Athens, Greece – 342-328 BCE
“Who is that man – the one with the large head?” Aspasia asked, in a confidential tone, standing beside Aristophanes, the playwright.
They stood on a terrace in front of a splendid Athenian mansion, under brilliant Mediterranean moonlight. The terrace was lit by lanterns, filled with an animated crowd of men and beautiful women, all talking excitedly, exchanging the gossip of the city. This was a symposia – an elite soiree where the town’s most expensive courtesans mingled with leading citizens – statesmen, soldiers, artists, athletes, philosophers, and even a few wives who did not mind being seen out with their husbands in the courtesans’ world, a peculiar niche where women and men, for a short time, could converse almost as equals.
“Who’s that man? You mean old Squill-top?” Aristophanes laughed, for the man in question had a head like a sea-onion. “Why, that’s Pericles. He’s the scion of one of the city’s leading families – and the leader of the populists, ever since his political mentor, Ephialtes, was assassinated.”
“Is he rich?” Aspasia smiled, and in a flirtatious voice added, “You must forgive me, Aristo, for asking such questions – I’m not from here.”
The playwright scoffed, for everyone in Athens, by now, knew of the city’s most beautiful new ornament, the hetaerae Aspasia, from Miletus.
“Yes, he’s rich,” Aristophanes admitted, “but he’s not a big spender, so don’t get your hopes up.”
“Hopes?” Aspasia laughed. “So, you say he’s a politician?”
“Oh, yes – very much,” Aristophanes replied. “Some would say he’s a fine orator, though personally I find it difficult to get past the fact that I disagree intensely with everything he says.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I don’t believe in placating the mob simply to have their support,” Aristophanes said. “In the Ecclesia they tell lies and twist the truth in an effort to win votes. At least in the theatre I put the truth into the mouths of my performers, and I don’t have to worry about how the crowd feels about it.”
“You do if they stop coming to your plays,” Aspasia smiled. “I will spare you my argument as to why a play, by its very nature, can never be ‘true’ in any proper sense.”
“Oh, they won’t stop coming – that’s the beauty of the theatre,” Aristophanes laughed. “You rich folk come to see if I’ve put you in my plays, to be praised or castigated in some thin disguise, and the poor folk come because it’s free entertainment, subsidized by the state. That was Pericles’ idea, if you must know – letting the rabble into the theatre with free tickets. I write plays intended for a select, discriminating audience, and my actors and actresses must endure the hooting and hollering of country bumpkins, oarsmen, dockworkers, and fishwives.”
“Well,” Aspasia smirked, “I should like to meet him, anyway. As you know, rhetoric is one of my talents.”
“But is he not old and ugly, Aspasia?”
“Beauty – male or female – is easy to come by in Athens,” she replied. “All the most talented people in Greece end up here. Why not? This is where things happen, isn’t it? This is the city ruled by its demos – the city of seafaring scholar-warriors, who defeated the Persians through sheer patriotic bravery....”
“With a little help from the Spartans,” Aristophanes chuckled.
“Oh, please,” Aspasia said, dismissively. “Do not praise the Spartans. That’s like attributing the kill to the dog instead of the hunter. What are the Spartans, anyway? A nation of armed paupers – they don’t even use money. They’re barbarians. They fight like Titans, but they have minds like sheep.”
“I can see why this lack of money – all this Spartan altruism and discipline – would arouse contempt among courtesans. You come to Athens like moths to a flame. The artists, the philosophers, we’re all just background. The real draw is the money, isn’t it?”
“Aristo,” she sighed, “sometimes your efforts to be witty are simply crass. Most of us come to Athens because we’re kidnapped, or because our families are destitute. Anyway, d’you not think intelligent men are desirable?”
“You might want to ask Socrates. Men aren’t exactly my forte. Despite what the Spartans think, not every man in Athens is homosexual.”
“Brawny, beautiful men I can have any time – even in Athens,” Aspasia replied. “We courtesans, as you know, are great supporters of the Olympics.”
They both laughed, for it was true. The hetaerae were always prominently displayed at the Games, sitting in the best, most visible seats of the arena, cheering on their favourites.
