F**k Xenophon!

J.B. Bury, Lectures on the Ancient Greek Historians:

“The engrossing intellectual interest was then political science, and the historical method had not been invented. The men who might otherwise have shone as historians were engaged in speculations on the nature of the state. They were eagerly seeking an answer to the speculative question: What is the best constitution? Only three historians of note arose in this period; they were more or less under the influence of Thucydides, but at long intervals behind.

Of these the only name familiar to posterity is Xenophon, who was probably the least meritorious of the three. To the circumstance that he is one of the very few classical Greek historians whose work has survived, he owes a prominence to which his qualities do not entitle him. In history as in philosophy he was a dilettante; he was as far from understanding the methods of Thucydides as he was from apprehending the ideas of Socrates. He had a happy literary talent, and his multifarious writings, taken together, render him an interesting figure in Greek literature. But his mind was essentially mediocre, incapable of penetrating beneath the surface of things. If he had lived in modem days, he would have been a high-class journalist and pamphleteer; he would have made his fortune as a war-correspondent; and would have written the life of some mediocre hero of the stamp of Agesilaus. So far as history is concerned, his true vocation was to write memoirs. The Anabasis is a memoir, and it is the most successful of his works. It has the defects which memoirs usually have, but it has the merits, the freshness, the human interest of a personal document. The adventures of the Ten Thousand are alive for ever in Xenophon’s pages.”


4 thoughts on “F**k Xenophon!

  1. Bury is probably right that Xenophon is no Plato or Thucydides, but how many of us would make ye olde Faustian bargain to be ‘just’ a Xenophon.

    In his favor: first extant biography; creation of a type of history Caesar mastered; the fascinating a strange Cyropaedia…

    His Memorabilia are largely crap, however. And, no matter how hard I try, he is one of the least quotable ancient authors, whatever that means.

    1. When, as an undergraduate, I mentioned to Alessi that Ronald Syme began his book The Roman Revolution with the phrase “The greatest of the Roman historians began his Annals…”, he said that the phrase “greatest Roman historian” wasn’t really saying much for Tacitus.

      I read a bunch of Xenophon early on because it was the first OCT Greek text I found at a store and it seemed pretty straightforward, but I have never revisited him because of the general impression I had that he was *boooooooring*. (I also never read the orators for the same reason.)

  2. Like generations of other learners of Greek to whom Xenophon’s Anabasis has been given as an easy starter text, I remain grateful to him for writing in simple prose that wasn’t hard to understand, was mildly interesting, and had none of the off-putting tortuousness of much of the other stuff I then was made to translate over the next five years of my high school Greek…

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