BMCR 1997.04.22

1997.4.22, Dillery, Xenophon and the History of His Times

, Xenophon and the history of his times. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. 1 online resource (xii, 337 pages). ISBN 9780585448992 $65.00.

This new study of Xenophon’s historical writing is a welcome addition to the current renaissance in Xenophontean scholarship. Leaving aside the notorious and oft-debated question of Xenophon’s historical reliability, in response to the “more balanced assessment of the Hellenica” (5) which has recently emerged 1 John Dillery attempts instead to gain an understanding of how Xenophon conceived of the history of his times. To do so, Dillery places his discussion of the Hellenica in a larger context by taking into consideration not only pertinent material in Xenophon’s other works but also what his contemporaries had to say about the same issues and events. Dillery’s enlargement of the scope of his discussion in this double sense explains the title of his book, and the astute reader may have noticed that it is also a play upon the title of Rex Warner’s Penguin translation of the Hellenica (Dillery does not let on as to whether or not this is intentional). 2 This synthetic treatment of Xenophon’s historical writing is both timely and necessary.

In his introduction, Dillery identifies three principles underlying Xenophon’s work (15): “panhellenism and a very militarily oriented notion of perfect community life, both inspired by his time with the ten thousand Greek mercenaries; a belief that good leadership was the critical factor in determining the success of an army or polis; that the divine was an essentially provident force working for good in human history.” After an introductory chapter (Chapter 1), in which Dillery attributes Xenophon’s profound pessimism to his realization, brought about by the indecisive ending of the Mantinea campaign, that disorder was the normal condition in Greece, the meat of this book consists of a thorough examination of each of these three principles. Dillery shows first how Xenophon’s conceptions of utopia and panhellenism are typical of his time, but grounded in his own experience and thus have their roots in military thinking (Chapter 2), and then explores how they operate in the Anabasis (Chapter 3) and the Hellenica (Chapter 4). Turning next to Xenophon’s interest in paradigmatic history, Dillery analyzes first his treatment of a model good and a model bad community (Phlius and the Thirty at Athens respectively) in Chapter 5, and then the paradigmatic individual, as seen in his treatment of individual commanders, the Spartan Mnasippus, the Athenian Iphicrates, and Jason of Pherae (Chapter 6). Finally, Dillery examines Xenophon’s conception of the divine as historical agent (Chapter 7), and argues that he uses this notion as a means to explain Sparta’s fall in Book 5 of the Hellenica (Chapter 8).

Although Dillery maintains that the Hellenica is in the main a pessimistic work, he concludes that Xenophon also had a positive point to offer. Through the speeches of Callistratus and Procles in Book 6, Xenophon proposes to his contemporaries that Athens and Sparta should put an end to their mutual hostility and join in promoting a new type of empire, “one based not on force, but on a reputation for fairness and generosity, and the respect and influence that come from such a reputation” (248-49). On a deeper level, Xenophon’s belief in the gods as guarantors of human order ensures that his history is not meaningless; there is a divine purpose to apparently chaotic and confused events, even if human eyes are unable to discern it.

There is much that is praiseworthy in this book, not least of which is Dillery’s attempt to examine Xenophon on his own terms, marked by his military experience under Cyrus and Agesilaus and his friendship with Socrates. Furthermore, Dillery successfully demonstrates how Xenophon, while very much a product of his times, offers in the Hellenica a conception of history which is, in many ways, unique. Likewise, Dillery is generally convincing in two of the major themes of his book, that Xenophon was not unaware of Sparta’s faults and in fact attributed her eventual failure to them (although I am not certain that, in light of recent work on Xenophon, one can still consider “Xenophon as the blind eulogist of Sparta and King Agesilaus” to be the “prevailing view”, as Dillery states on p. 100), and that Xenophon presented paradigms of individuals and communities not only for a moral-didactic purpose, but also as a means of historical explanation (perhaps not too surprising a conclusion, given Xenophon’s oft-acknowledged interest in good leadership).

Dillery also has some useful suggestions to make on certain points. Some that I found especially interesting and insightful are his interpretation of Xenophon’s use of false beginnings as a means to draw attention to the strife endemic in Greek inter-state relations (22-27), his attribution of Xenophon’s brief (and puzzling) allusion to the Ten Thousand at the beginning of Book 3 of the Hellenica (3.1.1-2) to his intention to establish them as a model against which future Spartan expeditions can be measured and found wanting (99-119), and his observation (esp. 90-95) that the Ten Thousand is most similar to a democratic polis at the time when it begins no longer to function properly as an army. On this last point, however, Dillery does not quite make explicit the corollary, that the properly-functioning army, with its top-down chain of command, is similar to an oligarchic polis; I wonder if it is possible to explore this angle for another explanation of Xenophon’s association of military and political virtue.

While on the whole Dillery delivers the goods (to borrow, in the opposite sense, his blunt assessment of Xenophon’s historical work on p. 253), I do have some reservations about certain aspects of this book. I shall begin with what is more an observation than a criticism, that Dillery comes across as somewhat cautious in his argumentation. This tendency can be seen, for example, in Dillery’s response to the standard questions associated with the composition of the Hellenica, where he adopts a compromise position on each of the three issues discussed (9-16). Still, in the case of Xenophon, whose work is now increasingly recognized as complex, perhaps a certain amount of caution is appropriate.