* * *
Pericles was in his fifties when he met Aspasia, who was half his age. All his life, he had been a frugal man, despite his money. Like his opponents of the conservative party in the Ecclesia, he was rich, but unlike them he did not employ his fortune to buy votes. He preferred to win his political battles through persuasion and careful planning, even if it took time. Pericles was also a rather traditional man, despite his tendency to champion the rights of those Athenian citizens who were less fortunate than he. For instance, he believed strongly in the old idea that the perfect wife was a woman unknown to the external world – never seen, never heard of, never spoken of. He believed that the world belonged to men, and he also felt that Athens was being overrun by foreigners. To this end – and to provide a measure of safety for poorer citizens – he had urged the Ecclesia to pass a law restricting full Athenian citizenship only to those who could prove Athenian ancestry on both sides of their family for several generations.
But then Pericles met Aspasia, a woman unlike any he had ever imagined finding in the real world – the sort of woman one only read about in the ancient tales of Homer. She was as unlike a dreary, uneducated Athenian upper-class housewife as anyone could be, but he was wary. He had heard all about hetaerae – these courtesans were imported into the city from all over Greece and the Aegean, purchased as young girls and brought up, carefully trained by enterprising madams. Sometimes, however, educated girls from good families were drugged and abducted. Whatever had happened to them, the goal of hetaerae was to ensnare rich men, to which end the city’s madams opened up their brothels to anyone who was wealthy or interesting. Pericles did not normally attend these symposia. The politicians he already knew, as well as the philosophers and athletes, and the playwright Aristophanes... well, he was not to be trusted. As for Aspasia, he had heard she was from Miletus, and well-educated, but that was all. What he did not realize was how seductive it could be, how utterly overwhelming, to share a mental spark with a woman.
It was not long before Pericles became Aspasia’s lover. He was besotted, so much so that his own marriage soon crumbled. Undeterred, he arranged a divorce, permitting his wife to remarry, and resolutely – despite the fact that people laughed at him for it – he moved in with Aspasia, the metic – Aspasia the foreigner.
* * *
Pericles had made enemies when he was just beginning his political career. He had attempted to tear down Cimon, the leader of the conservative party, and at one point had the hoary old admiral ostracized – exiled from the city. For many years, however, as his influence increased, Pericles moved from strength to strength, and the conservatives could not resist him. He was a charismatic speaker, and he could demolish almost any argument. But as he grew older, like most aging men he became vain and vulnerable. He also became a target for younger men, like Cleon, populists in their own right who felt that he was becoming too powerful.
“Has not Pericles, abusing his office as strategos and leader of the majority party, wasted an enormous fortune, too great for ordinary men to fathom, on bricks and mortar?” Cleon cried out on the Ecclesia floor, surrounded by raucous, shouting assemblymen. “And who should have the contract for this building-spree on the Acropolis? Why, Pericles’ friend, Phidias – and is it any wonder, citizens, that this Phidias now lies in prison on a charge of embezzlement? Nay, not just stealing from the public treasury, mind, but stealing the very gold intended to adorn the holy statue of Athena, divine Protectress of our city. This is not just thievery, gentlemen, it is impiety!”
“How much money are we talking about?” someone asked.
“Are you asking about what Pericles has wasted, or what Phidias stole from the Goddess?”
Laughter erupted all over the Ecclesia, but there also were angry shouts from Pericles’ supporters.
“As I understand it,” someone shouted, “Pericles has spent the equivalent of seven years’ tribute from the allies of the Delian League. And – we are told – the project – this Parthenon – is not even near completion.”
“Money is one thing, comrades, but what about the honour of our wives and daughters, which cannot be recovered, once lost?” This outburst solicited vociferous supporting shouts. “This Aspasia woman, a metic from Miletus, a whore, who has borne a son to Pericles, has she not enticed freeborn Athenian ladies – the very daughters, even, of men in this very room – to satisfy the perverted lusts of her paramour? She is a brothel-keeper, for the love of all the Olympian gods!”
“Indeed, is Miletus a client state of Athens, or is Athens to become a client of Miletus? How can we be certain that Athens’ foreign policy is our foreign policy if this woman, this foreigner, Aspasia, with her renowned powers of persuasion, enjoys secret nocturnal counsel with our strategos?”
Cleon nodded, and shouted, “We don’t really even know who she is – who is she working for, really, this Aspasia? The last Miletan hetaerae to bewitch the men of Athens with her charms, after all, turned out to be a Persian spy, didn’t she? I don’t think I need remind everyone in the Ecclesia that Pericles – who humiliated, for political gain, Cimon, one of the heroes of the Persian War – how this man’s family tried to stab our city in the back and sell us out to the Persians!”
“Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” chanted the opposition members of the assembly. The Ecclesia was not formally split into parties, but the factions that divided the men of Athens were of long standing, some of them going all the way back to the revolution and reforms that had begun the city’s transformation into a democracy.
