BMCR 2008.03.11

Xenophon On Government

, , Xenophon on government. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. x, 231 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780521581547. £18.99 (pb).

This volume deals with three works which are all firsts (among surviving documents) in one way or another and are all concerned with the business of government. But they are diverse in form (one dialogue, two analytical treatises — though of rather different tone), authorship (two by Xenophon, the third, it is almost universally agreed, not), 1 type of constitutional setting (variously monarchic, democratic or monarcho-republican) and the degree to which the common good or common happiness is the — supposed — aim (as it is in Lac. and Hiero but not in Ath., the point of which is sectional triumph). We are given an introduction (58 pp.), text (with simplified apparatus criticus) (45 pp.), commentary (116 pp.), bibliography (7 pp.) and a very brief index (3 pp.) of authors cited and what are deemed to be “substantial” subjects (about a third of which is taken up with style and language). It is a little startling in a book published in 2007 that, apart from works by the author herself (and volumes edited by authors in which they appear), the bibliography contains nothing from after 2003 and very little that is later than 2001.

Pp. 20-21 provide a brief description of the textual tradition of Xenophontic opuscula : basically there are two groupings, ABCM (but M is sometimes thought independent) and DFH. The consequences of this (or of any other facts about the paradosis) for Gray’s text are not articulated, and the system of abbreviated apparatus adopted from Denyer’s Plato: Alcibiades (D = the only reading in the MSS; d = one of two or more readings in the MSS; i = reading from quotation or paraphrase; c = conjecture) naturally casts no real light on the matter. (The clearest message is that it quite often happens that all the MSS are wrong and that in some of these cases the indirect ancient tradition comes to the rescue.) Nothing is said to “place” Gray’s text in relation to that of e.g. the OCT: perhaps this does not matter (those who really care can always work through the comparison for themselves if they so wish), but one might feel that since Gray has established a text of her own (albeit with no independent work on primary sources) she would have some sense of where the result stands that could easily be articulated.

The commentary draws attention to some textual choices, though usually with only the briefest of remarks. I note one case ( Hiero 4.8) where Xenophontic parallels cited for the general sense of a passage might actually tempt one to accept the unanimous reading of MSS and indirect tradition ( ἱκανά) against the (banalising) conjecture ὀλίγα. (There is no comment in the relevant note about the text.)

The commentary is (according to the blurb on the back-cover: there is no corresponding statement in the book itself) aimed primarily at advanced undergraduates and graduate students. This is reflected in the comparatively frequent entries that simply explain the meaning of particular phrases or advert to points of grammar: Goodwin’s Greek Grammar makes frequent appearances. Such entries are sometimes, but by no means always, accompanied by stylistic comment — often to do with word order — and it is indeed another characteristic of the commentary (this time noted in the author’s own name, p.vii) that it “address[es] as a priority the literary manner in which [Xenophon’s thought on government] is presented”. Features such as anaphora or asyndeton are thus regularly noted; and a more general context is provided by seven pages on language and style in the General Introduction. Amidst this and the general explication of the text, Gray does not pursue more tangential issues, e.g. the implications of Hiero 1.11 for the frequency of “tourism” by ordinary citizens, the precise context in Sparta or elsewhere for the provision of food-stores for hunters apparently described in Lac.6.4, the problems about Xenophon’s ten minai of iron currency ( Lac.7.5) that appear when one follows up Gray’s reference to Hodkinson’s Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London, 2000), 160ff or the apparently (but misleadingly?) unexotic note struck by the Peloponnese at the end of the list of sources of the world’s wealth available to Athens ( Ath.2.7). And she can pass by long-established controversies very rapidly, as e.g. with the date and cause of Xenophon’s exile. (She does, however, advance the notable suggestion that the younger Cyrus consciously took Xenophon with him because he was a philosopher who could play the Socratic wise man to his own role as prince and might eventually commit a record of his deeds to written form.)

