A Brief Introduction to Xenophon’s Hellenika

Xenophon’s Hellenika (or “Greek Affairs”) is a book devoted to the remarkable activities of the Greeks during Xenophon’s lifetime. At first glance Hellenika is intended to be a continuation of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War -Xenophon begins his text with “And after this…” thus connecting it to Thucydides (in doing so Xenophon makes the bold move of even comparing himself to Thucydides). Hellenika covers the great motion of the city, namely the activity of war, but its subject is the “things pertaining to Greekness.” It is a distinct text from his other works: the Cyropaedia, his longest work, concerns itself with the education of Cyrus the Great; the Anabasis of Cyrus is Xenophon’s autobiography as the leader of a band of 10,000 mercenary soldiers (in contrast to the urbane Athenian intellectualism which had taken hold in Athens); Xenophon also offers his reflections on Socrates as distinct from the life of a country gentleman as well as various short works on hunting, horsemanship, and other topics such as biographies of Agesilaus (a Spartan King and friend of Xenophon) and Hiero (the tyrant of Syracuse). Sometimes Hellenika is regarded as a continuation and completion of Thucydides’s history. However, the tone is sharply different from Thucydides. Thucydides treats political history with gravitas while Xenophon maintains a comedic or whimsical approach to his history (hence modern scholarship has tended to dismiss Xenophon as altogether frivolous).

Xenophon may well have been the editor of Thucydides. We imagine him writing the seven books of the Hellenika from his vast country estate in Sparta, living the life of a retired military man, entertaining all manner of guests from around the Mediterranean.

The Hellenika begins en medias res without introduction whereas Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War claims to address the biggest war yet known. The context of Xenophon’s Hellenika is the late Peloponnesian War, from approximately 411 BC to 362 BC concluding near the Second Battle of Mantineia. To set the scene, the fragile 15 year armistice known as the “Peace of Nicias” has collapsed, the Spartan oligarchic alliance stands to invade Attica, and the Athenian democratic empire has been crippled by the plague which has killed many of its prominent citizens including the demagogue Pericles. In 415 BC Athens makes a daring, ill-fated decision to invade Sicily in an effort to surround and isolate the Peloponnese by conquering the port hub of Syracuse. The lead proponent of the expedition is a young, charismatic student of Socrates named Alcibiades. But by 413 BC the expedition has proven to be a catastrophic failure amidst devastating losses. At the same time Sparta has redoubled its war effort and Persia has formed a pact with Sparta against Athens. Domestically, Athens lies in turmoil, Alcibiades defects to Sparta, and an oligarchic regime known as the “Four Hundred” takes hold in Athens. Rumors swirl about conceding to Sparta and things look bleak around 411 BC. At around this point Thucydides’s book unceremoniously ends and Xenophon’s begins shortly thereafter.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Xenophon’s Hellenika by Robert B. Strassler, a businessman turned classical scholar.

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