Tag: Xenophon

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”

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.

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

99. Agesilaus by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

99. Agesilaus by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

Plot:   Xenophon delivers a written eulogy on King Agesilaus II of Sparta.

My version is taken from Xenophon’s Minor works, translated by the Reverend J S Watson and published in 1888 by George Bell and Sons, London.

My thoughts:  Fulsome praise is heaped on the memory of Agesilaus, a warrior king whose word was iron-clad, his needs simple and his successes as general and king apparently limitless. Able to trace his  lineage back to Heracles (!), yet modest and ever helpful to his friends, but a clever strategist in the field who nevertheless kept treaties and respected enemies seeking protection in sanctuaries.

Xenophon was apparently banished from Athens for his support of this Spartan ruler, although one of Agesilaus’  virtues was his loyalty to the broader Greek cause even when fighting other Greek cities.

“But when the Corinthian exiles said that the city would be surrendered to them, and showed him the machines with which they all expected to take the walls, he refused to make an attack upon it, saying that it was proper to reduce the cities of Greece, not to slavery, but to their senses.”    (page 33)

Apparently Plutarch wrote of Agesilaus II as well in his Lives, so we will see him again.

Favourite lines/passages:    An affecting piece of war description ; a strongly written piece which depicts the horrors of the battlefield at day’s end:

“But when the fight was over, a spectator might have seen, where they engaged with one another, the ground crimsoned with blood, the dead bodies of friends and enemies lying close to one another, shields broken to pieces, spears snapped asunder, daggers without their sheaths, some on the ground, others sticking in bodies, and others still in the hands of the dead.”   (page 19)

Personal rating: The heaped praise becomes a little excessive although it would be nice to think at least some of it was deserved as ardently as Xenophon imagined.  4.
Next : One of the biggies : Plato’s Republic.

98. On Horsemanship ; On the duties of a Commander of Cavalry ; On Hunting with Dogs ; and On  Ways and Means of Improving the Revenues of Athens, all by Xenophon (c.369 BC)

98. On Horsemanship ; On the duties of a Commander of Cavalry ; On Hunting with Dogs ; and On Ways and Means of Improving the Revenues of Athens, all by Xenophon (c.369 BC)

This post covers four of Xenophon’s shorter treatises which display his experience and opinions on practical matters as a gentleman solider of 4th century BC Greece.

My version is taken from Xenophon’s Minor works, translated by the Reverend J S Watson and published in 1888 by George Bell and Sons, London.

On Horsemanship:   

A guide to the purchase, care, exercise and training of a horse for the purposes of riding and manoeuvring in battle. I must admit a complete lack of personal knowledge regarding horses in general beyond a real concern never to walk behind one if I can possibly avoid doing so, but the guidelines given seem sensible to me. I will leave it to more knowledgeable readers to judge if anything is wrong here.

Of interest was the description of the correct way to mount a horse using a spear with a hook along the shaft (stirrups and saddles not being used by the Greeks), and the description of the armour most suitable for both rider and horse, and weapons best suited to use on horseback, which would be valuable first hand source material to scholars of ancient warfare.

On the duties of a Commander of Cavalry:

Also known as the Hipparchicus (a Hipparch being one of the two commanders in chief of the Athenian cavalry), this treatise details the duties of this officer, including the psychological motivations and personal actions most likely to win the respect and trust of the men, the political considerations to secure senate approval, and the planning and presentation of cavalry charges and spectacles at public exhibitions to excite and win the admiration of the public and the Gods. Also discussed is the correct order of marching and resting, scouting unfamiliar routes, and other arts of war, including the use of spies, and knowledge of the countryside of the enemy’s and your own land. Subterfuge in confusing and misleading the enemy is also encouraged, much in the vein of Sun Tzu’s writings, but with practical examples. I would imagine this treatise just as useful, if not more so, than the Anabasis, in Alexander the Great’s saddlebag.

