Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.19

Michael A. Flower (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Xenophon. Cambridge companions to literature.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. xx, 520.  ISBN 9781107652156.  $32.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Martin Devecka, University of California, Santa Cruz (


The '90s and '00s were banner decades both for “handbook” publications and for Xenophon studies, so I’ve often wondered why Xenophon didn’t have a handbook of his own. Now, at last, comes the Cambridge Companion to Xenophon. It fills a major gap in the literature by offering a conspectus of Xenophon’s works and career that will both interest specialists and serve the needs of generalists.

The volume’s twenty-two chapters are divided into five sections. The first, on Xenophon’s historical and intellectual context, helpfully positions Xenophon within the turbulence—both intellectual and historical—of fourth-century BCE Greece. Part Two contains a series of chapters on Xenophon’s individual works, while Part Three focuses on the literary techniques that unite those works as a corpus. The majority of the essays in Part Four, titled “Major Subjects,” deal with Xenophon’s shifting stance toward the various places and political entities that make up his capacious universe. Part Five deals with Xenophon’s afterlife; the volume’s epilogue, by Edith Hall, really continues this conversation about reception. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

Most of these chapters are very good, and many of them present the cutting edge of scholarship on Xenophon. As my comments on some of the individual chapters will suggest, however, there are gaps in this Cambridge Companion’s presentation of its subject.

Part One begins with Lee’s essay on Xenophon’s life and times, which provides helpful background on Xenophon’s biography and on the terra obscura of Greek history between the Peloponnesian War and Alexander. It also frankly confronts the difficulties surrounding the dating (relative and absolute) of Xenophon’s works—an important caveat, since some of the arguments set forth later in the volume depend on hypotheses about chronological sequence within the corpus.

The other three essays in Part One place Xenophon within some of the debates and discourses that characterized Greek intellectual life in the fourth century. Nino Luraghi’s contribution on Xenophon and Greek historiography sets the Hellenica side-by-side with other, now lost, continuations of Xenophon, not only to give us a richer sense of Xenophon’s authorial agenda but also to rescue this text from its reputation as a partial and unreliable “memoir” (p. 99). In his chapter on Xenophon and Greek philosophy, Louis-André Dorion conducts a similar rehabilitation by arguing that Xenophon’s Socratic writings do express a philosophical content. Moden scholars have sometimes refused to treat Xenophon as a philosopher, Dorion suggests, because of a bias that the ancients certainly did not share against philosophers who give pragmatic life advice.

I take it as a mark of progress that this essay and the one that follows it are the only ones in the Companion that strain to defend Xenophon against his traditional characterization as a stupider Plato. Sarah Brown Ferrario’s essay on Xenophon’s political theory correctly recognizes that he is generally more interested in techniques of elite leadership than in constitutional dynamics or Republic-style utopianism. Her remarks on Xenophon’s treatment of aristocratic political organization outside the polis (pp. 72-74) are especially incisive.

This is probably the volume’s closest approach to the problems of Xenophontic ideology. For whom was Xenophon writing, and what practical effect were his writings supposed to have on this audience? Was Xenophon writing from a class-bound perspective, or in a mass-elite dialogue of the sort outlined by Josiah Ober and Leslie Kurke? Given the prominence of such questions in scholarship on Athens in general and Xenophon in particular over the past twenty years, the absence of an essay addressing them in the Cambridge Companion to Xenophon is regrettable.

Given the number and range of Xenophon’s works, the coverage provided in Part Two of this volume is necessarily somewhat selective. All the minor works are treated in one (very good) essay by John Dillery, while the Hellenica and the Anabasis have to share quarters in an essay by John Marincola. The Apology and the Memorabilia have usually been felt to form a diptych, and are so-treated by David Johnson in an essay that outlines the rhetorical strategies of both texts while also advancing a substantive argument for the hedonism of Xenophon’s Socrates.

Many of the essays in this section explicitly address a question first mooted in Michael A. Flower’s introduction to the volume: the extent to which Xenophon can or must be read ironically. In the wake of Leo Strauss, who wrote more intensively and plausibly on Xenophon than on any other Greek thinker, this question is hard to avoid. The best essays in the Cambridge Companion opt for what Paul Christesen (p. 380) calls a “Straussian-lite” approach, acknowledging that Xenophon doesn’t always mean what he says without assuming that the sum of such instances points to some kind of secret political message that underlies the corpus as a whole.