Pericles himself finally, stood, trembling with rage, and shouted, “Alright! Alright, you’ve had your fun. Now – let us debate this like Athenian men – like the most intelligent men in Greece! Yes, because this city-state used to have a reputation for learning, although I don’t see very much of that present today! You attack a woman behind her back – how courageous! Now, I dare you, attack me to my face!”
“Can you give us an accounting of how much has been squandered on the redevelopment of the Acropolis?” Cleon inquired.
“Yes, but I object to the word ‘squandered’,” Pericles replied. “Is the greatness of Athens, which the whole world acknowledges – even the Persians – to be contrasted with the narrow, cramped public facilities of a second-rate provincial town? A great city requires great architecture. A city is more than a place to live: a great city is an idea – not some squalid notion, but a grand and inspiring idea. A great city has a spirit – a genius, if you will – and our spirit is embodied in our clever Goddess, white-armed Athena, and should she not, fellow citizens, have her due? Do we not owe a fitting recognition of her protection, her guidance, and the proof of her deliverance of our people from certain destruction, which the fathers of everyone here witnessed when the Persian fleet was defeated at Salamis? The glory of the daughter of Zeus is reflected in us, and it ought to be reflected in the kind of city we build.”
“Sparta has plenty of glory, but no great architecture – do we really need this new Acropolis?” someone asked. “Sparta is content to allow her glory to be seen in her people.”
Pericles scoffed. “Although I admit that I count King Archidamus of Sparta among my friends, I am too enamoured of my own country to compare myself with a Spartan!”
“I think you’re enamoured of Miletus, friend!” Cleon laughed.
“Let the Spartans leave their valiant deeds to history; mostly, they will be forgotten, because the Spartans have no scholars. What the world will know about them will exist only because Athenian historians did the telling. The destiny of Athens is to be remembered for deeds and works, and to leave our history writ on parchment and in stone. Yes, the Acropolis project is costly, but it is an investment in our city infrastructure that is long overdue, it is a gift to posterity, and it is of great financial benefit to the people of the city. After all, this money that is being spent is going to the workmen – to the people of the city. Why should it simply sit in the treasury, gathering dust? I submit to you, if you are really listening, and if you can understand it: money, especially public money, has no value unless it’s spent.”
The Ecclesia fell silent. Everyone was staring at Pericles, and also thinking.
“However,” he finally said, “if you still think I have spent too much to honour the Goddess of our city, the very Goddess who has made us prosperous, then I have a proposal for you: I will pay for the entire Acropolis out of my own personal fortune. But if I do, all of the inscriptions will be mine, made in my name. And, some day, people will look back and call this the Golden Age of Pericles. The rest of you will be forgotten.”
To this threat, no one offered any response. Slowly and wearily, exhausted by his effort, Pericles sat down, and after a moment of stunned silence, his supporters leaped to their feet, shouting and cheering. Their strategos had won yet another battle.
* * *
Pericles weathered the storm of slander, although he and Aspasia had to sit through more than one mocking scene in the plays of Aristophanes, being the target of the playwright’s jokes and jibes, trying to maintain their dignity while the crowd laughed at them.
“I am sorry,” Pericles muttered, turning to his lover.
“Don’t be – they mock you because you’re a great man, and they are all small, petty men,” Aspasia replied. “As for me, they’re all jealous, that’s all. I can only feel pity for them.”
Phidias, however, was so ashamed by the accusations laid at his feet that he fell into a deep depression and died in prison, awaiting trial.
Although there were those who gossiped and made snide remarks about Pericles and Aspasia, the evidence of their love was difficult to ignore. They said that Pericles kissed her at least twice every day – once going out to attend to his duties, and again upon coming home: he never went anywhere, socially, unaccompanied by Aspasia. They were the model couple, despite the difference in their ages, and – not surprisingly – one day a pair of newlyweds who were not getting along came to Aspasia for advice. The wife complained that her husband was ogling other women, and had been unfaithful, while the husband retorted that his wife, although pretty, was boring and constantly finding fault.
“Socrates says we ought to find the answers to problems by asking questions,” Aspasia began, “so here is a question for you: when the wife of your neighbour has nicer clothes than you do, are you not jealous?”
“Of course, I am,” the young wife said. “Who wouldn’t be?”
“When her husband treats her better than your man treats you, do you not wish he was your husband, instead?”
She was silent, eyes downcast.
“And you, sir – if your neighbour rides up to his house on a much finer horse than yours, are you not jealous?”
