Monday, August 16, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Vivienne Gray (ed.), Xenophon. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. ix, 606. ISBN 9780199216185. $55.00 (pb).
Reviewed by David M. Johnson, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Table of Contents

Vivienne Gray, whose prolific scholarship has done so much to advance the recent renaissance in the study of Xenophon, is very well positioned to edit this collection of essays. It is always easy to carp about editorial decisions in this sort of book, and you'll find some complaints below, but the lead should be that this volume does a fine job of introducing readers (ideally, I suppose, graduate students or advanced undergraduates) to the recent wealth of Xenophontic scholarship.

Gray's introduction introduces the reader to Xenophon by retelling his life in a way that sheds light on his works; she rightly notes the importance of different varieties of leadership in both. Another recurring point is Gray's skepticism about readings of Xenophon that find him ironic in a thoroughgoing way. Gray argues that ironic readings "tend to close down other interpretations" (5), but it is unfortunate that this volume is itself rather closed to ironising readings, save in Carlier's important essay on the Cyropaedia. Surely even relatively junior readers would be better served by further sampling of the other side in this debate; Leo Strauss's essay on the Spartan constitution1 would have provided an accessible and provocative introduction to the most influential and infamous of ironical readers of Xenophon, and the presence here of Louis-André Dorion's critique of Strauss would have inoculated readers against any ill effects. A selection from the other prominent 20th century thinker to comment on Xenophon, Foucault, would also have added interest to the volume.

Gray divides the book into five sections: status and gender; democracy; Socrates; Cyropaedia; and historical writing. The volume thus provides excellent coverage of the Cyropaedia and the Socratica, as of the Anabasis, which is the major subject of the historical section. But there is rather little about the Hellenica and, surprisingly, all but nothing about that old standby of Xenophontic scholarship, Xenophon's philolaconism or lack thereof. There is no entry for Sparta in the index. One can well imagine a rival text in which a section on Sparta and one on the Hellenica replaced the sections here on status and gender and on democracy; valuable though these essays are, neither topic has been a central theme in scholarship on Xenophon.

The first section opens with a brief piece by Sarah Pomeroy on the domestic economy of the Oeconomicus. Pomeroy argues that Xenophon's understanding of economic principles was more advanced than Finley had allowed, and that his views on women and slaves were more liberal than is usually believed. As is true of her indispensable 1994 social and historical commentary on the work, Pomeroy does not emphasize the literary features of the Oeconomicus and thus does not pause to consider whether Ischomachus exaggerates his wife's importance for dramatic or ideological reasons (for the latter sort of reading, see Johnstone's essay). Emily Baragwanath similarly concludes that Xenophon is more of a feminist than one may have thought. Xenophon's "foreign wives", she argues, show themselves masters at promoting the sort of philia that is central to Xenophontic leadership. Is it too ironic to note that three of her four wives (Panthea, Epyaxa, and Mania) have decidedly mixed success?

Next comes Clifford Hindley's article, which aims to show that Xenophon, unlike Socrates, recognized a noble, moderate version of eros between men which included physical consummation. Proving disagreement between Socrates and Xenophon would be an important achievement, as it would undermine the common assumption that Xenophon's cast of heroes represent a single ideal. But Hindley's most important evidence that Xenophon shared this view comes in the youthful Xenophon's resistance to Socrates' advice that he avoid the kisses of the fair (Mem. 1.3.8-15). I see no good reason to assume that Xenophon the author agreed with his younger self here.

Philippe Gauthier's piece on the Poroi kicks off the section on democracy with the only piece in the section to directly address Xenophon's view on that institution. He argues that the τροφή paid to all citizens under Xenophon's scheme would not replace pay for civic office but rather allow that pay to be distributed more regularly. Hence although the Poroi scheme would certainly help the rich (by relieving them of the need to pay special taxes to support the empire), it would not undermine the democracy. Steven Johnstone argues that Xenophon's Cynegeticus and Oeconomicus are not practical manuals but guides to aristocratic style: the aristocrat does not do mere work (ergon) but peforms toil (ponos) whose product is not some practical end but a virtuous lifestyle that sets him apart from the masses. Toil produces liberating self-control; work is slavish. I wonder, though, if we must characterize this lesson in class terms rather than in the ethical terms Xenophon prefers. Simon Goldhill comments on the charming encounter between Socrates and Theodote (Memorabilia3.10), which, since his original article appeared, has been the subject of several other fine analyses.2 Goldhill places Socrates' viewing of Theodote within the larger context of the democratic "culture of viewing" at Athens.

Donald Morrison begins the section on Socrates with a resounding defense of Xenophon's Socrates. If we consider his Socrates not as a theoretician but as an educator with a moral duty to avoid corrupting the youth, we find him to be a more responsible figure than Plato's Socrates. Morrison here sometimes shifts between contrasting Xenophon's Socrates with Plato's and claiming that the two are actually not as far apart as they seem. But his central insight is sound: while we all too readily assume that Socrates was not only innocent but heroic, Xenophon had to prove it, and he did a better job of this than Plato did. Andreas Patzer comes to a far harsher verdict on Xenophon's Socrates: Xenophon adapted a hodgepodge of passages about dialectic from Plato and thoroughly misunderstood them. It is true enough that Xenophon's longest discussion of Socratic method, Memorabilia 4.6, is decidedly jejune. But many of the correspondences Patzer finds between Xenophon and Plato are in the sort of very general language that needn't indicate Xenophon is dipping into Plato. And even where there is borrowing, we can more charitably interpret the changes made by Xenophon as attempts to limit the universal method advanced in middle and late Plato to the ethical realm that was Socrates' primary interest.

