BMCR 2021.01.02

Xenophon on violence

, Xenophon on violence. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 88. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. vi, 204. ISBN 9783110671414 €89,95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The essays collected here explore violence in the works of Xenophon. Since Xenophon lived through and actively participated in a period of nearly incessant warfare, it is no surprise that violence recurs throughout his writings, as Aggelos Kapellos notes in the introduction (2), but it is surprising that the topic has gone relatively untouched in the recent boom in the scholarship on Xenophon (3).[1] Accordingly, the purpose of this volume is “to provide a comprehensive study of the subject of violence in Xenophon’s works and to demonstrate the coherence and consistency of his thought on it” (9).

This volume has many strengths, the most important of which is identifying violence as a topic central to Xenophon’s thought. Cinzia Bearzot illustrates this through a lexical study of bia and hybris (and their cognates) in Xenophon’s entire corpus. She argues that Xenophon is sharply attuned to the illegitimate and ineffective ways in which violence functions in inter-personal and inter-state relations. Many of the chapters demonstrate how the ubiquity of violence shapes Xenophon’s narrative strategies and moral judgments in the Hellenica. Aggelos Kapellos, for example, accounts for the lack of reaction in the Greek world to Lysander’s execution of the Athenian captives after Aegospotami. He argues that Xenophon’s narrative leading up to the execution highlights the hostile attitude other Greeks felt towards the Athenians. This, in turn, primes us for the lack of reaction and draws our attention to the fact that, after decades of fighting, the Greeks were largely desensitized to violence. Several other contributions reveal close connections between Xenophon’s descriptions of violence and his narrative of Spartan imperialism, suggesting that he is more critical of Sparta—at least in the Hellenica—than is often maintained.

For as much as this collection deepens our knowledge of the Hellenica, as illustrated by the topics mentioned above, the lopsided focus on this text is one of its weaknesses. The Hellenica is the explicit focus of six of the ten chapters (and prominent in two more) and occupies over a third of the index locorum. As such, if we are to measure its success by its own aspirations, the volume does not make good on its promise to offer a comprehensive study of violence in Xenophon’s corpus. Kapellos is aware of this imbalance, and notes that the volume privileges violence in practice rather than in theory, and that the Hellenica is Xenophon’s most violent work (3). Yet in a comprehensive study of Xenophon’s treatment of violence, one might expect, to give just a few examples, a discussion on why Xenophon’s Socrates seems to suggest it is acceptable to harm one’s enemies when Plato’s Socrates does not,[2] a fuller treatment of the link between violence and slavery, or a consideration of violence against non-human life (especially relevant for the understudied shorter treatises on animals). Moreover, given the stated aim of demonstrating the consistency of Xenophon’s thought (9), one might expect this volume to wade into the methodological debate on the challenges of piecing together Xenophon’s eclectic and generically diverse literary output.[3] Another limitation of this volume is that violence is conceptually underdeveloped. As what counts as violence is historically and culturally contingent,[4] more could have been done in the introduction to clarify what constitutes violence and to situate Xenophon’s treatment of violence in its intellectual and historical context.

One aspect that emerges from this volume is the connection Xenophon draws between violence and Spartan imperialism. Frances Pownall examines the depictions of stasis in the Hellenica and argues that Xenophon includes vivid descriptions of violence to demonstrate the “futility and destructiveness of internecine warfare” (68). Pownall convincingly makes the case that Spartan imperialism lurks behind numerous instances of stasis: think of Callibius and his garrison’s support for the Thirty (2.3.14), or the violence wrought by the pro-Spartan faction in Elis (3.2.27). Even in cases where violence is engendered by the anti-Spartan faction, Pownall shows that Xenophon situates his descriptions of stasis within larger narrative contexts which are suggestive of the follies of Spartan imperialism. This provides some narrative order to the political disorder famously described at the end of the Hellenica.

Edith Foster studies the numerous descriptions of minor Spartan defeats and deaths in the Hellenica, which cluster in Books 3–5 when Spartan imperialism is most entrenched. Many of these scenes illustrate the failure of Spartan leadership (e.g. the carelessness of Anaxibius or the cruelty and greed of Mnasippus). Interspersed with narratives of Sparta’s (often violent) victories, the descriptions of Spartan defeat act as a counterpoint and demonstrate how the notion of a “beautiful death” was detrimental to Sparta, especially in light of Spartan oliganthropia.

Paolo A. Tuci examines the occurrences of orgē in the Hellenica (with a brief comparison of the term in the rest of Xenophon’s works) in order to untangle the relationship between anger and violence. The most striking finding of Tuci’s paper is, to my mind, the frequent attribution of orgē to Spartans. Of the six individuals to whom orgē is attributed, five are Spartan (the odd one out is Pharnabazus). Of orgē ascribed to entire communities, Sparta is again front and center. While Tuci argues that Xenophon often rationalizes and justifies Spartan orgē because of his pro-Spartan bias, when read alongside the contributions of Pownall and Foster, one wonders if there is not some criticism of Sparta in these passages.

While Pownall and Foster tease out the connections between violence and Spartan imperialism, Bogdan Burliga examines Cyrus’ use of violence in acquiring and maintaining his empire. Burliga’s Cyropaedia is far from idealistic, and his Xenophon is attuned to the darker, violent aspects required for the acquisition and maintenance of empire. Taken together, these contributions offer excellent grounds for further exploring Xenophon’s views on empire.

