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Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars

by March 22, 2022

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
He is considered one of the fathers of the genre of biography. He is regarded as one of the most important writers of the Latin Silver Age in literature, and his collection of biographies of Roman emperors has been enormously influential. Yet who was Suetonius? What was the life of the biographer like?
Life of the Biographer
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a member of the Equestrian Order, and was probably born in the Roman Province of Numidia (Algeria). It is likely that Suetonius received a good education in oratory and literature, and early in his career he was a teacher and legal advocate. He was a close friend of the Roman writer and politician Pliny the Younger. Suetonius served on Pliny’s staff when the latter was Governor of Bithynia. He was secretary to the Emperor Trajan, who it appears granted him several privileges. He also served under Emperor Hadrian, but was later dismissed after he was deemed to have been too informal with the Empress Vibia Sabina, and allegedly breached court etiquette. Some have suggested that Suetonius may have had an affair with Hadrian’s wife, but this is unlikely.
Roman Empress Vibia Sabina; wife of Hadrian, and possibly lover of Suetonus
Roman Empress Vibia Sabina; wife of Hadrian, and possibly lover of Suetonus
The Lives of the Twelve Caesars
Suetonius was a prolific writer in both Latin and Greek but many of his works have been lost. His masterpiece is the work known as the Lives of the Twelve Caesars. The earliest extant manuscript of the work dates from the sixth century AD. Suetonius wrote the work in about 120 AD, during the early ears of the reign of Hadrian. The work was immediately popular. The work consists of the lives of the first eleven Emperors and Julius Caesar. The work begins with the life and career of Julius Caesar. It then concentrates on the reign of Augustus, regarded as the first Emperor. Then there are the Lives of the other members of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, including Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Then the work focuses on the lives of those who ruled briefly during the year of the Four Emperors (66 AD), the period of anarchy after the assassination of Nero. These are Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. Suetonius then presents the biographies of the later two Emperors of the Flavian dynasty: Titus and Domitian. The individual biographies concentrate on the public and private lives of the subjects, and gives an insight into character and personality of the emperors.
Coins of the four Emperors who ruled 66 AD. From top left Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian.
Coins of the four Emperors who ruled 66 AD. From top left: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian.
The Style and Reliability of The Twelve Caesars
The book gives information on the physical appearance, habits, and personal details of the subjects. The Twelve Caesars is an important source for many Emperors, and it is the main source of the lives and death of Caligula and Vespasian. The image of many Roman Emperors has been deeply influenced by the work. Yet Suetonius was also a man of his time; despite his learning, his works are full of omens. His view of character was that it was fixed and ordained by fate. It appears that Suetonius had access to the Imperial library before his dismissal from office. Despite this, much of his work is based on hearsay and even gossip. Nevertheless, the work is widely considered by historians as generally reliable. Suetonius, like every other author, had his own biases. He was sympathetic to the Senatorial elite who disliked the Imperial system. Many critics have argued that his may have colored Suetonius portrait of Emperors such as Caligula and Domitian, who are portrayed as bloody tyrants. Some modern historians have argued that Domitian and Nero were not the monsters portrayed in their biographies.
Influence of Suetonius’ work
Dispite his reputation, Suetonius did not invent the genre of biography. The first known Roman biographer was Cornelius Nepos (110-25 BC), and the Greek Plutarch wrote his Parallel Lives c 80 AD. However, Suetonius work was immensely popular and widely imitated. Marius Maximus (160-230 AD) wrote a sequel to the Twelve Caesars, and this formed the basis of the anonymous work the Historia Augusta, an important if unreliable historical source. In the Middle Ages, Einhard wrote a biography of Charlemagne, modelled on Suetonius. The Byzantine author Michael Psellos (1018-1090) was inspired by Suetonius to write the Chronographia, a compilation of Emperors from the 10th to 11th century. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars contributed greatly to the emergence of the genre of biography.
A medieval drawing of Suetonius
A medieval drawing of Suetonius
The Twelve Caesars is a much-loved work, and still widely read today. It is an important landmark in the development of the genre of biography, and remains a critical source for Roman history in the First Century AD. Suetonius himself is the rare example of a biographer who arguably casts a shadow as long as his subjects.
Suetonius (1997). The Twelve Caesars. Penguin: Harmondsworth.