“And are you not jealous when you find out his wife is prettier than yours?”
“I don’t understand,” the young woman said, and to Aspasia’s amusement, her visitors looked at each other, perplexed.
“The reason you don’t get on is simple: you both want what you don’t have – and that’s never going to change. If you always want something better, you’ll never have anything that satisfies you. And, let’s face it, if your ideals are that high, does it not stand to reason that you ought to measure up to them? You, sir, should not expect a beautiful lady to love a man who’s balding, with a pot-belly. What makes you think you deserve physical perfection in a woman when you obviously don’t prize it in yourself? And you, my dear, should not expect Adonis to fall in love with a shrew. The key to marital happiness, my friends, is to learn to love something or someone you can have, and to make yourself lovable. You have each other: you should make each other your ideal, and if that’s not possible, accept that and go your separate ways.”
* * *
Trouble, meanwhile, was brewing all over the Aegean and across Greece. After the defeat of the Persian invaders, the city of Athens had established a defensive alliance called the Delian League, headed by itself as the strongest naval power among the city-states. Rather quickly, however, this alliance turned into an Athenian hegemony. Athens forced its will upon the subordinate members of the alliance through influence, threats, and finally force. In particular, Athens required the allied states to pay tribute each year – payments intended, ostensibly, for the maintenance of the large fleet necessary to protect Greece from another Persian invasion. The more courageous allies, however, found the tribute payments irksome – they were more expensive than the cost of facing the Persians alone. These states complained to Sparta, the only other state in Greece powerful enough to do anything about the problem. Athens, in retaliation, sent fleets to chastise its wayward allies and bring them back into line. Megara, for instance, was blockaded and denied access to the ports of Athens and all her allies – a measure that nearly ruined the city, and one so unprecedented in Greek history that the Spartan assembly finally was moved to act.
“The Spartans have sent us an ultimatum,” Cleon said, addressing the Ecclesia. “They say we must no longer impose our will on the allies. They also say the allies should be bound to the Delian League voluntarily – able to withdraw at their pleasure.”
Pericles looked rather weary, but roused himself to speak. “I think it ought to be clear enough to us all that Sparta’s only interest in this matter is to use the allies’ refusal to pay their share of the mutual defence tax as a means of breaking up the Delian League – why? Because then Sparta would become the most powerful city-state in Greece, or so the Spartans think.”
The use of the words ‘Spartan’ and ‘think’ in the same sentence caused some laughter, but although he smiled, sharing the jest, Pericles raised his hand, soliciting quiet.
“Yes, the Spartans do have brains,” he smiled. “Remember, they are clever – they are raised like wolves, and they have the predatory instincts and savage skills of wolves. We must always be very careful in our dealings with the Spartans for that very reason. King Archidamus has sent us an ultimatum. What does that mean? It means that the Spartan advisory council and assembly have determined that they are ready to go to war, which is to say they are ready to fight us. But they can only fight well on land: Sparta’s strength lies in her army, not her navy. Therefore, as far as I am concerned, the moment they move their troops in our direction, we must consider ourselves to be at war. And I, for one, refuse to receive any embassy King Archidamus may send once Spartan troops are in the field.”
The Spartan army was mobilized and marched to the Isthmus of Corinth, to join the other forces of the Spartan alliance, the Peloponnesian League. King Archidamus, who really had no ardent desire to fight Athens, waited at Corinth, sending envoys to Athens, to broker a peace settlement, but Pericles turned them away. Now that war had begun, the Ecclesia no longer gathered to debate anything – all power was handed over to the ten strategos of the city, headed by Pericles. Together, they formed a council of war.
“Our plan,” Pericles explained, “is to avoid any serious, direct confrontations with the Spartan army. King Archidamus wants an easy victory – to that end, he wants us to rush out and fight, so that he can annihilate our forces in a single battle. He needs this because Sparta is nothing more than a huge farm populated mainly by slaves. The Spartans say they are all soldiers: the fact is, they are all prison guards. They can’t afford to keep their army perpetually in the field for any length of time. If they do, they will have a slave uprising on their hands, at home, the likes of which the world has never seen. So, the thing for us to do is bring our entire population and everything of value we possess inside the walls of Athens. We will strip the surrounding district of Attica bare. The Spartans love an open field battle, but the lengthy trials of blockade and siege they cannot endure. The ardour of their men is rooted in an irrational belief in their own invincibility. But any man, even a Spartan, given enough time, will doubt himself, if he makes no progress. I think we ought to give the Spartans all the time in the world to ponder the possibility that they can be defeated.”
