Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.32


Sarah B. Pomeroy, Editor and translator, Xenophon, Oeconomicus: A Social and Historical Commentary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. Pp. xii + 388. $75.00. ISBN 0-19-814082-7.


Reviewed by Patricia A. Clark, University of Victoria (paclark@uvvm.uvic.ca).

The appearance of this new edition of Xenophon's Oeconomicus by Sarah Pomeroy has been long and keenly anticipated. Now the tension is over, and this signally informative source can take its place as one of the indispensable tools for scholars working on such diverse topics as "marriage, the innate moral, physical, and mental qualities of men and women; the functioning of domestic and public economies; rural and urban life; Greek slavery; popular religion; the role of education, and many other topics" (viii). In fact, and due in no small measure to P.'s wide-ranging commentary, the Oeconomicus holds something of significance for students of philosophy, of language and rhetoric, and of history -- agricultural, military, social, intellectual, economic.

P.'s commentary will undoubtedly appear on the bibliographies of a variety of courses. I used it as the assigned text for my senior Greek class last fall. It was a small class, perhaps fortunately, because due to the prohibitive price of the volume (originally $90 U.S.; $112.50 Can.) we were forced to share two copies among us. I found this situation rather sad. The Oeconomicus is a work whose subject matter and style invite use not only for graduate seminars in Greek social history, but certainly also for upper level undergraduate Greek classes. Arguably, too, the most illuminating section of the book is not the commentary itself, but P.'s comprehensive introductory chapters. These are designed, with the exceptions of the more technical chapters 3 ("Xenophon and Socrates") and 7 ("The History of the Text"), to be accessible to the Greekless reader. In conjunction with P.'s smooth English version they make this book fundamental even for history or 'civilization' courses which use primary sources in translation. Students should be able to buy this book. Mercifully a paperback edition will soon be available and I suppose we must be thankful that the book has metamorphosed into an affordable commodity so rapidly. It may finally reach the "students, scholars and amateurs" (97) the author intends it for.

A couple of caveats however: because P.'s commentary is historical rather than philological, little attention is paid to textual or grammatical matters. Consequently there is a real need now for an ancillary philological commentary if the Oeconomicus is to meet with the attention it deserves in the language classrooms. Secondly, and admittedly subjectively, P.'s style -- "lapidary" as one critic kindly put it, "wooden" as my students more bluntly did -- sadly diminishes the lively quality of the material she is discussing. The commentary is marked throughout by a dignified but unmitigated austerity. Rather than arousing an interest in Greek social history, it will rely more on the enthusiasm and perseverance of the already committed.

The book is divided into the canonical three: a substantial introductory discussion, text and translation (on facing pages), and the commentary. There are in addition several well chosen illustrations (more would have been welcome -- particularly in view of the price), an extensive bibliography, and a Greek index to the commentary. The author notes (ix) that the MS was completed in January, 1991, but not published until 1994 and that material published later than 1991 is only minimally represented. In the fast-moving field of social history such a time-lag is regrettable.

The text is the OCT of E.C. Marchant, incorporating the addenda and corrigenda to his second (1921) edition and two more recent modifications (at viii. 4, l.18-19 by J. Gil and at viii. 13, l. 26 by Pomeroy herself).

The translation, however, is completely new, and is particularly lucid, accurate, and (especially gratifying to students) 'readable'. P. is a very skillful translator and a lively and attractive prose style does emerge here. Attribution of dialogue, sometimes problematical, is made with a firm hand (to repeat -- this is not a philological commentary), and the dialogue form in translation is shaped with a care for euphony rather than slavish exactitude. For example, in the long sequences of multiply reported speech (most notably when in Oec. vii the narrator Xenophon is reporting to the reader the words of Critobulus reporting Socrates reporting Ischomachus reporting his wife reporting her parents!), P. has wisely chosen to omit the repeated translation of jarring expressions such as E)/FH FA/NAI, "he said, he said to her" (137). P. is particularly sensitive to the difficulty of capturing effectively nuances of affection and status in terms from daily life. In her "Remarks on the Translation" (97-101) for example, she demonstrates historical attempts, felicitous and otherwise, to render such deceptively simple terms as GU/NAI (P. chooses 'wife') or KALO\S KA)GAQO/S (P. defends 'gentleman'). Here, parenthetically, I must note my own profound gratitude that P. (surely with tongue in cheek), "rejected the possibility of rendering the Oeconomicus throughout in gender-neutral language" (98).

