Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.17

Robert B Strassler (ed.), The Landmark Xenophon's Hellenika (with a new translation by John Marincola).   New York:  Pantheon Books, 2009.  Pp. lxxxiii, 579.  ISBN 9780375422553.  $40.00.  

Reviewed by Dustin A. Gish, College of the Holy Cross (


The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, edited by Robert Strassler, is the third volume in this well-known and well-received series, which aims to provide authoritative editions of classic works in ancient history with revised or new translations.1 With scores of its trademark maps and scholarly appendices lavishly supporting a fine new translation, this edition of Xenophon’s Hellenika should help to promote the study of a work that deserves to be read alongside his other three monumental works – Cyropaedia, Anabasis, Memorabilia.

Xenophon’s Hellenika traces a selective course through Greek history: from 411, when the Athenians suffered a series of naval losses, precipitating a steady decline into surrender to the Spartans and the loss of empire (I-II); through the rise of Spartan imperialism and shifting Greek alliances with the Persians (III-V); to the sudden collapse of Spartan supremacy against a surging Thebes – despite the efforts of the resilient Athenians, under the restored democracy, who helped to resist the Theban invasions into the Spartan homeland which culminated in the remarkably equivocal battle of Mantineia and its aftermath, in 362 (VI-VII).

In his “Editor’s Preface,” Strassler points out that without Xenophon’s Hellenika, “we would know nothing or very little of many events and developments of that dynamic period” – namely, the turbulent and politically diverse fourth century (lxvii). The slightly awkward title of this edition, however, should remind readers that the works in Xenophon’s corpus are extraordinarily diverse. Xenophon was much more than a “historian” and his Hellenika, when viewed from the broader perspective provided by his other writings, is not merely a work of “history” – at least not in the sense that modern scholars tend to think of it.

The translation by John Marincola admirably renders the lively yet subtle Greek of Xenophon in clear, accessible, at times even striking English prose, and excels earlier ones by Carleton Brownson (Loeb, 1918) and Rex Warner (Penguin, 1966) by avoiding stilted language and adhering more reliably to the structure of Xenophon’s sentences. Attention to subtle nuances of political thought and rhetorical style could have been more systematic, but for readers without Greek this translation is superior to the others.2 When Marincola’s translation does occasionally veer away from the original sentence structure, there is often little gained in terms of readability and no marked improvement over existing translations, and his preference for colloquial words and phrases tends to dull rather than burnish the translation, leaving it with less luster than that of older translators (for example, at VI.5.49, Iphicrates’ capacity as general to rally his men to follow him by instilling in them an enthusiastic desire for kalón ti érgon is rendered by Marincola as “some noble task,” but with more fitting flourish by Brownson as “some noble achievement” and by Warner as “some glorious action”).

Readability and eloquence, where appropriate, need not be mutually exclusive aims. Literalness, on the other hand, should be preserved where possible, if we are to follow Xenophon’s meaning. To infer too much, as Marincola does (for example) in changing “justice” into “righteousness” in Thrasyboulos’ crucial reconciliation speech (II.4.40), runs the risk of distracting and misleading readers with overtones and connotations absent from the original text: modern readers will tend to associate righteousness with a dubious claims of religious superiority, whereas Brownson and Krentz capture the thrust of the three-word interrogative sentence more succinctly, and literally (“Are you more just?”). Consider, as well, the prudent warning (at VI.3.6) regarding a universal human inclination that should be heeded by all, despite the self-regarding character of the person who happens to utter it:

But if it is indeed ordered of the gods that wars should come among men, then we ought to learn to begin war as tardily as we can, and, when it has come, to bring it to an end as speedily as possible. (Brownson)

And if it is really true that it is divinely ordained that there should be wars among men, then what we should do is to be as slow as we can to start a war and as quick as we can to end it, once it has begun. (Warner)