Gray notes, rightly, that the style of Ath. is not incompatible with effective writing, but does not investigate what his generally somewhat awkward way of expressing himself says about his professionalism or otherwise as an author (or the “finished” quality of this particular pamphlet). Discussion of the author in the separate introduction to Ath. itself is confined to establishing that he is an Athenian writing in Athens who can (rhetorically anyway) both distinguish himself from and identify himself with the demos -run polis and that 2.19-20 does not call his integrity into question. The slightly solemn way in which this is broached is of a piece with a sense throughout that Gray has not really got under the skin of this author or his historical environment. Hence (for example) it does not emerge entirely clearly that a key to 2.19-20, and indeed to all of 2.18-20 (i.e. including the previous bit about comedy), is an implicit acknowledgement of the important fact that many of those active in the political leadership of the democratic state were not (straightforwardly) “of the demos“. Of course, Gray is not writing a systematic historical commentary: what we have is the sort of treatment in which χρήματα εἰσφέρειν (1.15) prompts just “`to make enforced payments’, as at Hiero 9.7, Oec.2.6, Poroi 3.7-11; these were often required in time of war”. The cited parallels refer to the raising of money within the state, whereas 1.15 is about money coming from allies, but there is no comment on the application to the latter of a phrase that evokes a procedure ( eisphora) proper to the former — this despite the fact that elsewhere Gray does remark on Ath.’s (normal) use of technical terminology. Similarly the whole issue of litigation involving allies in Athens (1.16-20) is left virtually without historical gloss (the Phaselis decree is mentioned, but nothing else — not even Thuc.1.77.1) and an assertion that references to tribute prove Ath. predates the abolition of phoros reported in Thuc.7.28.4 ought to be accompanied by a note that it is possible (some would say likely) that phoros was restored very shortly afterwards.

If Gray is not (writing as) an historian of the Athenian Empire, she certainly is doing so as a very distinguished expert on Xenophon, and her treatment of the authentically Xenophontic works in the volume is marked by a firm and uncompromising grasp of the author and his oeuvre. Partly, no doubt, because of constraints of space, but partly also, perhaps, because it is Gray’s style, ideas are presented plainly and relatively unadorned by elements of uncertainty or ambiguity. If Gray has a view on something she expresses it straightforwardly and succinctly, even sometimes rather allusively; apparently significant cross-references to Memorabilia are often no more than just that — a statement of the book-chapter-section reference without further indication of the substance of the parallel. If she does not have a view, nothing may be said: I did not notice, for example, anything about the date of Hiero.2

Perhaps that particular silence goes together with her lack of enthusiasm for any idea that Xenophon’s choice of a Sicilian setting for the exploration of tyranny might have specific Sicilian causes. For Gray it simply arises because it would not have been historically plausible to have the stay-at-home Socrates interviewing a foreign tyrant and an alternative Socrates-figure and setting had to be found. That may be true, yet it is hard to believe that the fourth-century prominence of Sicilian tyrants and, in particular, the Socratic connection represented by Plato’s unhappy attempts to influence them are wholly beside the point. Can this question really be ruled out of consideration simply because the absolute dates of Hiero and Republic are not independently given? Gray notes this, p.214, in the course of rejecting claims that Xenophon “borrowed” things from Plato’s work. I am quite happy to agree that Xenophon could engage with topoi about tyranny because of his independent awareness of, and interest in, them, but that does not mean that Plato — and Plato’s experience, not just particular exoteric publications — are irrelevant. (This is true whatever one makes of the story in Athenaeus 427F-428A about Xenophon and Dionysius, which Gray rejects as an invention based on Hiero. Sordi’s exploration of its historicity in 2004 is one of the not-so-recent bits of bibliography that Gray fails to register.3)

Nor, perhaps, is this the only intertextual issue. For Gray the fact that Simonides is a poet is only significant inasmuch as the ethical character of his poetry (underlined by its use for Socratic moral philosophy in Plato’s Protagoras — noted by Gray, without further comment!) makes him a suitable “wise man” interlocutor. Otherwise Simonides (and Hiero too) are largely drained of any historical character. But it seems paradoxical to insist (quite rightly) that we should see Hiero in the light of the topos of wise man / ruler meetings but then demand that the reader should pay no attention to the identity of the wise man and ruler that have been chosen. Gray not only permits herself to speculate about the reason for Simonides’ presence in Sicily (despite Xenophon’s complete failure to make any explicit statement on the matter) and suggest that he is engaging in Solon-like “sight-seeing” (pp.32-33), but adds a twist of complexity by postulating that the theoria involved is intellectual inspection of the soul as well as visual inspection of the sights of Hiero’s court. But if that degree of filling-in of what Xenophon leaves open is permitted,4 it would surely also be sensible to consider explicitly Simonides’ status as a praise-poet. The references in Hiero to panegureis as an object of theoria and to tyrants and athletic competition, which make some think specifically of Dionysius I and the Olympic Games, certainly cry out for us to think generically about one of the contexts for which Simonides’ professional services were in demand. This is an important strand to the literary context of Hiero and, perhaps, to our global reaction to its message.5