Thucydides as Tragic Poet

by September 3, 2021

By Justin D. Lyons, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Today we think of Thucydides as one of the first historians. Yet perhaps that word is a bit misleading, or at least doesn’t paint the full picture.  
In his Poetics, Aristotle distinguishes the historian from the philosopher and the poet. History is not philosophic because it deals with particulars, whereas philosophy deals with the universal. Poetry lies between philosophy and history, dealing with the universal in the particular.
At first glance, Thucydides seems to fall decidedly into the category of historian. The beginning of The Peloponnesian War undermines the exaggerated grandeur attributed to early Greece, built mainly on the authority of Homer. The glory of poetic vision is scrapped for a realistic assessment of early ages. In addition, Thucydides himself remarks that he does not write as the poets do.
Thucydides narrates the history of a particular war, the Peloponnesian War, which occurred between Sparta, Athens, and their allies in the 5th century B.C. Yet he claims that he has written his work “as a possession for all time” and that it will be an aid to understanding the future. But one must ask how a history of a particular war bound in time and place could so illumine future action.
The Peloponnesian War
Just as with the poet, the particular and the universal are interwoven in Thucydides’ work. He describes this war between these two cities at a certain time but reveals the story of mankind.
Thucydides looks to motion and war as most revealing of human nature. This is the difference between Thucydides and the philosophers. Thucydides does not seek the nature of man in the contemplation of a static realm of truth and light; rather, he seeks it in movement and uncertainty. But man in motion is also the favorite theme of the poets. Poetry flourishes in conditions of stable peace, but it portrays man in crisis, man in flux–the bloody field of Ilium, the trials of the homeward journey, the city infected with plague.
The historian is not free, like the poet, to invent, shape, or alter events for dramatic purposes. But Thucydides does. Events must be selected, arranged, and narrated even by the historian. The deeds of the war are edited by Thucydides. Only if they are selected and arranged properly will we get a true picture. No mere chronicler, Thucydides weaves a narrative balance between word and deed.  
There are two great wings to the Peloponnesian War, marked by Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the plague on the one hand, and the Melian Dialogue and the Sicilian expedition on the other. The word is immediately followed by the deed. In each case, the hubris given in word is then terribly punished by what happens. Like a poet, Thucydides creates a narrative balance – an act of hubris and its consequences. Also like a poet, he does not give explicit interpretation of the events, but lets the events themselves present a terrible drama.
In terms of invention, Thucydides admits he does not present the speeches in his history exactly as they were given; they are, in his opinion, what the speakers should have said. In truth, Thucydides composes the speeches himself.
Thucydides does not make explicit judgements on the understandings expressed by the speakers, but rather presents them in all their partiality and partisanship. In doing so he creates, or rather imitates, political drama. Political speeches are necessarily partial because they present a particular policy of a particular city to a particular audience; they are bound by the limited horizon of the political actor. The reader is drawn into the drama through the clash of conflicting views. By allowing the struggle to work itself out before the reader, he presents a poetic imitation of political life.
The most well-known of the speeches, the Periclean Funeral Oration, puts forward a vision of immortal glory. Pericles asserts that the glory of Athens will survive even if Athens is ruined.; it will survive forever. “The admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours,” he says, “because the power of Athens has been shown by mighty proofs…We have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us” (PW 2.42).
Thus Athens does not need Homer for a eulogist. Pericles claims the deeds of the city are self-sufficient, they stand by themselves, they do not need the poet’s craft. But it is the craft of Thucydides that continues to breathe life into Periclean Athens.
Thucydides’ presentation of Pericles must bring forward for the reader what is a fundamental underlying question for the entire work: Can the fortune be mastered by human planning?
Pericles counseled the Athenians to shut themselves up within their walls rather than to chance battle in the field, to hold to the impregnable position afforded them by the city and the sea. His plan worked against the Peloponnesians, but it could not defend against the natural force of the plague, which ravaged the city. The terrible suffering of that pestilence emphasized the fragility of life and gave vent to the worst of the passions. “Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.” (PW 2.53)
This episode demonstrates the two kinds of motion in Thucydides: 1) the motion of natural forces and 2) the motion caused by human passions, both of which are matters of necessity or fortune rather than human planning.
Pericles’ vision of immortal glory is the greatest claim for the durability of human endeavor. But Thucydides contradicts this claim, implicitly, through the work as a whole. The story of human action is presented against a background of earthquakes, tidal waves, solar and lunar eclipses, droughts, floods, famines, and a volcanic eruption. Thucydides emphasizes the forces of nature to point out that not everything can be controlled. Nor are natural forces always spectacular: the silent workings of water and earth can undermine anything wrought by the hands of man.
The force of human passion is also prevalent in Thucydides. He describes the Corcyraean revolution as a great motion which spread until “the whole Hellenic world was convulsed” (PW 3.82). The sufferings were many and terrible: death raged in every shape and there was no limit to the violence. These possibilities are always present in human nature. Passions are kept quiet in peace because men are not confronted with imperious necessities. War lowers character to a level with circumstances, and often lends victory to simple brutality.
Thucydides suggests that every city will finally succumb to necessity, either from natural forces or from a failure to control and moderate the human passions. This is the tragic understanding in Thucydides: Man seeks rest from motion and change through his intelligence, but all of his constructions are subject to chance, necessity will overwhelm his islands of rest— one cannot promise immortal glory. Thucydides views the existence of man through a veil of sadness. His readers feel that universal melancholy because he has drawn it forth from the particulars of history.

