But Socrates is also said by Plato to have been instructed in eloquence by Aspasia, who for more than a decade was the partner of Athens’s leading statesman Pericles. Supposedly a highly educated “courtesan”, Aspasia is shown in the painting enumerating the points of a speech on her fingers. Her gaze is directed at the aristocratic youth Alcibiades, who was Pericles’ ward and probably Aspasia’s great-nephew. Socrates claimed to be enthralled by Alcibiades’ good looks and charisma, and (as recounted in Plato’s dialogue Symposium) he saved his life at the Battle of Potidaea in 432 BC.
Does the painting do Socrates justice? His main biographers, Plato and Xenophon, knew him only as an older man. But Socrates was once young, and was a direct contemporary of Aspasia’s. And, from surviving images of the philosopher, occasional information given by his biographers, and ancient written texts which have been generally overlooked or misinterpreted, a different picture of Socrates emerges: that of a well-educated youth who grew up to be no less brave a soldier than Alcibiades, and a passionate lover of both sexes no less than a intense thinker and debater.