The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika
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.
The most important relationship of Xenophon’s early life was with Socrates. The anecdote is told that the handsome young Xenophon one day came upon Socrates in a narrow street in Athens; the philosopher barred his way by putting up his staff and inquiring of him the whereabouts of various goods in the city. He then asked Xenophon where he might acquire virtue, and when he didn’t know, Socrates replied, “Then follow me, and learn.”
How much time Xenophon spent with Socrates, what Socrates’ opinion of him was, how accurate his portrait of Socrates is, none of these things is, or can be, known with exactitude. Xenophon wrote four longish Socratic treatises—“Socrates Defence,” “Memoirs of Socrates,” “The Dinner Party,” and “Estate Manager,” also often called “Oeconomicus”—which, along with Plato’s more extensive Socratic writings and Aristophanes’ satirical play The Clouds, furnish the most complete knowledge we have of the great philosopher.
Although recognizably the same man, the two Socrates, Xenophon’s and Plato’s, differ in intellectual character and temper. Scholars claim that the later dialogues in Plato, which are more concerned with matters metaphysical and the exhaustive definition of moral terms, are in fact more Platonic than Socratic—that in these dialogues it is Plato rather than Socrates who is speaking. Xenophon’s Socrates is less subtle, not so aporetic—that is, he doesn’t raise questions without answering them, or undermine confidence by incessant questioning—but instead supplies his knowledge to his pupils straightaway. Nor does Xenophon’s Socrates proclaim his own ignorance, which is of course at the heart of Socrates’ investigations in the dialogues of Plato, used as a device to deflate the other fellow’s assumption of knowledge. The English scholar J. K. Anderson puts it nicely when he writes that “it may well be that Socrates did in fact prefer, in Xenophon’s case, to confirm his beliefs rather than [as in Plato’s] to dissect them.”
The Socrates of Xenophon is also much more pious than the Socrates of Plato, not only regularly acknowledging the hand of the gods in the fate of men and their various endeavors but emphasizing the importance of good order in one’s life so that the unpredictability of the gods does not undo all one’s plans, though it is understood that even the utmost prudence will not always fend off the occasional arbitrariness of the gods. Plato’s Socrates, then, turns out to be more like Plato, and Xenophon’s more like Xenophon. Yet in the end, if one partially agrees with the Russian classicist Michael Rostovtzeff, that “Xenophon was a man of moderate ability and slight philosophic training, [and] Plato one of the greatest thinkers in the world’s history,” it would nonetheless be a mistake to take Xenophon’s own Socratic contributions as negligible or without interest. Unless one has a strong taste for metaphysics, which is not everyone’s cup of mead, Xenophon’s Socrates, with his stress on the first principles of order, prudence, and good sense, provides many compensations.
Xenophon was perhaps less subtle than Plato and not so penetrating as Thucydides, but he was by no means unintelligent. His interest in historical causes may have been minimal, for he concentrated instead on great men and major events. He was pious in his belief that the gods needed to be consulted regularly through divination—which meant animal sacrifices and the investigation of entrails that followed—and tended to hold that, while the gods do not always reward virtue, they do punish wickedness. What one comes to realize in reading Xenophon is that his real subject, not only in his Socratic dialogues but throughout his work, is leadership. In Xenophon’s dialogue “Oeconomicus,” Socrates, professing to be discussing how best to run a household and thereby increase its wealth, is really (as Leo Strauss underscores) getting at how best to run an army and a state, and how, finally, to lead the good life.
Xenophon’s own experience as a leader of men was acquired during the Anabasis (called The Persian Expedition in the Penguin edition), an account of the roughly 900-mile trek from Persia after the defeat of Cyrus at the Battle of Cunaxa (401 b.c.) through the territory of hostile barbarian tribes, making his way with 10,000 Greek soldiers back to the Hellespont. After the Persians had killed first Cyrus and then the Greek generals who led the mercenary force, Xenophon, in his own version of events, stepped up and, with the Spartan Chirisophus, led the Greeks back to their homeland. The extent of his role as leader is sometimes disputed, as is much else in Xenophon: how close he was to Socrates, which parts of his various books he wrote at what age, where and when he died.
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:
Brave were the men among them who died, and it is clear that the men they killed were equally brave. For no one had a weapon so short that he did not reach his enemy with it. And the Athenians did not abandon the corpses of their own men but, rather, gave back some of the enemy dead under truce.
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:
The Paralos arrived at Athens during the night, bringing news of the disaster at Aigospotamoi, and a cry arose in the Peiraieus and ran up through the Long Walls and into the city itself as one man imparted the calamitous news to the next. As a result, no one slept that night as they mourned not only for the men destroyed but even more for themselves, thinking they would suffer the same catastrophes they had inflicted on others. . . . On the next day they held an assembly in which they resolved to block up all the harbors except for one, to repair the walls and place guards on all of them, and to prepare the city in every other way for a siege.
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.