Month: January 2017

106. On the Lacedaemonian Government (The Constitution of Sparta) by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

106. On the Lacedaemonian Government (The Constitution of Sparta) by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

Plot:  A description of the rules of government of Sparta, providing a major source of otherwise scarce information about the daily life of that civilisation. Legend has it that Lycurgus made the Spartans promise to uphold these laws until he returned from visiting the Delphic Oracle. He never did return.

Lacedaemonia (or Laconia) is the region for which Sparta was the capital, as Athens was the capital of the Attica region, although I don’t remember seeing the names before now. I imagine if you lived a spartan lifestyle then your speech and manner might be described as laconic.

I can now return the Minor works edition of Xenophon (published 1888 by George Bell & Sons of London) to the library. How many more years will it sit quietly on the shelves at the back of the 800s?

My thoughts: My final read by Xenophon (there is another treatise on the Constitution of Athens, but that is now believed not to have been written by Xenophon, and is attributed to the “Old Oligarch”)

The points that stand out when reading this are the differences from what we think as normal for Ancient Greece. Remember the following are taken from legislation enacted by Lycurgus to establish the military themed society for which Sparta was noted.

  • To ensure healthy robust children, it was required that older men with younger wives should introduce them to virile younger men to father their children, and men unable or unwilling to have children with their wives might father children on other men’s wives (with their consent)
  • Spartan boys were raised with less clothes and food than would make them comfortable, to prepare them for hardship during campaigns. However, the boys were encouraged to steal as much cheese as they could, to foster their skills in procuring supplies in wartime. But of course, if caught they would be punished.
  • Unlike the rest of Greece, sexual relations between men and boys was considered to be on a par with incest.
  • All citizens were to eat their meals in public to ensure they did not succumb to gluttony or drunkenness,
  • Parents were allowed to chastise not only their own children, but others as well,
  • Free men were prohibited from any form of business, and the possession of gold or silver was a punishable offence,
  • Citizens were not allowed to live in other countries “lest they be initiated in licentiousness”

Lycurgus (if indeed he was a real person) lived around 900 BC, and, alas, by the time Xenophon was writing, he himself admits the Spartans did not continue to obey all these laws so thoroughly.

Personal rating:   Short but interesting. A 5.

Next :  Farewell and thanks for the company Xenophon.  Next is Timaeus by Plato, discussing “cosmology and anthropology”

Not finishing everything on my plato

Not finishing everything on my plato

Ok I have looked ahead and made the decision to NOT read the rest of Plato except for The Laws (which is a biggie) and Timeaus and Critias (which at least sound interesting).

So I will be pushing the following Brussels sprouts to the side : Parmenides, Theaetetus, The Sophist, The Statesman, and Philebus. After all, life is short, and I’ll never get to Dickens if I don’t make some concessions.

After all, as Socrates himself said : “Party on, dudes!”

105. Hiero by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

Plot:  Simonides the poet interviews Hiero, King of Syracuse, over the differences between being a king and a private citizen, and the expected benefits that come with the throne. Hiero feels that kings are worse off than private individuals in every possible way : from their inability to travel as they please ; the constant bombardment of insincere praise and lack of true love from his favourites ; the jaded appetite with delicacies which have lost their novelty and may be laced with poison ; and the constant fear of assassination, even from the paid mercenaries that guard him – sovereignty is but splendid misery.

Simonides urges Hiero in the final section to do everything in his power to ensure that the entire community benefits from his power and wealth, from rewarding meritorious acts and achievements in every sphere, to providing civic amenities and services; which will in turn make the King beloved by his subjects.

My copy is again part of the Minor Works by Xenophon published in 1888 by George Bell & Sons, London.

My thoughts: Despite its brevity, this work quickly becomes tiresome as Hiero bewails his situation. No matter which tack Simonides attempts to investigate, Hiero shuts down any suggestion of pleasure or benefit. Even the idea to abdicate and pass the troubles to another are rejected as Hiero is convinced he will still be a target and unable to defend himself. While much of what Hiero says is no doubt realistic, his dejection is difficult to appreciate.

