BMCR 2023.05.23

Xenophon. Estate Management and Symposium

, , Xenophon. Estate management and Symposium. Oxford world's classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. xliii, 107. ISBN 9780198823513.



This edition of Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Symposium features a high-quality translation by Anthony Verity and a thought-provoking introduction by Emily Baragwanath. It is Baragwanath’s introduction that makes this edition stand out from the competition. In her reading, these works are not just evidence for Athenian social history but works of a “skilled literary artist” and “innovative thinker” (xii) who is far from the stodgy conservative he has too long been taken to be.

I shall argue that both works indicate that exemplary moral qualities may be displayed even by women and slaves, whose lesser moral and intellectual standing was taken for granted in contemporary Athens. This picture of a very broad basis of human capacity for virtue is radical. It can speak to our own times (xii).

The centerpiece of Baragwanath’s case is Ischomachus’ education of his wife in Oeconomicus 7-10. She well highlights the ways in which Ischomachus treats his wife as an equal partner in their shared household, thanks to her equal capacity for possessing key character traits and her role in leading and training the subordinates within the household. This second feature, the wife’s coequal role in teaching others and leading them, is particularly noteworthy, given Xenophon’s belief that leadership scales up, that leadership in the household is not different in kind from leadership in the city, as Baragwanath notes. She is therefore right to emphasize the wife’s agency in addition to her potential.

Baragwanath also argues that Ischomachus not only recognizes ways in which his wife is equal to him but values her unique qualities as a woman. It is here that Baragwanath may push her case too far; a woman’s place is in the home in large part because women are not, in Ischomachus’ account of the divine and natural order, strong or brave enough to do outside work. Women’s greater love for newborns is their only explicit superiority over men, in Ischomachus’ view, and presumably reflects their nursing of the young; women’s greater timidity, their other distinguishing feature, only makes them no worse at protecting the household goods. Baragwanath acutely observes that when Ischomachus’ wife corrects him when he fears she will not enjoy caring for sick servants, she shows knowledge of and commitment to Xenophon’s understanding of reciprocity. For Baragwanath, this shows Xenophon’s “sense of a woman’s particular sensibilities and natural expertise” (xix, Oeconomicus 7.37); but it may be that Xenophon understands this rather better than Ischomachus. In the Symposium, as Baragwanath will note when introducing that work, Xenophon suggests that women can master manly courage (andreia, Symposium 2.12); this goes beyond anything Ischomachus imagines.

Baragwanath consistently pushes the text to yield the most progressive reading possible. Ischomachus says that he began the education of his wife “as soon as she was tamed and sufficiently domesticated — to carry on a conversation” (xvi, Oeconomicus 7.10). Baragwanath’s dash (it does not reappear in Verity’s translation) reveals her take on this passage: “The notion of the young bride being tamed to speak upends the conventional expectations brought to mind by the taming metaphor” (xvi). Baragwanath is right to stress that conversation—dialogue—is particularly important to a Socratic. But the conventional expectation of domestication via consummation of the marriage remains rather jarring here, even if the wife turns out to be an able interlocutor.

Baragwanath deals ably if rather quickly with the historical evidence that Ischomachus’ wife was the scandalous Chrysilla later attacked by Andocides; she may not provide enough detail about that scandal for readers to understand why it has puzzled scholars so much. But Baragwanath makes smart use of parallels from elsewhere in Xenophon to show that Xenophon was fond of raising such puzzles in ways that need not require aggressively ironic readings of his text. In this case, I would suggest that we consider the possibility that Ischomachus’ problem was not that he was too naïve about his wife’s positive potential, as some have suggested, but that he wasn’t enlightened enough.

Talk of aggressively ironic readings takes us naturally to the Straussian interpretation of the Oeconomicus originated by Leo Strauss, something Baragwanath briefly but insightfully addresses as well. Here, too, she arguably does not say enough about Strauss for a reader new to the debate to grasp what is at stake—though an introduction like this is not the place for a comprehensive introduction to Straussianism. Baragwanath’s most interesting point here is that Xenophon’s attractive and accessible style “softens the effect of ideas that might otherwise strike readers as too radical, whether by clothing them in conventional guises, or presenting them as rooted in traditional origins” (xxiv). That is, Strauss was right that there is more to Xenophon than meets the eye, but to Baragwanath’s eye what’s more is radically democratic and inclusive, not radically conservative.

