Xenophon’s Hellenika Book I: The Return of Alcibiades

Book I of Xenophon’s Hellenika lasts roughly from 411-406 BC and it begins “not very many days later” from the point at which Thucydides concluded his history, though there is a notable gap between the two texts. However, Xenophon’s Hellenika begins en medias res. It is a seemingly innocuous beginning to the text (it does not include a defense of his subject matter in the manner of Thucydides or Herodotus).The first person mentioned in Xenophon’s Hellenika is Thymochares from Athens who loses a naval battle to the Spartans (Sparta is under the leadership of Agesandridas). The loss is a tragedy because Athens is widely renowned for its naval prowess whereas Sparta is praised for its superior infantry. Perhaps at the beginning Xenophon offers a clue into his book -instead of showcasing the downfall of Athens as we previously witnessed in Thucydides, Xenophon proceeds with an assumption of Athenian decline.

Very quickly in the text we are reintroduced to Alcibiades (1.1.5). He leads the Athenians in a series of skirmishes along the Hellespont, Thrace, and Byzantium (present-day Northern Turkey at the Dardanelles). We are offered contrasting views of generalship as the Syracusan generals are popular among the troops because the troops honor the victory of their leaders (1.1.28-29). In contrast the veteran soldiers of Athens who refuse to be marshaled under both Alcibiades and Thrasyllos’s new troops unless they all win a collective battle together (1.2.17). We begin to see a picture of a fragmented Athenian empire. Economically, Athens has been importing grains from the Hellespont into the city via the Piraeius. It does not grow its own agriculture. Athens is in a state of decay and decline.

Enter Alcibiades. He is welcomed back among the Athenians when he sails into the Piraeus in 407 BC amidst a large crowd from both the port and the city. The people give many reasons for praising Alcibiades’s return: they say he had been slandered unjustly, and that he had always sought to enrich Athens above all others. In essence the masses offer forgiveness to Alcibiades. However a few people still blame Alcibiades for past injustices (notably Xenophon’s explication of the pro-Alcibiades camp is significantly longer passage than the anti-Alicibiades). Alcibiades waits to see his family in the crowd before strolling into Athens surrounded by armed guards (a sign of the uncertainty of his return) and the assembly promptly praises him and appoints Alcibiades Supreme General of Athens. The people hope Alcibiades can make Athens a great city again, by returning it to its former glory.

Meanwhile Sparta comes under the capable command of Lysander in the Hellespont. A surprising alliance is forged between Persia and Sparta, with Persia under Pharnabazus supporting Sparta in the Hellespont, and Persian funding increases compensation for the Spartan infantry. Previously Lysander had been persuaded by Alcibiades to encourage infighting among the Athenian cities. Meanwhile Athens wins a great victory at Arginousai (east of Lesbos) but the generals are unable to rescue their stranded triremes so the Assembly debates whether or not to try the generals for abandoning the soldiers. The only man to object is Socrates who says he will “do nothing except in accordance with the law” (1.7.15). Xenophon paints Socrates as a man who is isolated in his obedience to the law. One man, Euryptolemos, rises to offer a moderate path for the Athenians. He suggests trying the generals individually based on an ancient custom but when he is done speaking the assembly votes it down and promptly executes the six generals in attendance. Later they have a change of heart and instead punish the men they blame as the accusers. Book I concludes as we witness the cruelty of the people of Athens.

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

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