“But if we do this,” Cleon frowned, “won’t the Spartans ravage the countryside?”
“Yes,” Pericles replied, “but they won’t obtain much profit from that. Eventually, they will have to retreat.”
“You are King Archidamus’s friend, though,” another strategos noted. “He will spare your estate out of friendship.”
“I no longer have an estate,” Pericles replied. “From this point on, it is the public property of Athens. If it somehow remains untouched, then I give it up to be shared by everyone, as a service to my city.”
“Well, then,” Cleon sighed, “it seems we have a plan. But the young men won’t like it, Pericles. They want to fight.”
“I know,” Pericles smiled, “and they will. But I won’t have them rush out to be slaughtered. Instead, we are going to husband our resources.”
“I think we should risk it – get this over with.”
“It makes no sense to stake a city it took us hundreds of years to build on the outcome of a chaotic clash of armies during a single afternoon. Gods on Olympus, Cleon, that’s madness – and you ought to know better.”
Cleon looked a little chastened, and Pericles continued:
“As long as we hold this city and keep our fleet intact, we can continue to collect the tribute from the allies, and we grow stronger. The longer the Spartans fight, the weaker they become. But keeping that up will require the use of our navy – we will make raids on Sparta’s allies, and on Sparta itself; and we may have to punish any on our own side who seek to join the enemy. There will be plenty of fighting – just not with the main Spartan army. They want to fight us, but we will deny them their easy victory. It will drive them mad, and eventually it will drive them away.”
* * *
Pericles’ advice to withdraw inside the city walls of Athens was not received well by the people of the outlying towns and villages of Attica. In those days, most Athenians, of all classes, either resided in the countryside or maintained suburban villas. Originally, the city-state of Athens had been a union of separate towns, and each of these still maintained its civic traditions, its guardian deity temples, shrines, and other features of communal life. It was hard for the people to give up their homes and towns to be destroyed by the enemy, but they had no choice.
It was harder still to move into the city. The rich and well-connected had townhouses, or city-dwelling friends able to take them in, but the poor people had nowhere to go. Athens was already a large city, filled with foreign workers, and the refugees from the countryside found it confusing and frightening. As they fled into the city from all sides, the dispossessed countrymen crowded the smaller temple forecourts and the by-lanes of the Agora. They built lean-tos along the inside of the walls, and some families even occupied the towers on the walls. Even the Pelasgian area, that had been cursed by the Pythian Oracle, was occupied as thousands upon thousands of terrified people swarmed into Athens, forgetting what the oracle had foretold: that if this parcel of land was ever inhabited, the city would fall.
Aspasia looked out of the shuttered windows of the townhouse that she shared, now, with Pericles and their son, and said, “Look at all these people! I don’t think there have been this many people gathered together in one place in all of Greece since the Persians invaded. Why, they’ve even stripped the wood and furnishings from their houses, and brought all that into the city, too, as if we have room for it....”
“They don’t want them burnt up, ma’am,” one of her slaves replied, bowing her head. “Almost all the trees have been cut down in Attica, already, except the sacred groves, which can never be touched. The wood is valuable, ma’am.”
“At least they didn’t try to bring in the farm animals,” Pericles sighed, joining Aspasia at the window. “I asked them to send all the livestock over to Euboea, or out to the islands.”
“And the Spartans?”
“They’re advancing – slowly,” Pericles smiled. “King Archidamus never wanted this war. He wants a negotiated settlement, but Cleon and the other hawks in the Ecclesia aren’t going to allow that, and either am I, so the Spartans will try to scare us.” He pointed to a hillside, beyond the city walls, and said, “They’re going to camp right up there, in that suburb, where we can see them, and they’re going to hope we care more about our property than we do about our liberty.”
“Some people do,” Aspasia pointed out.
“I never thought my strategy was without risk,” Pericles replied, turning away from the window – all the noise and dust rising from the crowded streets. “The danger of a pitched battle passes quickly; but doing nothing for a long period of time is dangerous, too, only in a different way. Anyone can be courageous for a moment. Being courageous for months is harder.”
“Every woman knows this,” Aspasia replied. “We carry your babies for nine months, and at the end of it we give birth knowing that we have a much greater chance of dying than any soldier does even in the bloodiest encounter.”