If the gods have made it a part of men’s lot that there be wars, it is nevertheless right for us to begin them as reluctantly as possible and to end them as quickly as we can. (Marincola)

Marincola’s “as reluctantly as possible” more aptly captures the rather unusual superlative used by Xenophon in this adverbial clause (hôs scholaítata) to express the prudent sentiment that political communities should resist the impassioned, seemingly inevitable, run-up to war to which we (all) are prone. Kallias speaks, perhaps more bluntly in Marincola’s staccato cadence than Xenophon intended, of wars among human beings as something destined – war cannot be avoided because “the gods have made it” so. Marincola, in translating, also infers that “it is … right” that we do what we must to mitigate our bellicose fate (a conditional claim which seems less inevitable in the translations of Brownson and Warner)—and yet, Xenophon only has his Kallias state that we acquiesce because “it is necessary” (chrè).

In the following speech by the “vehement” Autokles, Marincola’s straight-forward translation captures the brusqueness of the speaker and his words, but transforms “friendships” (philían) into cold “alliances” and allows the colloquial word “hostilities” to conceal a reference back to the “wars” (polémôn) that Kallias said were inevitable, but that Autokles insists have “causes” (tà aítia) that can and should be articulated: we “must instruct” (didaktéon) each other why wars begin, so we can bring them to an end, if temporarily. In the third speech of this diplomatic triptych by Kallistratos, who scholars presume expresses Xenophon’s own views (xliv, lxii), Marincola again supplies what he takes to be inferred. But here, as elsewhere,3 this is not always obvious. When the Athenians voted for peace, he infers that they did so “[f]or these reasons,” whereas Xenophon says only that they did so “[a]s a result of all this” (Warner’s translation of ek toútôn, at VI.3.2). A look at the preceding passage, to which the phrase refers us, shows Xenophon being characteristically allusive about what led the Athenians to pursue peace; their deliberations involved “calculations” about justice and expediency, but also obligations created by shame, piety, and friendship which may or may not be reducible to “reasons” (VI.3.1). We are thus invited by this subtle manner of writing to think through for ourselves why Xenophon wrote his history in the way that he did.

In addition to Marincola’s translation, there is much to praise in this volume, including most of its twenty-six appendices. Especially notable are the concise accounts of the political institutions and governments of the Athenians and of the Spartans (and the peculiar problems associated with each) by Peter Krentz and Paul Cartledge (Appendices A, B, E), as well as the appendices on the character and conduct of trireme and land warfare, religion, and political alliances during the fourth century (App. F, H, J, K, L). The vivid portrait of Persia painted by C. J. Tuplin and the succinct biographies supplied for thirty important characters (App. D, G, M) are also essential reading.

A highly touted, yet troubling, innovation in this Landmark edition is the inclusion of lengthy selections from classical texts other than Xenophon’s Hellenika. These additions may prove marginally of use in reconstructing fourth-century history, but they distract from, rather than enhance, the effort of readers to understand Xenophon’s Hellenika. The explicit suggestion that readers should judge the complete and unified narrative of Xenophon in the dim light cast by fragments of an unknown author or by the “wretched” reconstruction of a “careless” one (xxvi-xxx) seems, at best, misguided. Nor should the author or work be initially approached by comparison with Herodotus or Thucydides (xxiv-xxv). Brief discussions of Xenophon’s style or manner of writing, of his treatment of military and political affairs in his other works, or even of his political thought in general would have better served the intended audience.4

The lengthy and informative Introduction suffers from its frequent reliance upon recycled, stale accusations about Xenophon’s “bias” and “prejudice,” especially as causes of certain allegedly “startling” omissions in his text, and hyperbolic speculation about his “Grinding of Axes” (xlvi-lvi) or lack of “Trustworthiness” (lxiii-lxv). A more even- handed, less querulous Introduction to the Hellenika would help readers to engage and understand this work on its own terms, especially if the activity of intellectually earnest reading is predicated on not presuming to know better than the author what he should, or should not, have written. To conclude, as the author of this Introduction does, that Xenophon is unreliable “as a historian,” because his account “fails to accommodate much of what seems obviously important to us,” reveals much more about the preoccupations and prejudices of certain modern “scholars” (“us”) than it does about Xenophon – and “so much the worse for” them (xxvii, xxxv, xxxvi, lxv-lxvi, 331-334).