The employment of foreign mercenaries as personal bodyguards is interesting. Hiero (and probably other rulers) did not feel they could trust their own countrymen, yet also feared that paid mercenaries could be paid more to turn on the King and kill him. Yet the presence of foreigners protecting the King spoke loudly to the citizens that they were not trusted by the King and might provoke anger and hatred. However, Simonides’ suggestion that the mercenaries be sent into the community to guard and protect citizens and their farms and property seems to me likely to cause greater opportunities for conflict and oppression of the public by unruly or poorly disciplined troops.

Another point to note is the term tyrant. In modern English it means a ruler who uses his position and power to rule oppressively, but the original meaning was a ruler who held absolute power over the state, regardless of how well he treated his subjects. The behaviour of the Thirty Tyrants in the days after Athens rejected democracy in the war with Sparta may have helped set the negative connotations to the term.

Favourite lines/passages:

Simonides’ (perhaps naïve) advice to Hiero :

“Esteem your country as your own family, your fellow-citizens as your friends, your friends as your children, and your children as your own life ; and study to surpass them all in acts of kindness. For if you go beyond your friends in kind offices, no enemies will be able to stand before you. And if you constantly pursue such a course of conduct, be certain that you will secure the most honourable and blissful possession attainable among mankind, for you will be happy.”                                Page 70.

Certainly seems to describe the kind of model king that Xenophon pictured Agesilaus.

Personal rating:3.

Next :  Finishing off Xenophon with the Constitution of the Spartans (Lacedaemons)

104. Phaedrus by Plato (c.360 BC)

104. Phaedrus by Plato (c.360 BC)

Plot:  Socrates begs Phaedrus to repeat a speech by Lysias on the nature of love, comparing the lover and the non-lover (which seems to mean a friendship without desire, or perhaps a desire held in check). Phaedrus does so, but then insists Socrates make his own speech on the subject. Like Lysias’ speech, Socrates finds flaws with the inconstancy and selfishness of the lover, but before he can leave the spot, he is divinely struck to repent of his words against Love, who is after all a god.

He makes a second speech, beginning by praising the overwhelming madness of a lover as a divine gift, similar to the madness which allows prophecy, or possession by the Muses, or as a release from other griefs. In this case the madness is the admiration of earthly beauty (again invariably in the guise of a handsome youth) as a reminder of heavenly beauty glimpsed in an earlier incarnation and scarcely remembered.  This digresses to cover Socrates’ suggestion of a system of reincarnation where it takes 10,000 years for a soul to regrow its wings and fly back to heaven (or 3,000 years if you choose to be a philosopher three cycles running), and a description of the human soul as a charioteer with two steeds, one noble and virtuous with self-restraint, and the other base and degenerate, ruled by lust. It is the bad horse that drives the soul towards lustful physical acts.
The second half of the dialogue then veers onto the art of writing and rhetoric, and the art of persuasion by introducing a series of small differences in definition during a speech which leads from one viewpoint to the extreme opposite. These differences are easier to introduce when the definitions are not universally agreed by everyone, such as the concepts of justice or goodness or love. And if one knows which arguments will have the greatest impact on which sorts of personalities, one will do well.

There is a rather curious ending where the pastime of writing is seen as inferior to the truth of the word in one’s own mind, suitable only for the reminiscences of old men. Think of this when you read my posts or write yours.

For this read, I used the Plato volume of the 54-volume set Great Books of the Western World, translated by Benjamin Jowett and published by Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, on thin semi-gloss paper and featuring only a brief biographical note and few footnotes. The set is still published (the latest edition contains 60 volumes, will take up 5 ½ feet of shelf space and weighs 47 kg.)

My thoughts:  Interestingly the setting for this discussion is an idyllic spot on the banks of a quiet river outside town, rather than the usual gathering in a friend’s house or the gymnasium, baths or meeting place. Perhaps this more secluded and private beauty spot is meant to suggest a lover’s trysting place?

I loved the story of the grasshoppers, who had originally been human beings with such a love of music that they sang all day, forgetting to eat or drink, until they died. The Muses turned them into grasshoppers so that they could sing all day without hunger or thirst, and in return the grasshoppers inform the Muses which humans honour them. There must be a lot of farmers who scoff at the idea of a grasshopper that doesn’t eat!!

