Impressions of Xenophon’s Hellenika

I just finished reading Xenophon’s Hellenika, a military history of ancient Greece from about 411 to 362 BCE. As with Herodotus and Thucydides, I chose to read Xenophon in a Landmark edition. This particular edition was incredibly useful because not onto did it have the usual large number of appendices, but it also featured large selections of the relevant portions of the Oxyrhynchus Historian (dubbed “P,” like the author of large parts of the Pentateuch) and also Diodorus Siculus, both of whom wrote of some of some of the same battles and developments that Xenophon wrote of. Reading two or even three parallel versions of events sheds much light on how Xenophon wrote, and on the events themselves.

Readers of Xenophon, both ancient and modern, have not come to him in isolation. No: probably nearly all of us have first read Herodotus’ The Histories and then Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides likely died before he could finish his work (which is interrupted practically mid-sentence).

Xenophon picks up where Thucydides left off. He then proceeds through the scandalous events following the Athinian victory at Arginousai, the subsequent loss of the entire Athenian fleet at Aigospotamoi some months later and the capitulation of Athens to Sparta that marked the end of the Peloponnesian War. He proceeds beyond, though, right down pretty much to the beginning of the end of the period of Spartan hegemony.

Now it must be said that Xenophon has nowhere near the intellectual rigour or balanced honesty of Thucydides. Where Thucydides can critically if coldly appreciate both Athenian and Spartan military doings, Xenophon writes explicitly with all the warmth of a Spartan partisan. (Background: Thucydides was an Athenian general who was exiled, and he spent considerable time in Sparta. Xenophon actually fought in Spartan armies and hobnobbed with Spartan kings.) Xenophon also falls short of the great historian’s standards when it comes to methodology. Unlike the atheistic Thucydides, the believer Xenophon often has recourse to the supposed will of the god when it comes to interpreting history. On the other hand, Xenophon is probably more entertaining than Thucydides, and I found myself engrossed in the personalities of many of his characters. If I could compare the two historians to newspapers, I would say that where Thucydides is the Daily Telegraph, Xenophon is more like the Daily Mail.

The beauty of the Landmark volume I was using on this read really stands out in how obvious it makes some of Xenophon’s omissions. The editor feels that while Xenophon does not lie (though he could be misled by sources), he suppresses or omits absolutely critical, major events and persons that he has strongly negative feelings about. Thus, for instance, he names the great Theban commander Epamonidas in a battle only several years (and many pages) after the Theban general had decisively defeated Sparta at the battle of Leuctra with an extraordinary battle formation involving a phalanx fifty ranks deep and a picked unit of 150 pairs of homosexual lovers who were considered crack soldiers, a group known as the “sacred band.” Xenophon mentions both the formation and the 300, but omits the name of their general because he does not really like him.

Perhaps one of the most-used phrases in the last two works of ancient Greek history I’ve read is this: “and they set up a trophy and gave the dead back under truce.” This sentence must occur many hundreds of times between Thucydides and Xenophon, and points up the critical importance to the Greeks of proper disposal of the dead. (The failure of the Athenian forces to recover their dead–and some living–soldiers from the naval battle at Arginousai led to the court-martial of the commanding Athenian generals, who were all, and very unjustly–sentenced to execution, despite the greatness of the battle and the presence of a storm that made rescue operations difficult.)

But in Xenophon, there is another refrain: “and they sacrificed.” Xenophon records countless instances of divination by sacrifice, and often notes that the Spartans would not proceed unless the sacrifices were favourable. Xenophon’s friend and benefactor, the Spartan king Agesilaos, is a good example of someone who practices this religiously (in both senses of the word–as a believer and on a regular basis), and Agesilaos is portrayed as a prototypical military leader. In general, Xenophon isn’t in the business of recording Spartan defeats following favourable sacrifices.

Jesus said, “by their fruits ye shall know them,” and if we can take this philosophically, I would say that Thucydides was essentially an atheist, for not only does he recount no miracles, he also gives the gods and their words no place at all in his history. When times are difficult, he will record the fact that “oracle-mongers” gathered about, with oracles to support all sorts of ideas, some of which were mutually exclusive. Similarly, he remarks of a leader in Sicily that he was “overaddicted” to sacrifice before battle. In Thucydides’ version of history, humans are front and centre, warts and all.

Xenophon is different. He’s not a simple-minded polytheist, in a way. My Landmark volume points out that Xenophon was actually a student of Socrates, and he seems to have imbibed from his teacher a sort of religious rationalism. On the other hand, Xenophon is still light-years ahead of any of the biblical historians, for his history, too, is one of tactics, strategy, and character–not strange obsessions over miracles, interracial marriage or the worship of various gods.