On Hunting with Dogs:

It seems that Xenophon rated hunting as an essential sport worthy of the greatest heroes and the primary pastime for all young men, making them better prepared for military exercises. The greater part of the treatise is to do with the hunting of hares, chasing them into nets using dogs to track and drive them. After describing the necessary physical and behavioural characteristics of successful hunting dogs, we also read of the hare itself, and how the dogs will have different success at different times of the day and season. I did enjoy the image of the hares in springtime confounding the dogs

“the tracks … in spring they are perplexed, for the animals, which are indeed perpetually coupling, couple most at this season, and hence by straying about with one another hither and thither, they necessarily produce this inconvenience” (page 342)

The stakes are raised in the last third of the book as the hunt for larger animals proceeds to deer, boars, lions and leopards, and Sophists (although admittedly this last chapter is not believed to belong to the treatise or even be penned by Xenophon)

On Ways and Means of Improving the Revenues of Athens

This treatise suggests a variety of methods for greater economic independence for Athens so that cities subject to her power did not have to suffer the brunt of its financial demands and grow more resentful. Xenophon relies heavily on his belief of an inexhaustible supply of silver in their mines, and the use of public slaves which can be hired out to anyone for mining or construction work.

As an ex-soldier it is refreshing to see he advocates peace rather than war as an economic boon, and the encouragement of foreigners to take up residence in Athens (where they will be both welcomed and taxed accordingly)

Personal rating:  Despite my 21st century-sensibility detest for hunting, I found I enjoyed most of these works. Overall a 5.

Kimmy’s rating:  Kimmy was too relaxed after her bath to stay awake while I read.  The treatise on dogs did list 47 appropriate names for young pups to be trained for hunting, of which only two : Polys (meaning bright-eyed) and Thalion (meaning cheerful) seemed to suit her – I’ll try them out on her tomorrow and see if she likes them.

Next : Xenophon’s short biography of Agesilaus, King of Sparta. His friendship with this king, including fighting with his forces against Athens led to his exile from Athens.

97. Apology by Xenophon (c.370 BC)


Xenophon reports on what he has heard from Hermogenes regarding Socrates’ thoughts and words before, during and after his court appearance (Xenophon being away on the service of Cyrus as he describes in his work The Anabasis

My library copy of Xenophon’s minor works is missing the first page of the Apology (no sign of forced removal so perhaps it was a binding error back in 1888, a little late now to secure a refund). Instead, for the first time in this literary odyssey I have relied on an online copy from Project Gutenberg   http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1171/1171-h/1171-h.htm   (found via the Great Books site http://www.grtbooks.com/ )

My thoughts:

Although covering ground already discussed by Plato (Phaedo / Crito   /  Apology ) and Xenophon himself (Memorabilia Socratis ), this version of Socrates’ defence dwells more heavily on his preference to die now painlessly before old age robs him of his faculties and senses, and with his belief in himself having the lived the best life.

“Strange, do you call it, that to God it should seem better for me to die at once? Do you not know that up to this moment I will not concede to any man to have lived a better life than I have; since what can exceed the pleasure, which has been mine, of knowing that my whole life has been spent holily and justly? … I know that I cannot escape paying the penalty of old age, in increasing dimness of sight and dullness of hearing. I shall find myself slower to learn new lessons, and apter to forget the lessons I have learnt. And if to these be added the consciousness of failing powers, the sting of self-reproach, what prospect have I of any further joy in living? It may be, you know,” he added, “that God out of his great kindness is intervening in my behalf to suffer me to close my life in the ripeness of age, and by the gentlest of deaths …. but, sound of body, and soul still capable of friendly repose, fades tranquilly away.”

Socrates’ steadfastness in refusing to attempt to sway the court with anything other than the truth as he saw it, and his willingness to submit to death rather than be deemed less than he was is further enhanced by an almost Christ-like acceptance of the inevitability of his position

“And when he perceived those who followed by his side in tears, “What is this?” he asked. “Why do you weep now?  Do you not know that for many a long day, ever since I was born, sentence of death was passed upon me by nature? If so be I perish prematurely while the tide of life’s blessings flows free and fast, certainly I and my well-wishers should feel pained; but if it be that I am bringing my life to a close on the eve of troubles, for my part I think you ought all of you to take heart of grace and rejoice in my good fortune.”

