Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.06.09


Christopher Tuplin, The Failings of Empire: A Reading of Xenophon Hellenica 2.3.11-7.5.27. Historia Einzelschriften, Heft 76. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1993. Pp. 264. DM 84. ISBN 3-515-05912-1.


Reviewed by Peter Krentz, Davidson College.

To a large extent, Christopher Tuplin provides what Vivienne Gray, The Character of Xenophon's Hellenica (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989), did not: a continuous reading of the text. Tuplin characterizes the Hellenica as a compromise between historiography and pamphleteering. It is lacunose, sometimes dominated by military or technical interests, sometimes self-indulgent, occasionally close to "mere prejudice" (138), but overall Xenophon presented a "paradigm of Sparta's unappealing performance and fate" to those who believed Athens should "stick to the existing ideology of democratic imperialism" (166).

The introduction gets various preliminary matters out of the way. Tuplin expresses his dissatisfaction with current characterizations of the Hellenica, briefly discussing G. Cawkwell, C.H. Grayson, W.E. Higgins, and V.J. Gray. He argues that Xenophon's other works should make us expect to learn "something about the inter-relations of Greek city-states" from the Hellenica. Antiquity's judgment (appendix I collects the ancient testimonia) doesn't help interpretation much -- the Hellenica was less read than Xenophon's other works and perhaps less read than the other histories of the period by Ephorus, Theopompus, and Callisthenes. Tuplin believes that Xenophon wrote Hellenica 2.3.11-7.5.27 in the 350s, during the same period that he wrote the Vectigalia, which suggests that the work will present a hostile view of empire. (For a similar suggestion, see John Dillery, "Xenophon's Poroi and Athenian Imperialism," Historia 42 [1993]: 1-11). Because the work deals with Sparta far more than any other state, a major interest must be its evaluation of Sparta.

The next three chapters are a reading of 2.3.1-5.3.27. Chapter 2 argues that Xenophon's account of the Thirty is not altogether pro-Spartan, pro-Athenian, or pro-democratic. It is typical, it turns out, of "a work in which nobody is entirely in credit with the author for very long" (47). Xenophon's picture of Thibron and Dercylidas in Asia Minor could have been darker, but it "establishes that Sparta is ... a somewhat unsatisfactory partisan of Asiatic Greek autonomy" (52). The effect of the following passages about Sparta's war with Elis and the conspiracy of Cinadon, Tuplin argues, "is not to enhance Sparta's reputation" (52). He also finds ambivalence in the account of Agesilaus' campaigns in Asia. Here, as elsewhere in dealing with Agesilaus, Tuplin makes productive comparisons between the Hellenica and Xenophon's much more positive Agesilaus. Finally, Tuplin argues that no state looks good in the story of the outbreak of the Corinthian War.

Chapter 3 handles Xenophon's account of the Corinthian War. Tuplin stresses that it brings out Sparta's dependence on allies and includes both Spartan successes and failures -- though without emphasizing Athenian achievements to the degree Athenians would have considered appropriate. Chapter 4, on the consolidation of Spartan power after the King's Peace, finds that while Xenophon's feelings may have been mixed, his overall attitude toward Sparta's dealings with Mantinea, Phlius, Olynthus, and Thebes was disapproving. Later (5.4.1) Xenophon makes his attitude explicit in regard to Thebes, but in the narrative that case is not exceptional.

Chapters 5-7 approach the remainder of the Hellenica thematically rather than according to the order of Xenophon's narrative (an unfortunate change, to my mind). Chapter 5 first examines the diplomatic activities of 372/1 and 370/69, then turns to the tyrants Jason and Euphron. Tuplin argues that, even if Xenophon thought Athenian-Spartan friendship would be a good thing, he indicated that it was not very important in the period 371-362, partly because the Athenians tended to aim at domination. The Jason story illustrates "the perils attendant upon any search for power ... Lust for power breeds disaster" (120). The Euphron episode, though perhaps more subtle, teaches the same lesson.

Chapter 6 treats Sparta. In the rest of the Hellenica Spartan military expeditions succeed only when Agesilaus is in command; no other leader seems meritorious. Tuplin defends Xenophon's account of Leuctra, which he interprets as designed not to protect Cleombrotus from criticism or to deny the Thebans credit for tactical innovations, but to show "the consequences of divine displeasure working through chance and good Theban tactical planning" (138). Xenophon pays scant attention to the loss of Messenia, probably due to his attitude toward Thebes rather than to a desire to make Sparta look good, because he clearly shows that "it was Leuctra and the consequent Peloponnesian destabilization which brought the Spartans down" (139).

Chapter 7 discusses Thebes and Athens much more briefly, especially the latter. The Thebans aim at hegemony but fail due to God's opposition. Athens' new empire was a sham. "The only special concession to Athens is that we do not actually see divine disapproval of her at work -- chiefly because we see very little of her at all" (162).

A chapter of conclusion is followed by 13 endnotes, 7 appendices, a 21-page bibliography, and 4 indices. Neither endnotes nor appendices are titled or referenced to the text, which makes them difficult to use without reading the entire book. Appendix I, for instance, begins: "In the following register of testimonia of Hellenica single, double and triple asterisks indicate categories (b) (iii), (c) and (e) respectively" (189). Readers have to find their way unaided to p.23 to find out what these categories are. The Preface is dated 1990, and the bibliography contains no more recent items.

As a reader, Tuplin can stress an individual word (60) or even no word: "it is possible that the very lack of comment is supposed to arrest the reader's attention" (98) -- though elsewhere he dismisses a report as "rather casual" (78) and expresses ambivalence about whether the reader is supposed to notice something he has noticed (114). But I doubt that any reader of Xenophon can be entirely consistent, given the nature of the text.

Overall, Tuplin does not so much prove Gray wrong as provide a richer book. He takes other scholarship into account more (sometimes too much: some scholarly slips would be better condemned by silence), and along the way he pays considerable attention to whether Xenophon has the facts right. I have two regrets. The first is that Tuplin doesn't consider 1-2.3.10. He doesn't respond to V.J. Gray, "Continuous History and Xenophon, Hellenica 1-2.3.10," AJP 112 (1991): 201-228, presumably because the article appeared after Tuplin completed his book. (In the article Gray challenges the statistical evidence cited by Tuplin as his reason for not including 1-2.3.10 and argues that it is a "bridging summary" written at the same time as the rest of the Hellenica.) But even if the first part was written earlier, as Tuplin maintains, it seems fair to ask whether it shares the main theme or purpose he finds in the second part, since Xenophon included it in the final work. Tuplin could argue that it does: no character seems heroic for long, Sparta's dependence on allies (especially Persia) is clear, and the story of Arginousae might be read as a cautionary tale about democratic imperialism.

The second is that Gray is more readable. Tuplin is prone to lists -- (i), (ii), (iii), or (a), (b), (c), or 1., 2., 3., and so on, sometimes in combination. (Happily, the concluding chapter is written in a more engaging manner.) Misprints, more irritating than misleading, litter the book (for instance, Oxyrhyncia throughout). And I will be able to assign the book less often than I would like because many American undergraduates will have a difficulty understanding any author who frequently uses Greek, Latin, and French without translating.