And souls are always and naturally female – which shows a greater respect for women than the silence of the rest of Plato’s dialogues.

Favourite lines/passages:

“For only hold up before me in like manner a book, and you may lead me all around Attica, and over the wide world.”    Socrates, page 117.

“As wolves love lambs so lovers love their loves”   Socrates, page 122 (although this may have been a quote from someone else)

“Is not rhetoric, taken generally, a universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments, which is practised not only in courts and public assemblies, but on private houses also, having to do with all matters, great as well as small, good and bad alike, and is in all equally right, and equally to be esteemed?”    Socrates, pages 131-132

“of madness, there are two kinds; one produced by human infirmity, the other was a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention”   Socrates page 134 (sounds pretty but I remain unconvinced)

Personal rating: While not particularly memorable for me, I can give Phaedrus a higher rating simply on the strength of the passages I have quoted above, so maybe a generous 5?

Next : Hiero the Tyrant by Xenophon.

103. Hellenica (A History of my Times) by Xenophon (c.359 BC)

103. Hellenica (A History of my Times) by Xenophon (c.359 BC)

Plot:  Consciously written to begin precisely where Thucylides’ History of the Peloponnesian War leaves off in 411 BC, and covering the last seven years of that conflict, and the subsequent ongoing squabbles between Sparta, Athens, Persia, Thebes and their various allies and subjects up to 362 BC.

My version was Rex Warner’s translation from 1966 published by Penguin (9780140441758).

My thoughts:  This was a slow and difficult read for two reasons. Firstly the editor makes no secret of the fact that Xenophon left much of the story out of his record to make Sparta and his friend King Agesilius appear in the best possible light. I am a sucker for footnotes despite their breaking my reading flow, but I found myself avoiding most of them after a couple of hundred pages as they constantly berated the author at every step. Perhaps a more enthusiastic critic might have still made the journey enjoyable.

Gross omissions and slanted reporting may be, but I also did not find Hellenica as engaging as Xenophon’s other more personal works. It details the war until its end but more in the style of Thucylides and does not offer the warmth and closeness of individuals (except for a few pages on Teleutias, a typically virtuous Xenophon leader). Of course he is writing now on a much vaster canvas, but perhaps this is also partly my subconscious preference for a personalised approach to history. Other critics have explained that Xenophon has written this book for people very familiar with the leaders, places and events; and I certainly found myself floundering to keep track of it all.

The first couple of ‘books’ do fill in the political events in Athens that have been background to much of Plato : the defeat of Athens by Sparta, the removal of their democratic government and the establishment of an oligarchy : The Thirty, led by Critias, and their gang of killers, The Eleven, putting to death all their personal enemies, competitors or those whose possessions they coveted, and the later restoration of democracy. The remaining five ‘books’ details the tug-of-wars between the major parties for control of the various neighbouring states rather than directly attacking each other.

Politics was just as much the cult of personality and popularity as it is today. Loved generals such as Lysander and Agesilius are requested by cities to lead the forces coming to their aid.

Sparta and Athens eventually come to a longer lasting peace around 371 BC, only for Thebes, Thessaly and Arcadia to start stirring up trouble. Xenophon also raises the first mention of Celts and Iberians as present in the Athenian navy commanded by Dionysius but whether they are mercenaries or slaves is not clear.

Diversions and digressions:  King Agesipolis dies of fever while on campaign, and his body is returned to Sparta embalmed in honey, as centuries later Nelson will return to Portsmouth in a barrel of brandy.

One interesting figure was Jason of Pherae, the ambitious King of Thessaly who rose from seemingly nowhere and threatened to have the ability to take over the whole of Greece (foreshadowing the deeds of Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great) before his unexpected assassination. I had never heard mention of Jason yet Xenophon suggests he might have rightly been described as “the greatest man of his times”.

Personal rating:  A disappointment following my enjoyment of previous Xenophon works. I gave Thucylides a 5 but this can only get a 2.

Kimmy’s rating:  I read this title while on holiday in Melbourne for the Australian Open tennis. Kimmy is also on holiday at Kiweli Kennels and Kattery so there is no rating from her this time. The other dogs probably don’t read a lot of Greek classics.

