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Xenophilia

No longer blind to the greatness of this versatile Greek.

May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika

Xenophon

Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

edited by Robert B. Strassler

Anchor, 672 pp., $25

Xenophon (ca. 430-354 b.c.), son of Gryllos, Athenian of the deme Erchia, had the bad luck to write history directly after Thucydides and to chronicle the thought of Socrates at the same time as Plato, his almost exact contemporary. Compared with such unsurpassed intellectual figures one can scarcely avoid appearing dullish, without penetration, more than a touch second-rate. 

And so Xenophon, as historian and as philosopher, has often been considered. Macaulay thought Xenophon’s two main works—the Anabasis, his account of the retreat of the Greek mercenaries following Cyrus after their defeat in Persia, and the Hellenika, his history of Greece from where Thucydides left off in 411 b.c. to the defeat of the Spartans by Thebes at the battle of Mantinea (362 b.c.)—“pleasant reading,” though “they indicate no great power of mind. In truth, Xenophon, though his taste was elegant, his disposition amiable, and his intercourse with the world extensive, had, we suspect, rather a weak head.” J. B. Bury wrote that Xenophon’s “mind was essentially mediocre,” and that “he was as far from understanding the methods of Thucydides as he was from apprehending the ideas of Socrates.” A dilettante, Bury calls him, with “a happy literary talent,” a man who, in our day, would have been “a high-class journalist,” nothing more.

On the other side of the ledger, Cicero, in his dialogue “On Old Age,” has his mouthpiece Cato remark that “the writings of Xenophon are in many ways extremely informative, and I recommend that you read them carefully.” Machiavelli cites Xenophon more than any other classical writer (with the exception of Livy), and quotes him more than he does Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero combined. Leo Strauss, in Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse: An Interpretation of the “Oeconomicus,reminds us that the great classical scholar Johann Winckelmann praised “the noble simplicity and quiet grandeur .  .  . of the unadorned great Xenophon,” comparing him to Raphael (and Thucydides to Michelangelo). Strauss himself held that our age is “surely blind to the greatness of Xenophon,” and that “one might make some discoveries about our age by reading and rereading Xenophon.”

Born of the class of knights in Athens, which meant his family was wealthy enough to keep horses and thus qualify as aristocrats, Xenophon as a young man is said to have been less than enamored with Athenian democracy. After all, it was Athenian democracy that was responsible for the death of his teacher Socrates in 399 b.c.; that called back Alcibiades from Sicily, ensuring the defeat of the Athenian fleet there; and under Athenian democracy, too, that the generals who led the successful naval campaign of Arginousai in 406 were executed for failing to return to save those Athenians left on their wrecked triremes. After the defeat of the Athenians by Sparta in 404 at the Battle of Aigospotamoi, marking the end of the Peloponnesian War, Xenophon is said at first to have been sympathetic to the oligarchs, known as the Thirty Tyrants, put in control of Athens by the victorious Spartans.

In 401 b.c. Xenophon took up the invitation of his Boeotian friend Proxenus to join the Greek mercenary band fighting on behalf of Cyrus, who was mounting a campaign to unseat his brother Artaxerxes from the throne of Persia. Whether he did this out of a sense of adventure, or to replenish his family’s depleted fortunes, or a combination of the two, is not known. But this action, along with his less than full sympathy for Athenian democracy, and his later fighting at the Battle of Coronea (394 b.c.) with the Spartan mercenaries who had earlier joined Cyrus, was responsible for Xenophon’s being exiled from Athens.

Xenophon spent much the better part of his life among Spartans. He sent his two sons off for a Spartan education; physically brutal and mentally severe though it was, he thought it the best available in Greece. For his services to Sparta, he was given an estate at Scillus, a few miles from Olympia. He lived for 30 years at Scillus where, it is believed, he wrote most of the works by which he is remembered today. In the end, Xenophon was more of a Peloponnesian than an Athenian, though his Athenian exile was repealed in 368 b.c. Accounts differ about whether he died in Athens or in Corinth. A prolific writer, Xenophon was especially fortunate in having the greater body of his work survive into the modern age.

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