Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.48 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.48

Fiona Hobden, Christopher Tuplin (ed.), Xenophon: Ethical Principles and Historical Enquiry. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 348.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2012.  Pp. x, 791.  ISBN 9789004224377.  $307.00.  

Reviewed by Alex Alderman, Missouri Valley College (


This volume collects 23 papers presented at a conference of the same name held in 2009 at the University of Liverpool, and it represents the latest attempt by scholars to resuscitate Xenophon’s image as a serious classical author. Xenophon wrote in a wide variety of genres—Socratic dialogue, continuous history, idealized biography, technical treatises—but while the breadth of Xenophon’s writing inspired its share of imitators (Arrian, Dio Chrysostom), it also gave rise to the charge that Xenophon was a jack of all trades, a master of none. This collection aims to make a virtue of Xenophon’s breadth by drawing out the views on ethics and political action that inform Xenophon’s various depictions of historical figures and events, and to apply this more broadly informed perspective back to scholarly issues in philology and history. Fewer than half of the papers from the conference were included in this collection, and the ones that were chosen fill evident gaps in scholarship. Unfortunately, I do not have space to treat all of them at length.

The introduction gives a quick summary of the contributions before getting to the elephant in the room: the issue of irony and esotericism in Xenophon’s writings. At one end of the debate is Leo Strauss, whose ironizing interpretation has helped shift perceptions of Xenophon from an Athenian Bertie Wooster to something between Jane Austen and Machiavelli.1 At the other end is Vivienne Gray, who has developed a complex account of Xenophon’s rhetorical methods that eschews any suggestion of hidden meanings or deliberate falsehood.2 Gray does not contribute to the volume, and none of the authors is an ipse dixit Straussian, but references to both abound throughout. The editors try to offer a via media and suggest that interpreting a text either through external knowledge of contravening details or with attention to the author’s awareness of rhetorical exigencies is not necessarily ironic but “just a matter of active and informed readership” (36).

Yet, the contributors vary in the degree to which they admit such active readership. David M. Johnson rejects Strauss’s claims about the secret teachings of Xenophon’s Socrates, but he must defend his own interpretation from charges of similar ironism. Johnson’s paper is most helpful in its citation and translation of Strauss’s private papers, which are much more prolix than Strauss’s later writings and help both to explain his views on esotericism and open them up to criticism. Johnson then lays out an item by item critique of Strauss’s analysis of the conversation between Socrates and Hippias in Memorabilia IV.4, faulting Strauss for making a hash of Athenian religious views and imputing to Socrates an ironism that serves no rhetorical purpose. Ultimately, Johnson rejects the “literary charity” (156) that leads Strauss to disparage the logical validity of Socrates’ arguments while crediting Xenophon with a greater rhetorical purpose; instead, Johnson adopts a “logical charity” (156) that fills gaps in argument with plausible —but unattested—philosophical principles.

In defending his own form of ironic reading, Johnson disparages those readers who let gaps in sense stand in the text, an approach advocated elsewhere by Louis-André Dorion.3 Dorion’s contribution to the volume shows characteristic restraint in its analysis of Xenophon’s view of sophia, which Dorion shows to be an ambivalent good that can bring harm to others and even to oneself. Dorion contrasts this view with Plato’s, which makes sophia the foundation of virtue and principle of its unity, and argues that the comparably central virtue for Xenophon is enkrateia, or sophrosyne conceived of as enkrateia. This analysis is sound for Dorion’s methodology; while there is some room to argue for an intellectual component in Xenophon’s concept of sophrosyne, it requires filling in gaps with the kind of philosophical speculation Dorion considers unwarranted.

Gabriel Danzig also treats problems of irony, deception, and literary tone, but in the context of Xenophon’s portrait of Cyrus the Great. Danzig resists the recent trend toward dark readings of the Cyropaedia and argues that there is no conflict between Xenophon’s depictions of Cyrus as both a benevolent ruler and a self-interested political operator. Focusing on Cyrus’s acquisition of his uncle Cyaxares’ troops, Danzig argues that Cyrus is both justified in deceiving his uncle for their mutual benefit and hesitant in his use of deception or force as political tools. For Danzig, Cyrus’ willingness to treat Cyaxares kindly after he has exhausted his political usefulness proves the sincerity of his benevolence—any thoughts to the contrary are just phthonos.

John Henderson gives a tonally rich analysis of a more playful episode from the Cyropaedia, the scene of Pheraulas being struck in the face by a clod of dirt in book 8. He describes the episode as a narratological device commenting on the Cyropaedia as a whole. Henderson’s style is itself serio-comic and self-effacing, full of lengthy translations in a beatnik vernacular and theory-laden jeux d’ esprit. He seems to suggest that Pheraulas’s elevation in stature and his disdain for it epitomize everything admirable, regrettable, and plainly fantastical in Cyrus’s rise to power.

Issues of authorial sincerity play less of a role in other areas of the collection, which lacks organized sections but groups some contributions by common methodology, literary subject, or historical focus. Three papers on the reception of Xenophon in the ancient and modern world help to set stage for a new appreciation. Philip Stadter traces the extent of Plutarch’s appropriation of Xenophon; the results show the relation between the rhetorician’s approach to gathering exempla and Plutarch’s biographical method, and Stadter suggests that Xenophon also serves as a model for Plutarch in the breadth of his literary production. Noreen Humble goes back to the Renaissance to find the origins of the early twentieth century interpretation of Xenophon’s Spartan Constitution; Humble finds a number of divergent readings, and shows that Xenophon’s work had broad influence on perceptions of Spartan virtue, especially in early Calvinist moralizing. Tim Rood gives an account of several English writers’ fascination with the land Xenophon dedicated to Artemis in Scillus, and he raises questions about how the image of Xenophon as a country squire has influenced scholarly debates over Xenophon’s tone, compositional history, and biography.