Xenophon’s history really makes the ancient wars of the Greeks come alive for me. What made all those soldiers tick? Appeals to honour and glory, certainly, but appeals to money, too. Sparta would not have defeated Athens without Persian money to pay for its ships and mercenary rowers for its fleet. To prevent Sparta from getting too powerful, the Persians sometimes withheld rowers’ pay, or docked their pay. Unpaid men were prone to mutiny, or worse, plundering the houses of allies. Ultimately, Sparta attacked the Persians in Asia Minor, the Athenians tried to make peace with the Persians, and then the Persian king decided it was in everyone’s best interest to have peace between both Athens and Sparta! So many times, the combatants all came to the King of Persia interested in peace, but each time, there was something in the terms of the proposed peace agreement that compelled at least one party to keep fighting its neighbours. It must surely be an irony that while Herodotus recorded an existential threat to the Greek states from two noteworthy Persian kings, Xenophon presents a Persian regime that actually actively sought peace in Greece!

There are some darkly funny moments. It was customary for Sparta and its neighbours not to attack each other during religious festivals. In one case, Argos did not want to be attacked by Sparta, so the citizens decided to hold a religious ceremonial season out of season. The Spartans complained that that was not the time for those rites, and after arguing about it, decided to attack anyways. Similarly, after the treacherous son of Mania, a female satrap, was killed by her son, this miserable excuse for a human being was asked by the Spartan Derkylidas to show him his wealth. When Mania’s son showed the wealth that Mania had gathered, those around who were loyal to her said of the son, “he lies”–meaning that it was not the son’s wealth, but Mania’s. Derkylidas said, “well, don’t worry about the little details”–and then after he had seen what he wanted, despoiled Mania’s son of all his ill-gotten wealth. Perhaps oddest of all was the Klingon-esque attitude of the wives and children of those Spartans who died at the terrible battle of Leuctra–they went around “beaming” and with smiling faces, while those whose husbands survived the battle went around in shame and embarrassment.

A fantastic episode occurs just at the beginning of Book 5. Xenophon, writing of one Teleutas, records the love of his soldiers for him as they garlanded him with flowers upon his leaving station. Xenophon writes:

Now I well know that in narrating these events, I do not record anything about funds expended, dangers confronted, or stratagems employed. And yet, by Zeus, I think it worthwhile for a man to consider what it was that Teleutas had done that so disposed the men he commanded to behave like that. For this is truly an achievement for a man, more worthy of being recorded than spending a great deal of money or encountering many dangers.

Speaking of love, there are a number of instances of homosexual love (usually of men for “boys” in their late teens), but not a single instance of heterosexual love reported. Xenophon, in a way, reminds me of Aristophanes. Something happened in Greece between the time of Aristophanes and the time of Menander that rendered heterosexual love interesting and worthy of celebration. I feel that it was likely the increase in societal status of women, something observable in the late Aristophanean play Ecclesiazusae.

A few more thoughts…

First, Athens capitulated to the Spartans at the end of the war. The Thebans urged the destruction of Athens and the enslavement of its population. Sparta opted to allow Athens to continue as a city, and the Spartan general installed a group of 30 tyrants (“the Thirty”) who instituted a reign of terror that resulted in a considerable bloodbath. They Thirty carried themselves away so much, and were so unjust that they eventually became replaced by a functioning democracy again–which Sparta allowed to exist.

Within just ten years of Athens’ surrender, the city was again a great power, had a large fleet, took in tribute from colonies, and was in a position to institute a second Delian League. Athens even assisted a weakened Sparta in her wars with the rising power of Thebes.

In Greece as a whole, though, all the killing never seemed to stop. The saddest part of the Hellenika is the repeated (and futile) attempts at peace that were taken for granted time and again. Local conflicts within one city even in the most distant parts of Greece could easily draw in not only regional players, but also the larger entities such as Athens, Sparta, and Thebes. The picture is not a pretty one, and Athens’ defeat at Spartan hands occurs only about one third of the way through Xenophon’s Hellenika.

It seems to me that Athens committed more atrocities than Sparta. The votes to exterminate the Melians–presented in Thucydides–and to chop off the right had of every member of a rebellions colony (reported in Xenophon)–these are just two instances of overweening Athenian aggression coupled with a complete loss of moral compass. I think it was a very good thing for humanity’s ethical development that Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, and that it lost to a magnanimous Sparta. (Not that Sparta was much better, of course: Sparta ruled obscenely over its helot-serfs–who could be killed with state approval.) The aftermath of this defeat of Athens produced, of course, not only the Socrates of Xenophon, but also that of Plato, a Socrates who was a moral and intellectual leader easily towers over the likes of Moses, Jesus, or the Buddha. I should be careful of going too far, of course: Euripides was calling Athens to a kinder and more philosophically-examined existence even before the war was over.

Xenophon ends his narrative at the time of a few significant humiliations for the Spartans (which he does not mention, of course). Within two decades, both Athens and Sparta would cease to be major military players as each was swallowed up under the juggernaut that was Alexander’s Macedon. And thus we pass from the Classical Age to that of the Hellenistic one.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have read Xenophon. Despite the fact that he is a “second-rate” historian compared to Thucydides, he is certainly worthwhile, entertaining, and instructive.

But this is not the end of Xenophon for me. Next up: his Anabasis.