Rating: 4 out of 5.

Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Xenophon’s Hellenica

Continuing on through the collected works of Xenophon, we next have Hellenica, which much like Herodotus’s Histories is intended as a historical narrative. This time, it picks up the account in 411 BCE, and covers about fifty years, to 362 BCE, which is apparently the year of the Battle of Mantineia. Apparently, it picks up the narrative thread of the Peloponnesian War immediately where Thucydides’ history abruptly ends (which is also on my reading list, and I only know this because the information was conveniently included in the front of my translation of Hellenica), and may have been written just for his friends as a sort of historical “vanity” publication. Like The Ten Thousand, this is covering a topic to which Xenophon was a contemporary, so it is considered an important primary source, and hopefully has a bit more historical veracity than his not-really biographical treatment of King Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire.

If you’ve been reading along, and were discouraged by the somewhat tedious nature of the Cyropaedia, you’ll be relieved to learn that Hellenica is a return to the much more direct, approachable, and engaging style and tone of The Ten Thousand (which, if I’m not mistaken, actually took place during the events of the Hellenica, so you’ll see some familiar characters if you already read that work). It really was thoroughly engaging, full of dynamic characters, politics, warfare, betrayal, intrigue, and all the other elements that you might hope for in a good story. I even garnered some ideas for Fo’Fonas from reading this book.

Reading all of these historical Greek works has led me to reflect more than I usually do on their contribution to and continued influence on what is often referred to as western civilization, and especially how it contrasts with eastern civilization. Last year, I read and reviewed a book called Great State: China and the World, which made the observation that whereas Europe tended towards fragmentation over the course of its history, and arguably still leans that way despite the institution of the European Union, China (and to some extent other Eastern cultures) have tended in the opposite direction. I’m not enough of a historian to know if it can be legitimately claimed that Western Civilization takes its more individualistic approach directly from the ancient Greeks, and their constant intra-Greek wars, but I do know enough about history to know that the uniquely Western distrust of authority, and especially the American concepts of freedom and the rights of the individual, while often credited to the Enlightenment, first gained prominence in ancient Greece. Contrast that with the Eastern Civilization, which is characterized by a profound trust and respect for authority.

Speaking of intra-Greek Wars, the Hellenica basically explains why the Greeks never formed their own empire, despite consistently defeating numerically superior forces from other states of the same time period (especially Persia). They were far too busy warring amongst themselves, perpetuating antagonisms and rivalries and feuds that sometimes went back as far as the heroic period (think Homer, who lived somewhere between four hundred and eight hundred years before Xenophon’s time) to ever come together except when faced with an imminent, major catastrophe, like when King Darius decides he’s going to come and subjugate all of Greece (that’s the story detailed mainly in Herodotus’s Histories). In fact, the Persian Empire was very aware of this fact, and consistently funded, bribed, threatened, cajoled, and otherwise manipulated the Greeks into fighting each other, so that they wouldn’t unite and come crush the Persian Empire.

It is tempting to say, especially reading Hellenica and seeing all of the different wars between all of the different Greek city-states that happened even in a relatively brief span of time, that there was at this time no concept of a unified Greek identity, but I don’t think that’s a valid assertion. Looking at how they united to combat an external threat like the Persians, the verbiage used in both Xenophon’s and Herodotus’s writings, and the shared sympathies, ideas, and perspectives that are common to most if not all of the Greek city-states mentioned in these works, I would argue that there was a unified Greek identity that had emerged by this time period; it was just secondary to the city-state identity. In fact, it reminds me of nothing so much as a wildly fractious political climate whose participants are still able to unite when faced with a common, existential threat. Though of course I should include the disclaimer that history (and human beings) are far too complicated to be distilled down to any single concept or pithy thesis.

Although there were points in the Hellenica where it felt somewhat belabored, for the most part it was fast-paced, intriguing, and a valuable insight culturally and historically. It also builds further on some of the different ways there are to write battle scenes, and how ancient battles might have actually been conducted, so is valuable from a writing perspective (you know, we probably should do a separate post on that at some point). For that matter, Xenophon’s writing is enjoyable and straightforward, so you don’t necessarily need a specific reason to read it. I hope you consider reading the Hellenica. Next week’s review will be for the short work Agesilaus.

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