BMCR 1995.11.12

Xenophon, Hellenika II.3.11-IV.2.8

, Xenophon, Hellenika II. 3.11-IV. 2.8. Classical texts. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1995. iv, 220 pages : maps. ISBN 9780856686412.

This commentary is on that part of Xenophon’s Hellenica which describes the Civil War at Athens after the end of the Peloponnesian War, the involvement of the Spartans in Asia under Thibron and Dercylidas, and under Agesilaus up to the time of his recall, and affairs in Greece up to the outbreak of the Corinthian War, including Spartan action against Elis, the accession of Agesilaus, the conspiracy of Cinadon and the outbreak and first actions of the Corinthian War. There have been many books written about the history of this period, but this is the first commentary since Underhill (1900), which means that there is a lot of catching up to do. I do not comment here on the first volume in this series.

Xenophon is often criticised for his uneven scope. He devotes about a third of the total narrative dealt with in this commentary to the Civil War at Athens, which was a single event among many others that might be considered more important. Krentz must of course use his own good work on this War, but he does not rectify the balance. His commentary has 34 pages on this single event and only 54 on the history of Spartan domestic and foreign affairs in the rest of Greece and Asia.

This is a commentary for historians. The author is indeed an historian. There is a Greek text, but only occasional assistance for those who prefer not to rely on the translation. I believe that this is the policy for the series. The author points to the qualities that make Xenophon good reading, particularly the way he tells stories, but there is not much literary analysis. The historical comment will be of great assistance to those who seek it. There are for example brief summaries of the careers of each of the major actors in the events of the period and a great deal of discussion of the significance of details as well as explication of topography and other matters. My main reaction to the other historical parts of the commentary, particularly the notes that introduce each main episode, was that there is a great deal of surmise about what Xenophon is trying to tell us. I take the Athenian Civil War as the first example. It is described as a paradigm of rulers who fail and of the failure of Spartan methods of rule (p.122). This is a very political view of the narrative, as if the author were Thucydides. It does not touch on the essential theme as Xenophon offers it, which is friendship, and which explains the disproportionate emphasis on the trial of Theramenes. Xenophon presents the quarrel between Theramenes and Critias as a breakdown of their personal friendship (Hell. 2.3.15), the theme of the trial of Theramenes is precisely the definition of the betrayal of friendship (passim), the story of the toast of hemlock reinforces this because it is a reminder of the days when Theramenes and Critias drank their kinder toasts as friends (Hell. 2.3.56). The Civil War itself sees the continuing dissolution of friendship in the community, and then a resolution, with Thrasyboulos refusing to harm the opposition even when the Spartans have handed them over to him on a plate (‘like biting dogs put in collars’), and with the Athenians swearing to each other at the end ‘not to remember harm’ (2.4.40-43). There could have been a bloodbath, but this was avoided. The speech of Cleocritus in the middle of the account beautifully expresses the common bonds between Athenians on both sides (2.4.20-22). This ability to forget the bad and remember the good and repay in kind becomes the central characterisation of the Athenians in their subsequent relations with other Greeks, such as their acceptance of the appeal from Thebes against Sparta (pp.198-200, but the theme is not noted there), and their ultimate mirror image acceptance of the appeal from Sparta against Thebes (6.5.33-48). The contrast between treachery and friendship is pressed again in the juxtaposition of the treachery of Euphron and the loyalty of Phlius (7.1.44-7.3.12). For all that the analysis of the failure of the Thirty and their backers is interesting to modern historians, this is not the central issue for Xenophon as I read it. Lysias gives a completely different report of what Theramenes said in his defence (p.132), and Xenophon’s departure could be explained in terms of this theme. He was a philosopher, as the introduction to the commentary says, and quite likely for that reason to highlight friendship. His Memorabilia (1.2.8) says that Socrates himself considered the main ‘profit’ of his philosophy was making his associates good friends to each other and to himself, and friendship is a major topic of his instruction (Mem. 2.4-10).