Eunapius: Historian, Teacher and Fearless Pagan

by May 4, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There are many remarkable figures in the history of Greece. Too often, the focus is on the Golden Ages of Greece and Rome. However, even in Late Antiquity when the Graeco-Roman world was in decline, there were many significant figures—Eunapius among them. This famous Greek sophist, historian, and a dogged foe of Christianity is very representative of Late Antiquity thought and culture, particularly in regards to Classical ideas and values. 
The Life of Eunapius
Despite being a man of letters, Eunapius left no record of his life. It appears that he was born in 347 AD in the Greek city of Sardis, which is in modern-day Turkey. At the time, Sardis was a rich and cultured city. It is likely that Eunapius, who studied with a famous in-law by the name of Chrysanthius, came from an affluent family. 
Temple of Artemis at Sardis
Chrysanthius was a famous sophist and a high priest highly esteemed by, among others, Emperor Julian the Apostate and even Christians. Undoubtedly a brilliant student, Eunapius eventually went to Athens for further education, where he studied under the renowned Christian Armenian sophist Prohaeresius. It appears that Eunapius greatly esteemed his teacher. In Athens, the young man from Sardis studied rhetoric, philosophy, and medicine.  
Despite the fact that his teacher and mentor was a dedicated Christian, Eunapius remained a pagan. At the time, the Roman Empire was becoming increasingly Christian. Eunapius became initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a cult that was dedicated to Demeter.  It is recorded that he was initiated into the mysteries by its last high priest. It seems that Eunapius was still living during the reign of Theodosius II (408-450 AD), the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. 
The Works of Eunapius
Eunapius was famous in his own time and beyond for his work The Lives of the Sophists. This  was a collection of the biographies of leading sophists and philosophers of the 4th century AD, including Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus and Eunapius’ teachers Chrysanthius and Prohaeresius. In total, Eunapius recorded the lives of twenty-three philosophers and teachers and discussed their ideas.
Eunapius’ work shows the dynamism and richness of intellectual life during Late Antiquity. It is also the only source for many leading Neoplatonist thinkers’ lives and schools of thought. Neoplatonism was a reinterpretation of Plato and is often considered rather mystical
The School of Plato, by Jean Delville, 1898
Eunapius was also a historian, continuing the work of the famous author and general Dexippus (3rd century AD). Sadly, this work is mostly lost, but it was an important source for later historians. Eunapius’ work was never popular and did not have a wide readership, partly because he was a poor stylist. Nevertheless, he was influential among professional rhetoricians and philosophers. Today many scholars see him as an important source on the Late Roman Empire as it was transitioning to the Byzantine Empire. 
Eunapius and the Pagans
What is most remarkable about Eunapius was his paganism. At the time, pagans were under attack and even persecuted. Thus it was rather daring of Eunapius to openly defy the Christian Church and criticize its followers in his works. Even more so as Eunapius was probably writing after Theodosius I had made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in 380 AD. 
Theodosius I Repulsed from the Church by Saint Ambrose, by Allesandro Magnasco. Source: Kent Baldner/ CC BY NC SA 2.0
In fact, the Lives of the Sophists could be seen as an attempt to promote Neo-Platonism as an alternative to Christianity in the spirit of Emperor Julian the Apostate in his failed attempt to revive Classical religion. Eunapius demonstrates that Classical beliefs were still held by some, even though the Roman empire was officially Christian.  A class of conservative aristocrats and pagan intellectuals continued to preserve the traditions of the old world. Indeed, they kept the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates alive until the 6th century AD, when Justinian the Great closed the Academy in Athens.
Eunapius’ works were censored after his death and passages that criticized Christ excised. Given the increasing intolerance of Christians at the time, it is fortunate that his works were not burned.
Eunapius and his works show us that the Classical world during Late Antiquity was not an intellectual wasteland. Rather, it was a dynamic and vigorous time. Eunapius was not a great writer or thinker, but he was an important historian. His life and writings show us how paganism and Classical values survived in a Christianized Graeco-Roman world. 
Wright, Wilmer Cave France (1922) Philostratus and Eunapius: the lives of the Sophists.  London: Heinemann

