Xenophon Essay - Critical Essays



Xenophon c. 430 B.C.-c. 354 B.C.

Greek historian and philosopher.

Xenophon was a fourth-century Greek historian best known for his Hellenica, which began where Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War had stopped, and for the semi-historical, semi-novelistic Cyropaedia. While he often appears alongside Herodotus and Thucydides in major studies of Greek historiography, he is not always included with enthusiasm. Critics have regularly remarked on his limitations as a historian, finding his presentation of historical material selective and biased. He is also found wanting as a philosopher: critics brand his dialogues, such as the Oeconomicus and the Symposium, derivative, weak on comprehension and original insight, and unsuccessful in the attempt to capture socratic thought. Such critical condemnations, however, are relatively recent: his reputation in the centuries following his own age was very high and remained so through the Renaissance. Since the height of the Roman Empire, Xenophon has won praise for his detailed and reliable information on military matters, for his style, which is simple, straight-forward, and concise, and for his aptitude as a storyteller. By the nineteenth century, his Anabasis, an account of a Greek army's travails in Persia, became a common textbook for young people studying Greek because of its accessibility and narrative pull. Overall, however, he was by this time often named only to be criticized. Nonetheless, his works have received extensive critical attention, both for their documentation of Greek life and ancient history and for their rhetorical strategies.

Biographical Information

Xenophon was born in Ercheia, a rural district outside of Athens; his father, Gryllus, was probably an upper-class Athenian citizen. Biographer J. K. Anderson surmised from Xenophon's environment and writings that his upbringing and personal opinions were generally conservative—invested in preserving the class structure into which he was born. He grew up during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) and appears to have had his first military experience as a cavalryman close to the end of the war. When the war ended, the preceding era of Athenian democracy also came to a close, replaced by the oligarchic rule of thirty men, later known as the Thirty Tyrants. Initially, many men of Xenophon's class supported this change, since, according to authorities on Greek history, many believed that Greek democracy had become excessive during the war and had possibly harmed the Greek cause. Ultimately, however, the Thirty lost the support of the upper classes; when they were overthrown, democracy reemerged.

Despite an unremarkable intellect, Xenophon met and became a disciple of Socrates, the most influential thinker of his age and many others. According to Xenophantic legend, the young man was traversing a passage in Athens when the philosopher barred his way and began asking him questions about where one could find various kinds of goods, to which Xenophon replied with the names of various kinds of vendors. When Socrates asked him, "And where do men find virtue?" Xenophon had no answer, at which Socrates invited the young man to follow and learn from him. Ultimately, however, military experience appears to have been of greater value to Xenophon than intellectual training. In approximately 402 B.C. Xenophon's friend Proxenus invited him on a military expedition: they would fight in Persia, on a mercenary basis, for Cyrus the Younger, who was challenging his brother Aratxerxes' claim to the Persian throne. It was a politically risky move, since he would be selling his military loyalty outside of Greece and to a man viewed as an enemy by Athenian authorities. Xenophon, on Socrates's advice, sought the counsel of the oracle at Delphi, but rather than asking the oracle if he should fight for Cyrus, he asked to which god he should make a sacrifice to ensure success. His determination may have been motivated, as several historians have speculated, by the need to make up losses suffered by his family estate under the demands of the Thirty Tyrants.

In Cyrus's service the next year, Xenophon was affiliated with a Greek army of 10,000 soldiers. He became one of their leaders after Cyrus's defeat and the execution of most of the Greek commanders, when the column needed to make its way back home. The account of that expedition, known as the March of the 10,000, became one of Xenophon's most popular works, the Anabasis. Xenophon followed his Persian military career with a similar position for Agesilaus, a Spartan king, in 396-394 B.C. Here he risked his political position at home even further, since Sparta was a traditional enemy of Athens. In 394 B.C., this association brought him directly into battle with Athenian forces, after which the Athenian authorities formally exiled him and confiscated his property. His reputation in Athens had endured earlier blows when Socrates was tried and executed in 399 B.C., with suspicion cast on many of his followers.

