Sunday, September 28, 2008

What I'm reading, Chapter 3

Just finished Xenophon's Hellenica (loosely translated as "A history of my times"), the classic work of Ancient Greek history that picks up exactly where Thucydides left off. Actually, to call it a "history" in the modern sense is inaccurate. It is more of a memoir of the events surrounding Xenophon's remarkable life, and is by no means an impartial or complete account.

Xenophon himself was an Athenian by birth (born 431 BC) and served as a mercenary soldier in the army of Cyrus the Younger, a Persian noble who campaigned against his brother, the King of Persia, with an army of 10,000 Greeks around the close of the fifth century BC. They fought their way all across the Persian empire, and ultimately defeated the King in battle, but only after the death of Cyrus, rendering their victory irrelevant. Stranded in hostile territory, they marched hundreds of kilometers back to Greece.

The campaign became the stuff of legend within Greece, and fueled the perception of Persian weakness that may have helped inspire the future kings of Macedon. It is chronicled in Xenophon's other major work, the Anabasis.

Banished from Athens for fighting on the side of the Spartan king Agesilaus II (whom he idolized), Xenophon most likely composed the Hellenica in a Spartan estate during the 360s BC.

He makes no secret of his biases, makes surprising omissions, and often digresses from the main account to relate some act of valour or honor that he admires. His research is not nearly as thorough as that of Thucydides; events that he did not experience personally are given briefer treatment, events that were painful to him personally are often ignored entirely.

Unlike his predecessor, he was not making a definitive history for all time. This was a personal work, written for himself and his friends, and those who were already familiar with the events that had transpired.

Although he fails as a historian, his work is nevertheless the primary surviving narrative account of the last years of the Peloponnesian war (as Thucydides died before finishing his history), and of the rise of Theban hegemony in the years following. Although Xenophon has fallen out of favor with modern historians due to his bitter hatred of the Thebans, his admiration of the Spartans in general and Agesilaus in particular, and his omissions (there is no mention of the Second Athenian Confederacy in the Hellenica, even though it was one of the most significant events of the age), it is still an essential and riveting read for those interested in the primary historical sources of Ancient Greece.

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