Aspasia reasoned thus with Xenophon's wife and Xenophon himself: "Please tell me madam, if your neighbor had a better gold ornament than you have, would you prefer that one or your own?" "That one." "Well, now, if she had a better husband than you have, would you prefer your husband or hers?" At this the woman blushed. "I wish you would tell me Xenophon, if your neighbor had a better horse than yours, would you prefer your horse or his?" "His." "Now, if he had a better wife than you have, would you prefer yours or his?" And at this Xenophon, too, was himself silent. . . . "Therefore, unless you can contrive that there be no better man or finer woman on earth you will certainly always be in dire want of what you consider best, namely, that you be the husband of the very best of wives, and that she be wedded to the very best of men."
--Cicero, De Inventione
Aspasia of Miletus was a true rhetorician. She was also a bit, uh, shadey. Although not a common prostitute, she was what the Greeks called a "hetaira," or companion. These were professionals, trained to be sexy, smart, and entertaining. They were welcome at gatherings where Greek men wanted the company of charming females who were not (Gods forbid) their wives. A good hetaira could command an excellent living, thus gaining economic independence. Still, her survival always depended upon the good will of her male clients. Aspasia got out of the hetaira business as soon as the opportunity arose, and soon settled down in her own salon, famed for attracting the best of Athens' intellectuals. She taught political oratory, as well as domestic economics, to both Athenian men and their wives (oh, the scandal!).
Aspasia was either the wife or mistress of Pericles, one of architects of Athenian democracy. Whether she was wife or mistress depended upon who was doing the talking. Pericles was so smitten with her that he divorced his Athenian wife and settled down with "the Milesian whore." There was difference of opinion about the legality of that action, thus her rather shady status.
Aspasia's talents as a teacher of rhetoric were mentioned by many ancient authorities: Plato (Menexenus), Xenophon (Memorabilia), Aeschines of Sphettus (Aspasia), Antisthenes (Aspasia), Plutarch (Life of Pericles), and Cicero (De Inventione) all noted her abilities. Their opinion of her affects their assessment. Plato made fun of her, as he made fun of every sophist who was not Socrates. Xenophon flatters her, despite the hash she made of him in front of his wife. Antisthenes despises her, but then, he didn't much like anyone. Pericles obviously adored her; he even kissed her in public! (Antisthenes was totally grossed out by this.)
The most interesting claim made about Aspasia was that she "ghost wrote" Pericles' speeches for him, including the famous "Funeral Oration." Not surprisingly, this claim is made more often to slander Pericles than to praise Aspasia. There is really no reason why she couldn't have. She was a professional rhetorician with a good reputation, at least in that field. Since foreign women were doubly excluded from public discourse, she would have had to practice her art through someone else. Pericles would have been foolish not to use her talents. After Pericles died, Aspasia remarried. Rumor had it that she took her rather nondescript husband and made a successful politician of him.
Aspasia's Funeral Oration (from Thucydides)
Plato's Menexenus in its entirety.
Visit more rhetorical women at The House of Rhetoric.