BMCR 2000.11.19

Xenophon and Arrian, On Hunting

, , Xenophon and Arrian, On Hunting. Warminster: Phillips, 1999. xii, 196. £16.50/$28.00.

After a difficult day in November 1663, Samuel Pepys went to a tavern where he tells us he found ‘good and much company and a good dinner.’ But Pepys is more neutral about the quality of the conversation that night: ‘most of their discourse was about hunting, in a dialect I understand very little.’ By ‘dialect’ Pepys means what we would now call ‘jargon’ and although Phillips’ and Willcock’s edition of these two Greek hunting treatises has a full glossary of ‘beagling and coursing terms’ there are moments when the combination of Phillips’, Xenophon’s and Arrian’s enthusiasm for all matters relating to hunting and hounds makes one shiver at the thought of what Pepys would have described as bad company.

You are either interested in the history of hound-breeding and methods of hare-coursing or you are not. This introduction, text, translation and commentary will not turn you towards such things if you were not an enthusiast already, but it is perhaps hard to imagine a book that would. When a paragraph in the introduction begins ‘much has been written about Xenophon’s nets’, you will soon discover how little you actually knew about ancient hunting and how much you really care about its technicalities. This reviewer was both personally uninterested in, and yet deeply impressed by the introduction’s and commentary’s attention to detail and scholarship on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of hunting. Often, Phillips is only doing justice to the two treatises which are his subject. Here is Xenophon on what the ‘man responsible for the purse nets’ should be doing before a hare-hunt: ‘drive in the supports at an angle, so that when the nets are fitted on they may keep the tension; put the mesh level at the top and fix it evenly, lifting the noose to the centre. He should set up the nets long and high, so that the hare cannot jump over’ (6.7-8). Crushingly dull as only sports and hobby manuals can be. But Phillips’ expertly brings such advice to life; his glosses and explanations help you to picture different kinds of ancient hunt from start to finish in your mind and to sift between ‘hunting folklore’ or superstition on the one hand and technical or zoological fact on the other.

Sometimes Arrian’s treatise On Hunting with Hounds does the sifting for us. Where Xenophon thinks that hounds of uniform colour are inferior to those of varied colour (4.7-8), Arrian explicitly contradicts Xenophon’s view (6.1). Writing some 500 years after Xenophon’s classical effort, this Graeco-Roman soldier-sophist explicitly characterises his treatise as a supplement to Xenophon’s: ‘What his (i.e. Xenophon’s) treatise lacks, as it seems to me, not through carelessness, but through ignorance of the Celtic breed of hounds and the Scythian and Libyan breed of horses, I will cover, having the same name as he, and being of the same city, and having shared the same interest from youth — hunting, generalship and philosophy; for he himself did the same, thinking that he ought to write up what was lacking in the writing of Simon about horsemanship, not through competitiveness with Simon, but because he saw that it would be helpful to readers’ (1.4-5).

Phillips points out that ‘Arrian’s career shadows almost exactly that of Xenophon except that Arrian was more successful'(23). But the commentary on this proem concentrates on the fact that Arrian discusses Celtic gaze-hounds where Xenophon only knows of hunting with scent-hounds. What I wanted to know in addition was how far Arrian’s self-fashioning as a Graeco-Roman Xenophon (right down to claiming his name as one of his own) is a typical second-sophistic trope.1 Was Arrian’s career really ‘like’ Xenophon’s? Or does he deliberately style himself as a Xenophontic figure? Does Arrian (or for that matter Pollux, Oppian and Nemesianus) really give a damn about the finer points of hunting lore, or are all these parasitic hunting manuals part of the generic armoury which the soldier-scholar has to unlock in order to fashion his image correctly? Certainly the answers to some of these questions can be found elsewhere: Bosworth discusses Arrian’s increasing obsession with styling himself as the New Xenophon as a symbiosis of affected persona and genuine parallels of interest and career, not to mention the frequent assumption of classical and archaic pseudonyms by second sophistic writers anxious to imitate and celebrate their ‘heroic forebears’.2 Swain sets Arrian’s explicit self-fashioning as a new Xenophon (in On Hunting with Hounds and Formation against the Alans) next to his implied self-construction as a new Homer for Alexander (in the ‘Xenophontic’ Anabasis of Alexander).3

Phillips and Willcock should have included such information and relevant bibliography in their commentary in order to adequately contextualize Arrian’s treatise. Indeed, Philips’ view (p.22) that ‘in this little treatise you can walk the streets of Athens and talk to a real Roman gentleman about a subject on which he was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic’ ignores and yet (perhaps unwittingly) challenges Swain’s verdict that in On Hunting with Hounds Arrian celebrates the improved techniques and new animal breeds which the Roman Empire made available whilst never naming that Empire and resolutely representing hunting as a completely Greek affair and himself as thoroughly Greek in terms of cultural identity. In short, even the reader with as patchy an understanding and acquaintance with second sophistic literature as myself can see Phillips and Willcock squandering opportunities and missing key literary-cultural points in their analysis of Arrian.

These shortcomings are forgivable because of the introductory nature of the enterprise. Phillips and Willcock do not have space in their notes to do everything one would want from a commentary on works involving such a central activity in ancient culture. But a lack of ‘cultural-historical’ emphasis in the introduction and notes may also be due to the fact that Phillips sees hunting as a very natural (as opposed to cultural) activity (viii):

‘This seemed an appropriate time to publish a book on hunting as hunting with hounds in Britain is under threat. The Greeks and the Romans lived in a very different world when nature was wilder and perhaps more threatening. Of all the activities in the countryside, hunting must be the oldest and most natural activity of men. To ban hunting would be to distance men further from their roots, something that looks increasingly dangerous as we begin to comprehend the consequences of our wholesale flight into a virtual world where real life, including our experience of nature, takes place on a television screen.’

