Aspasia: Re-membering History

In reading about Aspasia this week, I was curious how these works, which work to remember, return, and regender rhetorical history, affect scholarship on the premise of their methods. Without much of an account on method (but some discussion of methodology), I wonder what it means to re-read—not in terms of a valuation of it, but in how it can be done to look at a text/s differently than before. Further, I was curious about how the claims/findings are written and their influence on how we can know (especially if methods are not made visible). Our conversations in class continue to make these paths of interest to explore, not just in historiographic work, but in reading scholarship differently with an attention to how texts are read and presented in research to be read by others.


  • from Plato’s Menexenus: names Aspasia his “excellent mistress in the art of rhetoric”
  • only know of her through Plato, Cicero and Plutarch
  • credited with authorship of Pericles’ famous funeral oration for those killed in the Peloponnesian War, which she could not deliver as a woman and non-Athenian
  • funeral oration (condensed):
  • set out to praise the goodness of the dead men’s birth, their nurture and education, the nobility of their actions, and their worthiness of such education they received
  • praises country as nurturing mother – mother (woman) is an imitation of mother (earth)
  • discusses equality of government based on natural equality in birth giving power to those most deserving
  • what are we to make of this oration from Aspasia “who is only a woman” (Menexenus to Socrates)? what is the rhetoric of its rhetoric?
  • how and in what/who has Aspasia been studied? What are the research methods and materials?

Cheryl Glenn’s “Classical Rhetoric Conceptualized” from her book Rhetoric Retold: Regendering The Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance

  • uses concept of harmonia as a “fitting together” or “perfect fit” as a way of describing how women understood and “accepted their measure of domestic power and acted on their responsibility for creating the conditions under which harmony, order, law, and justice could exist in the state and in the home” — the social responsibilities of men and women are different, but are equal in harmonia in both the public and the private
  • discusses Gorgias, Isocrates, and the development of the polis before discussing Aspasia as a means to establish when and why rhetoric developed socially and politically to uphold moral values (virtue)


  • “brilliantly educated by means that have never been fully explained”
  • brought up in a transitional society of Asia Minor and was thus an outsider to Athens and free of the role brought about by the rigidity of traditional marriage
  • not being an aristocratic Athenian woman, Aspasia could rupture enclosure of the female body in the private/domestic sphere
  • only woman in classical Greece to distinguish herself in the public domain
  • coupled with Pericles through a romantic relationship that is described as more equal in his affections for her, his intellectual exchanges with her, his presence with her in public, and his living with her in the same home and entertaining men and their wives as company
  • established herself as a rhetor of teaching virtue/citizenship  instead of passing it on through childbirth from father/husband to son
  • worked to demonstrate that truth and belief are not inherently the same, which put her in the company of Plato and Socrates
  • Glenn closes with “Few women participated in the intellectual life of ancient Greece. Aspasia has emerged as an exceptional hero in a new rhetorical narrative”; what are the consequences (+/-) of such an assertion?
  • How (methods) is Glenn rereading these textual accounts of Aspasia? How does this in turn cause for a rereading of history?

Susan Jarratt and Rory Ong’s “Aspasia: Rhetoric, Gender, and Colonial Ideology”

set out to explore:

  • did Aspasia exist?
  • can she be known?
  • is that knowledge communicable?

Aspasia left no written remains/artifacts

like Glenn, Jarratt and Ong discuss Aspasia’s not fitting in with roles of women in Athenian society, but they move beyond wive/mother to also include slaves, concubines, prostitutes and hetaerae

credit her as teacher of rhetoric and perhaps inventor of the Socratic method

Jarratt and Ong end:

Aspasia, perhaps the first female orator in the Western tradition, attracted not only the admiration of Pericles and the fascination of Socrates but also the critical attention of  Plato intent on rereading the rhetorical world to which she gave voice. If we cannot recover the lost voice of Aspasia, we can set the echoes of her speech reverberating again for an age with its own concerns about democracy and political participation, production and reproduction, gender and citizenship

While Jarratt and Ong set out to answer three research questions, but claim that their “Reconstruction of ‘Aspasia’ will no more accurately recapture the ‘real’ woman” than do the character in Plutarch and Plato’s texts or artist captures of her figures (the traces of existence), but will rather “reflect back to us a set of contemporary concerns”; what does it mean to use a figure, history, or text in such a way? This seems different than re-gendering or re-membering (a body); what does it mean to re-claim history?

How can we study something/someone when material traces are not readily available? How does this/should this impact method?

Xin Liu Gale’s “Historical Studies and Postmodernism: Rereading Aspasia of Miletus”

  • reads three historical studies of Aspasia done by feminist historians to call attention to the difficulties of doing history and to help develop a sensitivity to the complexities of writing alternative histories and to provoke feminist scholars to seek more productive and convincing ways of reconstructing rhetorical histories of women in the male dominated academy
  • looks at Glenn’s study of Aspais, Jarratt and Ong’s study of Aspasia, and Madeline Henry’s study of Aspasia
    • Glenn: turns to historiography, feminism, gender theory, and postmodernism
    • Jarratt and Ong: utilize sophistic historiography and feminist sophistic
    • Henry: employs a synthetic historical method that combines philological method, a feminist perspective, and postmodern wisdom of situatedness of the text and researcher
  • critique of Glenn:
  • critique of Jarratt and Ong:
  • critique of Henry:
  • Gale discusses the limitations with each historical approach and its bearings on what we can/not claim from the work
  • Gale ends on “one more word on the need for a debate over historical methods”; quoting Foucault, she explains “history is a form of knowledge and a form of power at the same time; put differently, it is a means of controlling and domesticating the past in the form of knowing it”.
  • Gale questions how to do historical work that strays from male perspective and method and expresses desire t seek what is possible in postmodern and antifoundational methods
  • How common are re-readings of historiographical work? What does research/the field gain from these in term sof method/approach?

Cheryl Glenn’s Response to Xin Liu Gale Comment: Truth, Lies, and Method: Revisiting Feminist Historiography

Susan Jarratt’s Response to Xin Liu Gale Comment: Rhetoric and Feminism: Together Again


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