Other contributors reject Xenophontic irony altogether, sometimes with strange results. Fiona Hobden’s essay on the Oeconomicus, for instance, argues that Xenophon presents Ischomachus’ chrematistically-oriented home management as a guide to “moral improvement” (p. 168). Strauss is far from the only scholar to have read Ischomachus as an ironized figure whom Socrates reveals to be laboring a lot for no good end. Hobden’s long appendix (pp. 168-173) on the difficult question of Ischomachus’ wife addresses only one piece of evidence for this ironic reading, and not the most important one.1

The difficulty of identifying irony in Xenophon stems in part from the phenomena of inscrutability and authorial withdrawal identified by Tim Rood in his other contribution to this collection, “Xenophon’s Narrative Style.” Christopher Pelling, in his chapter on “Xenophon’s Authorial Voice,” also speaks of irony as part and parcel of a Xenophontic style that invites the reader to take part in a dialogue: most of Xenophon’s texts are indeed, as Pelling says, “a game for two” (p. 242). Both these essays fall under the section heading “Techniques,” alongside a subtle and suggestive treatment of Xenophon’s language by Vivienne Gray and a truly excellent discussion of speeches in Xenophon by Emily Baragwanath that elaborates a surprising (but to this reader at least compelling) Xenophontic theory of fiction that stands in direct opposition to Plato’s devaluation of mimesis (p. 282).

These four essays alone will make the Companion a must-read for Xenophon scholars, and the section in which they appear could serve as a model for future handbooks or companions to ancient authors. Their focus on particular Xenophontic techniques, which produces a series of rich and straightforwardly applicable philological insights, should perhaps count as a virtue made out of a necessity. His literary output is so diverse, between and even within genres, that a conventional treatment of Xenophon’s style would probably have been impossible.

Part Four of the Cambridge Companion approaches the question of how to unify the corpus from another direction. Michael A. Flower’s essay, “Xenophon as a Historian,” takes in a wider range of texts than Nino Luraghi’s contribution— Flower, like Melina Tamiolaki earlier in the volume, suggests we treat the Cyropaedia as historiography—and reiterates many of Luraghi’s conclusions. Both essays argue that Xenophon’s historiographic method represents a self-conscious return to Herodotean models of causation, a claim that should help put a stop to invidious comparisons between the Hellenica and Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War.

Richard Fernando Buxton’s chapter develops a problematic leitmotif of the companion, Xenophon’s status as management theorist. (p. 336) As Sarah Brown Ferrario points out in her contribution, one unifying feature of the Xenophontic corpus is its interest in elite leadership. Whether Xenophon’s leaders should count as model figures is a separate and more complicated question on which the problem of Xenophontic irony also bears. On the strength of a passage in the Memorabilia (3.2), Buxton argues that Xenophon’s leaders treat their followers with “genuine benevolence;” other passages in the same text, however, show leaders ruling their followers and dependents instrumentally (2.9) or even exploitatively (2.7). Xenophon portrays leaders in such diverse ways that it may not be possible to extract a model “leadership theory” from his works.

The remaining essays in Part Four seek to triangulate Xenophon between three places that are as central to his literary output as they are to his biography: Athens, Sparta, and Persia. These chapters work to correct the commonplace view of Xenophon as an admirer of Sparta who betrayed his home city of Athens and came away from the experiences chronicled in the Anabasis with a lasting hatred of Persia. In a chapter on “Xenophon and Athens,” Christopher Tuplin reminds us not to confuse anti-democracy with anti-Athenianism. If Xenophon was, as seems certain, an anti-democrat, he had much less interest than Plato or Aristotle in constitutions and would in any case have been disinclined to identify a city with its politeia in any straightforward way. Conversely, as Paul Christesen argues in his chapter on “Xenophon and Sparta,” Xenophon’s admiration for Sparta’s ancient constitution need not translate into wholehearted philolaconianism. Kostas Vlassopoulos’ contribution successfully demonstrates not only an obvious point, that there were many individual Persians whom Xenophon admired, but also the more counterintuitive claim that his anti-Persian rhetoric may often stem from motives that have nothing to do with hatred of Persia.

