BMCR 2005.05.40

Xenophon’s Spartan Constitution. Introduction, Text, Commentary. Texte und Kommentare, 24

, , Xenophon's Spartan constitution : introduction, text, commentary. Texte und Kommentare ; Bd. 24. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002. viii, 302 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3110174669 €98.00.

Lipka’s book, which has its origins in the author’s 1997 Ph.D. dissertation at the Free University in Berlin, is a very detailed commentary on Xenophon’s Lakedaimonion Politeia (LP). He sets himself the task of treating philological as well as historical issues.

He begins with a very detailed introduction (3-61) that deals with various issues. Starting with Xenophon’s biography, the question of his authorship, and the date of the work’s composition, he moves on to issues such as “Predecessors and Influences” (13-27). Here he deals with “Lakonophilia (13-18) and the relationship to works by various authors dealing with roughly the same subject matter (e.g. Critias, Herodotus, Thucydides). He then discusses “Composition” (27-31), “Purpose and Audience” (31f), “Historicity” (32-36), “Reception” (37-44) and “Structure” (44f). These are followed by a longer treatment of the language and style of the LP. The introduction is rounded off with points about the transmission of the text and an index of editions and commentaries since the 16th century. He then presents his reader with a critical edition of the Greek text with a facing English translation followed by a detailed commentary, which forms the main part of the book (97-251). Lipka concludes the book with three appendices, a bibliography and indexes.

Some of these chapters are very informative and provide the reader with interesting additional material. In particular, the piece on the reception of the work from Aristotle down to the 18th century and the important survey on terminology and style are worth mentioning — the former because it presents us with little known material, the latter for being quite a novelty these days since a modern treatment of Xenophon’s language remains a desideratum.1 Lipka undertakes the task of working out how idiosyncratic the vocabulary employed in the LP really is. In order to achieve that goal he looks for parallels in other Xenophontic works and in near contemporaries. By doing that he tries to show where the treatise stands within the Xenophontean corpus. This seem to be the ultimate attempt to prove Xenophon’s authorship by working out linguistic similarities to other works in terms of vocabulary and phrases. According to Lipka the use of particles (50f) and prepositions (52f) bear clear resemblances to well-known features of Xenophon’s language attested in other works by the same author. Moreover, he presents his reader with a useful catalogue of stylistic features that brings to light the oddities as well as the characteristics of the LP. The philological task undertaken by Lipka to do justice to all parts of the work is really impressive and will also help Xenophontean scholars working on other writings of the corpus.

Another major point of Lipka’s investigation is to find the work’s place in fifth and fourth century literature. When dealing with Xenophon’s alleged Spartan leanings he seems to miss the point sometimes. He partly acknowledges the more recent judgment of scholars that Xenophon was not such a stout lakonist as has been stated in the past.2 Instead he tries to build upon these findings but still subscribes to a reasonable amount of lakonophilia in Xenophon’ writings in general and in the LP in particular. First of all, I think that Xenophon had a clear eye for Sparta’s shortcomings and he is most blunt about it in the Hellenica. Lipka rightly argues that there has been a long established tradition of lakonizers in Athenian literature before and contemporary to Xenophon. However, that does not necessarily mean that Xenophon has adopted their stance. Lipka takes it for granted that Xenophon is a biased and fervent admirer of Agesilaus and therefore tends to suppress Spartan shortcomings, at least as far as the king is concerned (15ff.). However, I think one must be a bit more cautious with generalizations like that. For instance, there are clear signs in the Hellenika that Xenophon is perfectly capable of criticizing Sparta even if Agesilaus is involved: he endangers the ratification of the King’s Peace only through his hatred for the Thebans (5.1.33); although not personally involved in the installation of the Theban oligarchy (5.2.25-36) he accepts the outcome. Moreover, basing Xenophon’s pro-Spartan leanings on the fact that he wrote an encomium on Agesilaus is not very helpful. This work must praise the king according to the rules of the genre. I am not saying that Xenophon did not hold Sparta in high esteem, but a bit more caution seems necessary. The comparison with Critias’ two Spartan constitutions clearly shows how far the admiration for Sparta among Athens’ upper classes actually went.3 But things with Xenophon are definitely a bit different. He seems to idealize a Sparta of old just as he had done with Persia in the Cyropaedia.4