How Well Do You Listen? Plutarch and His Letter on Listening

by December 4, 2020

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Plutarch (AD46 – after AD 119) was a Platonic philosopher, essayist, biographer, magistrate, and a priest at the Temple of Apollo later in his life.

Plutarch was known for his involvement in all matters of society, taking on even the humblest of tasks. However, he is best remembered today for Parallel Lives, a series of biographies that followed prestigious Greeks and Romans, and Moralia a collection of essays, letters, and speeches that summarized his life’s work, beliefs, and teachings.

Moralia translated as ‘’Morals’’ or ‘’Matters concerning customs and mores’’ and consists of 78 essays and speeches. From questioning fate to the nature of music, Moralia sheds light on ancient Greek life and offers some of the deepest and most timeless wisdom.

Plutarch etching by Edward Gooch, source: Hulton Archive

Plutarch’s letter on listening was first delivered as a formal lecture and was later converted into a letter to his young friend Nicander, who was about to embark on the study of Philosophy.

While the letter is written to a youth about to enter a period of intense study, it contains lessons from which we could all benefit.

Plutarch’s descriptions of different kinds of listeners are as relevant today as they were then. The lazy listener, the scornful listener, those who listen with excitement, and the over-confident listener are just a handful of listening types he discusses.

Plutarch’s Listeners

Listening to Lectures (De auditu), in Plutarch, Moralia, Vol. I, Loeb Classical Library No. 197 (1927)

The Selective Listener

Plutarch describes the selective listener as someone who is very good at listening – to what they want to hear.

This refers to the tendency to be most interested in hearing about topics that we find exciting and interesting, and how much easier it is to listen to long speeches from great orators or those we admire.

While most of us are guilty of this – no doubt there is great pleasure in listening to topics that one most enjoys – Plutarch warns that only listening to advice and opinions that are pleasing to the ear may mean we miss other important or useful information. Much good can be hidden away in ‘boring’ lectures or speeches from those we deem less interesting or desirable.

The Disapproving Listener

Most people will have listened to opinions that conflict with our values and meet with our disapproval. While there’s nothing wrong with disagreement, Plutarch encourages us to always keep an open mind. Most importantly, he urges us to listen to the speaker in their entirety first, without judgment.

Judgment or disapproval, Plutarch argues, is in itself a distraction of the mind. Those who attend speeches already in a state of disapproval are distracted, often comparing their own intelligence with that of the speaker, and/or observing others in the audience for signs of admiration and approval. In the process, much information is missed and the listener comes away less informed.

Disapproving listeners are at risk of distorting the information conveyed, rendering the whole experience useless.

Plutarch points out that when we have already decided we are against something, we’re likely to recall only what we consider to be the negative points. Great learning, he says, arises when we ponder and reflect on opinions that are opposite to our own.

The Over-Confident Listener

“In praising a speaker, we must be generous, but in believing his words cautious” – Plutarch

“Don’t believe everything you hear” is an adage as old as time. There are certain speakers we confide in due to their achievements, status or because they have previously given honest and useful advice. In that situation it becomes easier just to believe what you hear without a second thought and leave critical thinking at the door.

Plutarch advises us that no matter how much we admire the speaker, or how dazzling and entertaining the performance is, we must be a ‘heartless critic’ when evaluating the quality of the information we are receiving.

Plutarch did not believe that any speaker should be met with hostility, but warns us to be careful not to be swept away by the current. Just because someone may have useful information the first time, does not automatically qualify them to give good advice the second time. All information should be approached with a clear and critical mind, no matter who says it.