Next :  Here’s the crunch – do I really want to read the entirety of Plato? Next on my list is his Phaedrus but I am tempted to skip the rest of his Socratic dialogues at least and only read the landmark remaining work (The Laws) and move straight on to Aristotle. I will probably start each of the remaining Platos, and skip if they seem to be more of the same.

102. The Symposium by Plato (c.380-360 BC)

102. The Symposium by Plato (c.380-360 BC)

Plot:   Socrates and his buddies partake of an after-dinner drinking session (a symposium) and each puts his praise of the God Love into words.

My version is an older copy (19151) of the Penguin classic translated by Walter Hamilton.

My thoughts:  Firstly I will never again hear the word ‘symposium’ without imagining a booze-up rather than an academic conference. i never went to a conference which had any likelihood of rising to the challenge of a drinking party. (Maybe I went to the wrong conferences!)

Back to Athens. Most of the participants are still hung over from the previous night’s celebrations for the tragic poet Agathon’s win at the festival. To moderate their drinking this night, they settle on each man drinking to his own comfort (presumably they had drinking games the previous night) and each required to make a speech praising Love.

Phaedrus starts by suggesting as no one in love wants their beloved to see them act cowardly or in any dishonourable way, an army of soldiers consisting only of those in love with another in that army, would “defeat practically the whole world” (page 43). Pausanias divides love into two sorts : common love which is a baser love driven by sexual desire and can be felt for women or young men, and a nobler heavenly love which strives for a lifelong relationship based on attainment of excellence and directed towards young men only.  The next speaker, a doctor named Eryximachus, both expands the concept of Love to include other objects both animate and inanimate which men may take delight in, but also compares the idea of baser and nobler loves to define the state of balance of beneficial and harmful elements in the body, which when out of balance cause sickness and disease.

The comic Aristophanes is next, and spins a wonderful imaginary creation tale where all humans were originally rounded creatures with “doubled bodies” – two faces on one head and neck, four arms and four legs (and moving at speed by cartwheeling about), two sets of genitalia, etc. Zeus grew angry with mankind and split them all down the centre. Apollo stitched the ends together, drawing the skin together and tying it to form the navel. Humans now spend their lives looking for their other halves : women who were originally wholly females seek women partners, men who were originally wholly male seek male partners, and halves of hermaphroditic wholes are heterosexual in nature (and more likely to be adulterous or promiscuous, although this insight is not explained ).

Agathon makes a beautiful poetic speech praising both Love himself and the blessings He bestows on gods and men.  Love creates “peace among men, and calm upon the sea ; rest for the winds from strife, and sleep in sorrow” (page 71)

Finally, Socrates describes how Love was explained to him by Diotima, a woman from Mantinea, as a progression from the desire to possess forever something believed good, to strive for immortality- either by begetting offspring, or more spiritually, to move from the love of physical beauty of a single individual, to love of all physical beauty, to love of moral beauty, then to the beauty of knowledge of various branches to a love of absolute beauty, leading to true goodness which approaches a form of immortality.

Thinking the discussion at an end, there is suddenly commotion at the door and a drunk Alcibiades enters. He makes a speech praising Socrates : “whenever I listen to him my heart beats faster than if I were in a religious frenzy, and tears run down my face …. my soul [is] thrown into confusion and dismay by the thought that my life was no better than a slave’s … he compels me to realise that I am still a mass of imperfections … he makes me ashamed of myself … so I behave like a runaway slave and take to my heels”   (pages 101-102)

The debate collapses as more revellers join the party, and by morning only Socrates is still awake and capable to take his leave.

Favourite lines/passages:  Second to Aristophanes’ marvellous tale, the most striking passage was the sad observation of mankind’s inability to strive for self-betterment:

“The tiresome thing about ignorance is precisely this, that a man who possesses neither beauty nor goodness nor intelligence is perfectly well satisfied with himself, and no one who does not believe that he lacks a thing desires what he does not believe that he lacks”    (page 83)3

Personal rating:  Aristophanes’ creation tale alone deserves an 8. Tied to the rest of the discussion, it averages out as a 6.

