Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Xenophon (444 BCE-357 BCE)

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Wherever magistrates were appointed from among those who complied with the injunctions of the laws, Socrates considered the government to be an aristocracy.


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Xenophon, whose name literally means "strange sound," was an Athenian knight, an associate of Socrates, who is known for his chronicles of a mercenary expedition against Persia and the subsequent history of Greece. The expedition was led by Cyrus against his older brother, the Persian emperor Artaxerxes II. A battle took place at Cunaxa, where the Greeks were victorious but Cyrus was killed, and shortly thereafter their general, Clearchus of Sparta, was captured and executed. The mercenaries found themselves deep in hostile territory, far from the sea, and without leadership. But they elected new leaders, including Xenophon himself, who led them north through Armenia and back to Greece. This journey is called the Anabasis. Afterwards, Xenophon retired to Athens, but finding the city to be unfriendly, rejoined his comrades and helped the Spartans against Persia. When Athens allied with Persia against Sparta, he was banished, and spent the next few decades at Scillus, where his Anabasis was put together. Later the banishment was revoked, and Xenophon spent his last years at Athens.

Detailed Biography

Greek historian and philosophical essayist, the son of Gryllus, was born at Athens about 430 B.C. He belonged to an equestrian family of the deme of Erchia. It may be inferred from passages in the Hellenica that he fought at Arginusae (406), and that he was present at the return of Alcibiades (408), the trial of the Generals and the overthrow of the Thirty. Early in life he came under the influence of Socrates, but an active life had more attraction for him. In 401, being invited by his friend Proxenus to join the expedition of the younger Cyrus against his brother, Artaxerxes II. of Persia, he at once accepted the offer. It held out the prospect of riches and honour, while he was little likely to find favour in democratic Athens, where the knights were regarded with suspicion as having supported the Thirty. At the suggestion of Socrates, Xenophon went to Delphi to consult the oracle; but his mind was already made up, and he at once proceeded to Sardis, the place of rendezvous. Of the expedition itself he has given a full and detailed account in his Anabasis, or the Up-Country March. After the battle of Cunaxa (401), in which Cyrus lost his life, the officers in command of the Greeks were treacherously murdered by the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, with whom they were negotiating an armistice with a view to a safe return. The army was now in the heart of an unknown country, more than a thousand miles from home and in the presence of a troublesome enemy. It was decided to march northwards up the Tigris valley and make for the shores of the Euxine, on which there were several Greek colonies. Xenophon became the leading spirit of the army; he was elected an officer, and he it was who mainly directed the retreat. Part of the way lay through the wilds of Kurdistan, where they had to encounter the harassing guerrilla attacks of savage mountain tribes, and part through the highlands of Armenia and Georgia. After a five months' march they reached Trapezus [Trebizond] on the Euxine (February 400), where a tendency to demoralization began to show itself, and even Xenophon almost lost his control over the soldiery. At Cotyora he aspired to found a new colony; but the idea, not being unanimously accepted, was abandoned, and ultimately Xenophon with his Greeks arrived at Chrysopolis [Scutari] on the Bosporus, opposite Byzantium. After a brief period of service tmder a Thracian chief, Seuthes, they were finally incorporated in a Lacedaemonian army which had crossed over into Asia to wage war against the Persian satraps Tissaphemes and Pharnabazus. Xenophon, who accompanied them, captured a wealthy Persian nobleman, with his family, near Pergamum, and the ransom paid for his recovery secured Xenophon a competency for life.

On his return to Greece Xenophon served under Agesilaus, king of Sparta, at that time the chief power in the Greek world. With his native Athens and its general policy and institutions he was not in sympathy. At Coroneia (394) he fought with the Spartans against the Athenians and Thebans, for which his fellow-citizens decreed his banishment. The Spartans provided a home for him at Scillus in Elis, about two miles from Olympia; there he settled down to indulge his tastes for sport and literature. After Sparta's crushing defeat at Leuctra (371), Xenophon was driven from his home by the people of Elis. Meantime Sparta and Athens had become allies, and the Athenians repealed the decree which had condemned him to exile. There is, however, no evidence that he ever returned to his native city. According to Diogenes Laertius, he made his home at Corinth. The year of his death is not known; ail that can be said is that it was later than 355, the date of his work on the Revenues of Athens.