That observation brings us to a central point of the present volume, which is to assert that Xenophon has a broadly consistent view of government (or, more generally, how a man or men should exercise arkhe over other men) and to cast doubt upon the fashion for “ironist” responses to his writings. About the former point there should be no disagreement — any reader of the corpus will have noticed that issues of leadership and governance recur and that the same sorts of things are said about it: the problem is only that some readers see monotonous repetition rather than varied presentation and moralizing idealism rather than acute and practical analysis. This is where what Gray calls “ironic reading” comes in — the tendency, that is, to maintain that the real intent of Xenophontic texts is different from, even subversive of, the apparent meaning. In Gray’s view scholars have over-exercised the capacity that Hiero sought in Simonides (2.5), to use intellect to look beneath the surface; and in the case of Lac. and Hiero she is certainly right that some scholars have in some respects done so.

Lac. is, of course, already a slightly tricky work because of chapter 14, in which Xenophon concedes — indeed asserts with some rhetorical exaggeration — that the Spartans do not now obey either their god or the laws of Lycurgus. Gray correctly defends Xenophon’s authorship of this chapter and its integrity with the rest of the text (it is no afterthought). She also insists that it can stay where it stands in the MSS as the penultimate chapter, lodged between two chapters devoted to the Spartan kings, but any advantage in taking such a view (and none exists save that it maintains the authority of the paradosis) seems to me inadequate against the plain fact that the chapter’s logical position is at the end, just as is the case with the comparable chapter at the end of Cyropaedia. In any event, the force of Lac. 14 is to assert that certain negative features of contemporary fourth-century Sparta that would be very familiar to Xenophon’s readers are primarily the result of abandonment of the laws of Lycurgus, not of the character of those laws in the first place. It is not simply an invitation to see that the body of Lac. is actually a systematic criticism of Lycurgan laws. But it does provide a context for the inspection of those laws. It certainly invites the potentially sceptical reader to accept that the current state of Sparta is no reason to neglect the possibility that Lycurgus’ laws have lessons to teach about governance and education: the work’s opening proposition that the historical success of Sparta suggests that its distinctive laws repay inspection is not some sort of joke. But it also allows that sceptical reader — and invites less sceptical readers — to wonder why these same distinctive laws are not a guarantee of lasting success or (put another way) do not carry within them the guarantee of continuing obedience to them.

Using Sparta (and Persia in Cyropaedia) as the locus for paradigms of leadership or government was a provocative thing to do for many (most?) fourth-century readers, and that provocation is part of the point: Xenophon is saying, genuinely, that insights can be found in places where people may not want to find them and that the presence of those insights in such places is a sign of their universality. But he is acknowledging — indeed insisting — that such insights are not silver bullets that solve all problems once and for all. The “real” purpose is not the criticism of Sparta or Persia, and perhaps even critique is too strong a word. It is more a question of perspective and proportion. When Xenophon presents the Elder Cyrus using a leadership gambit to achieve his goals, he is inviting us to see and log a technique of value. But, particularly when he has gone to so much trouble to create a lengthy narrative structure for the discourse, he cannot reasonably be expecting us to ignore the different context within which Cyrus uses such (perfectly rational and often apparently morally acceptable) gambits in Book VIII by comparison with earlier parts of the story. The different context is, of course, from one perspective a measure of Cyrus’ success, and it is not Xenophon’s intention to deny that success (it cannot be, because the opening lines of the whole work make it the ground for regarding Cyrus’ story as worthy of inspection). But the change is real, and the carefully advertised continuing co-existence of the Babylonian Empire with the Persian polis is an inescapable reminder that the story is not straightforward — and that is, or should be, plain, even before we get to the final chapter, which even Gray acknowledges (14) indicates the dangers in over-reliance on an ideal ruler.6