Two contributions proceed by comparing Xenophon’s views on violence with those of his contemporaries. Andrew Wolpert compares the accounts of the Thirty’s reign in Lysias, Athenaion Politeia, and Xenophon. While highlighting the differences between these sources with clarity, Wolpert also stresses instead their similarities. They are in agreement, Wolpert argues, on the fundamentally violent nature of the Thirty. Edward Harris examines violence within a community in the Anabasis and the Hellenica. Harris’ aim is to show that Xenophon is largely in agreement with his contemporaries regarding the appropriate agents of and occasions for violence. Through three case studies, Harris argues that Xenophon disapproves of popular justice encroaching upon the domain of institutionalized mechanisms for meting out punishment and upholding order; that the use of violence is reserved for the state, but officials should be held accountable; and that extra-institutional violence is justified only in exceptional cases, when the benefits are sufficient—like in the murder of Euphron of Sicyon. These positions are, according to Harris, common in the classical Greek world.

Like Harris, P.J. Rhodes is concerned with the relationship between violence and institutional order, particularly on occasions when violence impedes lawful decision-making procedures. He organizes his findings by polis. In Athens, Xenophon presents the trial of the generals after Arginusae and the rule of the Thirty as instances when violence and the side-stepping of usual institutional procedures go hand-in-hand. In Sparta, extra-institutional decision-making often seems to be the result of personal influence, which shapes the outcomes of events (e.g. in the role of Agesilaus and Archidamus in Sphodrias’ acquittal) and the direction of foreign policy (e.g. in the rivalry between Lysander and Callicratides). Xenophon narrates instances of violence in other poleis usually in the context of regime change, but he is often less forthcoming about the accompanying institutional procedures than we would like him to be. This topic is worth exploring further in Xenophon’s other works. I wonder, for example, how the information which Rhodes presents here squares with the conversation about violence and nomos at Mem. 1.2.40–46, or if these passages tell us something about Xenophon’s view on the stability of institutions in a time of unremitting violence.

Nathan Crick explores the relationship between rhetoric, violence, and power in the Anabasis. Starting from the distinction between violence and persuasion which Xenophon draws in the Memorabilia (1.2.10–11)—that violence entails force upon unwilling victims and incurs hatred, while persuasion can produce desired results amicably—Crick demonstrates that at times in the Anabasis Xenophon confirms this dichotomy, and at times complicates it (when, for example, Xenophon uses rhetoric to justify his own violent behavior). To explore further the latter instances, Crick articulates a “rhetoric of violence” which is used to explore and explain relationships within the army, and between the army and outsiders. Crick’s is the most theoretically driven essay in this collection: he makes much use of Hannah Arendt’s distinctions between violence and power, on one hand, and legitimacy and justification, on the other. While I am not convinced that Arendt’s concepts neatly map on to Xenophon’s thought, it is refreshing to encounter a political reading of the Anabasis which is not Straussian. And despite (or because of?) the fact that almost no scholarship is cited, Crick’s essay is, to my mind, one of the more original and thought-provoking of this collection.

I noticed a handful of typographical errors, but none which seriously impeded understanding. Untranslated Greek in several of the chapters renders the volume less accessible to researchers in adjacent fields. The volume demonstrates that violence is an important aspect of Xenophon’s thought and is worthy of further study. Anyone interested in Xenophon, ancient historiography, or the history of violence will want to consult many of the chapters here.

Table of Contents

Aggelos Kapellos, “Introduction” (1–10)
Cinzia Bearzot, “The notion of violence (bia, hybris) in Xenophon’s work” (11–23)
Paolo A. Tuci, “‘Apronoētos Orgē’: The Role of Anger in Xenophon’s Vision of History” (25–44)
P.J. Rhodes, “Lawlessness and Violence in Decision-Making in Xenophon’s Hellenica” (45–65)
Frances Pownall, “Violence and Civil Strife in Xenophon’s Hellenica” (67–81)
Edith Foster, “Minor Infantry Defeats and Spartan Deaths in Xenophon’s Hellenica” (83–101)
Edward Harris, “Violence and the State in Xenophon: A Study of Three Passages” (103–123)
Nathan Crick, “The Rhetoric of Violence in Xenophon’s Anabasis” (125–141)
Bogdan Burliga, “Xenophon’s βίαιος διδάσκαλος: Thinking War and Empire in the Cyropaedia” (143–160)
Aggelos Kapellos, “The Greek reaction to the slaughter of the Athenian captives at Aegospotami and Xenophon’s Hellenica” (161–167)
Andrew Wolpert, “Xenophon on the Violence of the Thirty” (169–186)


[1] A notable exception is Phillips, D. 2016. “Xenophon and the Muleteer: Hubris, Retaliation, and the Purposes of Shame” in The Topography of Violence in the Greco-Roman World, eds. W. Riess and G. Fagan (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press), 19–59.

[2] E.g. Mem. 2.6.35, but see Jones, R. and Sharma, R. 2019. “Xenophon’s Socrates on Harming Enemies.” Ancient Philosophy 39: 253–265, for a challenge to the standard view.

[3] For two differing approaches, see Gray, V. 2011. Xenophon’s Mirror of Princes: Reading the Reflections (Oxford: Oxford University Press) and McCloskey, B. 2017. “Xenophon the Philosopher: E Pluribus Plura.” AJP 138(4): 605–640.

[4] For these issues, see now Dwyer, P. and Damousi, J. eds. 2020. The Cambridge World History of Violence, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). See also Vlassopoulos, K. and Xydopoulos, I. 2017. “Introduction: the study of violence and community in ancient Greek history” in Violence and Community: Law, Space and Identity in the Ancient Eastern Mediterranean World, eds. I. K. Xydopoulos, K. Vlassopoulos, and E. Tounta (London and New York: Routledge), 1–27.