The Anabasis (composed at Scillus between 379 and 371) is a work of singular interest, and is brightly and pleasantly written. Xenophon, like Caesar, tells the story in the third person, and there is a straightforward manliness about the style, with a distinct flavour of a cheerful lightheartedness, which at once enlists our sympathies. His description of places and of relative distances is very minute and painstaking. The researches of modern travellers attest his general accuracy. It is expressly stated by Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius that the Anabasis was the work of Xenophon, and the evidence from style is conclusive. The allusion (Hellenica, iii. I, 2) to Themistogenes of Syracuse as the author shows that Xenophon published it under an assumed name.

The Cyropaedia, a political and philosophical romance, which describes the boyhood and training of Cyrus, hardly answers to its name, being for the most part an account of the beginnings of the Persian empire and of the victorious career of Cyrus its founder. The Cyropaedia contains in fact the author's own ideas of training and education, as derived conjointly from the teachings of Socrates and his favourite Spartan institutions. It was said to have been written in opposition to the Republic of Plato. A distinct moral purpose, to which literal truth is sacrificed, runs through the work. For instance, Cyrus is represented as dying peacefully in his bed, whereas, according to Herodotus, he fell in a campaign against the Massagetae.

The Hellenica written at Corinth, after 362, is the only contemporary account of the period covered by it (411 - 362) that has come down to us. It consists of two distinct parts; books i and ii, which are intended to form a continuation of the work of Thucydides, and bring the history down to the fall of the Thirty, and books iii - vii, the Hellenica proper, which deal with the period from 401 to 362, and give the history of the Spartan and Theban hegemonies, down to the death of Epaminondas. There is, however, no ground for the view that these two parts were written and published as separate works. There is probably no justification for the charge of deliberate falsification. It must be admitted, however, that he had strong political prejudices, and that these prejudices have influenced his narrative. He was a partisan of the reactionary movement which triumphed after the fall of Athens; Sparta is his ideal, and Agesitaus his hero. At the same time, he was a believer in a divine overruling providence. He is compelled, therefore, to see in the fall of Sparta the punishment inflicted by heaven on the treacherous policy which had prompted the seizure of the Cadmea and the raid of Sphodrias. Hardly less serious defects than his political bias are his omissions, his want of the sense of proportion and his failure to grasp the meaning of historical criticism. The most that can be said in his favour is that as a witness he is at once honest and well-informed. For this period of Greek history he is, at any rate, an indispensable witness.

The Memorabilia, or Recollections of Socrates, in four books, was written to defend Socrates against the charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, repeated after his death by the sophist Polycrates. The work is not a literary masterpiece; it lacks coherence and unity, and the picture it gives of Socrates fails to do him justice. Still, as far as it goes, it no doubt faithfully describes the philosopher's manner of life and style of conversation. It was the moral and practical side of Socrates' teaching which most interested Xenophon; into his abstruse metaphysical speculations he seems to have made no attempt to enter: for these indeed he had neither taste nor genius. Moving within a limited range of ideas, he doubtless gives us "considerably less than the real Socrates, while Plato gives us something more." It is probable that the work in its present form is an abridgment.

Xenophon has left several minor works, some of which are very interesting and give an insight into the home life of the Greeks.

The Economics (to some extent a continuation of the Memorabilia, and sometimes regarded as the fifth book of the same) deals with the management of the house and of the farm, and presents a pleasant and amusing picture of the Greek wife and of her home duties. There are some good practical remarks on matrimony and on the respective duties of husband and wife. The treatise, which is in the form of a dialogue between Socrates and a certain Ischomachus, was translated into Latin by Cicero.

In the essays on horsemanship (Hippike) and hunting (Cynegeticus), Xenophon deals with matters of which he had a thorough practical knowledge. In the first he gives rules how to choose a horse, and then tells how it is to be groomed and ridden and generally managed. The Cynegeticus deals chiefly with the hare, though the author speaks also of boar-hunting and describes the hounds, tells how they are to be bred and trained, and gives specimens of suitable names for them. On all this he writes with the zest of an enthusiastic sportsman, and he observes that those nations whose upper classes have a taste for field-sports will be most likely to be successful in war. Both treatises may still be read with interest by the modern reader.

