I was surprised but delighted to see this new Landmark edition of Xenophon's "Hellenica" when it first appeared in bookstores about six weeks ago. I was surprised because I wouldn't have thought that a publisher would see the same value (and potential profit) in producing a costly Landmark edition of Xenophon's history that they would have in issuing their earlier editions of the better-known histories of Thucydides and Herodotus. But I was delighted because Xenophon was a vivid historian who covered an exceptionally interesting period of ancient history (411-362 B.C.), and the quality of the Landmark editions is simply exceptional. No scholar or serious student of the period will want to be without this book, and any university or public library that has room in its collections for somewhat more specialized and academic works should order it as well.
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."