BMCR 2020.09.14

Xenophon’s Peloponnesian War

, Xenophon's Peloponnesian War. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 82. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. ix, 295 p.. ISBN 9783110660654 €99,95.


While Thucydides is most often considered the historian of the Peloponnesian War, Xenophon, chronicler of the end of the war and beyond, is left with the diminutive moniker of Thucydides’ continuator. Moreover, Xenophon, unlike his prominent predecessor, is not often acknowledged as a creative author or a critical analyst. In Xenophon’s Peloponnesian War, Aggelos Kapellos seeks to provide the “definitive literary treatment of the Hellenica 1-2” (2). Whereas in this reviewer’s opinion he does not quite attain that lofty ambition, there is a considerable amount of material that would be of value to classicists and to other well-versed readers. Kapellos selects passages that allow him to address the intertextual relationship of Xenophon to Thucydides and to redress the lack of appreciation for Xenophon’s narrative style. In this way the book is distinguished from other works that offer a commentary, a literary analysis of a more general nature, or a historical overview.[1]

Kapellos’ main objective is to uncover how Xenophon, who does not explicitly state his purpose for writing the Hellenica, understood the end of the Peloponnesian War. Kapellos argues that although Xenophon largely follows and expects his readers to be familiar with Thucydides’ interpretation, he makes his own judgments, which are couched in his narrative. Drawing on what and how Xenophon reported, Kapellos concludes that Xenophon presents a moral explanation for the end of the war in his role as a didactic historian. That is, the Athenians, beset with domestic divisions and, accordingly, lacking good political judgment, were responsible for their own defeat. Kapellos unpacks this in the same way that Xenophon does by focusing on the agency of individuals such as the Athenians Alcibiades (chapter 1) and Theramanes (chapter 3) and the Spartans Callicratidas (chapter 2) and Lysander (chapter 4). In conjunction with these emphases on Xenophon’s moral use of history and on individuals, Kapellos stresses the role of rhetoric and emotions in the political events and the military campaigns at the end of the war.

Chapter 1, “Alcibiades and Athens,” considers how Xenophon represents, in Hellenica 1.1-5, Alcibiades and his return to Athenian service from 411 to 407. Whereas Xenophon, who has much to say about the nature of military command in his minor works, implicitly accords the flamboyant general due praise for his martial achievements, he also censures him for impiety and self-centeredness. Kapellos explains this nuanced appraisal of Alcibiades with both intertextual and intratextual observations. Like Thucydides, Xenophon approves of Alcibiades as a military commander but he maintains his critical judgment of him, a view which Kapellos reinforces with internal analogies from the Hellenica. Kapellos adds a compelling explanation for this inconsistent assessment of Alcibiades in an all-too-brief nod at the end of the chapter to the influence of Socrates upon the moral worldview of Xenophon (85). The fundamental concern of the historian was that Alcibiades, also a former student of Socrates, had a character flaw: he was self-serving and did not act in the interests of the city. In Xenophon’s hands, therefore, the relationship of Alcibiades to the Athenians, complicated by the former’s personal imperfections and the latter’s emotional reaction against him after the defeat at Notium, becomes emblematic of the enfeebling conditions facing the Athenians in the final years of the war.

Chapter 2, “Callicratidas’ generalship,” the shortest chapter of the book, looks at the experiences of the Spartans in the years 407 and 406 reported in Hellenica 1.6. On the basis of the actions and words of the Spartan Callicratidas, the main subject of the chapter, Kapellos infers what Xenophon understood to be the navarch’s agency in the war. Similar to how he handles the character of Alcibiades, Xenophon presents Callicratidas as a self-centered individual and thus a bad leader. The Spartan refused to work in concert with the Persians and thus did not consider what was best for his city. Xenophon further illuminates Callicratidas’ character in the report of his egocentric speech to the Milesians, which instilled fear in the audience rather than esteem, and in his dismissive reaction to the Megarian pilot Hermon’s caution against attacking the Athenian navy at Arginousai. Holding a high estimation of his talents, Callicratidas died in the sea battle.

