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Who were Pericles and Aspasia? A Masterclass Interview with Professor Yvonne Korshak

Updated: Mar 6

Professor Yvonne Korshak.
Professor Yvonne Korshak, author of 'Pericles and Aspasia'.

Never heard of Pericles and Aspasia? Then, my friend, you are missing out! Pericles and Aspasia were the IT couple of Ancient Athens. They were as famous as Posh and Becks, as talented as Brangelina (that’s Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for people born after 2000), and as controversial as Harry and Meghan. They lived incredible lives and so make for ideal lead characters in the novel ‘Pericles and Aspasia’ by Professor Yvonne Korshak.

‘Pericles and Aspasia’ is a tremendously dramatic and exciting new historical fiction book for grown-ups. Though, having said that, there’s loads of stuff for people of all ages to learn in our fascinating interview with Yvonne.

Oh wait, didn’t I mention that bit? Well, consider it now mentioned; we were so impressed with ‘Pericles and Aspasia’ that we just had to invite Yvonne to an exclusive interview to find out more.

We talk all things Pericles and Aspasia, including Ancient Athens, The Peloponnesian War, and Pericles' very tall head. Check it out!

Imagining History - Hi Yvonne, thank you for agreeing to answer our questions! First off, just who was Pericles and Aspasia?

Bust of Pericles.
A Bust of Pericles. Image courtesy Jastrow.

Yvonne Korshak - Pericles was a general, a statesman, an orator, and the visionary of democracy in Athens during its Golden Age—a period of incredible creativity in arts, politics, philosophy, and literature. Aspasia was a “hetaira,” a courtesan, and a woman of great intelligence and influence. Because people disapproved of her profession, and because she came from another Greek city and so was considered a foreigner in Athens, she was, at first, at the lowest rung of the social ladder but Pericles was thrilled by her brilliance, wit, and charm and fell in love with her.

He risked his reputation for wisdom and moderation among the Athenians to live with her as if she were his wife.

You could say that Pericles and Aspasia became the great power couple of the Golden Age.

When are where in history are we talking about here?

Pericles and Aspasia take us back to Athens, Greece, in the fifth century BC — about five hundred years before the birth of Christ — when Athens ruled the waves, holding sway over the Greek islands and coastal cities that circle the vast offshoot of the Mediterranean Ocean called the Aegean Sea.

Pericles seems pretty good at winning battles, he was involved with taking on the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, right? How did that go for him?

Athens was a sea power, and outstanding in naval warfare, and Sparta was a land power with the largest army among the Greek cities. As Athens’ power grew, Sparta feared that Athens would take over all of Greece. These two great powers and their respective allies were on a collision course when a conflict between a Spartan ally and an Athenian ally pulled the two great powers into the Peloponnesian War. (The Peloponnese is the southern portion of Greece dominated at the time by Sparta.)

Pericles had a smart war policy based on Athenian naval superiority and wealth played against the weaknesses in the Spartan political and economic system. But Athens was struck by an unanticipated enemy—a devastating plague that killed large numbers of Athenians, including two of Pericles’ sons, and weakened Athens’ fighting capacity. In panic, the Athenians turned against Pericles, stripping him of his citizenship and position as general and fining him a huge amount of money. So, if history stopped at that moment, the answer to your question, “How did that go for him?” would be, “Things went for him as badly as they could go.”

A marble portrait of Aspasia. Courtesy Jastrow.

But, remarkably quickly, the Athenians, needing his leadership to continue the war, reinstated him. What a personal triumph for Pericles! He did not have long to enjoy it, however, since he died not long after, perhaps of a lingering version of the plague. By the time he died, Athens, with resilience, had recovered much of its momentum so, as far as the war was concerned, Pericles died on a high note.

And he never knew what happened . . .

The Peloponnesian War dragged on, with some peaceful interludes, for almost three decades after Pericles died, until Sparta, with the help of the Persian Empire, vanquished Athens.

Fascinating! And Aspasia was hugely influential on famous philosophers, like Socrates and Plato, could you tell us more about this?

In a dialogue by Plato, Socrates recites to his friend Menexenus (who lends his name to the dialogue) a speech that he says he learned from Aspasia. It’s a type of speech that memorializes those who died in battle for Athens, notably a famous funeral oration that Pericles had given early in the Peloponnesian War. Menexenus is so impressed by Aspasia’s recounted speech that Socrates promises to recite for him even more speeches composed by Aspasia—she seems to have had quite a portfolio!

