Hetaira: Admired Women in Fifth-Century Athens

For my blog post this month, I’ve decided to try something a little different and go back to Fifth-Century Athens, with this time looking at the women known as Hetaira. These women were sexual companions to men, but were not simply prostitutes, as they were educated and influential companions to the men for whom they companioned and were admired in their own right.

Aspasia of Miletus was not a native citizen of Athens and could not therefore marry an Athenian citizen, which could be a large reason to why she became one of the Hetaira. She became the mistress to Pericles, a general who was arguably the most prominent and influential man in Greek politics. Not much is known about why she migrated to Athens, or her life after the death of Pericles. Although unable to marry an Athenian citizen, her life was possibly better for it, in terms of independence and prosperity. Unlike other women in Athenian society, Hetaira’s independent status meant they could be accepted in having educated discussions, could pay taxes and were admired for their artistic skills and intelligence.

This was actually why the Hetaira were so popular and revered. Athenian women were not supposed to be educated, sheltered for the means of assuring their status as good wives. Demosthenes, a Greek statesmen, once said that wives were ‘for the begetting of children and for the faithful guardianship of our homes’ while the Hetaira were ‘for pleasure’. Hetaira were often companions to meetings, parties and gatherings, as they could join in with particular debate and were arguably the only women in Athenian society men welcomed an opinion from. Wives therefore were unsuitable for such roles, as they were supposed to be uneducated in order to be good citizens and wives. Demosthenes’s statement is also interesting as he underlines the difference between the Hetaira and prostitutes of the time. Although, Hetaira were sexual companions as well as providers of intellectual stimulation, in his speech he underlines that prostitutes were for the ‘day to day needs of the body’. Therefore, although Hetaira were ‘for pleasure’, this must have been for more reasons than ‘the needs of the body’ because this was the reason he used to emphasise the difference between prostitutes and Hetaira.

However, not all aspects of the Hetaira were so well accepted and revered. Aspasia of Miletus was claimed to be Pericles’s great love, and the two lived together as though married and had a child together, Pericles the Younger. It was her outspoken nature that drew him to her, but this did make her unpopular in Athenian society. Her and Pericles were often subjected to rumours and attacks, especially accusations that she was – as an immigrant to Athens – influencing Pericles’s administration in ways that were threatening to Athens itself. This did not affect the influence of Aspasia completely, however, who was still admired in a large faction of Athenian society – Socrates, an influential Greek philosopher, held her in high esteem.

The existence of the Hetaira can say a lot about the role and position of other women in Athenian society, who were expected to not have opinions or have an education, in order to be good wives to keep a good household and raise children. Hetaira were arguably the freest women in Ancient Greece, able to take part in public life far more than other women in society and their influence can also say a lot about what Athenian men thought about ‘ordinary’ women in Athens. If anything can give an impression of what women’s place in Ancient Athenian society meant, the famous Greek playwright Menander once commented that “A man who teaches a woman to write should know that he is providing poison to an asp.”

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