The Hipparchicus explains the duties of a cavalry officer; it is not, according to our ideas, a very scientific treatise, showing that the art of war was but very imperfectly developed and that the military operations of the Greeks were on a somewhat petty scale. He dwells at some length on the moral qualities which go to the making of a good cavalry officer, and hints very plainly that there must be strict attention to religious duties.

The Agesilaus is a eulogy of the Spartan king, who had two special merits in Xenophon's eyes: he was a rigid disciplinarian, and he was particularly attentive to all religious observances. We have a summary of his virtues rather than a good and striking picture of the man himself.

The Hiero works out the line of thought indicated in the story of the Sword of Damocles. It is a protest against the notion that the "tyrant " is a man to be envied, as having more abundant means of happiness than a private person. This is one of the most pleasing of his minor works; it is cast into the form of a dialogue between Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, and the lyric poet Simonides.

The Symposium, or Banquet, to some extent the complement of the Memorabilia, is a brilliant little dialogue in which Socrates is the prominent figure. He is represented as "improving the occasion," which is that of a lively Athenian supper-party, at which there is much drinking, with flute-playing, and a dancing-girl from Syracuse, who amuses the guests with the feats of a professional conjuror. Socrates's table-talk runs through a variety of topics, and winds up with a philosophical disquisition on the superiority of true heavenly love to its earthly or sensual counterfeit, and with an earnest exhortation to one of the party, who had just won a victory in the public games, to lead a noble life and do his duty to his country.

There are also two short essays, attributed to him, on the political constitution of Sparta and Athens, written with a decided bias in favour of the former, which he praises without attempting to criticize. Sparta seems to have presented to Xenophon the best conceivable mixture of monarchy and aristocracy. The second is certainly not by Xenophon, but was probably written by a member of the oligarchical party shortly after the beginning of the Peloponnesian War.

In the essay on the Revenues of Athens (written in 355) he offers suggestions for making Athens less dependent on tribute received from its allies. Above all, he would have Athens use its influence for the maintenance of peace in the Greek world and for the settlement of questions by diplomacy, the temple at Delphi being for this purpose an independent centre and supplying a divine sanction.

The Apology, Socrates's defence before his judges, is rather a feeble production, and in the general opinion of modern critics is not a genuine work of Xenophon, but belongs to a much later period.

Xenophon was a man of great personal beauty and considerable intellectual gifts; but he was of too practical a nature to take an interest in abstruse philosophical speculation. His dislike of the democracy of Athens induced such lack of patriotism that he even fought on the side of Sparta against his own country. In religious matters he was narrow minded, a believer in the efficacy of sacrifice and in the prophetic art. His plain and simple style, which at times becomes wearisome, was greatly admired and procured him many imitators. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Xenophon and Encyclopedia Britannica (1911).]

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Ricardo Mena said...


Aristocracy was what "democracy" meant in the city-states of classical Greece: only for the powerful and wealthy citizens that possess a certain and minimum parcel of land.

Anthropositor said...

While those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, I often find that the typical college student tunes out the ancients as not at all relevant to the present. Certainly an argument can be made for this perspective, but I am not going to make it.

I will say though, that some of the most important history is not that which occurred in the distant past, meaning centuries ago, but in the last century or even in the last half century.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein is such a recent history book, making points succinctly which I have seen only glimmers of elsewhere. I would commend it for anyone who would like to understand, with crystal clarity, the roots of the current global economic meltdown.


win shea said...

Russell, your article on Xenophon is superbly researched & written. I just came across it while preparing to write a brief post on the Landmark edition of Xenophon's "Hellenica" after reading Bowerstock's review of it in The New York Review of Books.
I will definitely make a link to your article in my own at "Evolution and Legagy of Ancient Greece" group at AncientWorlds online. WS

Russell McNeil said...

Thanks for the post WS. Xenophon offers an interesting balance to Plato in our understanding of the Socratic legacy.