Despite the title, Poetics should not be thought of as applying exclusively to poetry. Rather, it is equal parts literary criticism, and one of the world’s earliest “how to write fiction,” books. Much like Art of Rhetoric, there were pieces that have become outdated, but much has remained surprisingly relevant to modern literature. All that is required is a bit of translation.
Maybe it’s because Herodotus is so aptly referred to as “history’s screenwriter,” but I was less impressed by Iggulden’s interpretation of the events in The Gates of Athens than I was with his interpretation of Xenophon’s adventures. Where the story he told of Xenophon’s exploits was very faithful to the history, The Gates of Athens seemed to include a lot more supposition on Iggulden’s part, mostly to add interpersonal drama. Yet he is telling a story about some of the most dramatic moments in recorded history, and I wonder if added drama is really necessary.
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.
★★★★ I decided to collect the remaining three of Xenophon's Socratic works into a single review, so what follows are reviews for Oeconomicus, Symposium, and Apology. Oeconomicus You've probably seen them: how-to books. They're often almost as bad as self-help books and premature memoirs that bow down library shelves with the weight of their inanities … Continue reading More Socratic Works Review
We wrapped up the last of Xenophon's historical works last week; this week we get to move into his Socratic works, the first of which is Memorabilia. Xenophon wrote this piece as a posthumous defense of his mentor and friend, to exculpate him of the crimes of which he was accused, and to generally exhibit his good character. While Plato's Dialogues get the most attention, Socrates had many other students and inspired many others, including Xenophon, to record vignettes and other writings pertaining to him, and I actually find Xenophon's Socratic writings preferable to the more famous Plato's.
While other works of Xenophon's have taken me a week or even longer to get through, I finished this one in just a night, and it wasn't even the only thing that I read that evening. Agesilaus is a biography of the titular Spartan king, and unlike Xenophon's "biography" of Cyrus the Great, is thought to be fairly accurate historically, if very brief, and somewhat biased. Where a modern biographer often goes out of his or her way to find "dirt" on their subject, highlighting their shortcomings and failures no matter how respected and revered a figure they might be, or how significant of feats they might have accomplished, it has been more common in history to write biographies that are meant to praise a figure and elucidate the person's admirable traits, that others might follow suit. Xenophon certainly falls into the latter category, and his effusive praise for Agesilaus renders him as a veritable paragon of virtue, representative of every admirable characteristic and quite devoid of any flaws of blemishes.
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.
Literally, the title of this piece translates to "the education of Cyrus," though in truth only about the first book or two cover Cyrus's "education," while the others describe the rest of his life. This is meant as a sort of "how to" book on how to rule well, in the form of a biographical treatment of Cyrus, but unlike in The Ten Thousand, Xenophon is not here describing contemporary events, and many historians doubt that this is in more than the most general of ways an accurate depiction of Cyrus's life. Note: by "how to," I mean a book on how to rule as a semi-benevolent authoritarian dictator who is loved and feared by his subjects.
I've actually read this part before, but decided to re-read it in light of my recent reading of Herodotus's Histories, which covered the period about a hundred years or so before the events in The Ten Thousand, and provided a lot of valuable context for understanding what was happening in Xenophon's story. Unlike Herodotus, Xenophon is not writing about history in The Ten Thousand; he is writing a semi-autobiographical account of what happened to him and his companions during a campaign as mercenaries in a decidedly short-lived Persian civil war. Like Caesar in his Commentaries, Xenophon refers to himself in the third person, and the result is perhaps the most story-like and modern-seeming of all the ancient works that I've been reading recently. In fact, Conn Iggulden wrote a historical fiction novella primarily based upon the events in The Ten Thousand, and it was a very interesting experience to read that having already read its primary source.
I don't actually know how much this post will help you in ridding your works of pesky anachronisms, but the title just seemed to clever to resist. If you're not already familiar, an anachronism is a literary, spatial or temporal (usually temporal) transplant. A detail, a phrase, an expression, a device, or really anything else could be an anachronism; most commonly these are stock expressions or devices of our own time that we accidentally put into our works. Nor are they unique to literature, as there are plenty of examples in movies and other media. For instance, perhaps a period movie might show cars from a later model year driving around in the background. Or my personal favorite, when an author or screenwriter has archers "fire" their arrows, an expression which could not predate the advent of firearms. This last one even made its way into The Lord of the Rings movies (notably during the battle at Helm's Deep).