is credited with teaching philosophy to Socrates, and politics and rhetoric to the Greek statesman Pericles, with whom she may have had children. How does a woman with these credentials come to be viewed as a prostitute and brainy-Greek groupie?
One explanation for Aspasia's image is that she was a resident alien in Athens. In 451 B.C., prior to meeting Aspasia, Pericles got a law passed that, to be a citizen of Athens, your parents had to be citizens of the Greek capital. Aspasia was a refugee from Miletus, which now is part of Turkey.
"As a resident alien, she could not have married. Her only choice was to become a wealthy concubine, which had a fairly high status prior to the citizenship law," Henry said.
That high status did not last after the law, however. Many Greeks likely came to frown upon Aspasia's station in life, as well as her relationship with Pericles. In the years following Pericles' death, references to Aspasia in Greek comedy became nastier.
Henry admits that her work did not reveal many "positives" about Aspasia, but it did cast doubt on some of the negatives, such as the "prostitute" label.
"I hope the book opens people to new ways of thinking about major sources for women's history, such as Greek comedy," Henry said. "The history of ideas is very powerful. Once a prejudice or idea takes hold, it becomes powerful.
"Many of the sources on Aspasia contain slanderous things about her. It is easy to accept that she was a prostitute, but not as easy perhaps to accept that she may have, in fact, made real contributions to philosophical thought," she said.
In the end, however, Henry's book is not just about Aspasia, but about all women of ancient history whose contributions have been forgotten, swept aside or inaccurately portrayed.
"You can't help but think about all the intelligent women of ancient history whose contributions got snuffed out," Henry said. "In a very real way, I wrote this book for all of these women."
The response the book has received in scholarly circles is especially gratifying for Henry, who had to fight for the opportunity to write it. She applied for a variety of fellowships and was turned down because evaluators felt there wasn't enough information about Aspasia to warrant a book. Henry eventually got her opportunity to pursue Aspasia's story, thanks to an ISU faculty improvement leave grant.
"The appearance of this book is a lesson in persistence," said Henry, who now is researching the prostitution of women in ancient Greece. "I felt I had something to say and really had to pursue the opportunity.
"I am very grateful for the faculty improvement leave the university gave me. Humanities people need space to think and write about things like this and the faculty improvement leave gave it to me."
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