(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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."