BMCR 2005.07.79

The Old Oligarch: Pseudo-Xenophon’s Constitution of the Athenians. LACTOR 2. Second Edition. Introduction, Translation and Commentary

, , The old oligarch : Pseudo-Xenophon's constitution of the Athenians.. LACTOR ; 2. London: London Association of Classical Teachers, 2004. iv, 29 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN0903625318 £3.00 (pb).

The second edition of LACTOR 2 The Old Oligarch is Robin Osborne’s second revision in the series (the first was his 2000 revision of LACTOR 1 The Athenian Empire). He has transformed the spare first edition of The Old Oligarch1 by adding elements that make it resemble a modified critical edition. Osborne’s edition consists of an expanded and more thorough introduction, an updated bibliography, a substantially revised translation and a content-based commentary for students without knowledge of ancient Greek. Each of these expansions and changes is a success, and Osborne deserves praise for making the evidence in this difficult author more accessible and understandable for high school and undergraduate students.

Osborne’s introduction, after a brief outline of Ps.-Xenophon’s argument, discusses the date, purpose and historical use of his Constitution of the Athenians (pp. 1-14). Osborne addresses the date and purpose of composition first in three subsections under the following rubrics: the internal evidence for date of composition (pp. 4-5), the relationship of The Constitution of the Athenians to other texts (pp. 5-6) and the credibility of the claims which The Constitution of the Athenians makes (pp. 7-9). He concludes that it is a late fifth-century text and that it was written sincerely and cannot be an outright spoof or satire like Plato’s Menexenos (pp. 9-10). Although Osborne endorses the consensus viewpoints on these issues, he helpfully cites dissenting opinions in order to combat the possible impression that the problems of dating have been settled unanimously.2 After dealing with date and purpose, Osborne moves on to a discussion of the historical value of the work (pp. 10-14). Having dated the work to the late fifth century, specifically to the years of the Peloponnesian war before 413 (pp. 5, 10), Osborne links it to the contemporaneous works of Aristophanes, to the coup of the Four Hundred in 411 and to the sophistic movement (pp. 13-14). He expands upon the first edition’s discussion of Ps.-Xenophon’s class terminology (pp. 10-12), coming to the conclusion that class terms with an evaluative element, such as χρηστοί or πονηροί, have not lost their evaluative force. Rather than supposing, as the first edition does,3 that Ps.-Xenophon does not have a mastery of Athenian class terminology, Osborne asserts that the author is subtly contesting moral and status language.

Following the introduction is a bibliography ample enough for the most enterprising undergraduate (p. 15). Osborne retains the first edition’s list of the initial occurrences of the various evaluative class terms used by Ps.-Xenophon but adds πλῆθος at 2.18. The visual layout of the list is also much improved.

The translation and commentary follow (pp. 17-28). Osborne’s translation departs from that of the first edition by trying to maintain the subtlety of Ps.-Xenophon’s use of class terminology.4 This reinforces his arguments from the introduction. Indeed, the keen student with a basic understanding of the sophistic movement can better appreciate the forced paradox at the end of 1.6, for example, in Osborne’s translation. Compare the translations of Osborne:

For if the good spoke and served on the Council, there would be excellent consequences for those like them, but not excellent consequences for those sympathetic with the common people. But now, when anyone who wishes gets up and speaks, some bad men, he discovers what is excellent for himself and those like himself.

with that of the first edition:

For if the respectable people spoke and served on the Council, this would be good for those like them but quite the opposite for the common people. But, as it is now, anyone who likes can get up and speak and, if he comes from the mob, he discovers what is in his own interest and that of the rest of the mob.

Ps.-Xenophon is not elegant and Osborne does not try to make him so. However, he is trying to point out a paradox and Osborne’s translation has the virtue of being close enough to the Greek to bring this out, while providing a readable English text at the same time.

As with other recent LACTOR re-edits, Osborne has added a Greek-less commentary accompanying the translated text. The commentary includes entries for every chapter of every book in the text (i.e. 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 etc); it supplements his discussion of issues brought up in the introduction and introduces historical items, many directly relevant to Ps.-Xenophon, while others are rather incidental (e.g. 3.2 on the festival calendar).

Osborne’s new edition of Ps.-Xenophon is very commendable and should be a valuable resource for students especially when used in conjunction with a survey text or classroom lectures. The following minor criticisms and comments may help to improve future editions or facilitate use of the present one. It might be useful to state at the beginning of the introduction what is at stake in the dating of the text and the identification of its purpose. Osborne does get around to this at page ten, but one wonders whether it would be better to bring this out before delving into specific and painstaking details such as inscriptional evidence of tribute or detailed exposition of parallels with Thucydides. With the major issues laid out at the start, the details have a context and those students that do not get all the way through the introduction will still get the main idea. Also, while the bibliography is thorough, a works-cited page for the significant amount of important secondary material cited in the commentary would be convenient resource for interested students.

Overall, Osborne has produced a first rate and approachable revision of LACTOR 2. It will provide students interested in the politics of late fifth-century Athens with an important primary document from that period. Additionally, his comments in the introduction on Ps.-Xenophon’s evaluative terminology and the details of his commentary will repay the attention of more advanced scholars new to the author or topic.


1. Hughes, Ken, Margaret Thorpe and Martin Thorpe, The Old Oligarch. First Edition. Introduction and Translation. London: London Association of Classical Teachers, 1968.

2. For example, Hornblower, Simon ‘The Old Oligarch (Pseudo-Xenophon’s Athenaion Politeia) and Thucydides. A fourth-century date for the Old Oligarch?’ in P. Flensted-Jensen et al. (eds.) Polis and Politics. Studies in Ancient Greek History Presented to Mogens Herman Hansen on his Sixtieth Birthday, August 20, 2000. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000: 263-84.

3. Hughes, Thorpe and Thorpe, 1968 (cf. n. 1), page v.

4. Indeed, Osborne goes further even than Bowersock in the Loeb: Marchant, E.C. and G.W. Bowersock, Xenophon VII: Scripta Minora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968.