Chapter 3, “The trial after Arginousai,” returns to the situation in Athens and the internal divisions that embroiled the city in 406, as recorded in Hellenica 1.7. Kapellos continues to follow Xenophon in examining individuals – Theramanes, Callixenus, Euryptolemus – and in drawing insights into their characters from their actions and speeches. He insists that the storm after the battle at Arginousai did indeed prevent the generals from collecting their dead, as they claimed in the Assembly, and that Xenophon would have his audience believe the testimony of the generals. This, therefore, is an example in which Xenophon makes an implicit judgment in his narrative, in this case against the opportunism of Theramanes. Out of a self-regard comparable to that of Alcibiades and of Callicratidas, Theramanes conspired against the generals. Xenophon presents Theramanes’ knavery, which played on and stoked the emotions of the Assembly, as not only an attack against the generals but also an affront to the Athenian citizenry. Kapellos poses the likelihood that Theramanes was influenced by the sophists, who taught their students to prioritize their private interests over the public good, a teaching that was anathema to Xenophon (161). Accordingly, the chapter features the use and abuse of rhetoric by other individuals. Callixenus, for example, raised a motion in the council, which Xenophon quotes in full, to try the generals collectively and, if found guilty, to execute them. Like his colleague Theramanes, Callixenus acted to advance his career and was not at all concerned about his fellow citizens or even about divine judgment. In this way Xenophon foreshadows Callixenus’ eventual downfall, brought about by his own misconduct. Kapellos follows Xenophon in juxtaposing Callixenus’ proposal, an example of “sophistic rhetoric,” with Euryptolemus’ defense of the generals, an example of “genuine rhetoric guided by a concern for the truth” (176). Buoyed by Socrates’ censure of the trial, Euryptolemus calls for a lawful trial in the Assembly. Thus, Kapellos points out, he functions in the role of a Herodotean “tragic warner” (177), for the Assembly rejected his advice. In Xenophon’s point of view, this was yet another factor in the subsequent destruction of Athens. Kapellos, therefore, considers the Arginousai trial to be representative of the domestic divisions and moral deficiencies that caused Athens to lose the war.

Chapter 4, “Athens against Lysander at Aegospotami–the end of the war,” examines the report in Hellenica 2.1 of the final battle of the war in 405, largely through the perspective of the Spartan Lysander. In the closing campaign Xenophon shows Lysander, having returned to command of Sparta’s naval forces and backed financially by Cyrus the Younger, to be a competent and capable leader, as he depicted Alcibiades in earlier campaigns. Impressed, Xenophon presents Lysander as the mastermind of the final victory at Aegospotami. Nevertheless, Kapellos argues, for Xenophon, it is not Lysander’s military qualities or the Persian subsidies that were the key factors in the end of the war. Rather, throughout his account Xenophon consistently attributes the defeat of the Athenians to their own mistakes, a point emphasized by the return of Alcibiades to the narrative yet again. At Aegospotami Alcibiades – a “practical adviser” not a “tragic warner,” Kapellos maintains (234) – proffered a plan to the Athenian generals that might lead to victory, but the generals, afraid of what the Assembly might do to them if they failed, refused to listen to him. This serious error in judgment, one of many already recounted, is followed by the destruction of the Athenians and the end of the war. Kapellos, however, does not go into any great detail about the demise of Athens in 404. In fact, he inexplicably stops at the end of Hellenica 2.1, though Xenophon continues his history of the war beyond the battle of Aegospotami and, if one wishes to mark the end of the Peloponnesian War even later, well into the fourth century.

Chapter 5 is a concluding chapter which reviews the main points of the text and submits a reassessment of Xenophon as a skillful historian, a point which Kapellos has raised throughout the book. Although not as dramatic as Herodotus or as penetrating as Thucydides, Xenophon views the end of the Peloponnesian War as an opportunity for didactic history, but his writing requires an astute reader who can recognize his personal perspective in his telling of the narrative, his arrangement of events, and his use of literary techniques. This, of course, makes him a worthy successor to Thucydides. Since he builds on his predecessor’s interpretation of the war, Kapellos reiterates a significant point from the Introduction: “We cannot understand Xenophon without considering Thucydides” (255). But the former still expresses his own views. In episodes such as the divisive reception of Alcibiades and the unjustified condemnation of the generals after Arginousai, Xenophon makes his case that the Athenians lost the war because of their own internal discord. Military successes or errors, as impressive as they may have been to Xenophon, were not as consequential as indiscretions and moral deficiencies. These, Kapellos reminds the reader, are what Xenophon saw as the cause of the Athenians’ ultimate demise in the war, and even afterwards they remained blind to their own shortcomings.

The back matter includes a bibliography, an index of sources, and a general index. Unfortunately, at points in the text there are copious typographical errors and stylistic infelicities which impede easy reading and which could have been corrected with closer copyediting. That aside, even though Kapellos is writing for classicists, there is much of value in this volume for a historian, a political scientist, or other educated readers. Overall, it not only engages with modern scholarship but it also fills a gap in Xenophontic studies, in the way that it treats how the historian relates to Thucydides and his personal take on the end of the Peloponnesian War.


[1] For example, see Vivienne Gray, The Character of Xenophon’s Hellenica (London, 1989); Peter Krentz, Xenophon, Hellenica I-II.3.10 (Warminster, 1989); Frances Pownall, Lessons from the Past: The Moral Use of History in Fourth-Century Prose (Ann Arbor, 2004); Douglas Kelly and James McDonald, Xenophon’s ‘Hellenika’. A Commentary, Vol. I: Hell. i.1.1-ii.2.24 (Amsterdam, 2019).