As for Hiero, Strauss’s idea that Hiero complains about the miseries of tyranny because he thinks Simonides is trying to take the tyranny for himself is plainly daft. But there is more to be said for his worry about the degree of freedom of the subjects under the rule of a “reformed” tyrant (who is their friend) and about the assimilation of city and citizens to oikos and children. Of course, the oikos can be a locus of paradigmatic governance (cf. Oeconomicus) and, of course, friendship and paternal affection are (variously) fine things — and plainly finer characteristics of the exercise of arkhe than fear and violence. But, if these are the bases on which autocratic rule might be possible, it does not follow that autocratic rule is being recommended (after all, Memorabilia shows Socrates articulating parts of the Xenophontic doctrine on leadership in the context of a republican city), and — to revert to intertextual interpretation — awareness of the mismatch between poetic advice about the proper conduct of the ruler alias epinician victor and the actual historical fate of fifth-century Syracusan tyrants is one way of grasping that the discourse of Hiero hangs in a theoretical realm from within which the reader must search for universal principles with a keen awareness of the difficulty of applying them in the real world.7 I do not think that that is an ironic reading (and it may also not be what Strauss was after — about which, if so, we need not care at all). Perhaps, indeed, morality rather than irony is the more fundamental determining factor — but it is the moral aspirations of someone aware of the real world that we are dealing with.8

Ironic or look-beneath-the-surface readings have been an important aspect of the modern revival of Xenophontic studies. Gray can legitimately claim always to have ploughed a rather different furrow and she is both right and more entitled than most to suggest that it is an aspect that needs some review. We do perhaps need to find a language in which to talk about Xenophon that is somewhat closer to his character as it was seen (and found wanting) in earlier generations; and we perhaps need to put back a little at least of the ingenuousness of which we have been divesting him so energetically for the last three decades. In that respect the apparently unshowy volume under review here is a vigorous call to arms.


1. But cf. M. Sordi, “L’ Athenaion politeia e Senofonte”, Aevum, 76 [2002], 17-24.

2. Lac., by contrast, is explicitly put in the 360s. — For a different example of succinctness note, e.g., the interesting comparison of αὐτοί τε καὶ οἱ ἀκόλουθοι ( Ath. 1.19) with other cases where “free and slave” is a trope for stressing completeness: readers are then left to ponder the significance in Ath. for themselves.

3. M. Sordi, “Senofonte e la Sicilia”, in C. J. Tuplin (ed.), Xenophon and his World (Stuttgart, 2004), 71-78.

4. The metaphorical side of the coin comes from the expectation that Simonides should διὰ τῆς γνώμης … θεᾶσθαι (2.5) and detection of a sub-text in Hiero’s statement (1.12) that tyrants do not get much involved with theoriai ( οὐ μάλα ἀμφὶ θεωρίας ἔχουσιν) — possible, but certainly a reading that allows the Xenophontic text to be more than its surface appearance.

5. Cf. R. Sevieri, “The imperfect hero: Xenophon’s Hiero and the (self-)taming of a tyrant”, in C.J. Tuplin (ed.), Xenophon and his World (Stuttgart, 2004), 277-287. Gray is keen to insist that, living at Scillus, Xenophon was not in a backwater but sitting just across the river from Olympia. That being so, we cannot lightly banish games or epinician poetry from his monde imaginaire.

6. In discussing the date of Lac. Gray suggests that the “now” of corrupted Sparta is an extended period from the early fourth century down to the 360s and compares a similar effect in Cyr. 8.8. That may be fair, but it is worth stressing that the “here and now” is a more complicated thing in Cyropaedia as a whole because the main text itself repeatedly distinguishes between the time of Cyrus and “even nowadays” ( ἔτι καὶ νῦν), a date-horizon apparently earlier than the “now” of 8.8. See C. J. Tuplin, “Education and Fiction in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia“, in A. H. Sommerstein & C. Atherton (edd.), Education in Fiction (Bari 1997), 65-162, at 103-105.

7. What seems to be the loud silence about how Hiero turned from ordinary person into tyrant (a change whose existence, but not explanation, is advertised by the text) is also an invitation to remember the real world. There are dangerous natural inclinations against which it is difficult to guard.

8. The association of Ath. with Xenophon has a sense to it, not just as a companion piece to Lac., but because the work illustrates how rational analysis by the political observer and acute self-interested behaviour by the political actor do not necessarily produce palatable results. The fact that something works, and works for intrinsic reasons not just by accident, is not a proof that it is right — or, put the other way about, any abiding sense that it is not right shows that the apparently cogent argument must have a flaw somewhere. This is a different sort of investigation (one coming from the other end of the problem and done in an openly sardonic style) of an issue quite familiar to Xenophon.