Deprived of his home in Athens, Xenophon acquired an estate at Scillus in Elis, in Spartan territory, where he pursued his writing in earnest and raised a family. He remained at Scillus for two decades, roughly from 390-370 B.C., until Sparta lost Scillus to Thebes, and then relocated to Corinth. When Spartan-Athenian relations improved in c. 365 B.C., Xenophon was able to return to Athens; some historians have located him back in Athens after that date, but most have described him remaining in Corinth until his death.

Major Works

Xenophon was a prolific writer, producing many works from the end of the fifth century to his death, all of which appear to have survived in some form or another. Critics generally group his works into three categories—histories, philosophical works, and technical works—although many of the pieces defy easy categorization. His status as a historian derives mainly from the Hellenica, the Anabasis, and the Cyropaedia. He may have begun the Hellenica, his most ambitious historical work, as early as 411 B.C., thereby matching his intial writing date with the opening of the history. The seven books trace the history of Greece from 411 B.C.-362 B.C. The Hellenica also fields the most fire from critical scholars, since it appears to fail the standard criteria of historical accuracy and impartiality. The Anabasis has earned more favor and has been praised for its narrative style and apparently more solid historical detail. Although the author refers to himself in the third person throughout, the work, probably written in 379 B.C., is largely autobiographical, relating Xenophon's own experiences and observations during the March of the 10,000. The Anabasis and the Cyropaedia, on the other hand, have been appreciated for the new territories they appeared to explore: a kind of proto-novelistic storytelling and experiment in biography and autobiography. The Cyropaedia, c. 365 B.C., combines Persian history and biography in a narrative presentation of the life of Cyrus the Elder, who founded the Persian monarchy. Scholars have hotly debated its value as history, many asserting that the picture of Persia Xenophon presents is too romantic and that Xenophon marred his objectivity with his desire to make the text a lesson in good citizenship and good leadership. Critics agree, however, that it has had a major influence on later generations, both contributing to the development of the novel and, in the words of Moses Hadas, having "an appreciable effect in shaping European ideas of what a gentleman should be." Xenophon also apparently completed one other biography in 365 B.C., the Agesilaus, an encomium, or laudatory biography, of the Spartan king Agesilaus, for whom Xenophon fought.

Like his historical works, Xenophon's philosophical works have also come under attack. Some critics have suggested that they be classified as a kind of memoir, since almost all present Socrates as a central character. The most famous of these are in fact called "memoirs"—the Memorabilia possibly begun in c. 384 B.C. and completed in c. 356 B.C.—Xenophon's memories presented for the specific purpose of depicting Socrates. The earliest portion of the Memorabilia may have been the Apology, Xenophon's rendition of Socrates' trial, meant as a defense of his teacher. The accuracy of the Memorabilia is considered doubtful and suggests that Xenophon failed to reproduce Socrates's doctrines very clearly. The other socratic dialogues, however, receive even more criticism, sometimes fielding the charge that Xenophon's Socrates appears simply as the mouthpiece for Xenophon's own thoughts. These works include the Apology; the Oeconomicus (On Household Management), c. 362 B.C., in which Ischomachus, a young husband, consults Socrates about how best to manage his estate economy and, specifically, his new wife; and the Symposium, a philosophical dialogue set during an imaginary dinner party, formally much like Plato's work of the same name, praised for its unusually strong structure and consistency. One other philosophical work, the Hiero, also c. 365 B.C., presented a dialogue, between King Hiero I of Syracuse and the poet Simonides, on the nature of rule. Xenophon also produced quite a few technical manuals, ranging across his favorite topics. Sometimes the Oeconomicus is included among them because of its detailed information about a typical Greek estate of the era. Other technical manuals present similarly valuable information on different topics, including the highly valued On the Spartan Constitution (c. 388 B.C.) and On Horsemanship (c. 380 B.C.).

Textual History

Many critics and editors have suggested that the centrality of Xenophon's name in the study of Greek historiography has less to do with the quality of his work than with the extent to which it has been preserved. It appears that most, if not all, of his writings survive in some form, usually in Medieval or Renaissance transcriptions or translations. The absence of original and even ancient manuscripts has led to considerable debate over dating Xenophon's writings, especially regarding the different books of the Hellenica; consequently, most works are placed either in the author's twenty years in Elis or in the period after his exile was revoked. Extant manuscripts that are housed in libraries in the Middle East and throughout Europe, with the earliest dating from 1166 A.D.