* * *
The Spartan army camped on the heights above the walls of Athens, but King Archidamus did not try to assault the city. He had all manner of siege engines capable of flinging missiles and even fire-bombs. The Spartans could bring down a hail of arrows and stones, but Archidamus chose not to use these means against the finest city in Greece. For one thing, he simply did not want to be remembered as the barbarian who destroyed Athens. However, what really worried him was the fact that the walls of Athens were manned by more than thirty thousand men, of whom thirteen thousand were well-trained warriors with good armour; the Athenians, he knew, could replace their losses. They were rich, and if their men were killed, they could hire mercenaries or buy the help of other city-states. Sparta did not have such resources, and the Spartan population was so small that their losses could never be replaced. Therefore, Archidamus had no desire to lose large numbers of men in an epic, bloodbath battle.
“There have been a few encounters with the enemy,” said Pericles, reporting to the council of strategos. “We send out parties of cavalry and archers to drive them off when their patrols come too close. However, we need a more comprehensive defensive and offensive strategy.”
“What do you suggest?” Cleon asked.
“Our real strength is our navy,” Pericles replied. “Why do you think I’ve spent my life trying to incorporate the lower classes of Athenian citizens into civic life? These are the people who man our ships. If you want them to fight for their city, at a time like this, then you have to make them believe they have something at stake. No one will risk their neck for a city owned and ruled entirely by an aristocracy of noblemen or an oligarchy of rich citizens.”
“I think you’ve made your point,” Cleon growled.
“We have three hundred triremes equipped for war,” Pericles said. “I propose that we form a fleet of one hundred of these to be used in offensive operations – raids, mostly. I also propose that we keep one hundred triremes in the harbour at Piraeus at all times, to defend Athens from an unexpected attack by sea: and a war-chest of one thousand talents of silver that is not to be touched for any other purpose. Indeed, if anyone even suggests spending this emergency fund they should be put to death.”
“And the other one hundred triremes?”
“They will serve as replacements, and will be available for overseas expeditions and contingencies – an attack on the Spartan colonies in Sicily, for instance.”
“Do we really want to escalate the war by bringing the colonies into this?”
“Not yet – but it’s an option, if things get bad.”
While the Spartans were camped within sight of the city walls, there was a clamour among the young hot-heads in town to march out and attack them, but Pericles urged caution, as did his old friend and fellow strategos, Lycicles. Eventually, as had been predicted, with the approach of winter the Spartan army withdrew to its own country to refresh itself, and Athens enjoyed a respite. However, the Athenians were not idle. Pericles himself organized and led a raid on one of Sparta’s allies, the neighbouring town of Megara. Leaping from their ships into the sea, running ashore, the Athenian force overwhelmed the city and sacked it, leaving the markets and houses in flames as they sailed away. However, the expedition to Megara was not without cost. Several warriors were slain by the defenders, just as a number of warriors had been killed in petty skirmishes with the Spartans, and in the raids conducted against the Peloponnesian shore, or against the allies who had tried to betray Athens.
* * *
“What is the matter?” Aspasia asked, sitting down next to Pericles as he brooded in a corner of the house, now all shut-up against the gloom and rain of the winter.
“The first public funeral for all the men killed so far is about to be held, and I’m supposed to give the eulogy,” Pericles said, shaking his head. “Representatives of all the communes of Athens will be there – there will be thousands of people. With the Ecclesia no longer meeting, this will be the first opportunity, and the last one for a long time, to speak to all the people at once and offer them direction. So, as you can see, what I say is going to be very important.”
“Cleon says we need to attack the Spartan camp,” Aspasia replied. “He wants to recreate the Battle of Marathon, against the Persians.”
“We got lucky at Marathon. Cleon has the courage of a fool. He says the people need a great victory to inspire them. For the kind of war I want to fight – a war that doesn’t involve gambling with our future – we need to find inspiration in something else, because there won’t be any great victories.”
“The people are growing weary. The waiting, the anxiety, the uncertainty – it’s too much,” Aspasia said. “They simply don’t understand what you’re trying to do.”
“I should have thought it was simple,” Pericles groaned. “I’m trying to save Athens.”
“Well, maybe that needs to be the subject of your speech: you need to explain to the people why this city must be saved – no, better yet, you need to explain why it will be saved.”
“There’s no guarantee we’ll win,” Pericles said, looking both sad and rather anxious himself. “The Spartans won’t give up. Their entire reputation as a city-state is built on the idea of their invincibility. They can’t allow us to win and then walk away: they have to be convinced that victory is absolutely impossible, and that’s going to take years, and every year it’s going to become more and more difficult. As it is, we barely got through the first campaign season.” After a long, thoughtful pause, he added, “Also, the delegation sent to visit the Delphic Oracle returned, and the prophecy is not good. This coming year will bring death, apparently – that is the prophecy for Athens.”