Favourite lines/passages:

And this following makes me smile

“Now there was a certain Apollodorus, who … exclaimed very innocently, “But the hardest thing of all to bear, Socrates, is to see you put to death unjustly.”

Whereupon Socrates, it is said, gently stroked the young man’s head: “Would you have been better pleased, my dear one, to see me put to death for some just reason rather than unjustly?”

Personal rating:    Moves up to a 5 simply for that anecdote involving Apollodorus

Next :
 Staying with Xenophon but giving Socrates some time off over the holidays. Next will be an omnibus of Xenophon’s minor works in a more practical and military vein, with the four small treatises : On Horsemanship, On Hunting, On the duties of a Cavalry Commander (Hipparchikos), and Ways and Means of improving the revenue of Athens

96. Oeconomicus, or, A Treatise on the management of a farm and household, by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

96. Oeconomicus, or, A Treatise on the management of a farm and household, by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

Plot:  Socrates retells a discussion with Ischomachus about domestic management – the duties required of a husband and wife in managing their property, their slaves and servants, and the art of agriculture.

Although a Socratic dialogue in that Socrates appears and discusses questions with an expert, in this case Socrates recognises Ischomachus as an expert in his subject, treating his words with interest and respect, and genuinely listens and take note of his answers without looking for flaws in logic or to ridicule his opinions.

Some points of interest :

  • Goods are something serviceable to the owner, so livestock or any other possession which cannot properly be used by the owner, or causes him loss instead of gain, cannot be considered goods.
  • Friends, and even enemies, who can be used to advantage to realise profit, are goods. This makes a little more sense with the example that a general’s finances and reputation may be increased from a successful campaign against his enemies.
  • Household management is the domain of the wife, who if gained young (under 15 and unburdened by any chance of education) and trained well by her husband, will provide a good partner. (Although in fairness Ischomachus seems to treat his young wife as an equal partner in their marriage within the expectations that she manage everything about their household while he brings goods and profit from outside, and does not undervalue her importance or contributions to their shared prosperity)
  • The importance of placing one’s possessions in good order throughout the house so they may be found instantly when needed, in other words “a place for everything and everything in its place” (I must admit this has always been one of my failings as I always seem to spend a lot of time looking for things I used last week and have put done unthinkingly – usually screwdrivers for some reason!)
  • By asking Ischomachus many questions about agriculture, specifically the growing and harvesting of corn, and Ischomachus turning the questions back on Socrates to answer, and Socrates answering correctly each time from his observations but not actual experience, Socrates wonders if he might indeed know other arts which he has never practised. Xenophon does not introduce the concept of preknowledge which Plato put in his Socratic dialogues

My version this time is taken from Xenophon’s Minor works, translated by the Reverend J S Watson and published in 1888 by George Bell and Sons of Covent Garden in the city of London, England. A bit yellow around the edges, but so shall I be when I am approaching 130 years.

Favourite lines/passages:

A warning of the perils of excessive pleasure (pages 76-77)

“… There are also certain deceitful mistresses that sway them, pretending to be goddesses of pleasure, such as gaming and frivolous social gratifications, which, in process of time, make it evident even to the victims of their deceptions that they are but pains disguised in the garb of pleasures; and … prevent them from applying to useful occupations.

…. these also are slaves, and slaves of extremely troublesome mistresses, some being devoted to the luxuries of the table, some to licentiousness, some to intoxication, some to foolish and expensive objects of ambition, which exercise such cruel sway over those whom they get under their power, that as long as they see them in vigour and able to work, they compel them to bring whatever they gain to expend upon their desires, but when they find them unable to work through old age, they leave them to spend their declining years in misery, and endeavour to make slaves of others”

Personal rating: Nudges into a 4 (just)

Next : Xenophon’s Apology, yet another defence of Socrates.