The Landmark Xenophon's Hellenika Paperback – Dec 7 2010
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“Lavish. . . . Outstanding. . . . There is nothing else like [it].”—The New York Review of Books
“Beautifully produced. . . . [A] veritable treasure trove. . . . Constitute[s] a first-rate education in classical history.”—The New Criterion
“Robert Strassler has delivered again. . . . This is an excellent addition to the Landmark series.”—Sacramento Book Review
About the Author
ROBERT B. STRASSLER is an unaffiliated scholar who holds an honorary Doctorate of Humanities and Letters from Bard College and is chairman of the Aston Magna Foundation for Music and the Humanities. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
JOHN MARINCOLA is the Leon Golden Professor of Classics at Florida State University. He is the author and editor of many books about Greek and Roman historiography and has translated a number of classical texts. He lives in Florida.
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Xenophon's "Hellenica" covers the last phase (411-404 B.C.) of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and the Spartan alliance, with its great naval battles between hundreds of triremes in the eastern Aegean and the Hellespont; the final defeat and fall of Athens; the short-lived but bloody tyranny in Athens of the group of Spartan-backed oligarchs known as the Thirty Tyrants (which includes a vivid set-piece, somewhat reminiscent of Plato's "Apology," of the trial and extra-judicial execution of their opponent Theramenes); the defeat of the Thirty Tyrants and the restoration of democracy to Athens; the campaigns of the Spartan king Agesilaus in western Asia Minor, as he tried to restore independence to the Greek cities the Spartans had earlier sold down the river in exchange for Persian support during their war against the Athenians; the Corinthian War of 394-386, when Corinth switched sides and joined the Athenians and Thebans in trying to curb Spartan power; and finally, the rise of Thebes and its short-lived hegemony between the Spartan defeat at the battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. and the inconclusive battle of Mantineia and the death of the Theban leader Epaminondas in 362.
As this summary indicates, this is a period full of dramatic military action and political intrigue. Xenophon, who lived from c. 430 to around 356 B.C., was well-placed to tell this story. A well-educated Athenian from a wealthy (and probably conservative) family, he was a friend and devoted follower of Socrates in his youth. Although he almost certainly fought for Athens during the closing years of the Peloponnesian War, he was also a great admirer of Sparta and became a friend and close associate of Agesilaus, who was one of its two kings throughout most of the period covered by the "Hellenica." He fought as a mercenary in a Persian civil war during the final years of the 5th century, and his account of that experience (the "Anabasis") has maintained its status as a great adventure story since it was first published 2400 years ago. Because of his Spartan sympathies, Xenophon spent much of his life in exile from Athens, but perhaps returned there in his final years.
Xenophon ranks lower as a historian than his predecessor Thucydides, mostly because his coverage is less systematic, more episodic and anecdotal, and because his animus against the Thebans who finally brought an end to Spartan power means that his treatment of them is extremely sketchy. His accounts of military encounters are less clear and specific than those of Thucydides; Thucydides clearly wrote with an eye towards instructing generals and admirals of the future, while you get the sense that Xenophon wants to give you some basic facts about what happened and then move the narrative along. His virtues are that he had a real feel for character, at least of those like Agesilaus whom he knew well, and he understood the value of revealing anecdotes and concrete details, as the excerpt quoted below demonstrates. While it has its flaws, his account is a vivid, dramatic, and pleasurable one to read.
That said, should you get the Landmark edition or the cheaper Penguin Classics paperback, which goes under the title "A History of My Times"? Scholars and serious students of ancient history will want the Landmark edition. Beyond the text itself, there are nearly 200 pages of appendices on various topics, a 40-page introduction, and copious maps, photographs, and illustrations. The appendices include 75 pages of excerpts from the later historian Diodorus Siculus and 12 from the Oxyrhnchus Historian covering the same periods, which help to make up for Xenophon's selectivity and omissions. Also, any place cited in the text carries a footnote which in turn directs you to a map showing its location. The footnotes also clarify textual references that would be opaque to all except an expert: for example, when Xenophon writes (in the excerpt below) that the Athenians feared suffering the fate they had previously meted out to the "Histiaians, Skionians, Toronaians, [and] Aeginetans," the Landmark edition footnotes each people cited with a short description of the earlier event and a cross-reference to where it is discussed in Thucydides' history. The Penguin edition, in contrast, simply gives the bare Thucydidean citations, with no explanatory text.
