Hunting down the real Aspasia

One of the most intriguing characters in ‘Assassins Creed: Odyssey’ happens to be just as intriguing in real life.

Alexios atop a volcano in Melos, in the Obsidian Islands, in a screenshot from Odyssey. Visible in the distance is Chora.

There are two things in the Assassins Creed game franchise that keep drawing me to the classic series: one, the honed open world role-playing nature of the games; and two, the heavy reliance on historic realism for their fictional narrative. For those unaware of the series, here is a primer: the games are centred around a never-ending struggle between the order of the Templars and brotherhood of the Assassins, who fight for societal control and societal freedom respectively. This bit is fiction, as are the narratives themselves, but the eras, characters and world building in the games are more accurate than one might expect.

The fight between the two groups is intertwined around real places in history, with real people who existed around that time, but with either the Assassins or the Templars fighting to write history throughout the game. Needless to say, the Assassins, among whom the player is one, usually win in the end, having written history as we know it today.

A famous example of accuracy in world building in these games is that the game developers, Ubisoft, spent over 5,000 hours modelling Notre Dame in Paris, an effort that might pay off by helping in the rebuilding of the real Notre Dame after it burnt down partially back in 2019. (Realistically speaking, while this is possible and Ubisoft has confirmed as much, the French government will likely not take them up on this.)

Meeting Aspasia

Aspasia as seen in ‘Assassins Creed: Odyssey’. Image courtesy of Fandom.

The most recent edition of the game, as of the time of writing this essay, is Assassins Creed: Odyssey which is set centuries before the formation of the brotherhood. It takes place across the rich, beautiful islands of Ancient Greece around the late 420s BCE, right in the middle of the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. We play as an offspring in the bloodline of the Spartan king Leonidas, fighting against an underground organisation known as the Cult of Kosmos which has been vying to control all of the Greek world.

As a fan of Ancient Greek and Roman history, I was excited to go into this game fully expecting to meet the likes of Socrates, Phidias, Aristophanes, Hippocrates and Pericles among others. What I did not expect was to meet, halfway through the game, an intriguing woman at the highest echelons of Athenian politics known as Aspasia.

From the get go Aspasia struck me as strange. Be it her mannerisms, her choice of words—or lack of some—or, more openly, the way the game introduced her. I am yet to complete ‘Odyssey’ but I strongly suspect Aspasia is incredibly clever and her motives incredibly sinister. I might even go as far as to say she is the elusive leader of the Cult, the so-called ‘Ghost of Kosmos’, that we are hunting.

The Grecian glass ceiling

There are a few things to understand about Greece, and especially about Athens, of this era if we want to appreciate Aspasia for whoever she was. Athenian women mostly confined to their homes and were not to participate in anything public. It was the highest form of disgrace for a Grecian man, especially one with a high social standing, to follow his wife’s words. The mostly male-dominant Grecian society was not particularly fond of a woman rising through the ranks, getting educated or—the worst of the lot—participating in political discourse.

In this context, Aspasia would have been a prime target for hatred. She was a well-off and well-educated woman, partner to the then top man in Athens, Pericles, and unbound by the social ropes that held Athenian women in their homes because Aspasia was not Athenian—she was a foreign resident in Athens, having been born and brought up in Miletus. Because she was not Athenian, she was not allowed to marry Pericles and was simply his ‘partner’, a tricky position that could have played a big role in how society would go on to view her as a prostitute of sorts. In reality, Aspasia was an upscale ‘paid companion’, a hetera, who also ran a salon and a girl’s school, being a proponent of education. Athenians tended to call both her business ventures brothels.

Despite all this, Aspasia’s most fascinating stories have to do with some of the greatest Grecian intellectuals of that time. She was close friends with Socrates, who, as a man who held women in high regard, often praised her liberally. She was also close with the likes of Aristophanes and Plutarch, both of who disliked her: the former often referred to her work as little more than prostitution while the latter pointed out negatively to her influence on Pericles.

As the most powerful man in Athens, and perhaps all of Greece, at that time, Pericles was influence by Aspasia greatly, and not just in the capacity that spouses are generally influenced by each other. Socrates points out that not only did Aspasia write Pericles’s famous funeral speech for the initial casualties of the Peloponnesian war but also taught Pericles the art of eloquent oration. However, while Socrates points this out with great respect for Aspasia, the same is turned into an accusation by Plutarch and others, with Plutarch extrapolating to claim it was Aspasia who coaxed Pericles into going to war with Sparta. The general consensus among Athenian statesmen at the time was similar to Plutarch’s: every fault of Plutarch—or at least what they viewed as a fault—was blamed on Aspasia.

Soon Aspasia was dragged to court on charges of impiety. While this would not be the end of her, it would mark the end of Perikles. The Athenian statesman decided to defend her in court and he won her case at the cost of his own reputation. The people stopped believing in him and his fellow statesmen spared no expense in using this incident to pull him down with a lead weight. Eventually Perikles would die of the plague and Aspasia would become partner to one of his old friends.

Aspasia’s legacy

Even as all these events progressed Socrates continued to relish his frequent exchanges with Aspasia. Engaging in intellectual discourse, it is believed that the two continued to meet often, with Socrates allegedly going so far as to use several of her ideas to build those we know today as his. There is no suspicion that he stole ideas from Aspasia but there is little doubt that at least a few of his ideas were born out of his discussions with her.

Over time, especially among writers who were not Aspasia’s contemporaries, depictions of the woman became more positive. However, nearly all currently known literature is an inseparable amalgam of facts, fiction and incredibly biased opinions. Says the historian Madeleine Henry, ‘When we need Aspasia to be a chaste muse and teacher, she is there; when we need a grand horizontal, she is there, when we need a proto-feminist, she is there also.’

What we do know for certain is that Aspasia was in many ways ahead of her times—either because of her birth to because of her circumstance—being better educated, more open and holding a higher rank in society than most Athenian women of the time. We know for certain that she talked about ongoing events, boldly discussed her philosophy and rarely shied from intellectual discourse. And we also know that the likes of Socrates and Perikles, some of the greatest minds of the time, were close as well as on great terms with her. This much should be enough to inspire anybody to be bold intelectually, even today.

If Aspasia is lost to history it is only because she lived in a man’s world.

Pick a topic to read more on – society culture