Another important issue when discussing the LP is chapter 14. Following Rebenich’s edition,5 Lipka sees this chapter as an integral part of the text and uses it in order to find a date for the LP. The fact that harmosts are mentioned (14.2 and 4) leads him to believe that the text must have been written before the withdrawal of the harmosts after the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. In addition, the rest of the Greeks formed an alliance against Sparta at the time of writing in order to prevent a new Spartan hegemony (14.6). Based on that Lipka draws the following conclusions: “Chapter 14 was composed at a time when the harmostships of Asia Minor were at the peak of their power, whereas the hegemony on the Greek mainland had passed to the unspecified many (14.6)”. Due to the fact that the harmostships of Asia Minor had been abolished almost entirely after the Spartan defeat at Cnidus in 394, this date can be seen as the terminus ante quem of the LP. A possible terminus post quem, according to Lipka, is the battle at Haliartus and its aftermath of 395. Based on these assumptions he reaches a possible date of composition between 395 and 394 (p. 12). Albeit possible, this dating is obviously far from certain and must remain a hypothesis.6 Whatever the solution is, it remains certain that it was composed before Leuctra in 371. The terminus post quem, however, must remain a mystery since Xenophon is rather vague about the starting point of Sparta’s decline. One might even go as far as the period after 404 BC.7 The least one can say is that chapter 14 describes a period of Spartan moral decline and opposition caused by her policy. However, I think this might rather suit the period beginning with the seizure of the Cadmeia in 382. In particular, Xenophon’s comments on Sparta in the Hellenica spring to mind here: Sparta has reached the peak of her might but signs of the upcoming decline are already visible (see esp. 5.3.27 and 5.4.1). But since Xenophon does not refer to these events either this must remain mere guesswork. However, in favour of Lipka’s dating one might also add several events mentioned in the Hellenica prior to 395. Since possession of money is mentioned in chapter 14 as one of the characteristics of the recent Spartan decline (14.3), it is interesting to note that Lysander actually brings large sums of money with him when he returns home after the surrender of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (2.3.8). Furthermore, the Spartan soldiers display a certain lust for taking booty during the campaign in Asia Minor (4.1.24-28. 33). Those endeavours might be seen to be normal war business but they actually hurt the Spartan cause when the newly acquired allies in Asia Minor defect from the Spartans again, because they have not been given a fair share in the booty out of sheer greed. To sum up, these events recorded by Xenophon could have triggered his comments about Spartan moral decline in the LP. But nevertheless it is possible to see greed and misconduct of Spartan military personnel at work at any time between 404 and 371.

Lipka explains the place of chapter 14 within the whole work (p. 27-31). But again his explanation seems rather speculative to say the least. Xenophon is supposed to have written a work on Spartan epitedeumata which eventually became LP 1-10 which he finished with a critical epilogue, i.e. the later chapter 14. Under the influence of Agesilaus’ military successes in Asia Minor he wrote passages on the military structure of Sparta which he later turned into chapters 11-13. While doing this he noted in the margin that chapter 14 which now stood between chapters 10 and 11 should be placed at the end of the work in the final draft. But after that he learned about the synthekai between king and demos and decided to add a brief appendix on the subject. When editing the text after Xenophon’s death, the editor followed his instructions and put chapter 14 after chapter 13 and therefore before chapter 15. It is possible to come up with conclusions like that but the whole thing sounds rather artificial.8

Another problem of a similar sort is the alleged relationship of the LP to various treatises by other authors. First, in Aristotle (Pol. 1333b18) a work on Lycurgus written by Thibron is mentioned. We do not know anything further about work or author and it might be possible to identify him with the Spartan commander mentioned in the Hellenica (3.1.4-8). But since there is no further proof of any sort, it cannot be established with absolute certainty that Xenophon was influenced by, let alone responded to this work by writing the LP. The same applies to Lipka’s idea that Xenophon’s ascription of the dyarchy to Lycurgus is a reaction to Lysander’s alleged plans of reforming the kingship, i.e. recruiting the Spartan kings from the best and not just from the two royal families (p. 23). This sounds plausible but since the speech where Lysander outlines these plans is only mentioned in Plutarch (Lys. 30) and Nepos (3.5) we again have only sparse proof of Xenophon responding to an actual work. Finally, the doubtful pamphlet by king Pausanias (p. 23) and a possible use of it by Xenophon must remain a mere guess since even the content of that work is totally unclear,9 although it seems to be an attractive idea to assume that the LP was a reaction to Pausanias’ alleged plans of abolishing the ephorate.

