BMCR 2020.10.02

Xénophon. Poroi: revenue-sources

, Xénophon. Poroi: revenue-sources. Clarendon ancient history series. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xvi, 340 p.. ISBN 9780198834427 $115.00.

This volume appears in the Clarendon Ancient History Series, whose aim, to quote from the dustjacket, is ‘to provide authoritative translations, introductions, and commentaries to a wide range of Greek and Latin texts studied by ancient historians.’ Xenophon’s Poroi, a short work of the mid-fourth century offering various recommendations for improving Athens’ public finances, is, for its length, one of the richest and most interesting texts to survive from classical Athens. It is a source of fundamental importance on, among much else, the legal and social position of metics, silver-mining, and maritime trade. Since the most recent full-scale commentary on it, Philippe Gauthier’s Un commentaire historique desPoroi de Xénophon (1976), is now almost fifty years old, the publication of this volume is certainly timely. David Whitehead, a long-serving general editor of the series who has already contributed to it a volume on Aineias the Tactician (1990), is well qualified for the task. The result is in most respects extremely impressive.

The book consists of an extensive General Introduction, Notes on the Text, translation, and more than 200 pages of commentary. No Greek text is provided, in line with the series’ general policy, but there are ten pages of notes on the text, where Greek is used.

The General Introduction, divided into eight sections, is richly rewarding. Whitehead deals briskly in the first two sections with questions of authorship and title, accepting both the attribution to Xenophon and the title Poroi (or Peri Porōn). On the question of its date, he argues in support of the majority view that it was composed in the aftermath of Athens’ humiliating defeat at the hands of its former allies in the Social War of the mid-350s, a time of crisis in the city’s finances. A brief synopsis of the work’s structure and contents is followed by a thought-provoking discussion of genre. Whitehead, whilst emphasizing its formal uniqueness, suggests that its closest affinities are with deliberative oratory, in that Xenophon advances arguments in support of a series of concrete political proposals. Its relationship to Demosthenes’ early deliberative speeches, especially the detailed reforms of the system of naval funding proposed in Dem. 14 ‘On the symmories’, might, I suggest, be worth exploring further. The final three sections deal in various ways with the work’spolitical context. Whitehead argues convincingly against the view, maintained by George Cawkwell in an influential article,[1] that there is significant overlap between Xenophon’s proposals and the policies of Euboulos, the prominent political leader of the 350s. Instead, he sees Poroi as having a delayed impact on public policy two decades later, when Athens’ finances were substantially restored on the initiative of Lykourgos. All of this is broadly persuasive. Throughout his analysis Whitehead insists on taking Poroi seriously as an intelligent and informed contribution to Athenian political debate. His rejection of the view, expressed by a number of influential scholars, that Xenophon’s ideas were economically illiterate is important and salutary.

The Notes on the Text deal with more than thirty passages where textual issues require discussion. No new emendations are proposed. Consultation of the Greek text is pretty much essential to be able to follow the arguments.

Whitehead’s translation is accurate enough (‘new and unprecedentedly accurate’ according to the publisher’s blurb, for which of course he is not responsible). But it is also overly literal and lacks fluency. It is perhaps too accurate to read well. ‘Personally, I always think that whatever kind of leaders there are corresponds with the kind of civic communities they lead’ as a translation of the opening sentence of the work is less engaging than Marchant’s version in the Loeb Classical Library: ‘For my part I have always held that the constitution of a state reflects the character of the leading politicians.’Some of the choices seem slightly questionable. For example, the use of the figurative expression ‘feather in the cap’ to translate kosmos (2.4, 3.13) sounds wrong in a Greek context. At 4.46 the conversion of distances into kilometres removes the force of Xenophon’s use of round numbers (‘more than five hundred stadia’): that Megara is ‘much more than ninety-three kilometres away’ from Athens is not something that any speaker of English would ever say. Italics are used extensively for emphasis, at times distractingly. And in a translation, it is surely preferable to find an English equivalent for admittedly hard-to-translate words such as barbaros or proedria rather than simply transliterate them. At 3.7 I judge the translation to be somewhat misleading. Here, in the course of arguing that investment will be needed in order to pay for his plans, Xenophon is made to say that ‘the thought that the citizens would not contribute eagerly towards such things does not dishearten me.’ This suggests that he has the thought but is not disheartened by it, whereas his point is surely that he is not disheartened because he does not have the thought. Marchant’s version (‘Nevertheless I venture to hope that the citizens would contribute eagerly’) again seems preferable.

The Commentary is long and extremely comprehensive. Whitehead leaves no stone unturned and fully addresses even minor points. Throughout he shows mastery of a mass of scholarship, pays close and respectful attention to the views of earlier commentators, and displays a profound knowledge of fourth-century Greek history. His comment on 1.1, that Xenophon here uses ‘[a] common-place looking phrase, but there is perhaps more to it than meets the eye’ encapsulates his general approach: to look hard and keep asking questions. Its quality and usefulness are both very high. My only concern with the commentary relates not to its content, but rather to an unresolved tension between the (in principle, laudable) policy of making the book accessible to non-readers of ancient Greek and the author’s evident desire to produce a full-service historical commentary, which necessarily involves constant engagement with and attention to the Greek text. In short, Whitehead seeks to serve two masters, and the result is not entirely satisfactory for either. In the Preface he states that ‘Neither my General Introduction nor my Commentary require an ability to read ancient Greek; what little they include is transliterated.’ (p. vii). Whether the amount of transliterated Greek is ‘little’ is debateable. More to the point, however, transliteration does not help those who are unable to read Greek unless the meaning of the transliterated words is consistently made clear. This does not always happen. As a result, such readers will find a significant number of notes to a greater or lesser degree hard to understand. For example, the note on 4.33 starts as follows: ‘This pivotal statement connects explicitly—via treph-vocabulary—with 1.1 …’ How is such a reader expected to know what ‘treph-vocabulary’ means, or, later in the same note, that triôbolon means the same as the ‘three oboloi’ mentioned two paragraphs earlier? And in the note on 4.17 a participial phrase from Aristotle’s Politics that is critical to the argument is transliterated (ta koina ergazomenoi) but not translated nor explained. Finally, the note on the lemma ‘(men) with lots of olive-oil’ (5.3) begins by stating that this is ‘The only instance of this word … until the Christian era.’ This would be fine as a note on πολυέλαιοι, the word that Xenophon uses. As it is, readers will be either baffled (which word does he mean?) or, without the Greek text to hand, left to guess what Xenophon actually wrote. I am not sure that there is an easy solution to this problem within the self-imposed constraints of the series, and I certainly do not wish to belittle either the intent or the effort that has gone to achieving it. When, however, there are thirteen completely blank pages at the end of the book, and the general execution of the project is quite leisurely, it is regrettable that space could not have been found to include the Greek text, which is far from long (seventeen pages in Marchant’s Oxford text).

But I do not wish to end on a negative note. This volume, and particularly the Introduction and Commentary, are tremendously accomplished pieces of scholarship, and will be of permanent value to all who work on this fascinating text, or on fourth-century Athens more generally.


[1] G. L. Cawkwell, ‘Eubulus’ JHS 83 (1963) 47-67.