The Penguin paperback is a good value for the money, and certainly it has the advantage of greater portability. It also has a 40-page introduction and many footnotes, although these are less numerous, detailed, and explanatory than those in the Landmark edition. Also, the translator of the Penguin edition, Rex Warner, was not only a Classics scholar but also a novelist. My sense is that his translation places a greater emphasis on pacing and readability, whereas the Landmark translation (by John Marincola) seems to stick closer to the sense and feel of the original Greek, and is also very concerned with clearly spelling things out. I've provided an example of a single passage from each translation below (about the aftermath of the Athenian naval disaster at Aegospotami in 405 B.C.) so you can compare.
Penguin/Warner: "It was at night that the [trireme] "Paralus" arrived at Athens. As the news of the disaster was told, one man passed it on to another, and a sound of wailing arose and extended first from Piraeus, then along the Long Walls until it reached the city. That night no one slept. They mourned for the lost, but more still for their own fate. They thought that they themselves would now be dealt with as they had dealt with others - with the Melians, colonists of Sparta, after they had besieged and conquered Melos, with the people of Histaea, of Scione, or Torone, of Aegina, and many other states. "
Landmark/Marincola: "The "Paralos" arrived at Athens during the night, bringing news of the disaster at Aigospotamoi, and a cry arose in the Peiraieus and ran up through the Long Walls and into the city itself as one man imparted the news to the next. As a result, no one slept that night as they mourned not only for the men destroyed but even more for themselves, thinking that they would suffer the same catastrophes they had inflicted on others - the Melians (colonists of the Spartans whom the Athenians had defeated by siege), Histiaians, Skionians, Toronaians, Aeginetans, and many other Greeks."
For anyone who is fascinated by early Greek history, Hellenika is highly recommended.
Reviewed by Dustin A. Gish, College of the Holy Cross
The Landmark Xenophon's Hellenika, edited by Robert Strassler, is the third volume in this well-known and well-received series, which aims to provide authoritative editions of classic works in ancient history with revised or new translations. With scores of its trademark maps and scholarly appendices lavishly supporting a fine new translation, this edition of Xenophon's Hellenika should help to promote the study of a work that deserves to be read alongside his other three monumental works - Cyropaedia, Anabasis, Memorabilia.
Xenophon's Hellenika traces a selective course through Greek history: from 411, when the Athenians suffered a series of naval losses, precipitating a steady decline into surrender to the Spartans and the loss of empire (I-II); through the rise of Spartan imperialism and shifting Greek alliances with the Persians (III-V); to the sudden collapse of Spartan supremacy against a surging Thebes - despite the efforts of the resilient Athenians, under the restored democracy, who helped to resist the Theban invasions into the Spartan homeland which culminated in the remarkably equivocal battle of Mantineia and its aftermath, in 362 (VI-VII).
In his "Editor's Preface," Strassler points out that without Xenophon's Hellenika, "we would know nothing or very little of many events and developments of that dynamic period" - namely, the turbulent and politically diverse fourth century (lxvii). The slightly awkward title of this edition, however, should remind readers that the works in Xenophon's corpus are extraordinarily diverse. Xenophon was much more than a "historian" and his Hellenika, when viewed from the broader perspective provided by his other writings, is not merely a work of "history" - at least not in the sense that modern scholars tend to think of it.
The translation by John Marincola admirably renders the lively yet subtle Greek of Xenophon in clear, accessible, at times even striking English prose, and excels earlier ones by Carleton Brownson (Loeb, 1918) and Rex Warner (Penguin, 1966) by avoiding stilted language and adhering more reliably to the structure of Xenophon's sentences. Attention to subtle nuances of political thought and rhetorical style could have been more systematic, but for readers without Greek this translation is superior to the others. When Marincola's translation does occasionally veer away from the original sentence structure, there is often little gained in terms of readability and no marked improvement over existing translations, and his preference for colloquial words and phrases tends to dull rather than burnish the translation, leaving it with less luster than that of older translators. Readability and eloquence, where appropriate, need not be mutually exclusive aims. Literalness, on the other hand, should be preserved where possible, if we are to follow Xenophon's meaning. To infer too much, as Marincola occasionally does, runs the risk of distracting and misleading readers with overtones and connotations absent from the original text. Xenophon is characteristically allusive in his works. We are thus invited by his subtle manner of writing to think through for ourselves why Xenophon wrote his history in the way that he did.