Plato may have had his own reasons for glorifying Aspasia as a composer of speeches and teacher of oratory. By depicting Aspasia teaching speechmaking to Socrates, Plato implies that she probably taught the man she knew best, Pericles—she may even have composed the great orator’s speeches! Plato, who favoured a philosophical autocratic government, was unfriendly to the democracy that Pericles represented, so by suggesting Pericles owes his oratory to Aspasia, Plato knocks Pericles down several pegs.

Still, for Plato’s readers to accept his characterization of Aspasia in his dialogue, she must have been known, at least to some, as learned, and articulate. Other authors close to Socrates and Plato also describe Aspasia as sage and temperate and, of all things, an expert on matchmaking and on harmonious relationships in matrimony—an interesting characterization for a woman who started out as a hetaira! For the Aspasia of my novel, 'Pericles and Aspasia: A Story of Ancient Greece', some of her most thrilling moments are when she has the joy of seeing that people are listening to what she has to say and learning from her.

Aspasia debates with Socrates and Pericles
Aspasia debates with Socrates and Pericles in this painting by n this Painting by Nicolas-André Monsiau.

Were Pericles and Aspasia popular with the people of Athens?

Pericles’ political opponents fought his democratic and imperialistic policies and some of them hated him for the changes he was bringing to Athens. But while Pericles was opposed and sometimes defeated in Assembly votes or in elections, he was, for most of his career, immensely admired and loved. As we saw above, even when they ousted him, they brought him back.

The comic playwrights, who presented their plays annually in the Athenian theatre dedicated to the god Dionysos, were free to mock and satirize anything and anybody, and the amorous liaison between their leader Pericles and the hetaira Aspasia was grist for their mill. They ridiculed Pericles for his exceptionally tall head, and they called Aspasia “a dog-eyed concubine”—and that was the least of it! When the Peloponnesian War broke out, in 431 BC, the comic playwrights wasted no time in blaming Aspasia for the war, calling her “the new Helen of Troy.” Like Helen who caused the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad, Aspasia became the seductive enchantress who twisted men—notably Pericles—to her will and caused the Peloponnesian War.

We can thank Plato for rehabilitating Aspasia’s reputation some years later!

They both sound pretty important! Why haven’t more people heard of them?

Anthony and Cleopatra step aside – Pericles and Aspasia is the love story that shaped history! Greek, Latin, and the history and cultures of Greece and Rome used to be essential parts of education but they’re not currently which is why Pericles and Aspasia are not better known today. But Pericles has been famous throughout most of history. Authors wrote about him in his own time and after, and thanks to the classical world’s reverence for books, and thanks also, to modern archaeology, Pericles’ life, actions, and ideas are known remarkably well.

Less is known about Aspasia, but we have the basic outline of her life, and history has remembered her—Plato and the comic playwrights made sure of that. As a woman whom men listened to, Aspasia mattered in Athens at a time when women were not educated and lived confined lives under the control of their male relatives. Aspasia was strong in the face of obstacles, courageous in the face of slander, persistent, and worthy of the influence she held, and has become a role model for many women today.

Book cover of Pericles and Aspasia by Yvonne Korshak.
The book cover of Pericles and Aspasia by Yvonne Korshak.

Finally, Could you tell our readers a bit more about your book, ‘Pericles and Aspasia’?

I wrote 'Pericles and Aspasia' to bring the Golden Age to life—for myself as well as my readers. From the first chapter, you are immersed in the world of ancient Athens. 'Pericles and Aspasia' takes us from the Agora-—Athens' marketplace—to the Acropolis—Athens’ holy hill— to sailing across the Aegean Sea to East Greece. There are rousing speeches, naval battles, invincible love, rebellion, and political intrigue as Pericles struggles to hold together the allied cities of the Athenian League. In the face of intense opposition, Pericles fulfils his vision, building the magnificent Parthenon temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, and building a democracy that continues to inspire our democracy today. The novel is immersed in classical Athens: the city, its sunshine, its physical presence, its people and their struggles and aspirations.

Best of all, my readers tell me that it’s a really good read!

A humongous thank you to Yvonne for answering all our questions so wonderfully!

You can find out more about Yvonne over on her website by clicking here.

To pick yourself up a copy of 'Pericles and Aspasia', just click here to head on over to Amazon.

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