There are also some instances where Dillery’s arguments appear overly compartmentalized. For example, Dillery concludes that Xenophon’s conception of order comes from the world of the military, and cites four episodes from Book 4 to demonstrate that “disorder in the ranks is an almost infallible predictor of defeat in the Hellenica” (28-29). The first two examples come from the eighth chapter of Book 4, which renders them especially significant because Xenophon has introduced this section of his narrative at 4.8.1 by saying that he will only include actions which are axiomnemoneutos. In addition to failing to maintain order in the ranks, Anaxibius ignores the unfavourable results of a sacrifice (4.8.35), while Thibron is distracted from Struthas’ impending attack by passing time inside his tent with his flute-player (4.8.18-19), which renders him guilty of lack of self-control, an important quality for Xenophon, as Dillery recognizes elsewhere (134-35). 3 In the third example, it is undoubtedly not coincidental that immediately prior to Xenophon’s narrative of the destruction of the Spartan mora at Lechaeum (4.5.11-18), we find a hint that Agesilaus may be responsible for the burning of a temple of Poseidon (4.5.4) and a reference to Agesilaus’ delivering a group of suppliants into the control of their enemies (4.5.5). 4 In the final example, that of the Phliasians’ defeat by Iphicrates (4.4.15), one wonders if Xenophon’s political views may also be at work, because he makes it clear that the ruling party in Phlius at this time is democratic (and therefore less capable militarily?). 5 While it is true that disorder in the ranks is the immediate cause of the military defeat in all four examples, as Dillery makes clear, there are other factors in each which may playa part in the unfavourable result, at least in Xenophon’s opinion. This is not to say that Dillery’s observations on the importance of order are not important and valuable to our understanding of Xenophon; it is just that there is more in each of these episodes than he brings out.

An argument which I do not find persuasive (although perhaps other scholars will disagree) is Dillery’s distinction (36-37) between an “archaic view of the gods as arbitrary or vengeful powers” and an “alternative and opposite understanding” of the gods as the guarantors of order which developed during Xenophon’s lifetime. As an example of what he considers the archaic conception of the divine, Dillery cites the phthoneros kai tarachodes deity of the Herodotean Solon (1.32.1). Surely, however, as has been pointed out by Immerwahr and others, Herodotus conceived of the divine as the guarantor of the proper balance in the universe, 6 which renders Dillery’s distinction illusory. Such a distinction also appears unnecessary in the two episodes in the Hellenica where Dillery finds “vestiges of the old archaic view of the gods as arbitrary or vengeful powers” (37). One is Jason’s observation (6.4.23), not long before his assassination, that “the god often takes pleasure in making the small great and the great small.” Given that Jason contemplated impiety (6.4.30) and aimed at tyranny (or so people thought, 6.4.32), it is likely Xenophon considered his assassination to be the proper restoration of order rather than the action of a capricious deity. Likewise, the Spartans’ overwhelming victory over Argive troops (4.4.12) is not unexpected or arbitrary, because these very Argives had previously been responsible for the massacre of suppliants (4.4.2-3), an episode where Xenophon denounces the offenders in uncharacteristically strong language. Here too, the divine, far from acting capriciously, has restored order. Similarly, I wonder if Dillery’s distinction later (184-86) between the limited awareness attributed to the gods during the archaic period and Xenophon’s view of the gods as omniscient and omnipresent should not be attributed to genre rather than belief, for all of the examples he cites for this archaic view come from Homer or Hesiod. 7 Finally, I remain unconvinced by Dillery’s suggestion that with the speeches of Callistratus (6.3.10-17) and Procles (6.5.38-48) Xenophon offers a positive model of a joint Athenian-Spartan hegemony (241-49). First, Xenophon must have had a wider purpose in mind than a narrow political prescription when he conceived of his Hellenica, for it is a work which, as Dillery suggests (11), was intended to occupy a unique place in the Greek historical tradition. Second, the aftermath of both speeches, the Spartan defeat at Leuctra (6.4.1-15) and Athenian bumbling caused by uncharacteristic incompetence on the part of Iphicrates (6.4.49-52), reveal Athenian attempts at supporting Sparta as unsuccessful. Thus, unlike Dillery, I do not see any optimism mitigating Xenophon’s bleak view of Greek inter-state relations.

These quibbles aside, this is an work of careful scholarship and deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in Xenophon or the intellectual history of the fourth century. Dillery strikes the right balance in his assessment of Xenophon, not making him out to be an undiscovered genius, but seeking to understand his interpretation of the history of his times (flawed as it maybe, in our estimation) on his own terms. In this aim, for the most part, he succeeds.

1. Dillery cites specifically (4-5, nn. 2 and 3) C. H. Grayson, “Did Xenophon Intend to Write History?” in B. Levick (ed.), The Ancient Historian and his Materials (Westmead 1975) 31-43 and Christopher Tuplin, The Failings of Empire: A Reading of Xenophon Hellenica 2.3.11-7.5.27 (Stuttgart 1993).

2. Xenophon: A History of My Times, trans. Rex Warner, introduction and notes by George Cawkwell (Harmondsworth 1979).

3. See Clifford Hindley, “Eros and Military Command in Xenophon,” CQ 44 (1994) 347-66 (too recent for Dillery to consult), which confirms the suspicion that I have always had that Xenophon here refers to a homosexual incident.

4. Cf. Peter Krentz, Xenophon: Hellenika II.3.11-IV.2.8 (Warminster 1995) 138, also too recent for Dillery to consult.

5. Cf. Ronald P. Legon, “Phliasian Politics and Policy in the Early Fourth Century B.C.,”Historia 16 (1967), esp. 326-28.

6. See, e.g., H.R. Immerwahr, Form and Thought in Herodotus (Cleveland 1966) 311-14.

7. Cf. Jon D. Mikalson, Athenian Popular Religion (Chapel Hill and London 1983) 113.