Critical Reception

Although Xenophon's reputation appeared to be that of a minor author in his own age, he became a favorite of Roman readers including Cato the Elder, Cicero, Julius Ceaser, and Mark Antony, all of whom favored his military expertise and simple prose style. In the second century B.C., Lucian classed Xenophon with his two notable predecessors, Herodotus and Thucydides, and commented that in his own age "everyone wanted to be a Xenophon." His currency remained high with European readers through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The fifteenth century saw many Latin translations of his works, and the sixteenth century, many translations into modern tongues. By the the nineteenth century, however, his reputation had fallen. His later style, which retained the simplicity of his earlier works but became ever more colloquial, carried little weight with the century's scholars of Greek literature and his historical works came under fire for their evident partiality and errors. The judgement trailed through into the twentieth century, captured in M. I. Finley's remark in 1959 that the Hellenica "is very unreliable, tendentious, dishonest, dreary to read, and rarely illuminating on broader issues." Ironically, while Western scholars have tended to discount Xenophon's historiographie skills and, specifically, to regard his depiction of Persia in the Cyropaedia as wholly romantic, Orientalists have long considered Xenophon a reliable source on the history of Persia. Only recently have these two currents pulled together enough for Orientalists to assure Western critics that Xenophon's knowledge appears to be reliable.

The late twentieth century has seen something of a revival in Xenophon's popularity, especially as his texts are studied as more than historical tracts. Classicist Leo Strauss has been instrumental in creating a resurgance of interest with his translation and study of the Hiero, or On Tyranny, in 1948, and J. K. Anderson's 1974 biographical study marked a groundswell in renewed appreciation. The bulk of this recent critical attention has focused on the Cyropaedia, since this text best allows critics to re-examine the issue of Xenophon's reliability as a historian. Emphasizing the necessary artifice of any literary production, Steven Hirsch and James Tatum have studied the book using the tools of literary analysis rather than historiography. From this perspective, the Cyropaedia becomes not only a rich text, but a central progenitor in the development of the Western novel. In a similar vein, Arnaldo Momigliano has recognized Xenophon as integral to the development of both biography and autobiography in Western literature, including him among the fourth-century Socratics who "moved to that zone between truth and fiction which is so bewildering to the professional historian."

Principal English Translations

The School of Cyrus (translated by William Barker) 1567

The Works of Xenophon (translated by H. G. Dakyns) 1890-97

The Art of Horsemanship (translated by Morris H. Morgan) 1893

Cyropaedia (translated by Walter Miller) 1914

The March up Country (Anabasis) (translated by W. H. D. Rouse) 1948

The Persian Expedition (translated by R. Warner) 1949

Recollections of Socrates, and Socrates Defense Before the Jury (translated by A. S. Benjamin) 1965

Hiero (translated by Leo Strauss) 1968

Xenophon's Socratic Discourse: An...

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William Barker (essay date 1567)

SOURCE: A preface to The School of Cyrus, by Xenophon, translated by William Barker, 1567. Reprint by Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987, pp. 1-8.

[Barker, a fellow at Oxford University, completed the first known English translation of Xenophon's Cyropaedia in 1567. In the preface that follows, Barker dedicates the work to the Earls of Pembroke and Surrey, stressing the volume's educational value.]

A Preface to the Right Honorable William, Earl of Pembroke, Lord Harbert of Cardife, knight of the honorable order of the Garter, and President of the King's Highness Council in the marches of Wales, William Bercker wishes health and honor.

Those authors...

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Alfred Pretor (essay date 1881)

SOURCE: "On the Peculiarities of Xenophon's Style," in The Anabasis of Xenophon, Vol. I, edited and translated by Alfred Pretor, Cambridge of the University Press, 1881, pp. 17-26.

[In the following excerpt, Pretor prefaces his translation of Xenophon's Anabasis with comments on the author's limitations, including a tendency to be dry and "slovenly."]

In the subject of his history Xenophon is fortunate beyond the majority of authors. The interest excited by the circumstances of the expedition and the desire to learn something of the unknown land through which the travellers made their way: above all, the dangers consequent upon the undertaking and the...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

John Pentland Mahaffey (essay date 1905)

SOURCE: "Xenophon the Precursor of Hellenism," in The Progress of Hellenism in Alexander's Empire, The University of Chicago Press, 1905, pp. 1-27.