This is a modern, transgressive Xenophon, crosser of boundaries not beholden to any particular ethnic or political agenda. Tim Rood’s contribution to Part Five, an essay on Xenophon’s changing fortunes in modern scholarship, admirably situates the recent emergence of this figure against the background of a century in which Xenophon had been fading from school curricula and scholarly journals alike.2 The other essays in this section show what it was like for writers of earlier generations to take Xenophon seriously. Ewen Bowie begins with Xenophon as a rhetorical model (in Dio of Prusa) and concludes with a sensitive discussion of Arrian’s debt to Xenophon that ends by highlighting the former author’s originality. Noreen Humble gives a history of the use and interpretation of Xenophon from the Early Modern period through the Enlightenment.

Humble characterizes Xenophon as an author especially open to creative reception, a point also highlighted by Edith Hall in her epilogue. One mode of reception is identification, and readers both modern and ancient have felt called to place themselves in Xenophon’s shoes. This is, Hall argues, in large part a consequence of Xenophon’s own authorial presence: by writing down “his aesthetic perceptions and inward thoughts,” (p. 457) he achieves a vivid and particularly modern form of enargeia. The “his” here is question-begging, since Xenophon’s record of his emotional responses may just as well be part of an authorial persona or even, as Strauss would have it, ironic.

Whether pose or confession, Xenophon’s self-presentation has enchanted generations of readers. If the effect is beginning to wear off—perhaps, as Rood suggests, because we no longer cherish quite the same respect for country playboys or braggart soldiers—the essays contained in the Cambridge Companion promise to restore interest in Xenophon as a more complicated figure.

Typographical errors are few; the volume is well-edited and the writing is generally of high quality. Short “further reading” sections at the end of each chapter provide a guide to the volume’s extensive bibliography. The index is generally thorough, though missing some entries for historical figures who appear in Xenophon’s writings and in contributors’ discussions (e.g., Critias and Tissaphernes). There is, regrettably, no index locorum. It would be wrong to carp too much, though, about a handbook volume that has been a long time coming and that offers such a generous range of insights about its subject. The Cambridge Companion will render Xenophon more accessible and interesting to scholars who, despite the recent renaissance in Xenophontic scholarship, might still be put off by this Athenian stranger’s stodgy reputation.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Michael A. Flower
I. Contexts
1. Xenophon and his Times, John W. I. Lee
2. Xenophon and Greek Philosopher, Louis-André Dorion
3. Xenophon and Greek Political Thought, Sarah Brown Ferrario
4. Xenophon’s Place in Fourth-Century Greek Historiography, Nino Luraghi
II. Individual Works
5. Xenophon’s Anabasis and Hellenica, John Marincola
6. Xenophon’s Apology and Memorabilia, David M. Johnson
7. Xenophon’s Symposium, Gabriel Danzig
8. Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, Fiona Hobden
9. Xenophon’s Cyropaedia: Tentative Answers to an Enigma, Melina Tamiolaki
10. Xenophon: the Small Works, John Dillery
III. Techniques
11. Xenophon’s Language and Expression, Vivienne Gray
12. Xenophon’s Authorial Voice, Christopher Pelling
13. Xenophon’s Narrative Style, Tim Rood
14. The Character and Function of Speeches in Xenophon, Emily Baragwanath
IV. Major Subjects
15 Xenophon as a Historian, Michael A. Flower
16. Xenophon on Leadership: Commanders as Friends, Richard Fernando Buxton
17. Xenophon and Athens, Christopher Tuplin
18. Xenophon on Persia, Kostas Vlassopoulos
19. Xenophon’s Views on Sparta, Paul Christesen
V. Reception and Influence
20. Xenophon’s Influence in Imperial Greece, Ewen Bowie
21. Xenophon and the Instruction of Princes, Noreen Humble
22. Xenophon’s Changing Fortunes in the Modern World, Tim Rood
Epilogue: Xenophon: Magician and Friend, Edith Hall


1.   Compare, for instance, Leah Kronenberg’s ironizing but not quite Straussian treatment of the same text in Allegories of Farming. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. pp. 39-74.
2.   I would be remiss not to direct readers toward Rood’s discussion of Xenophon’s place in 19th-century alphabet books, whose authors seem to have been hard-pressed to come up with entries for the letter X (p. 440-441).

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