Next: This time last year I was on holiday in Hawaii and reading Herodotus’ Histories. Likewise next week I will be holidaying a little closer to home, in Melbourne to watch the Australian Open for a couple of days and taking Xenophon’s History of my Times to fill in the time between sets.  Image result for tennis emoji


101. The Cyropaedia by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

101. The Cyropaedia by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

Plot:   A romantic account of the life of Cyrus II of Persia (Cyrus the Great) mostly concerned with his campaign against the Assyrians.

My version is the 2-volume set from Loeb Classical Library published by Heinemann and translated by Walter Miller. ISBNs 0674990579 (v.1) and 0674990587 (v.2).

My thoughts:  Another enjoyable “Boys’ own adventure” from Xenophon with an idealised ruler-general winning over friends and enemies alike with his valour and magnanimity.

Cyrus was a Persian prince who was begged by the neighbouring King of the Medes to bring an army to help defend against an expected attack by the Assyrians and their allies. Believing attack is the best form  of defence, Cyrus takes the fight to the Assyrians, and wins over allies by his combination of strategy and generous treatment of the defeated tribes, thereby adding to the size and nature of his army. He builds up a cavalry by insisting his Persian soldiers ride everywhere, and sets up games to keep all his soldiers fit and determined.  Cyrus befriends local princes who have been wronged by the Assyrian King, and takes on their causes as well.

He succeeds in the battle to take the city of Sardis by superior tactics, despite facing a much larger army on the field, yet he spares the life of the opposing general Croesus and keeps him by his side  thereafter. He then marches on to the walled city of Babylon. Unable to breach this city, his army digs a trench to divert the Euphrates river which runs through the city, leaving a dry riverbed for his army to march through.

Other  notable tactics employed include the use of camels to scare the cavalry horses of the enemy (did that really work?) and attaching scythes to the wheels of chariots and using them as tanks rather than for skirmishing.

Cyrus now rules over a huge empire including the various alliances he has made along the way. Later he will marry the daughter of the Median King, and inherit the throne of Persia, and extend his rule from the Indian Ocean to Cyprus and Egypt, from the Black Sea in the north to Ethiopia in the south ; “the extremes of his empire are uninhabitable, on the one side because of the heat and another because of the cold, on another because of too much water, and on the fourth because of too little.”  (page 421)

The last book details his last days, and the almost immediate downfall of his empire after his death until the Persians are the weakest and least respected race in the Ancient World (at least according to Xenophon)

An interesting point was Cyrus’ preference for eunuchs to be appointed to his personal guard, as they could not put their own families’ needs before his own.  A eunuch as adviser to the king has become a cliche in many stories, but I hadn’t thought about this aspect before. LIkewise, the seat of most honour was on the left of Cyrus (not  the right) as it was the side most vulnerable to attack and hence the place given to the most trusted friend.

One last point – the first book describes the isolated education of boys and youths at court n Persia, but has largely been interpreted as more like a description of the Spartan society as it does not match other accounts of the Persian lifestyle.

The Cyropaedia was seen as a mirror for the ideal conduct of young princes in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and is said to have influenced Machiavelli’s The Prince. I’ve also read that it provides a real-world example of some of the ideas in Plato’s Republic with regard to the virtue of rulers. Like The Anabasis, It was also a favourite of later classical generals such as Scipio, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.

Favourite lines/passages:

Although I enjoyed pretty much the whole read, I found the best parts were the camaraderie between Cyrus and his troops. At one feast he has his officers sit in a large circle for a three course dinner. The servers start with Cyrus and pass the food around the circle. By the time the platters reach the last men, there is only a few small pieces of meat remaining, so Cyrus commands that the next course be served in the opposite direction. He overhears one solider in the middle of the circle (opposite Cyrus) complaining that it is just his bad luck that he sits where he will never get the biggest pieces, so Cyrus calls him over to sit beside him for the third course. When the final platters appear, the grumbling soldier grabs a large piece of meat but then seeing an even larger piece, puts his first piece back. The server interprets that as meaning he has had enough to eat, and moves on before the solider can grab any meat at all. I laughed aloud along with the rest of the diners.

Personal rating:  Another entertaining read even if the historical detail might be a little suspect.  Probably a 7.

Next : Plato’s Symposium