[In the following excerpt, Mahaffey uses Xenophon as a "case study" in his discussion of the transition from "Hellendom" to Hellenism in ancient Greece; he finds Xenophon exemplary of the period in both style and content.]

… [By] "Hellenism" I mean that so-called "silver age" of Greek art and literature, when they became cosmopolitan, and not parochial; and by "Hellenistic," not only what was Greek, but what desired and assumed to be Greek, from the highest and noblest imitation down to the poorest travesty. The...

(The entire section is 5624 words.)

J. B. Bury (essay date 1908)

SOURCE: "The Development of Greek Historiography after Thucydides," in The Ancient Greek Historians, 1908. Reprint by Dover Publications, 1958, pp. 150-90.

[In the excerpt that follows, Bury assesses Xenophon as one of the primary historians to follow Thucydides 's career. Of the three that he examines, he finds Xenophon the "least meritorious," but influential nonetheless.]

Thucydides had set up a new standard and proposed a new model for historical investigation. He taught the Greeks to write contemporary political history; this was the permanent result of his work. But the secret of his critical methods may be said to have perished with him; it has been reserved for...

(The entire section is 1094 words.)

Samuel James Pease (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: "Xenophon's Cyropaedia, 'The Compleat General'," in The Classical Journal, Vol. 29, no. 6, March, 1934, pp. 436-40.

[In the essay that follows, Pease advocates for the historical value of the Cyropaedia, claiming it as thorough documentation of ancient Greek military strategy; he ultimately dubs it "the first general military treatise ever written."]

Colonel Oliver L. Spaulding, Jr., in the June number of the Classical Journal, (XXVIII, 657-69), gives a list of ancient military writings, with a valuable appreciation of most of them. But Xenophon's Cyropaedia is very much more than "the amusement of his later years, the vehicle...

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Leo Strauss (essay date 1948)

Leo Strauss (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "The Teaching Concerning Tyranny," in On Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon's "Hiero," Political Science Classics, 1948, pp. 50-62.

[Strauss published his book on tyranny in Xenophon's "Hiero" in 1948, only three years after the end of World War II. With that recent history as his context, Strauss attempts to determine what concept of tyranny the Hiero, a dialogue between a tyrannical ruler and a philosopher, presents. In the excerpt that follows, Strauss also considers how Xenophon's own political context may have influenced the form in which he presented his ideas.]

Since tyranny is essentially a...

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Arnaldo Momigliano (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Fourth Century," in The Development of Greek Biography, revised edition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993, 43-64.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1971, Momigliano locates Xenophon at the forefront of fourth-century experiments in biography, which he claims occupied "that zone between truth and fiction."]

In the fourth century individual politicians found themelves in a position of power very different from that of their predecessors in the previous century. In the fifth century Miltiades, Themistocles, Leonidas, even Pericles and Cleon, had been the servants of the state to which they belonged. The tyrants of Sicily had...

(The entire section is 4559 words.)

J. K. Anderson (essay date 1974)

J. K. Anderson (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Religion and Politics," in Xenophon, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974, pp. 34-45.

[Working from Xenophon's writings and the little biographical material available, Anderson here reconstructs Xenophon's religious and political attitudes, which he characterizes as largely conservative.]


Xenophon's education in religion and politics, whatever it may have owed to Socrates, was, like his moral instruction, not complicated by abstract speculations. Throughout his life, Xenophon remained the sort of conservative whose acceptance of the doctrines and principles that he has...

(The entire section is 4278 words.)

Christopher Grayson (essay date 1975)

Christopher Grayson (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Did Xenophon Intend to Write History?," in The Ancient Historian and His Materials, edited by Barbara Levick, Gregg International, 1975, pp. 31-43.

[In the following essay, Grayson offers a qualification to the general opinion that Xenophon was a poor historian by suggesting that the Hellenica, his most "historical" text, has a moral intent that overrides its function as history.]

Xenophon as a historian stands condemned. His intellectual honesty is impugned as his abilities are questioned. For the history of the first half of the fourth century he is frequently ignored in favour of the unknown...