Bernard Huss identifies a "Golden Age of Socrates" behind the playful banter of the Symposium. Here Socratic charm and wit maintain a gentlemanly concord between Athenians who would later bitterly fight one another. Huss concludes that Xenophon wanted to promote reconciliation at Athens, and was even ready to forgive the Athenians for murdering his master. This seems rather unlikely to me, given the decidedly contrary evidence of Xenophon's other Socratic works. Rather, Socrates' charming manner makes the Athenians' condemnation of him seem all the more incomprehensible and unjustifiable.

Incomprehensible and unjustifiable nearly sums up Louis-André Dorion's verdict on Leo Strauss's interpretation of Xenophon. Dorion concludes that Strauss' approach, despite certain virtues, is essentially circular. Convinced as he is that philosophy is irreconcilably at odds with the city, Strauss is determined to find this conflict, between the lines, wherever he looks. One great challenge posed by Strauss is that readers must flesh out his arguments themselves, as Strauss did not so much argue as observe, allude, and provoke with paradox. Another is that Strauss was a political philosopher in his own right; his philosophy was inspired by his reading of classic texts, including Xenophon, but this philosophy subsequently informed his further reading in a way that does indeed raise the problem of circularity. The upshot is that one can't understand Strauss without becoming, at least momentarily, a Straussian. I happen to think that Dorion didn't quite become enough of a Straussian to fully recognize the value of Strauss's interpretation here. But Dorion's essay is a rare and most welcome example of genuine critical engagement with Strauss.

We turn to the Cyropaedia. Pierre Carlier's seminal essay on that work shares many features with Strauss's own reading of that text, as Carlier is happy to admit. It differs from Strauss's ahistorical approach, however, in giving Xenophon a historical thesis: a Greek attack on Persia could succeed, if led by a leader with the right sort of education. But the success would come at too high of a price, as it would result in an absolute monarchy which would undermine that traditional education and thus fall apart as quickly as did Cyrus' Persia upon his death. Philip Stadter's essay, on the other hand, defends the positive reading of the Cyropaedia, but with a twist: he studies the work primarily as a guide that individual Greek aristocrats could employ within their own cities, rather than as a manual for imperial conquest. Eckard Lefèvre shows how Xenophon modified Herodotus' account of the encounter between Croesus and Cyrus so as to showcase the virtues of Cyrus. Xenophon's Croesus is a less flawed figure than Herodotus' was, but nonetheless falls far short of Xenophon's Cyrus. In the final piece on the Cyropaedia, Michael Reichel explores the relationship between the Cyropaedia and the Hellenistic novel. Broad similarities include the combination of fictional material with a supposedly historical framework, and the inclusion of many novellas and anecdotes within the larger narrative frame.

To the final section, on historical writing. H.D. Westlake examines our sources for the Spartan defeat at Haliartus (including Hellenica 3.5.6-7, 17-25). Westlake argues that here our sources can be reconciled, as each originates with essentially trustworthy eyewitness accounts, albeit eyewitnesses with different perspectives and biases.

The next three essays on the Anabasis nicely complement one another. Hartmut Erbse argues that the Anabasis is indeed apologetic, Xenophon's defense against those at Athens who exiled him for joining Cyrus, but that it is an essentially truthful defense, and not the deceitful one of the prior generation of scholars. John Ma's essay insightfully discusses the various identities gained and lost by Xenophon and the 10,000, who are most unified as a band of Greek brothers precisely when their homecoming is most distant. Patrick J. Bradley shows how Xenophon manipulated generic conventions and made use of his anonymous narrator in order to transform the Anabasis from a piece of historiography into a "novelesque autobiography". The Anabasis morphs first from an account of Cyrus' revolt to the tale of the homecoming of the Cyreans, and then to the tale of Xenophon's incomplete homecoming to Athens. The reader, at least if he is a member of the Athenian demos, is implicitly encouraged to end the story himself by supporting Xenophon's return to Athens. Bradley seems to me to succeed in moving the old debate about the form and goal of the Anabasis to a new plane by making very fine use of narratological techniques.

Gray herself finishes off the collection with another narratologically informed essay, a study of Xenophon's direct interventions and source citations in the Hellenica and Anabasis. Gray argues that authorial interventions serve largely to validate Xenophon's moral evaluations, and source citations appear when Xenophon wants to prevent readers from doubting the veracity of certain striking details. Hence Xenophon isn't being cautious, much less ironic, when naming a source, even an anonymous one: he's aiming to be persuasive.

A postscript of cavils. Gray's preface indicates that foreign language quotations have been translated "where significant", which is largely true, but enough Greek remains to occasionally confuse the Greekless. While Oxford promotes the series by saying that "many articles are thoroughly revised and updated," here only Dorion's essay appears to have been, though Stadter adds an appendix, Reichel has added extensive bibliographical notes, and Gray's introduction provides more recent bibliography for many other essays. A comprehensive bibliography of all cited works is conveniently assembled at the end of the text, but we have only a brief "Summary Index of Topics" and no index locorum.


1.   L. Strauss. "The Spirit of Sparta or the Taste of Xenophon." Social Research 6 (1939) 502-536.
2.   See in particular V. Azoulay Xénophon et les Grâces du Pouvoir. Paris: 2004, pp. 404-406 and J. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes. New York: 1997, pp. 120-130.

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