The theme of remembering good or ill could be pursued further in the commentary to encompass Xenophon’s presentation of the causes of Spartan aggression. The introduction (p.6) says that forgiving and forgetting and their opposites form one of three major themes that unite the work (‘uniting it to some degree though it is not tightly knit’), but of two signal examples of the Spartans remembering ill, only one is included in the list of references there, and there is no further comment on this theme in respect of Sparta. Krentz notes the double reference to Spartan anger as motivation for the wars against Elis and Thebes (p.173, p.197), and he cross refers (p.151) to the impropriety of anger in a military commander, but makes nothing of its specific causes. The Spartans are angry in both cases because they remember harm from long ago, and this is marked by the use of the actual word for ‘remembering’ in the decision against Thebes. Several of the incidents remembered date back to the Peloponnesian War, as the commentary shows (p.172, 197). The most memorable is the beating of a ‘senior citizen’ (or as Krentz notes possibly a member of the elders who made up the Gerousia p.172). There were good services that Elis and Thebes had also provided in the past which the Spartans did not remember. They are in this respect the contrasting mirror image of the Athenians.

The conspiracy of Cinadon is the only evidence for revolution in the period under review within the inferior populations of Laconia that is not the product of invasion. The commentary sees it as evidence of the hypocrisy of the Spartans, who enslave their ‘neighbours’ (this seems to be a particular reference to the helots and perioeci rather than to the other inferior classes in Sparta? — all are involved in the conspiracy) while in the surrounding narrative they profess autonomy abroad and freedom from Persia and Elis, and also as evidence of their failure to deal properly with revolts by not attending to their root causes (pp.178-180). Xenophon does not say as much, and in fact says nothing like it, but his arrangement of episodes is thought to. Herodotus more than once refers to the Spartan habit of saying one thing and doing another. The parallel between Elean and Spartan perioecic communities is supported in Pausanias (p.173), but I wonder whether there is a real ancient parallel between the defence of the autonomy of properly constituted religious communities outside Sparta (the cities oppressed by Elis are still πόλεις) and the treatment inside Sparta of helots, who did not constitute that kind of community, and others who simply had no rights in the πόλις of Sparta. Xenophon makes no later theme of the internal oppression, though modern historians take it to be a factor in the decline of Sparta. Disaster near Olynthus brought out many of the inferior classes including perioeci as volunteers in support of Sparta (5.3.8-9). The helots took up arms in support of Sparta in return for their freedom during the invasion led by the Thebans — scaring them to death of course, but not deserting them (6.5.28-29). Helots are still thought likely to be the crews on any ships the Spartans contribute after this time (7.1.12). In the same invasion, ‘some’ of the perioeci promised the Thebans wholesale perioecic revolt (6.5.25), but only ‘some’ actually joined the Thebans (6.5.32). Theban plundering of their homes in Laconia undoubtedly pressured those who did not desert to change their minds (6.5.32 etc.), but they would have been likely to give in to this kind of pressure even without oppression. Skilled slaves also deserted their Athenian masters during the Decelean War. Xenophon later refers to desertion by ‘many perioeci’ and ‘all the helots’ in the highly wrought sentence that sets off their desertion against the loyalty of the Phliasians (7.2.2-3), and this might refer to the later situation when there seemed no option but to join the other side, but the rhetorical context would make any reader wonder about its accuracy.

There is also the form of the story of the conspiracy of Cinadon to consider, with its use of direct speech and conventional motifs, and its clearly focused single action leading to a climax of retribution for one who was ‘not of the equals’ but dared to plot in order to be ‘inferior to none in Sparta’ (3.3.5, 11). Xenophon frequently uses other plainer modes of narrative, so that the question of why he chose the form is of interest, and while story patterns may not completely distort the truth, their implications need to be faced. My own work in this area is not overtly historical, and I hope that is one of the reasons why Krentz found it less helpful than he found Cartledge and Tuplin (there could be other reasons!), but I find it disappointing that its implications have not been taken up. The account of the conspiracy of Cinadon could be read as an exciting story of a dangerous man who almost managed to achieve his ambition of being ‘inferior to none in Sparta’ but was outwitted by the Spartans. The final comment about the conspirators getting their ‘justice’ is like the final comment about Meidias getting his ‘justice’ from Dercylidas, which gives the two stories the same sense of the enemy outwitted to the greater benefit of Sparta. Krentz notes the climax in the story of Dercylidas (pp.165-166), but not in the story of Cinadon (p.181). Perhaps modern readers should beg to differ (amicably, I hope!) in their interpretations of ancient narratives, but the idea that the passage reveals Spartan hypocrisy could hardly be the one that the ancient audiences consistently made. The Spartans and their loyal allies would cheer as Cinadon was goaded about the streets, presumably to his death. Champions of Sparta did not die out with the loss of her hegemonic position, as the Spartan sympathiser of Isocrates’ Panathenaicus shows.