“I think the main reason why people oppose your strategy is because they think it’s all about you,” Aspasia replied, smiling gently. “And that’s how you’ve been talking about it. What you need to do is make it about them, instead – put it in terms they can understand, but above all, be humble. If you can.”
“I’ve always had a big head,” Pericles laughed.
“Contain yourself: it’s a eulogy. Be humble, reverent... but also try to be positive. The progressive younger men are mostly on your side, so you’ll need to try to win over the conservatives and the people in the middle – the older men, mostly. And they may be as old as dirt – not young-at-heart, like you – but they’re influential. Talk about Athenian traditions and values. Whatever you do, don’t talk about change.”
“And the Oracle?”
“You’re supposed to be a sceptic,” Aspasia said. “Olympian Gods! Please don’t get all religious on me. Superstitious nonsense – some deranged girl-priestess, or some very accomplished actress, crawls out of a cave and says all sorts of cryptic things no one can understand... please, tell me you’re not going to put any credence in the ravings of the Delphic Oracle? The only reason the Oracle is always ‘right’ is because no one has ever known what she meant.”
“How would you proceed?”
“I would compare Athens with the other city-states. Talk about civic life, but also hint at your reforms. Define the glory of Athens in such a way that anything the hard-line conservatives do, from now on, will seem like an attack on the very essence of what it means to be an Athenian. Then, once you’ve painted a picture of law-abiding progressive Athens, talk about the pleasures of the city – all the good things we have. The Spartans chide us for our luxury: show the people that their luxuries are not a liability.”
“The idea of a life of balance – work and pleasure?”
“The ideal shared by all Greeks, except the Spartans. Remember, there are lots of foreigners in this city – me included – and we need to hear something that resonates, too. True, this is an Athenian funeral, but the cause of Athens is the cause of all the other city-states, whether they appreciate it or not.”
“Now, drive home the difference between Athens and Sparta. We are an open society dedicated to the arts of peace, while the Spartans are a closed, militaristic society. We train the mind and the body; they turn their children into one-dimensional men who can only be soldiers. We raise up young men capable of independent thought and self-correction: they raise young men who only follow orders, and would not know what to do without a leader. Our spirit is defensive: their spirit is offensive, and thus, while we fight for our homes, they are like bandits, fighting to steal someone else’s home. Finally, our men choose sacrifice and danger, while the Spartans have no choice: like it or not, they are ordered to battle, while our army consists entirely of volunteers. And the glory of our volunteers is that, unlike the Spartans, who have no personal property and nothing to lose, our men voluntarily give up lives of luxury and ease in order to suffer for the sake of their city. What could be more inspiring than that?”
“The Spartans and their allies say we talk too much,” Pericles smirked. “They say debate is the weakness of Athens.”
“Nonsense: turn that around and show people that there is nothing wrong with politics. I detest people who say, ‘Oh, I don’t like politics....’ They might as well say they would rather be a slave, because that’s what happens to people who don’t engage in politics. All true citizenship is built on political participation.”
“And yet most of the people in Athens still are not eligible for the Ecclesia or the magistracy,” Pericles pointed out. “Most of the population are not citizens, and many of them are slaves. So, anything I say about that will be hypocritical.”
“It doesn’t have to be the truth, dear,” Aspasia laughed. “Believe me, we Hetaerae are in the business of making men’s fantasies seem to come true, but in order to do that we ourselves have to be realistic. Men flock to whores for the same reason that they flock to political causes: they’re tired of what they have, and they want something better. Or maybe they simply want to pretend they’re someone else for a short time. Everyone wants to escape. That’s the thing: when people are in a crisis – and usually men who sleep with courtesans do so because they’re scared or anxious – they don’t want to see or hear reality. So, my dear, you don’t need to tell people the truth. They will hate you, if you speak the truth. That’s why everyone hates Socrates, even his wife. Go ahead and talk about ideals. You don’t need to be bound by the limits of the real world. Some people say politics is the art of compromise, but I say that politics – the liberal, progressive politics of men like you, Pericles – is the art of unlocking potential. If we only think about where we are, and where we’ve been, we won’t ever get anywhere. We have to think about the road that lies ahead, and that means thinking about things that are, by their very nature, unreal.”
“And this is supposed to placate the conservatives and the waverers in the centre?” Pericles scoffed.