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Arthur Heiserman (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Erotic Suffering," in The Novel before the Novel, The University of Chicago Press, 1977, pp. 3-10.

[In the excerpt that follows, Heiserman briefly summarizes the Cyropaedia, stressing the elements that later authors of early romances could imitate; in this way, Heiserman argues, despite Xenophon's clearly didactic purposes, his work could be the "First Romance in the West."]

One candidate for the role of "First Romance in the West" is the Cyropaedia, written by Xenophon, the spartanophile admirer of Socrates, about 400 B.C. More particularly, it is the story of Panthea and Abradatas, woven through books 5, 6, and 7 of the...

(The entire section is 1120 words.)

W. E. Higgins (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Active Life," in Xenophon the Athenian: The Problem of the Individual and the Society of the "Polis," State University of New York Press, 1977, pp. 76-98.

[In the following excerpt, Higgins delineates Xenophon's notion of the individual and his ideal relationship between individual and society; using the Agesilaos and Anabasis as examples, Higgins determines that "the claims of family and city regulate individual desire" and leadership, "if genuine, is not founded upon license but limit."]

The Spartan king Agesilaos was lame in one leg and walked with a limp. Xenophon's encomium in his honor, however, never mentions this, just as it passes...

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Steven W. Hirsch (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "1001 Iranian Nights: History and Fiction in Xenophon's Cyropaedia," in The Greek Historians: Literature and History, Anma Libri, 1985, pp. 65-85.

[Arguing that Classical scholars have usually treated Persia as a negligible detail of setting in the Cyropaedia, Hirsch makes its presence central in the essay that follows in order to vindicate Xenophon's knowledge of Persian culture.]

This paper, which concerns itself with one of the more curious pieces of literature which have come down to us from classical antiquity—the Cyropaedia of Xenophon— is written in that spirit of respect for the intelligence and integrity of the ancient...

(The entire section is 6801 words.)

V. J. Gray (essay date 1989)

V. J. Gray (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Xenophon's Defence of Socrates: The Rhetorical Background to the Socratic Problem," in Classical Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, no. 1, 1989, pp. 136-40.

[In the following essay, Gray asserts that the form and even the ideas of Xenophon 's Defence of Socrates were shaped by rhetorical requirements, specifically the "rule of propriety"that a speaker's words in a dialogue must be appropriate to his character.]

The death of Socrates gave birth to an industry of biographical literature which often took the form of a defence (apologia) or prosecution (kate̵goria), sometimes purporting...

(The entire section is 2463 words.)

Vivienne Gray (essay date 1989)

Vivienne Gray (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Character of Xenophon's "Hellenica," Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1989, pp. 1-9.

[In her introduction, an excerpt from which follows, Gray states her desire to correct previous condemnations of Xenophon's text as a poor history, arguing that critics must acknowledge Xenophon as a philosophical writer with moral purposes before they can judge the text properly.]

The attempt to understand the nature of Xenophon's Hellenica has a long history. Part of the problem is that Xenophon makes no prefatory statement of the programme of the history. It begins in medias res...

(The entire section is 4135 words.)

James Tatum (essay date 1989)

James Tatum (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Revision," in Xenophon's Imperial Fiction: On "The Education of Cyrus, " Princeton Univer-sity Press, 1989, pp. 215-39.

[The following excerpt from Tatum's book treats the "epilogue" of the Cyropaedia, which, Tatum argues, "turns a work of idealistic fiction into a narrative of disillusionment. " Tatum further asserts that Xenophon understood this disjunction and, therefore, anticipated later critiques, most notably Plato's in The Laws.]

Like Cyrus and his empire, Xenophon's achievement should ultimately be measured not by what he created, but by how he created it. [In The Philosophy of Literary Form,...

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Further Reading

Gray, V. J. "Continuous History and Xenophon, Hellenica" In American Journal of Philology 112, No. 2 (Summer 1991): 201-28.

Argues for an "essential unity" in the Hellenica, refuting critics who perceive the work to have been composed at largely disparate points in time.

Henry, W. P. Greek Historical Writing: A Historiographical Essay Based on Xenophon 's "Hellenica. " Chicago: Argonaut, 1966, 219 p.

A detailed analytical study of the Hellenica, often cited by later critics as the authority on the dating and composition of Xenophon's history.


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