The commentary indeed offers a generally strong anti-Spartan explanation of Xenophon’s narrative, which does not sit well with his position in Scillus. When Herippidas deprives Spithridates and the Paphlagonians of ‘the goods that were taken’ in the raid on the camp of Pharnabazus and they desert ‘on the grounds that they were’ wronged and dishonoured (4.1.21-28), the commentary notes that Agesilaus though very grieved at their loss did not discipline Herippidas, which means that the Spartans were mistreating their Asiatic allies as they had done their Greek allies (p.205-206), and the translation is made to bear this out with its narrative reference to ‘mistreatment’ (p.113). Yet Xenophon presents this central control of seized goods on other occasions as essentially good for discipline (3.1.27-28) and designed to preventing random plundering (3.4.24). Cyrus the Great thought that plunder should be centrally controlled so that the best men should get the greatest share in a formal division of the booty (Cyrop. 7.2.11-13, 7.3.1).

The English translation is clear and useful for those who are not fluent in Greek. The instinct for literal translations is proper in a work in this series. The purist might say that the style of Xenophon could have been better captured in some places without too much trouble. I can see of course why the single verb ‘he took to his side’ cannot sensibly govern both ‘some cities by force’ as well as ‘some cities voluntarily’, so that the second element is translated out as ‘others surrendered voluntarily’—but it does lose the sense Xenophon is building up of the increase of forces (p.109 on 4.1.1). In the same section there seems no real reason to avoid the literal translation ‘to remove/detach some nation from the king’ and substitute ‘make some nation revolt from the king’—again the point being made is the increase of power to Agesilaus. The speech of Cleocritus poses the problem of translating the solemn tone of the Greek to match the character of the speaker (p.45 on 2.4.20). I think that this translation is done very well, but the purist in me says that details could still be improved. Is ‘often’ grand enough for that long ‘many times’? Does ‘for the sake of the common safety and freedom of us both’ with those three final English monosyllables capture the long sonorous phrases of the original? The phrase ‘like blind men’ in the speech of Thrasyboulos dangles misleadingly (p.43, as the Greek does not). ‘Noteworthy’ (p.37) does not seem to me an adequate translation of ἀξιόλογα, long associated with the great events of history.

The introduction refers to the evidence for Xenophon’s life and describes his works. There is a fair summary of the nature of the Hellenica and its competing sources, a chronology, a good bibliography and some useful maps and plans. The influence of Socrates on his thought is I think underplayed, and yet this could help explain for example his emphasis on friendship in the trial of Theramenes, which already suggests some connexion with Socrates in the depiction of his death by hemlock. It is possible to argue that Socrates too died because he was not thought to be a friend of the regime, as the Memorabilia shows. I am not sure either that my argument that the narrative previous to 2.3.11 is a bridging narrative written at the same time as the rest of the work can be dismissed as immaterial on the grounds that it would have been subsequently revised (p.5). Such narratives were meant to be different from the rest of the work. But perhaps I do not follow the reasoning.

This new commentary on the Hellenica is undoubtedly needed, but perhaps not as a series of three or possibly even four separate parts. There is too much that needs to be traced throughout the work. The commentary under review will do good service, but a future commentary on the whole work in one volume should take account of the literary as well as the historical interpretations of the Hellenica, in order to improve understanding of how Xenophon and his audiences saw their past.