I finally finished reading the collected works of Xenophon! It’s true I don’t use very many exclamation points, but considering that the first time I picked this up was more than five years ago, and finally sitting down and reading it took me almost a whole month, I think I’m allowed to make an exception to my own rule. Since I’ve already subjected you to a month and a half worth of Xenophon book reviews, I’m not going to include another overall review; that content will be included in this post, along with my reviews for the various minor treatises included in the Complete Works.
On The Cavalry General
These three treatises are being lumped together because I found them similar in style, flavor, and content. While the specifics are obviously different, each of these constitutes a (relatively) short essay by Xenophon on the titular topic. What is perhaps most outstanding about these is their granularity. Xenophon in these treatises has the air of a skilled, experienced, and enthusiastic practitioner of each of these activities, and when that works with his competency as a writer, the combination is really enjoyable to read, even if I’m never likely to be a Greek cavalry general. Nor is he content with providing surface level details: these treatises go into specifics as microscopic as what plants ought to be used to create the nets to be used for a specific type of hunting, or how large the stones over which a horse should be trained ought to be to develop the toughest hooves.
Much like his longer, Socratic piece on running a Greek farmstead, I doubt if knowing all of those specifics will be of much practical benefit to the vast majority of the modern audience, but for those writing fantasy, picking up a detail here or there could be quite useful for worldbuilding.
This is set up as a dialogue, like a Socratic piece, but instead of featuring Socrates it features a different incisive conversationalist, in this case conversing with Hiero, who is described as a despot or tyrant. Most of the piece involves Hiero complaining about how he made a terrible mistake in becoming a despot, because now he can’t enjoy life nearly as much as a private citizen, while his partner in conversation attempts to make the opposite argument, supposing that the despot or tyrant must needs be the happier of the two. I found the specifics a bit banal, but the conversation as a whole fascinating for how it portrayed the Greek view of tyranny, leadership, and private citizenship. However, I’ll save most of my discussion of ancient Greek geopolitics for the constitutions of Athens and Sparta.
Ways and Means
Believed by many historians to be perhaps the last piece Xenophon ever wrote, this is his suggestion for how Athens could raise additional revenues. In many ways, it reminded me of a sort of nascent version of The Wealth of Nations (which at some point I probably ought to re-read, so that I can review it here on the site), and had some interesting historical points about the financials of ancient civilizations, but it was more interesting in the context of Xenophon’s relationship with his native state. He was exiled after going to fight in the Persian civil war on behalf of Cyrus, and though his exile was eventually revoked, he never returned to live in Athens. Considering his frequent praise for figures like Cyrus the Great of Persia, and Agesilaus of Sparta, one suspects that he made not have been particularly enthusiastic about Athens’ raucous democracy. Despite that, he clearly in Ways and Means wanted to see his former city-state prosper again.
The Constitution of Sparta
The Constitution of Athens
These works, especially the latter, are of questionable attribution; there is apparently much debate about whether either of these was actually written by Xenophon, which as usual I am wholly unqualified to comment upon, but I did read both of them, and so I will review them here, that authorial caveat aside. When I saw these were included, I was excited to finally get to them (and not just because that meant I had almost finished the collected works) because I thought that “Constitution” referred to some kind of document describing the governmental systems of the respective city-states. That proved not to be the case: instead, these are more like opinion pieces on the virtues and shortcomings of the two civilizations.
The Spartan one is almost exclusively laudatory, explaining how much superior the Spartan ways are to those of other city-states. My completely unqualified and uninformed opinion is that this may have actually been written by Xenophon, who was similarly praiseful for Sparta in Agesilaus, and the piece felt similar in tone and style to his other works. Unlike the Constitution of Athens, which was so negative as to read almost like satire, and sounded quite unlike Xenophon’s other writings in tone, diction, and style.
I don’t want to get too political, because as I’ve expressed before I make a concerted effort to largely avoid such topics on what is supposed to be a publishing site for original writing and book reviews, but I will say that the tone and content of both of these, but especially of the latter, were very interesting from a modern geopolitical perspective. If you take an interest in modern world affairs, and especially in how America is perceived from both outside and inside, these could be quite valuable reading, and even more so if combined with all of the other Greek history reading I’ve been doing.
It feels a little strange to be finally finished with these works. This was really a massive undertaking, and I am wholly looking forward to reading a couple of much lighter, faster, and entirely fictional books for at least a few weeks (I’m sure you’re looking forward to some more approachable book reviews, too). Despite that, I would absolutely recommend reading at least some of Xenophon’s works. None came close to Anabasis, but with only a couple of exceptions I found something of value in every one of the pieces included in the Complete Works, and I imagine that at some point in the future I will come back and re-read some of these writings. Just maybe not all three thousand pages worth in one stretch. If you’re interested in either history or philosophy, or even modern geopolitics, I really encourage you to consider tackling the collected works of Xenophon.