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.