On The Arginousai Affair in Xenophon and Diodorus Sicilus

In the Hellenika, Xenophon carefully draws our attention to the “Arginousai Affair,” a moment in 406 BC in which Athenian democracy reached its extreme and perhaps most democratic moment. The Athenian Assembly offers the first speech in the text, asserting that “it was a terrible thing if someone did not allow the people to do whatever they wished” (1.7.12) and what they wished was to executed a clutch of generals who had won a desperate naval battle off the coast of Asia. This shocking act would have likely included the standard method of execution -chaining a man to a wooden board and leaving him to die in the hot sun.

Why would Athens choose such a harsh, brutal punishment for its own generals? Broadly speaking Greek generals were expected to recover their dead in battle so they could receive a proper burial. In the case of the Arginousai Affair, the generals left some 5,000 men stranded and shipwrecked who died and were not recovered due to stormy weather. Following the event, two of the generals went into self-imposed exile and the rest returned to Athens facing almost certain death (in the Memorabilia Xenophon curiously identifies Socrates as the chair of the committee deciding what to do next in this affair).

Xenophon’s account of the Arginousai Affair is often remembered as meager or incomplete, while Diodorus of Sicily (the other great Greek historian of the era) is often overlooked. The story appears in Book XIII of his monumental text, but in Book I of Xenophon’s Hellenika. In Diodorus’s history he offers certain particularly intriguing stories of dreams and speeches. His account of the Arginousai Affair is perhaps more of a tragic affair than in Xenophon.

Landmark edition of Xenophon’s Hellenika by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler and Peter Green’s translation of Diodorus Sicilus’s Histories.

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