The introductory chapters deserve particular attention, for it is here that P. develops a thoughtful and original -- almost revisionist -- portrait of Xenophon the man and writer, and the socio-economic milieu of this work. Accordingly the remainder of this review will note some of the highlights of this section.

Chapter 1 deals with Xenophon's life, the date of composition of the Oeconomicus (probably after 362 BCE), and Xenophon's possible use of earlier Socratic sources (discussed further in Chapter 2). P. makes a good attempt here to 'marry' the work and its contents with the life of Xenophon as it is known -- a useful exercise bringing worthwhile results, since the diversity and novelty of the writer's life are reflected in the abundant variety of his works (8). In this chapter and throughout, P. emphasizes Xenophon the innovator: "Though Xenophon was reared in Athens and died there, he was familiar with the two groups the Athenians themselves considered most antithetical to themselves: the Spartans and the barbarians (i.e. non-Greeks). He had lived in urban and rural settings. He had been a citizen-soldier, a mercenary, and an exile. Though he was a friend of kings, he respected slaves ..."(8). He was uniquely equipped by his life experiences to depict the multiple facets of Athenian domestic and economic activity.

Chapter 2, on language, style, and narrative structure, develops further the innovative aspect of Xenophon's writing which, while rhetorically looking back to classical examples (15), seems in several ways to anticipate the Hellenistic world and a literary koine (11): first in the assumption of a broad international elite readership, then in its stylistic versatility -- the importation of foreign or dialect words, the use of non-Attic forms and syntax, and the invention of new forms. P. provides an excellent historical overview of the various assessments of Xenophon's prose style, commenting that modern analysis of his prose "has not essentially progressed beyond the observations of the ancient critics" and calling for a "comprehensive theoretical study of the development of Greek prose style buttressed by facts and example" (14).

Chapter 3 broaches the 'Socratic Problem', giving a brief review of the debate around Xenophon's knowledge of Socrates, how the various literary portraits of Socrates compare, and the accuracy of each (21). P. concludes that rather than necessarily having to choose between the Xenophontic and practical Socrates (for whom there are precedents in the Socratic Antisthenes) or the Platonic Socrates, the wiser course is to recognize that Socrates, as a great teacher, adapted his tone and subject matter so as to engage the best in each pupil: "No doubt with Plato his discussions were more theoretical while with Xenophon they were more practical" (25). From this perspective, a Socrates concerned with estate management and "the context in which men and women could act in fulfilment of their appropriate virtues" (30) seems historically little different from the one who questioned artisans and rhapsodes.

Chapters 4 and 5 on the oikos and the domestic economy contain some of P.'s most important contributions. The Oeconomicus is the first extant didactic work to address this core unit of Greek society (31), but the work should be viewed as part of a more pervasive fourth century concern with subversion of the socio-economic structure in the wake of the Peloponnesian war. P. sees the central focus on the marital relationship in the Oeconomicus as reflecting more general fourth century social change: in particular a shift away from the familial/communal concerns of the fifth century (as exemplified in e.g. Attic drama or Pericles' Funeral Oration) to a world transitional to the Hellenistic one with its emphasis on the individual and private relationships (32). In this transitional world, Xenophon's oikos may best be described as "an economic union bound by Eros" (33). For purposes of contrast P. examines Xenophon's rather exceptional approach to gender roles in the context of fourth century philosophical and literary descriptions of norms and ideals (Aristotle, Plato, the orators). Although Xenophon is in many respects an unquestioning adherent of the patriarchal system and has developed his own version of the biological imperative, he is also a 'radical' in that he envisages a household in which the wife can (when sufficiently instructed) exercise full authority, even at times over her husband; in which sexual union for reproduction alone is inadequate -- there must be a bond of partnership based on mutual attraction; and in which, uniquely, full recognition is given to the value of women's work (36).