Aristotle teaches young Alexander by Charles Laplante (1837–1903)

Listening as a Collaborative Process

One of the core lessons from Plutarch’s essay on listening is that the learning process does not solely rely on the speaker or educator. He continuously reminds us that responsibility also rests on the shoulders of the listener. Learning and informing requires the active participation of both parties.

Thus the listener would do well to reflect on the quality of their listening, be mindful of personal flaws, approach all information with caution, and not be afraid to ask questions.

Quality listening does not mean that the listener must be quiet, Plutarch adds. Questions are an important part of the listening process and should always be welcome, so long as they are related to the topic.

Plutarch believed that the major obstacle in learning from others is one’s own shortcomings and insecurities. To remedy this, proper behavior in all educational settings must be observed so that the information can be adequately understood and assessed without the interference of personal preferences.

Whether we tend to drift off during boring lectures or immediately dismiss speakers we dislike, as listeners we are active participants in the cultivation of ideas. Identifying barriers to our listening and learning, especially those we impose upon ourselves, is a crucial part of personal development and self-improvement.







Xenophon: A Biography of the Historian, Poet and Military Strategist

by December 15, 2018

By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Xenophon’s Early life

Not much is known of Xenophon from his early years, except that he was son of Gryllus, a wealthy citizen of Erchia, a suburb of Athens. He was born circa 430 BC, and not much is known of his life up to 401 BC. This is when he was, according to his work Anabasis, invited by his friend Proxenus to join the military expedition…one that marked his life and lifetime work. He became a mercenary for Cyrus the Younger against his elder brother, King Artaxerxes II of Persia.

There was, however, one small problem. He was not aware of that fact.

Statue of Xenophon

Xenophon in front of the Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna

Xenophon’s Career

Xenophon and his Ten Thousand men

This endeavor was hugely influential for both Xenophon, as well as military leaders throughout history. In the end, it provided important lessons on military logistical operations, flanking maneuvers, feints, attacks in specifics and retreat, in general.

Why retreat, you ask? Well, mostly because that’s exactly what the Greeks did. They were expecting a much easier obstacle, a Persian satrap named Tissaphernes (do not forget this name, we will come back to him later). Instead, they faced a great Persian army. Moreover, soon into the expedition the main financial and logistical provider, Cyrus, was killed in the middle of a battle. The chain of events got even worse when shortly thereafter, Greek leaders, generals, and captains were invited to a peace conference… where they were betrayed and executed.

So, the Greek army was left with a simple plan. One, retreat. Two, have Xenophon lead the way back home.

Map of Xenophon's retreat

The Route of Xenophon’s Ten Thousand Men

Anabasis, one of Xenophon’s greatest works, is where you can read in detail his struggles and strategies. This epic adventure is the reason why “the centuries since have devised nothing to surpass the genius of this warrior”, as quotes military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge. We, however, will cut the story short here and say that he got his men safely back home.

Tissaphernes – a name we told you not to forget

Tissaphernes was a Persian satrap and a historical knot that entangles many individual destinies as well as the regions Persia, Athens, and Sparta, among others.

First, he got in between two brothers – Persian King Artaxerxes II and his younger sibling Cyrus the Younger (a price he will pay with his life to their mother Parysatis). After first betraying Cyrus, and later killing him at the Battle of Cunaxa, Tissaphernes pursued Xenophon and his Ten Thousand men in retreat with a vast force. We already said that Xenophon brought his men home, but Tissaphernes became an enemy of both Sparta and Athens because of all the events mentioned above.

Now, it’s important to remember at this moment that Athens and Sparta were not particularly friendly to each other… indeed, they were sworn enemies. Despite this, Xenophon of Athens (as he was called) did not hide his profound admiration for Sparta and Spartan leaders (Agesilaus II and Lysander, in particular).

Coin of Tissaphernes

Coinage of Phokaia, Ionia, circa 478-387 BC. Possible portrait of Satrap Tissaphernes, with satrapal headress.

But Tissaphernes was the main reason why Xenophon came to respect the military wisdom of the Spartans. While he was seeking refuge from Tissaphernes, he noticed the respect Spartan leaders had for one another while successfully fighting the Persian satrap in Asia Minor.

So much, in fact, that he mentioned them extensively in his works Anabasis, Agesilaus, Polity of the Lacedaemonians, and Hellenica.