Finally, Strassler praises the “Encyclopedic” Index as “the most thorough and complete” in any English edition of the text. And it is. But some important terms and concepts have been omitted that are especially relevant to this work or of interest to Xenophon. Strangely, there are no entries for: war/civil war, courage/cowardice, law, decree, prudence, deliberation, calculation, piety/impiety (cf. “pity”), loyalty/disloyalty, moderation/immoderation (cf. “anger”). “Justice” occurs prominently in the text (see II.4.40-42, III.2.6-7, 5.7-16, V.3.10-12, 4.22-34, VI.3.7-10, VII.4.33-35), but is also absent.5 Sustained reflection upon how Xenophon represents and addresses such concepts in his Hellenika would be required for a proper assessment of the virtues of both the work and its author.6 To this same end, the Bibliography “for the General Reader” should be supplemented with works that acknowledge the wide range of approaches to reading Xenophon and interpreting his Hellenika.7


1.   The Landmark Thucydides (1996) and The Landmark Herodotus (2007) were not reviewed here. On The Landmark Arrian (2010): BMCR 2011.05.58. A fifth volume, The Landmark Polybius, is forthcoming.
2.   The translation, with text and commentary, by Peter Krentz is also very good, but his two volumes (Aris and Phillips, 1989, 1995) end at IV.2.8.
3.   At I.7.13, when Marincola adds “so furiously” (not in the text) to modify the shouts of “the mob” (less pejoratively translated as “the crowd”), he imposes on unsuspecting readers a narrow interpretation of what Xenophon wrote about this event. Krentz (App. A) refrains from doing so by stating simply that the Athenians “shouted down” (epithorubéô) the motion (§9, 317-321; cf. the mischaracterization, in the Introduction, of “the mob” as “howling for the [generals’] blood” (xxi; see Diodorus 13.101-103.2, in App. O). See D. Gish, “Athenian Justice and the Trial of the Arginousai Generals in Xenophon’s Hellenika,” in Xenophon: Ethical Principle and Historical Enquiry, ed. C. J. Tuplin et al. (Brill, forthcoming).
4.   See, e.g., R. Kroeker, “Xenophon as a Critic of the Athenian Democracy,” History of Political Thought, 30/2 (2009): 197-228; The Political Thought of Xenophon, eds. D. Gish and W. Ambler, Special Issue of Polis, 26/2 (2009); V. Gray, “Xenophon’s Socrates and Democracy,” Polis, 28/1 (2011): 1-32; N. Humble, BMCR 2011.05.33.
5.   Ironically, the only mention of “justice” is among the 36 sub-entries for “Sparta” – and the citations read in context expose Spartan injustice. See D. Gish, “Spartan Justice: The Conspiracy of Kinadon in Xenophon’s Hellenika,” Polis, 26/2 (2009), 339-369. A study of passages that invoke “justice” – and erôs – would help readers make use of the thorough entry on “tyranny/ tyrannical rule” in the Index.
6.   See esp. W. Higgins, Xenophon the Athenian (1979), 99-127; C. J. Tuplin, The Failings of Empire (1993).
7.   See, e.g., L. Strauss, “Greek Historians,” Review of Metaphysics 21 (1968), 656-666; C. Bruell, “Xenophon,” History of Political Philosophy, eds. L. Strauss and J. Cropsey (1987), 90-117; B. J. Dobski, “Athenian Democracy Refounded: Xenophon’s Political History in the Hellenika,” Polis, 26/2 (2009), 316-338.

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