BMCR 2000.04.10

Xenophons Symposion. Ein Kommentar. BzA 125

, Xenophons Symposion. Ein Kommentar. BzA 125. Stuttgart and Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1999. 493.

Xenophon’s Symposium comprises 36 pages in the Oxford edition, Huss has written a commentary, which has nearly 500 pages. Is this the portent of an overgrown, overspecialised academic discipline? Not in this case. This commentary, which is a slightly revised Munich dissertation, is a worthy contribution, which is written without any unnecessary repetition and without any superfluous page.

The introduction deals with several loosely connected themes. The headlines are sometimes a bit old-fashioned insofar as they already tell the result of Huss’s discussion (for example “Endgültige Spätdatierung von X. Symp”). This mannerism is probably not fortuitous rather but the expression of Huss’s wide-ranging interests in the history of classical scholarship and of his sympathy with the relevant traditions.1

Although the introduction is not very long (in fact in part much too densely written), it deserves a detailed discussion as it is rich in information. At first Huss determines the relationship between Plato’s and Xenophon’s symposia.2 He adheres to the dominant view that sees in Xenophon the later author. Fortunately he argues his thesis without lengthy repetitions of the long discussion but puts forward his main argument, which is based on the observation that two Platonic dialogues, which are later than his Symposium, must have been earlier than Xenophon’s Symposium. In the next step Huss attempts to give an absolute date. His convincing conclusion is that Xenophon wrote his Symposium in the second half of the 360s, thus being able to make use of much of the former Socratic literature.

The second part of the introduction tackles the problem of models or rather of intertextuality. Huss shows that every chapter contains allusions or possible allusions to several works of other authors. Therefore he calls it a pastiche. But this label is not intended to define Xenophon as a minor, uncreative author; on the contrary, Huss emphasises that Xenophon’s text is an elaborate, intelligent book. On the other hand, Huss does not rate highly the philosophical importance of the book. The Symposium is a merely literary, fictional, eclectic work (25), and the readers are expected to enjoy the multifarious literary allusions.

The third chapter deals with Xenophon’s Socrates. This Socrates is not the historic Socrates nor Xenophon’s picture of the historic Socrates but a fictional figure, which incorporates all the qualities Xenophon’s heroes generally have. Thus he is comparable to Cyrus or Agesilaus and similar figures. He should not be burdened with speculations on who Socrates really was.

In the fourth part Huss underlines that the Symposium is not a carelessly composed work that only groups together several pieces but that it has a clear structure. Most readers would have liked Huss to put forward his observations in more detail, especially those that concern the introductions of the speakers. More palatable are Huss’s remarks on two leitmotivs of Xenophon’s Symposium. One is the idea of eros, which goes through the whole treatise, the other is the opposition between earnestness ( spude) and jest ( paidia). The eros of the Symposium is a means to reach virtue and is central to the whole concept. On the other hand, the alternation between earnestness and jest — and the importance of humour in the work is rightly stressed by Huss — structures the whole dialogue.3

The humour, or better relaxedness, is the theme of the next part of the introduction. Huss makes clear that the bitter historical reality of the time in which the dialogue has been put is ignored. We merely follow the talk of some well-educated Athenians, who speak in a graceful way. But Huss sees more in this. He observes a difference between the historic personalities and Xenophon’s presentation of them, which, according to Huss, is intentional and not the result of Xenophon’s distance from the fictional time of the dialogue. One difficulty of this idea is Huss’s concept of the “historische Realität”, historic reality. What Huss means by this is in fact the Athenian fourth-century view on fifth-century history, according to which people like Alcibiades and Callias are baddies. This is perhaps only a problem of terminology, but not a minor one.

More important is the overall interpretation: Huss thinks that Xenophon wants to present the harmonious circle to show how important “Versöhnlichkeit” was. This seems convincing. But it is not necessary to affirm that this idea was the result of Xenophon’s ‘international’ experience (47). The idea of homonoia was widespread in Athens after the Deceleian war, and Xenophon stands in this tradition.

Huss makes a very good point remarking that the positive characterisation of Callias in the Symposium is not to be explained as expressing Xenophon’s real opinion on the tyrant. It is intended to show that only Socrates’ personal influence can tame people like this. Thus, the Symposium‘s “Sitz im Leben” is the ongoing debate on Socrates in Athens.

The general interpretation of the dialogue gives some ideas on the intended readership (part 6 of the introduction). Huss argues that Xenophon must have had in his mind Athenians, but he does not deny that the more general philosophical ideas are intended to appeal to a more general public.

Part seven is headed by the title: “Das Symposium bei Kallias als ein zeitgeschichtliches Dokument”. However, Huss deals with the importance of the text as a document on cultural history, on the development of symposia, which is very important indeed.

Finally and duly the transmission of the text is discussed, mainly on the basis of Cirignano’s work but with some modifications that derive from Huss’s own collation of manuscripts.4

Huss underlines that the traditional negative judgement on Xenophon has been under review for some years. He sets off to show the literary and intellectual qualities of Xenophon’s Symposion. This is possible because Huss does not use the treatise as a quarry for information about the historic Socrates but wants to analyse a small piece of literature. Huss rightly does not try to show that Xenophon is a genius; nevertheless he vindicates him as a skilful, intelligent writer, who is not merely Plato’s weak imitator. Even those who continue to despise Xenophon will be impressed by Huss’s scholarship and will profit from his introduction.

The commentary itself is written in a style that is generally clear but again sometimes too dense. It shows that Huss has gone back very far in time and sought out important contributions by scholars of the nineteenth century, another expression of his interest in Wissenschaftsgeschichte. The commentary to every chapter is introduced by some notes about the content and the general line of Xenophon’s argument. These introductions can be read as one text and form an interpretative essay of the whole book.

The commentary deals mainly with problems of textual criticism and of philosophy, unfortunately less with problems of cultural history, for which Xenophon’s text is not without impact. Perhaps the most important passages in the commentary are those that deal with problems of intertextuality, which Huss had already treated in the introduction. It is now much easier to grasp Xenophon’s place in Greek intellectual history.

Huss has done a superb work, showing that even a supposedly minor work deserves an extensive commentary if the commentator fills the conventional form with unconventional ideas. The dissertation sometimes suffers from its austere presentation, from its very dense style. Nevertheless, everybody interested in Greek intellectual history of the fourth century should read or at least use this book, which is so rich in new insights.


1. William Calder, III and B. Huss (ed.), “Sed serviendum officio…” The Correspondence between Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff and Eduard Norden (1892-1931), Hildesheim (Wiedmann), 1999; William Calder, III and B. Huss (ed.), “The Wilamowitz in Me.” 100 Letters between Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff and Paul Friedländer (1904-1931); with Translations of Selected Letters by Caroline Buckler, Los Angeles (University of California) 1999; B. Huss and P. von Moellendorff, “Und es wird gehen!” Der Briefwechsel zwischen Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff und August Frickenhaus, Qst 49 (1999), 199-235.

2. See also the meticulous comparisons between Xenophon’s Symposium and Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus in the appendices.

3. See also B. Huss, “The Dancing Socrates and the Laughing Xenophon or The Other Symposium,” AJPh 120 (1999) 381-409.

4. See also B. Huss, “Der Text von Xenophons Symposion in cod. Mutinensis 129 und cod. Monacensis 494,” Philologus 143 (1999) 344-347; id., “In Xenophontis Symposium observatiunculae criticae,” ICS 22 (1997) 43-50.