The sustained discussion in chapter 5 underscores the vital importance of this work for our understanding of the ancient Greek economy. Oikoi formed the polis and were the fundamental units of production and consumption, yet, according to P., "economic historians of the Greek world have virtually ignored the domestic economy (except its agrarian aspect), and preferred to discuss industries, banking and trade-routes" (41). P. objects strongly to the "anachronistic" view of traditional economic theories, particularly that of the late M.I. Finley, whose vision she (rather carpingly) attacks, saying that he excluded aspects of the economy which the Greeks themselves regarded as central: production in the private sphere and especially "the contribution of women, both slave and free" (43). P. prefers the theory of A.V. Chayanov (44) who insists that analyses of different types of economies must be in terms specifically appropriate to each and who examines organization for production by paying particular attention to the smallest units of production before attempting a synthetic overview. In the case of the oikos of the Oeconomicus we have, for example, a primary economic unit combining the characteristics of a family-run farm with a business dependent upon slave labour (44-45).

Xenophon's fascination with matters economic (cf. especially Revenues) narrows its focus in the Oeconomicus to the domestic economy: to the division of labour between the sexes and to the enhancement of the value of private property (46). P. discusses at length the currently debated state of agriculture in Attica after the disruptions of the Peloponnesian War, concluding that concern over food supply in the fourth century played some part in Xenophon's decision to write what is in effect a treatise on effective estate management (50). P. argues that many of Xenophon's descriptions, "the position of the wife, the treatment of slaves, and the importance accorded to education", so apparently idealistic, were nonetheless in some respects normative (51). There is a tension constantly present and hard to resolve between P.'s two portrayals of Xenophon: he is a radical and idealist and at the same time the embodiment of fourth century upper-class mores. Certainly ambiguity and paradox are true and inevitable facts of life, but it is not always clear to me how and where in Xenophon's world the lines are to be drawn. Nonetheless P. is undoubtedly right to say that by using the Oeconomicus in conjunction with other sources, legitimate inferences may be made, not just about the changing relationship between the sexes, but particularly about actual classical agricultural goals and practices. There follows a detailed analysis of the management of land capital, income and profit, and systems of record keeping in classical Attica with specific reference to the evidence uniquely provided by the Oeconomicus.

In a section entitled "The Economics of Patriarchy", P. further clarifies her reservations with respect to traditional economic theories. Positing the sexual division of labour as "fundamental to Greek society" (57), P. explains that in societies characterized by such a division, "where most women are excluded from the labour market, cash economy, and ownership of the means of production, the categories that have been applied by economic historians are relevant almost exclusively to males who participate in the cash economy" (57). P. then proceeds to examine Xenophon's domestic economy from the perspective of women and household slaves. She elucidates his depiction of marriage as an economic union forming the basis of the household, stating that for Xenophon the family is a partnership for production. A wife's education, as Ischomachus in the Oeconomicus clearly indicates, is an investment which will enhance the value of the oikos as she learns management skills, and, by instructing the slaves in turn, increases their value. Xenophon "is the first Greek author to give full recognition to the use-value of women's work, and to understand that domestic labour has economic value even if it lacks exchange-value" (59). This enlightened viewpoint, as P. points out, is only beginning to gain hard won credence among economists today.

The penultimate introductory chapter (the final chapter gives the history of the text) is a fascinating account of the Oeconomicus after Xenophon. The Romans apparently loved it -- largely for agrarian reasons. During the early Renaissance the humanist interest in the family caused many writers to seize upon ancient texts concerned with husbands, wives, and the proper gender roles. The Oeconomicus, however, apparently lacking in appropriate hierarchical principles, although read and quoted, languished behind the more popular works of Plutarch and Ps. Aristotle's Oeconomica (74-75). But in 16th century England matters were different, and Xenophon's works became esteemed and influential. The prevalence of educated women (among them Queen Elizabeth I, who is said to have translated Xenophon's Hiero) acted as a spur to a long sequence of translations of the Oeconomicus. Viewed as an explicit model of conduct for wives, Xenophon's household manual spawned numerous domestic books of instruction for women written in dialogue form (85). P. closes her discussion of the reception of the text with a brief but perceptive review of the various streams of feminist response to the ideas about gender expressed in the Oeconomics. These thoughtful pages should be required introductory reading for all students of women and the family in antiquity.

This will long be a standard work. Thanks to P.'s careful analysis, Xenophon, so long despised as being less than Thucydides -- and not even Herodotos -- can at last be appreciated for some individual and perhaps even radical perspectives on personal relationships and the domestic economy.