Friday, September 16, 2011


Vivienne J. Gray, Xenophon's Mirror of Princes: Reading the Reflections. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 406. ISBN 9780199563814. $150.00.

Reviewed by Eve A. Browning, University of Minnesota, Duluth (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Xenophon's fortunes have varied widely, even during his own lifetime and certainly through the subsequent millennia.

As a young soldier of fortune he extricated his troops from an unwinnable war in the Mideast, only to be exiled from Athens upon his return. An admirer of Socrates and an ambitious writer, he had the ill luck to be a near contemporary of Plato, and to be placed deeply in that behemoth's shadow for philosophical posterity. An Athenian by birth, he enjoyed the mixed blessing of Spartan patronage and never escaped the odor of Persian sympathies.

After his death he was revered by Romans, ambiguously admired by Machiavelli, loved and deplored by British schoolboys who mocked his parasangs while admiring his men's cries of "Thalassa!", and decoded into obscurity by Leo Strauss.

These days however, Xenophon's fortunes are on the bubble. A major driving force behind this Xenophon renaissance is Vivienne Gray, whose energetic defense of his significance, uniqueness, philosophical depth, writing brilliance, and unified intellectual mission has been ongoing for two decades.

Leadership is the unifying theme of Xenophon's work, according to Gray. In this book, she explores "…Xenophon's literary presentation of the leadership of individuals in their communities, from those of private households up to those of great empires"(1). Leadership is construed broadly, and not only includes the Great King Cyrus alongside the private householder Ischomachus with the latter's young wife included as an associate leader in their household, but embraces both the public spheres of politics and war and the personal sphere of friendship.

Gray brings to the reading of Xenophon a sophisticated battery of literary critical techniques. Internal intertextualties, the ways in which patterned narratives echo one another in shape or sequence for example, are shown to generate horizons of expectation in readers and to guide interpretation. One instance of this appears in Xenophon's use of obituaries (understood as descriptions of the life and achievements of a recently deceased person). While this type of obituary summary appears in Homer and is developed in Thucydides (77), Xenophon spins his obituaries to highlight the leadership qualities, both strengths and weaknesses, of the subject. Gray applies this reading to the famously vexing 'coda' to The Education of Cyrus, which has been thought to discredit Cyrus as a leader by showing the chaotic aftermath of his death. To the contrary, the dissolution of Cyrus's vast empire in his absence is testimony to his unique strengths and 'kingliness'; only such a leader could have kept it together so long (74).

External intertextualities, such as deliberate evocations of Homer and Herodotus, also are analyzed in terms of patterned narratives that generate expectations in an audience. Thus Xenophon's Socrates, in the Memorabilia, makes both serious and playful references to episodes in Iliad and Odyssey, at times to echo their leadership moral and at times to spin a point.

Gray thus places Xenophon's works in a nuanced conversation with other great literature, and allows that conversation to generate a rhetorical situation of depth and richness. Underlying this book's highly illuminating and appreciative interpretation of Xenophon is a vigorous polemic against the Dark Side: neo-Straussian readers who find in Xenophon an indirect and coded message that contradicts the straight or surface reading of any given text.

Strauss himself read Xenophon's portrait of Cyrus as "caricature"; where praise is stated, that praise should be understood as implicit criticism and also implicit praise of someone else, usually Socrates. Where Xenophon seems to praise Sparta, he is implicitly criticizing Sparta. In a 1939 letter, Strauss wrote, "Xenophon is my special Liebling…because he had the courage to clothe himself as an idiot and go through the millennia that way – he's the greatest con man I know"1.

Gray has no sympathy with indirect readings of Xenophon, nor is her Xenophon a con man clothed as an idiot. The running polemic against recent scholarship which uses a neo-Straussian heuristic on Xenophon spans this book. Gray finds no reason to suppose that Xenophon would address his intended audience (the kaloikagathoi) by saying the opposite of what he means. Xenophon's quite serious purpose as a writer is to make a useful contribution to the common good. Indirection, heavily cloaked irony, secret codes, and subtle hints all violate the rhetorical standards of Xenophon's genres. Gray finds such readings "perverse" (177).2

Regarding Xenophon's Socrates, Gray reads him as generally less ironic, more committed to offering practical advice, and more engaged with the material welfare of his conversation partners than the better-known Socrates of Plato's early works. Xenophon's Socrates "…is in general a plain revealer of his opinions" (334).

Another running thread of Gray's book, though one which appears less frequently than the neo-Straussian polemic and is more lightly touched upon, concerns modern management and leadership theories in comparison to Xenophon's. Gray finds constructive overlap between recent thinking about organizational management and Xenophon's continuing interest in the type of leadership that enlists free people to willingly follow, obey, and be prospered in their shared purposes.3

This book is both important and engaging. Gray has established Xenophon as a major thinker and a writer of genuine sophistication, a man who reflected deeply on what makes for a successful human organization and the qualities that suit a person to lead such an organization – be it household, polis, army, or empire. Gray's Xenophon is a writer who says what he means, and means his message to be useful. Readers who have been exasperated by neo-Straussian readings of any text will be refreshed by the drubbing herein administered. Readers sympathetic to such readings will find Gray's the arguments to answer, for many years to come.4

Table of Contents:

1. Mirror of princes or flaws in the glass? : general remarks
2. Explicit authorial evaluations in historical writing
3. Xenophon's adaptations of his literary predecessors : Homer, Herodotus, and others
4. Xenophon's patterned narratives of leadership
5. Readings of Cyropaedia
6. The dynamics of friendship
7. Xenophon's Socratic and other ironies
Index Locorum
Index Nominum
Topic Index


1.   Laurence Lampert, "Strauss's Recovery of Esotericism", in Steven B. Smith. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss, Cambridge 2009, 567.
2.   Authors of the 'darker' readings, against whom Gray's polemic is addressed, include for example Christopher Nadon, Xenophon's Prince: Republic and Empire in the Cyropaedia, Berkeley 2001; James Tatum, Xenophon's Imperial Fiction: On the Education of Cyrus, Princeton 1989; and V. Azoulay, Xenophon et les graces du pouvoir. De la charis au charisma, Paris 2004.
3.   J. Gastil, "A Definition and Illustration of Democratic Leadership", in K. Grint (ed.), Leadership, Oxford 1997, 155-178; A. Bryman, Charisma and Leadership in Organizations, London 1992.
4.   Some typographical issues: page 4 paragraph 2 "from" should be "form"; page 17 paragraph 2 "to listen to be willing to listen" repeat phrase; page 27 top paragraph repeat 'is'; page 42 philotratiotes is missing a sigma, should be philostratiotes; page 112 paragraph 2 extra 'not' in the sentence "how would one not say that men who did these deeds were not noble and brave?"; page 113 second indented quote is missing a close parenthesis; page 141 "…his knowledge of arming scenes in military narrative from Homer are certain"; page 156 line 4 missing word "been" in "would have burned alive"; page 158 missing "of" in "His first instance of such a partnership is that Simonides with Hiero…"; page 252 line 3, missing "they" in phrase ""that suggests that could not therefore have been virtuous"; page 265 bottom paragraph, missing "by" in phrase "…assisted passages from this same conversation…"; page 269 paragraph 2, extra "s" in "…conceals this reasons"; page 271, "Cyrus" should be "Cyaxares" in the sentence, "The next morning Cyrus emerges from his tent to find the camp deserted"; page 277, missing "s" in the phrase, "..the arrangement for empire that were common knowledge…".

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