Excerpt from Agesilaus, Xenophon:

«It would be hard to discover, I imagine, anyone who in the prime of manhood was as formidable to his foes as Agesilaus when he had reached the limit of mortal life. Never, I suppose, was there a foe-man whose removal came with a greater sense of relief to the enemy than that of Agesilaus, though a veteran when he died. Never was there a leader who inspired stouter courage in the hearts of fellow-combatants than this man with one foot planted in the grave. Never was a young man snatched from a circle of loving friends with tenderer regret than this old graybeard.»

illustration of Xenophon's friend

Spartan King Agesilaus

Excerpt from Hellenica, Xenophon shows the relationship between the Spartan Rulers, in particular the king Lysander and king Agesilaus:

“But here was Lysander back again. Everyone recognized him and flocked to him with petitions for one favour or another, which he was to obtain for them from Agesilaus. A crowd of suitors danced attendance on his heels and formed so conspicuous a retinue that Agesilaus, anyone would have supposed, was the private person and Lysander the king.

«All this was maddening to Agesilaus, as was presently plain. As to the rest of the Thirty, jealousy did not suffer them to keep silence, and they put it plainly to Agesilaus that the super-regal splendor in which Lysander lived was a violation of the constitution.

«So when Lysander took upon himself to introduce some of his petitioners to Agesilaus, the latter turned them a deaf ear. There being aided and abetted by Lysander was sufficient; he sent them away discomfited.

«At length, as time after time things turned out contrary to his wishes, Lysander himself perceived the position of affairs. He now no longer suffered that crowd to follow him and gave those who asked him help in anything plainly to understand that they would gain nothing, but rather be losers, by his intervention.

«But being bitterly annoyed at the degradation put upon him, he came to the king and said to him: “Ah, Agesilaus, how well you know the art of humbling your friends!” “Ay, indeed,” the king replied: “Those of them whose one idea it is to appear greater than myself. If I did not know how also to requite with honour those who work for my good, I should be ashamed.”

«And Lysander said: “Maybe there is more reason in your doings than ever guided my conduct” adding, “Grant me for the rest one favour, so shall I cease to blush at the loss of my influence with you, and you will cease to be embarrassed by my presence. Send me off on a mission somewhere; wherever I am I will strive to be of service to you.”

Illustration of Lysander

The multitude saluting Lysander with loud acclamations.

Apostle of Socrates

From Xenophon’s excerpts on Sparta, as well as from other historical facts, we must understand two things before we can go to one of the most important roles Xenophon played in the history of humankind.

One, Athens was on its decline and the trial of Socrates only illustrated how Athens represented, or rather failed to represent, a pedestal of democracy. Sparta, on the other side, as Xenophon underlines “even though among the most thinly populated of states, was evidently the most powerful and most celebrated city in Greece. And I fell to wondering how this could have happened. But when I considered the institutions of the Spartans, I wondered no longer.”

The Death of Socrates

Second, Sparta was admired as a whole, envied because of its unity. Athens, however, produced magnificent individuals, who were free to question, write, and influence one another, even if it meant an inevitable fall in the end, as Socrates clearly demonstrates.

Thus, it is very important to appreciate this polarity both in general and with regards to Xenophon specifically. Xenophon had the opportunity to perceive both sides and thus produce works that reflect a wider, more honest, spectrum of Ancient Greece.


Thalatta! Thalatta! (The Sea! The Sea!) — painting by Bernard Granville Baker, 1901 – A famous scene from Xenophon’s works

Xenophon’s admiration for Sparta was only equalled by his love for his mentor, the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought, Socrates.

Memorabilia, Apology, Oeconomicus, and Symposium were all Xenophon’s gospels to Socrates. He admired his teacher very much (along with fellow protege Plato). So much so that some conjecture that Socrates would not have been sentenced to death if Xenophon had been in Athens instead of on a military expedition in Persia.

Per Diogenes Laërtius, a biographer of the Greek philosophers:

“They say that Socrates met Xenophon in a narrow lane, and put his stick across it and prevented him from passing by, asking him where all kinds of necessary things were sold. And when he had answered him, he asked him again where men were made good and virtuous. And as he did not know, he said, ‘Follow me, then, and learn.’ And from this time forth, Xenophon became a follower of Socrates.”

Socrates Illustration

Drawing of Socrates

Xenophon’s Works

Xenophon was greatly prolific. Of the 14 works we know of, they can be broadly categorized into three categories. His ‘Historical and biographical’ works include: Anabasis, Cyropaedia, Hellenica, Agesilaus, and Constitution of the Lacedaemonians.