Two essays on Xenophon’s defense of Socrates diverge in their assessment of the factors that led to Socrates’ execution. The late Michael Stokes reconstructs the relative chronology of three defenses of Socrates. Taking at face value Isocrates’ suggestion that Polycrates invented the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades, Stokes places the Apology of Plato and the one by Xenophon before Polycrates’ lost Accusation, and the Memorabilia after it. Speculating on the historical trial, Stokes argues that religious suspicions were more to blame for Socrates’ execution than political ones. Robin Waterfield’s paper, on the other hand, disregards the remark from Isocrates’ Busiris and, developing Xenophon’s suggestion at the beginning of his Apology, makes Socrates’ disastrous political associations into a possible justification for his voluntary choice to be put to death.

The relationship between Xenophon’s personal allegiances and his historical method dominates the discussion in essays on his historical works. Dustin Gish tries to rescue Xenophon from charges of anti-democratic bias in his version of the trial after the battle of Arginusae; Gish notes a number of faults in the process but argues that that they reflect circumstantial deficits in leadership rather than flaws inherent in a democratic constitution. Guido Schepens examines the divergence between depictions of the causes of the Corinthian War in Xenophon’s Hellenica and the Oxyrhynchus historian; Schepens concludes that Xenophon puts forward the version of history favorable to the Spartans but preserves his own reputation for objectivity through artful introduction of the account and fair depiction of other views elsewhere. Shane Brennan puzzles through geographic and meteorological data to test the accuracy of Xenophon’s account of the march of the Ten Thousand; ultimately, he concedes a certain amount of inaccuracy but discounts the possibility of a long lacuna due to adverse weather conditions. Sarah Brown Ferrario explores the use of conventional narratives in Xenophon’s construction of the actions of Agesilaus, Alcibiades, Lysander, and even Xenophon himself, and shows how Xenophon depicts those figures as consciously engaged in the creation of those narratives. Ellen Millender presents a thematically unified reading of the Anabasis centered on a critique of Clearchus’s relations with Greeks and foreigners; Millender takes the depiction of Clearchus as a touch-stone for Sparta’s problematic alliances with foreign powers and exploitation of minor poleis.

Two papers analyze form and rhetorical purpose in Xenophon’s encomiastic works. Rosie Harman situates the Agesilaus as a problematic contribution to the discourse of Panhellenism; pointing out the encomium’s emphasis on spectacles of Hellenic virtue in the midst of attacks on fellow Greeks, Harman argues that the work deftly challenges its readers’ conception of Greekness. Louis L’Allier explains the attack on sophistry at the end of Xenophon’s Cynegeticus as a preemptive defense in light of the sophistic style of that work’s composition, especially in its encomiastic preamble.

Three essays treat aspects of the relation between personal virtue and political success. Melina Tamiolaki compares the limited virtues of political leaders in Xenophon’s works with the lack of political involvement by the virtuous Socrates; she concludes that Xenophon’s imperfect portraits of various leaders’ virtues stem not from political cynicism but from a pragmatic interest in the evaluation and achievement of virtue in the face of immoral expediencies. Lisa Irene Hau, conversely, offers an assessment of the problems that success creates for maintaining virtue; giving a systematic account of Xenophon’s use of words from the phron- root, Hau shows that Xenophon consistently gives pride-related words a negative connotation and presents pride in success as leading to personal harm. Pierre Pontier uses the story of a refused kiss in the Agesilaus as an example of the difficulties of maintaining and expressing moral propriety across cultural boundaries.

Four essays at the end of the collection address issues of social history and economics. Emily Baragwanath frames her analysis of the surprising roles that slaves play in Xenophon’s works through the thaumata of the floor show in Xenophon’s Symposium; the abilities of the Syracusan showman’s slaves to defy expectations by displaying virtue and humanity represent something wondrous both to the party-goers and to Xenophon’s readers, and Baragwanath extends that sense of showmanship to Xenophon’s depiction of slave behavior in the Oeconomicus and Cyropaedia; ultimately, though, Baragwanath takes the slave-based economic proposals of the Poroi as proof that Xenophon is less a social pioneer and more a self-placating apologist for the status quo. Thomas Figueira extends the discussion of the Poroi by defending the work’s contribution to elementary economic theory from Moses Finley’s minimizing critique; Figueira is careful not to minimize Finley himself, and he credits Xenophon not with a concept of economy but a fundamental understanding of elements of decision-making. Stefan Schorn, on the other hand, does not deny the presence of economic ideas in the work but argues that they are subordinate to a moral theory of civic restraint that Xenophon advocates through a proposal for achieving Athenian hegemony by peaceful means. Finally, Joseph Jansen analyses the class distinctions that Xenophon proposes to reduce in the Poroi, and he attributes Xenophon’s progressive political attitudes to his personal experiences as an exile and the practical development of his utopian vision in the Cyropaedia.

There are a few errors: “…he also been adjudged…” (21), an incorrect accent on ἡδίων (56), and some inconsistent capitalization “xenophontic” (693)/ “Xenophontic” (698).


1.   Beginning with Leo Strauss (1939), “The spirit of Sparta; or, a taste of Xenophon”, Social Research 6: 502- 536.
2.   Most recently in Vivienne Gray (2011), Xenophon’s Mirror of Princes (Oxford).
3.   Dorion “L’exégèse straussienne de Xénophon: le cas paradigmatique de Mémorables IV 4” (originally 2001), English translation in Vivienne Gray (2010), Xenophon, pp. 283-323 (Oxford).

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