Pericles and Aspasia

by Walter Savage Landor

Rating: ★

I came to this book because of a passage in Plutarch's Life of Pericles:

Now some writers say that Perikles valued Aspasia only for her wisdom and political ability. Indeed Sokrates and his friends used to frequent her society; and those who listened to her discourse used to bring their wives with them, that they too might profit by it, although her profession was far from being honourable or decent, for she kept courtesans in her house.

This Aspasia seemed like a great character: a courtesan philosopher, a brothel-keeper of rhetoric. I went in search of more about her, but found that it seems like there is little else known than what Plutarch describes. Deflected a little, I wondered if some historical fiction could at least reanimate her a little, and found this book. Landor is best known for his book Imaginary Conversations, which seems similar in spirit to this volume, so I thought I might have stumbled on to an overlooked work from a minor notable writer. As it turns out, the work may be overlooked for a reason.

The format is epistolary, with a pseudo-chronological trail of letters linking the central figure of Aspasia to a friend Cleone back in her native Miletus, along with a few notes to and from Pericles, some imagined speeches of Pericles, and the occasional other correspondent. Though when I say correspondent, the term is being stretched, for many of these exchanges don't seem to be conversational at all. Aspasia and Cleone both seem to often ignore what the other has said in favour of delivering their own news. True enough to life, I suppose, and it wouldn't necessarily be a problem, except they are both so criminally boring.

Rather than an intelligent and worldly woman, Landor's Aspasia is somehow both smug and dull, and Cleone's habit of lavishing her with praises seems servile rather than affectionate. Neither of them are entertaining, and neither of them seem able to write with clarity about the world around them. This is one of the most dramatic times and places in classical history, populated with characters like Sophocles, Thucydides, Alkibiades and Anaxagorus. These people show up in Aspasia's letters, but they show up mostly as dinner guests that said something banal, or let her quote a bit of their work, or just as subjects for her to describe a little. There is no sense of action in the book -- even when the Samian war is taking place, with both writers well placed to comment on it, they mostly just send each other some of Landor's poetry, which is included so often that I started to wonder if the purpose of the book was just to get his poetry published. In the period of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war, also, Landor presents us with tiresome letters in which Aspasia suggests that when the war is over she and Pericles should go to her mother's quiet little place in Tenos. Everything comes wrapped with ponderous advice for one character or another, very little sense of progression to events, and nothing entertaining about the writing.

I think this is if anything the exact opposite of what I came looking for -- while it treats the characters and period I was interested in, it neither seems to go beyond Plutarch in detailing it nor brings it to life. Elements we know about, even as core as Aspasia's presentation as a courtesan, are ignored or glossed-over quickly. Meanwhile the style deadens the characters, tries to contort Pericles into someone purely romantic and noble, and fails to communicate any setting or wit. I skimmed through the last third, discovered that Landor had not even the grace to include Aspasia surviving Pericles, and staggered to the end moodily.