Apart from that Lipka tries to establish — quite successfully I might add — a Socratic influence on the LP (p. 18f). In order to prove this he refers to the beginning of the work where Xenophon refers to the unique Spartan eudaimonia that can be achieved within the framework of the Lycurgan state (1.2). Since Lipka interprets eudaimonia as particularly Socratic, he sees a connection to Xenophon’s Socratic works and Socratic thinking in general. In particular, Socrates’ definition of eudaimonia in the Memorabilia seems to be a fruitful starting point (1.6.10). According to him it entails restraint and self-control. This obviously corresponds with the Spartans of the LP who are restrained in various areas of life. One might even go that far and assume that this is just another device to highlight the fact that the Spartans do not live up to high moral standards anymore. The Spartans of old were able to achieve eudaimonia by adhering to the Lycurgan laws. This is explicitly stated in the first paragraph of the LP. But since they have left that route, eudaimonia and its concomitants such as self-restraint do not exist any more in Sparta. And that is why we see the decline of the fourth century. The aforementioned greed from various passages in the Hellenica, displayed mainly by looting enemy territory, is just a sign of it. But even the imperialist policy of the early fourth century can be seen as a sign of greed and therefore lack of self-restraint. The Spartans just want more and more and expanding their empire falls under the same category as excessive looting out of sheer greed.10 Therefore, I think that the Socratic parallel works very well and can be backed up by historical events narrated in Xenophon’s Hellenica. It has been argued elsewhere11 that this supposedly Socratic influence in the LP is problematic since Lipka bases it entirely on another Xenophontic work, the Memorabilia. But this seems to me the key issue here. It makes more sense to explain issues like that with an eye on the whole oeuvre of an author, even more so when Lipka has already used linguistic features of the LP used elsewhere in the extant corpus in order to prove Xenophon’s authorship. And the idea of eudaimonia as used in the LP is definitely Socratic in the sense in which Xenophon himself understood the term.

To sum up, despite some criticisms Lipka has presented an edition of the LP that will last for a long time. The philological competence displayed in the book is really impressive. In particular the detailed apparatus criticus is worth mentioning. But the translation is also a most valuable tool because it closely follows the text and is good to read. The commentary again offers not only a lot of information about style and vocabulary but also about parallels in works by Xenophon as well as other authors. Points of historical and cultural interest are dealt with on an impressive scale, which also applies to the three appendices Lipka has added to the book (Spartan marriage, the seizure of cheese from the altar of Orthia in Xenophon and the diamastigosis of the later sources, the structure of the Spartan army according to Xenophon and Thucydides). On a more general note, Lipka deserves praise for displaying sympathy towards Xenophon as an author. He tries to explain the work by turning to other Xenophontean works and thereby reconstructing the author’s thinking.


1. The last overall treatment of Xenophon’s language remains L. Gautier, La langue de Xenophon, Geneva 1911.

2. Especially C. Tuplin, The Failings of Empire, Stuttgart 1993, and N. Humble, Xenophon’s View of Sparta: A Study of the Anabasis, Hellenica and Respublica Lacedaemoniorum, Diss. Hamilton 1997 (unpublished), argue for a more balanced picture of Sparta in Xenophon’s writings.

3. See esp. Critias’ remarks in Hellenica 2.3.25 and 34 and his fragments in D/K 6-9 and 32-37.

4. See, for instance, A. Luther, Könige und Ephoren. Untersuchungen zur spartanischen Verfassungsgeschichte, Frankfurt 2004, p. 24 n.71 who sees the LP as a severe criticism of fourth century Sparta: “Die Kritik der spartanischen Staatsordnung kulminiert im 4. Jh. in der Lakedaimonion Politeia Xenophons, in der sich ein ausgeprägtes Dekadenzbewußtsein fassen lässt”.

5. S. Rebenich, Die Verfassung der Spartaner, Darmstadt 1998.

6. See also N. Humble, The Author, Date and Purpose of Chapter 14 of the Lakedaimonion Politeia, in: C. Tuplin (ed.), Xenophon and his world, Stuttgart 2004, 215-228, esp. 220: “If he wrote the whole at the same time, the likely date of composition falls between 394 and 371 BC. It is difficult to be more precise”.

7. This would mean that Xenophon, esp. in the Hellenica, sees in Sparta’s greatest success, i.e. the victory over Athens in the Peloponnesian War, the greatest threat to her high moral standards. This would mean that the later downfall is somehow foreshadowed by certain remarks made at the apparent height of Sparta’s power. One could think of the great amount of money brought to Sparta after Athens’ surrender (2.3.8) or the fear of Sparta’s allies that she might become too powerful (2.4.30). See also Th. 2.65 and Sallust Jugurtha 10 on Rome’s decline after the victory over Carthage in the Third Punic War.

8. For a similar opinion see M. Meier’s review Rez.: M. Lipka: Xenophon’s Spartan Constitution.

9. On the pamphlet by Pausanias see more recently Luther (2004), 21-28.

10. For excessive Spartan looting and its negative consequences see Hell. 4.1.20-28 and 33.

11. Cf. Meier (2002).