“Alright, love, think of it this way: what do you want to gain from this eulogy?”
“I want to honour the dead, according to our law,” Pericles said. “I also want my opponents to accept and follow my strategy.”
“Why d’you suppose they oppose it?”
“Because they oppose me – and because they associate me with foreigners. I’ve been around a long time – I am mired in scandal.”
“Well, then: first, take yourself out of the equation, because you are the stumbling block.” She smiled. “Focus on the strategy: after all, that’s what you want them to support. Your conservative opponents revere the past, so you need to make your strategy seem like the epitome of Athenian wisdom and culture, the same wisdom and culture handed down to your generation by the very founders of the city. The more you claim their position, the harder it becomes for them to oppose you, because you take away the basis of their argument. Couch your speech in such terms that it breathes an air of progressive thought in terms that the conservatives will be comfortable with. As for those who say they can’t decide, mostly they just want clarity and direction, so give them that.”
* * *
The day set aside under Athenian law for the annual military funeral came, and the bones of all the dead were carried to the special soldiers’ cemetery in the suburbs, to be interred in the warriors’ tomb, along with an empty bier for all the men whose bodies were never recovered. Pericles mounted a special platform and addressed the large crowd that had assembled, which included the weeping widows and orphans of the fallen, as well as a large number of other citizens and foreigners. Young Thucydides, an Athenian soldier present in the crowd, remembered the speech and included as much of it as he could remember – taking some artistic license with the words – in the history of the Peloponnesian War that he later wrote in exile.
Pericles gave his speech, and although it had only a tenuous relationship with the truth, it was to go down in history as the very model for political speeches, one of the finest examples of rhetoric in history. Indeed, it was just as well that Pericles took Aspasia’s advice and urged his countrymen to prepare for a long, hard trial for the sake of Athens, and to be inspired by their own highest ideals. It was just as well because, when the Spartan army returned as the weather improved, a plague broke out within the walls of Athens, raging fiercely through the over-crowded, blockaded city. No one had ever seen such a horrific plague, and none of the doctors knew how to treat it, or even what caused it. Over thirty thousand people died in a short period of time, Pericles among them. Shocked by his loss, the Ecclesia voted to recognize Aspasia’s son, Pericles the Younger, as a full citizen of Athens, entitled to inherit part of his father’s estate.
Aspasia, deprived of her lover and protector, became the mistress of Pericles’ friend, Lysicles, but he was killed during an expedition the very next year. What became of all these people, the very people who made Athens great, we do not know. Athenian society almost fell apart under the pressure and gloom of the plague and the prolonged Spartan siege. Aristophanes mocked the Athenians, in the plays that he produced during the siege, for backsliding and forsaking their ideals. Individuals disappeared into the mass graves dug during that time, and only the general spirit of the city lived on. Not the reality. That was buried and forgotten. What lived on, thanks to the corrective criticism of Socrates and Aristophanes was the ideal that Pericles had described, an ideal immortalized, remembered, and passed on among the Greeks and eventually throughout Europe and beyond not because it was rooted in anything that actually existed, but because that ideal was something men and women could aspire to.
Historical Note: Almost everything in this story is based on anecdotal and recorded tales from the “Golden Age” of Periclean Athens, or on the historical account of the first year of the Peloponnesian War written by Thucydides. There has been a great deal of speculation about the origins of Aspasia and the real nature of her relationship with Pericles. The only speculation I have indulged seriously, here, is the idea that she may have helped Pericles write his famous ‘Funeral Oration,’ an idea based on her reputation as a rhetorician who allegedly ‘trained’ many young Athenian politicians in the art of public speaking.
The Athenians eventually lost the war, their defeat due, to some extent, to a fateful decision to depart from Pericles’ defensive strategy: Athens launched massive assaults on Sparta’s allies and overseas colonies, high-stakes battles that went badly, in particular the expedition to Sicily. In the end, Athens surrendered, but the exhausted Spartans derived little advantage from their victory. They decided that any attempt to occupy a cosmopolitan city like Athens would just lead to the “corruption” of their society. Thus, following the Peloponnesian War, the importance of Athens and Sparta declined, and the centre of gravity in Greek social, political, and economic developments moved northward to Corinth and Thessaly. As for the Hetaerae, they “followed the money,” and almost all the great courtesans of the next few generations lived in either Corinth or Thebes.
1. What are some of the ethical issues that arise in this reading?
2. How do the Athenians use ethical charges to attack each other?
3. Do you think Aspasia was right to advise Pericles to lie?
© William Lailey, 2012