No longer blind to the greatness of this versatile Greek.
May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
What isn’t in dispute is Xenophon’s close relationship with Agesilaus, who ruled Sparta as one of its two kings for the unusually long span of 40 years. Plutarch writes of Agesilaus’ “early life having added to his natural kingly and commanding qualities the gentle and humane feelings of a citizen.” Despite being small and having had a limp owing to one of his legs being shorter than the other, “the goodness of his humor, and his constant cheerfulness and playfulness of temper, always free from anything of moroseness or haughtiness, made him more attractive, even to his old age, than the most beautiful and youthful men of the nation.” As late as his seventies, Agesilaus was still leading the Spartans into battle.
Xenophon first encountered Agesilaus at the Battle of Coronea. He somehow managed to insinuate himself with the Spartan king. This connection, which placed him in the inner circles of Sparta, gave him, in effect, a chair in the royal box for viewing the history of post-Peloponnesian War Greece—a history that ended with the ultimate subduing of once-mighty Greece, through endless internecine battles and disputes, by the Macedonian Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.
Agesilaus and Xenophon shared a belief in the need to destroy the Persian Empire and a hatred of Thebes. Always loyal to friends, Agesilaus arranged for Xenophon’s retirement estate at Scillus. One of the chief criticisms of Xenophon’s Hellenika is its author’s too kind—which is to say largely uncritical—treatment of the Spartan king, and his partiality toward the Spartans generally throughout his history. So strong is this partiality that, for long spells in the Hellenika, one almost forgets that Athens exists. One of Xenophon’s modern critics suggests that the title of the work would more accurately have been Peloponnesiaca. The great Theban general Epaminondas, the man responsible for defeating the Spartans at Leuctra (371 b.c.) and Mantinea (362 b.c.), has scarcely more than a bit part in Xenophon’s history. Lysander, the rival of Agesilaus for Spartan leadership, also gets short shrift in the pages of the Hellenika.
A new edition of this history is now published under the general editorship of Robert B. Strassler, who earlier brought out Landmark editions of Herodotus and Thucydides. Strassler is what is today known as an independent, which really means amateur, scholar, taking the word amateur in its root meaning of lover. After a successful career in business—oil drilling—he retired, and soon thereafter devoted himself to ancient history, the love of which he acquired as an undergraduate at Harvard and never lost.
The result of this devotion has been Strassler’s Landmark editions. These books print the central texts in solid new translations, with marginal notes and useful footnotes, introduced by scholars, with still other scholars writing upon specialized topics pertinent to the central texts. Perhaps best of all in the Landmark editions are the maps, which are clear, plentiful, and immensely useful. One can read Herodotus and Thucydides over and over without having such basic knowledge as how large Attica and the Pelopponnese are, how far is the distance between Athens and Sparta, or Corinth from either. Robert Strassler is himself, one learns, without Greek, and he has devised books of immense aid for the Greekless Hellenophile, of whom your reviewer is one.
A Landmark edition is especially useful for Xenophon’s Hellenika, for it is a work over which much controversy hangs. Until early in the 20th century, Xenophon’s history was taken to be definitive. Then, in 1906, the papyrus of an incomplete manuscript since known as the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia was found in Egypt that contradicted Xenophon in many particulars. A later, Roman chronicle by Diodorus Siculus, who tends to agree with the Oxyrhynchia historian, has further reduced the reputation for accuracy of Xenophon’s Hellenika. Yet another controversy has to do with when Xenophon wrote his history. Some scholars have him writing different parts of it at different stages of his life. One of Xenophon’s strongest critics, the Oxford classicist G. L. Cawkwell, holds that the Hellenika isn’t history at all but essentially memoirs, the memoirs written by an old man, and as Cawkwell notes, “old men forget.” Yet, whatever his faults, however much he falls short of the precision required by modern historical scholarship, Xenophon remains immensely readable and instructive. Without Xenophon’s Hellenika, as Robert Strassler notes, “we would know nothing or very little of many events and developments of that dynamic period” from the end of the Peloponnesian War through 362 b.c.
History, in its less technical but most attractive form is, as Macaulay had it, “philosophy teaching by example,” which is history of the kind about which Xenophon cared most. Throughout the Hellenika, but also in the Anabasis, the virtuous actions of leaders are what Xenophon highlights and extols. Noble deeds please him most. Leaders (and they are chiefly Spartans) who consult the wishes of the gods show good sense. Bad conduct finds its recompense. To violate an oath is to court disaster: “Agesilaus, beaming with joy, told the envoys to announce to [the powerful Persian satrap] Tissaphernes that he was quite grateful, because Tissaphernes, by violating his oaths, now had the gods as his enemies and he had also, by this same action, made the gods the allies of the Greeks.”
The gods may not always reward virtue in Xenophon, but they “are not indifferent to the impious and those who do wicked things.” Courage, honor, sensible leadership, the orderly life—these are the virtues Xenophon most admires. Contra Gerald and Sara Murphy, not living but dying well is, in Xenophon, often the best revenge. At the Battle of Mantinea between the Thebans, led by Epaminondas, and the Spartans, led by Agesilaus, and which wrote fini to Spartan hegemony, he writes of the Athenians who, out of hatred for the Thebans, came to the aid of the Spartans, joining in the fighting:
With remarkable restraint, Xenophon chose not to mention that both his sons took part in this battle, and that one of them, Gryllos, died bravely in this battle, being, one of the Landmark Hellenika’s footnotes reports, “depicted in the picture of the battle commissioned by the Athenians for one of their public buildings.” For all that it wants in intellectual rigor, the Hellenika contains many fine novelistic touches. After the Athenian disaster of the naval battle at Aigospotamoi, Xenophon recounts the reaction when the news of the disaster reached Athens:
Who was it said that history begins in the novel and ends in the essay? Xenophon, perhaps more the novelist and essayist than pure historian, would have agreed.
Some of the most important historical events in Western history have wanted great writers to witness and record them. The French Revolution came inconveniently after the death of the Duc de Saint-Simon and before Benjamin Constant had come into literary maturity. No great writer was on the scene for the American Revolution, or for our Civil War. The history of Greece and Rome was more fortunate: Herodotus was there to record battles between the Greeks and the Persians, and Thucydides to record events, many of which he personally witnessed, in the Peloponnesian War. In Rome, Livy and Tacitus and Suetonius were in the same fortunate position. The existence of such writers makes history more vivid and ancient history, itself, perhaps of deeper interest than any other.
The endless making and breaking of treaties and busting up of alliances and dishonoring of pledges among Sparta and Athens and Persia, ending in the eclipse of all three, is the greater story of the Hellenika. The prolific Xenophon was, as we should say today, on the case, embedded, capturing a goodly portion of the life of his time, “the only historian from antiquity,” as Arnaldo Momigliano wrote, “to rival Tacitus in the range of writing that came from his pen.”
Denigrate him though many historical scholars have tried to do, they have succeeded in little more than putting a few dents in his shield. In the end, Xenophon stands, half a historian, half a philosopher, and wholly a marvelous writer.
Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.