Here (consciously or not) Phillips mimics Xenophon’s praise of hunting as good physical, military, civic and moral education in opposition to the deceptions and selfishness inculcated by sophistic teaching with its emphasis on words rather than ideas and action (13, esp. 13.6). But his stance also contradicts the underlying implications of Xenophon’s treatise. The contradiction lies in Xenophon’s characterisation of hunting on foot with hounds as a culturally, morally and politically educative activity. In his proem, Xenophon describes hunting and hounds as an ‘invention’ ( heurêma) of Apollo and Artemis and gift to the centaur Chiron. Xenophon then lists all the Greek heroes who were Chiron’s pupils in hunting (Nestor, Hippolytus, Achilles, Meleager, Achilles, Odysseus and Palamades to name a few of the more interesting examples). He explains that these heroes excelled at hunting and the rest of their paideia and were admired for their aretê (1.5). Xenophon goes on to enumerate some of the heroes’ achievements. In the last two major sections of the treatise (12-13) Xenophon returns to this theme of hunting as education in myth and in present times in order to show how enthusiasts for this ‘ ergon‘ (which Willcock misleadingly translates as ‘sport’) promotes ‘good physical health, improves sight and hearing, delays old age, and especially trains men for war’ (12.1). The idea that hunting is good for military training is a Xenophontic topos: for example, in the Cyropaedia, Cambyses reveals that hunting animals in boyhood was Cyrus’ veiled education for using military trickery in adulthood (1.6.37). Willcock notes these and other parallels well but he does not make the most of them. Given that Xenophon’s treatise goes on to attack sophistic education as a dangerous and morally bankrupt rival to hunting (13), it is interesting that Xenophon’s Cambyses also opposes Cyrus’ veiled, mediated training in deceiving enemies through hunting to an explicit Socratic/Sophistic education in moral relativism concerning deception (1.6.31-2).4 And Xenophon’s attack (13.11-12) on ‘taking advantage’ ( pleonexia) of friends and fellow citizens through a contrast with those who only treat animals as enemies (i.e. hunters) utilises the same theriomorphic/anthropomorphic categories to do political thinking that we find in Cambyses discussion of the civic value of hunting citizens. It is also important to note that Xenophon’s Cyrus abuses the lessons he has learned from hunting. Granted, Willcock is not doing a commentary on the Cyropaedia, but this book would have benefited from some consideration of how this treatise compares to, and differs from, Xenophon’s extensive treatment of hunting as pedagogy for citizens and autocrats in his other works.

Willcock approaches the final attack on sophistry impressively, invoking pertinent comparison with Isocrates’ Against The Sophists and pointing out that Xenophon’s sarcastic description of sophists as ‘hunters of rich young men’ (13.9) is probably a conceit which this treatise bequeaths to Plato’s Sophist (see 231d). It is, to my mind, fascinating that a treatise on hunting methods and hunting as an education in civic, military and domestic virtue should end with a scathing attack on logocentric sophistry. For Xenophon, hunting is a labour of virtue and an endurance test — a civic education that inculcates polis values which are antithetical to those promoted by the sophists who ‘speak and write to deceive people for their own profit’ (13.8). Phillips’ and Willcock’s commentary is not really the right format for a consideration of how this supposedly elitist writer dwells on the communitarian, selfless and self-controlled aspects of hunting, or how and why he marshals opinionated technical homily and edits mythological exempla (in a very sophistic way!) in order to attack sophistry as much as defend hunting. But their clear exposition in this extremely attractive and accessible edition makes it possible for all of us to nuance and broaden our understanding of both this extraordinary writer and his extraordinary imitator and to continue these considerations ourselves. If you like (ancient) hunting, you’ll love this edition. If you consider yourself interested in Greek cultural history and/or elite Greek prose writing, you need this edition.

If you like (ancient) hunting, you’ll love this edition. If you consider yourself interested in Greek cultural history and/or elite Greek prose writing, you need this edition. By and large the translation is accurate and stylish and if this reviewer would have liked to have seen more breadth in the commentary notes and introduction, they should nevertheless be praised for displaying an impressive level of scholarship, technical expertise and attention to detail whilst fulfilling the Aris and Phillips requirement of brevity, clarity and accessibility to all comers.


1. Phillips (p.168) seems to follow P. Stadter ((1980) Arrian of Nicomedia, Chapel Hill) in arguing that Arrian’s full name was Lucius Flavius Arrianus Xenophon, but acknowledges that many scholars think it was just a ‘nickname’. S. Swain (1996) Hellenism and Empire, Oxford, p. 246 points out that the ‘epigraphical record…provides no support’ for Stadter’s view.

2. A. B. Bosworth (1980) a Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander Volume 1, Oxford, pp. 6-7.

3. S. Swain (1996) Hellenism and Empire, Oxford, p.247.

4. On this, see D. Gera (1993) Xenophon’s Cyropaedia: Style, Genre and Literary Technique, Oxford, pp. 68-72; J. Hesk (2000) Deception and Democracy in Classical Athens, Cambridge, pp. 122-42.