In addition to Marincola's translation, there is much to praise in this volume, including most of its twenty-six appendices. Especially notable are the concise accounts of the political institutions and governments of the Athenians and of the Spartans (and the peculiar problems associated with each) by Peter Krentz and Paul Cartledge (Appendices A, B, E), as well as the appendices on the character and conduct of trireme and land warfare, religion, and political alliances during the fourth century (App. F, H, J, K, L). The vivid portrait of Persia painted by C. J. Tuplin and the succinct biographies supplied for thirty important characters (App. D, G, M) are also essential reading.
But one highly touted, yet troubling innovation in this Landmark edition is the inclusion of lengthy selections from classical texts other than Xenophon's Hellenika. These additions may prove marginally of use in reconstructing fourth-century history, but they distract from, rather than enhance, the effort of readers to understand Xenophon's Hellenika. The explicit suggestion that readers should judge the complete and unified narrative of Xenophon in the dim light cast by fragments of an unknown author or by the "wretched" reconstruction of a "careless" one (xxvi-xxx) seems, at best, misguided. Nor should the author or work be initially approached by comparison with Herodotus or Thucydides (xxiv-xxv). Brief discussions of Xenophon's style, of his treatment of military and political affairs in his other works, or even of his political thought in general would have better served the intended audience.
The otherwise lengthy and informative Introduction unfortunately suffers from a frequent reliance upon recycled, stale accusations about Xenophon's "bias" and "prejudice," especially as causes of certain allegedly "startling" omissions in his text, and hyperbolic speculation about his "Grinding of Axes" (xlvi-lvi) or lack of "Trustworthiness" (lxiii-lxv). A more even-handed, less querulous Introduction to the Hellenika would help readers to engage and understand this work on its own terms, especially if the activity of intellectually earnest reading is predicated on not presuming to know better than the author what he should, or should not, have written. To conclude, as the author of this Introduction does, that Xenophon is unreliable "as a historian," because his account "fails to accommodate much of what seems obviously important to us," reveals much more about the preoccupations and prejudices of certain modern "scholars" than it does about Xenophon - and "so much the worse for" them (xxvii, xxxv, xxxvi, lxv-lxvi, 331-334).
These few criticisms aside, we are grateful to have another work from the corpus of Xenophon available in a fine new translation. One hopes that the availability of the Hellenika restores a fuller appreciation not only of the virtues of this work itself, but also of its admirable author.
Despite everything bad written regarding the quality of Xenophon's text, it is still the most important primary source covering this period. We are frequently reminded of multiple omissions and inconsistencies. Strassler studiously compares the Hellenica with another existent text covering the same period by Diodorus Siculus and other sources to prove this point, but the Hellenica is still extremely impressive because it is a contemporaneous account written by a man who not only had high-level access to information but also played a large role himself.
For the more advanced reader, the referenced sections of Diodorus' text are provided at the end of the book. Some sections of Diodorus give more information on the topic at hand. Other sections give diverging information. Sometime Strassler sides with Xenophon's account. Other times, not. Additionally, sections of a fragmentary, more recently discovered third text on this period called the Oxyrhynicha papyrus fragments are also included at the end of the text and referenced from within the main text.
The text itself is plodding in some sections, though in others it moves along. Conveniently, every several paragraphs there is a 2 or 3 sentence summary in the outer margin of each page, making it easy to catch up on your train of thought each time you pick up the book again. The small summaries also make it easy to make sure you understand each paragraph or haven't missed something important in a difficult to understand section. Further, the summaries provide an easy way to skim through or easily reference the text.
Not being a scholar or expert in the material, it was more difficult for me personally to be dismayed by inaccuracies and omissions. There is no need to get hung up on this point because Strassler does a good job pointing them out and filling in the holes. There is still a lot to glean from the text, especially how the different city-states of ancient Greece were run, the complex politics, and the extreme amount of infighting that occurred among the Greeks after the Peloponnesian War.
You gain a much greater understanding that the Greek world went well beyond Athens and Sparta and Corinth and Thebes. The ancient Greek world comprised of many, many established city-states that don't get much recognition today that held sway back then. The sections on the fighting in the Ionic city-states and the involvement of Persia was also interesting.
Lastly, the translation is new and very readable. No antiquated text or other worries in this respect.
PS Next up for the Landmark series is Arrian and then Polybius.