Baragwanath argues that Xenophon’s Symposium transcends conventional values by broadening the ambit of kalokagathia (“gentlemanliness”) from a status term to a moral quality all can aspire to, including slaves and women. She also rightly highlights the importance of relationships based on reciprocal philia. Xenophon treats kalokagathia as more than a status term, here and elsewhere, and the slave performers provide examples of manly courage (paradoxically embodied by a slave girl) and mutual philia. Baragwanath is right to highlight how philia replaces eros as the prime topic of the Symposium, marking one contrast with Plato’s Symposium. As she well shows, Xenophon does not just have Socrates reject physical consummation in relations between men; he develops a positive vision for relationships, and those relationships may well include marital ones, which resurface, rather surprisingly, in the show of passionate marital philia at the end of the Symposium. Finally, Baragwanath well sketches how the Symposium contributes to Xenophon’s defense of Socrates, demonstrating once again that it is rather more than a bit of light entertainment.

Anthony Verity’s translation is fluent without straying too far from the Greek text. The closest comparison is probably Henderson’s Loeb (2013); Waterfield’s Penguin (1990) is considerably looser, and Bartlett’s version of 1996 for the Straussian Agora Edition series is far more literal.[1] Assuming one aims, as do Henderson and Verity, for a mean between fluency and literalness, the choice between Henderson and Verity would reside largely in accuracy. I have not compared them thoroughly, but in sample passages (Oeconomicus 7 and Symposium 8) I found Henderson a slightly more reliable guide. Thus early in Oeconomicus 7, Verity makes Ischomachus’ search for a wife rather more parallel with the search undertaken by his wife’s parents than the Greek suggests (7.11); omits an important tote (7.12); inserts an “all” lacking in the Greek (7.13); has Ischomachus’ wife wonder how she can be an “equal partner” rather than how she can contribute at all (7.14); has her say that everything in the household is “under your control,” which is a bit more submissive than en soi need imply; and adds an “only” when the wife says her [only] duty was self-control (7.14). This, to be clear, was far and away the passage where I had the most complaints about Verity’s version, and there were also occasions where I preferred his reading to Henderson’s.

The notes in this edition, while more substantial than those in the Penguin, Loeb, or Agora edition, are fairly limited—which can, of course, be a virtue for readers. The basic historical information is clearly presented, but there is little in the way of interpretive comment on issues other than those raised in the introduction itself. A very useful annotated bibliography will, however, help any readers looking for more guidance. The interpretive notes that are provided usually refer the reader back to the introduction, reasonably enough; but it is unfortunate that the page numbers cited in the notes do not exactly correspond to those in the introduction itself. Oxford University Press should correct this in a subsequent printing.

Many of the notes flag key terms that Verity chose not to translate consistently and point readers to the glossary of Greek terms. Such notes are frequent, but they aren’t comprehensive, and I’m not certain that readers benefit much from repeated suggestions that they consult a glossary that consists mainly of translations. The frequent asterisks may be as much a hindrance to a fluent reading as a hyper-literal translation. Here the Straussian scheme of prioritizing a single translation of each key term and noting every deviation from it is at least more consistent. If a term is worth this many notes, perhaps more effort at a consistent translation would be worthwhile. We are, however, coming up against an eternal challenge facing translators, and there is no ideal solution. Stubborn insistence on uniformity introduces its own problems, not only in awkwardness but in failing to reflect the range of Greek terms that have no single English equivalent.

In short, this book provides a solid set of translations and notes with an introduction that makes a strong case for why these texts matter. Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Symposium do provide evidence for Greek social norms, but they are also the work of a thoughtful Socratic capable of challenging and perhaps even transcending those norms.



[1] Henderson, Jeffrey, E. C. Marchant, and O. J. Todd. Xenophon: Memorabilia, Oeconomicus, Symposium, Apology. Cambridge, MA, 2013. Waterfield, Robin, and Hugh Tredennick. Xenophon: Conversations of Socrates. London, 1990. Bartlett, Robert C. Xenophon: The Shorter Socratic Writings. Ithaca, 1996.