Next are his ‘Socratic’ works, which are: Memorabilia, Apology, Oeconomicus, and Symposium. Finally his ‘other’ works are: Hiero, On Horsemanship, Hipparchikos, Hunting with Dogs, and Ways and Means.

Xenophon’s Death

There is no firm record on how Xenophon spent his last days. There is one version of him being exiled (or self-exiled) from Athens to Scillus and later in Corinth. It is estimated that he died circa 354 BC.

It is recorded that he had two sons, Gryllus and Diodorus, who fought at the Battle of Mantinea as members of the Athenian army.

Bust of Xenophon

Xenophon, Aphrodisias Museum

Xenophon’s Achievements and Legacy

Aside from what we have previously mentioned, it is important to emphasize that Xenophon was a sort of practical philosopher. This is what made him a successful military strategist, leader, soldier, politician, poet, and historian.

His Anabasis was used as a field guide by none other than Alexander the Great during the early phases of his expedition into Persia. Moreover, Memorabilia had a huge and important impact on the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, in particular. Clearly Xenophon’s influence on mankind can not be overstated.

Thucydides Vs Herodotus: Which Historian Wins?

by July 23, 2018

By Ben Potter

The Ancient Greek Historians

Herodotus and Thucydides

There has been a great deal of focus on the differences between Herodotus and Thucydides. Both men have been granted the ‘father of history’ accolade, but chronologically Herodotus must be the winner of the distinction as Thucydides picks up where he leaves off.

For those in need of a quick recap, Herodotus was born circa 484 BC into a sophisticated family in the Persian-loyal city-state of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey). Having grown up with a privileged background, a good education and a window to the outside world, it should not be surprising that Herodotus became the traveller and chronicler he did.

Sculpture of Herodotus

Herodotus by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1806. Relief on the right of the left window, right part of the west façade of the Cour Carrée in the Louvre Palace, Paris.

Visits to Egypt, Greece, Tyre, Babylon and Italy are reported with enough veracity to suggest that they really occurred – e.g. he considered Egypt an ‘opposite land’ as the Nile flooded in the summer. It was these journeys that he chronicled into his magnum opus, The Histories.

The Histories was never fully taken on face value and never will be, but as more and more evidence builds up to vindicate Herodotus (e.g. he described Gelonus, a gigantic Scythian city which was only discovered in 1975) it becomes harder to dismiss him entirely as a fantasist, a defamer, or a fraud.

Meanwhile, Thucydides, was born in 460 BC in the center of the Ancient Greek world, Athens, but had considerable influence in Thrace due to owning gold mines. He is most famous for his History of the Peloponnesian War, which detailed the ongoings of the war between Athens and Sparta.

In the beginning he experienced the epic conflict first hand as an Athenian General…until he lost a crucial battle and was greatly disgraced. This action led to his exile, a surprising benefit and important step to becoming the outsider recorder of events.

Bust of Thucydides

This is the plaster cast bust currently in exposition of Zurab Tsereteli’s gallery in Moscow (part of Russian Academy of Arts), formerly from the collection of castings of Pushkin museum made in early 1900-1910s.
Original bust is a Roman copy (c. 100 CE) of an early 4th Century BCE Greek original, and is located in Holkham Hall in Norfolk, UK.

With essential historical data conveyed, we can return back to our comparison and contrast of the two historians. The differences between Herodotus and Thucydides are in style, interpretation and purpose.

Herodotus passes no judgement, but reports what he has heard, even when plainly ridiculous. Also, he is more holistic; concerned with nature, culture, speech, art, with the cornucopia of the human condition. Thucydides is reporting on war, and war alone.

Scene from the History of the Peloponnesian War

Pericles’ Funeral Oration was a famous part in “The History of the Peloponnesian War”.
Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz (1852)

Another key difference is that Herodotus’ chronicles show what moral lessons can be learnt. Thucydides isn’t concerned with morality, but pragmatism. He thinks men’s mistakes come in the deed, not the thought.

It is for this devotion to the pragmatic that Thucydides, together with Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, is considered the father of political realism – in other words, the need for a nation to be militarily and economically powerful rather than good, just or ethical.

This legacy flourishes right up to the modern day; Thucydides’ text is still standard issue at the U.S. Naval College in Newport.

In truth it is not really fair to compare Herodotus to Thucydides. Herodotus is a strange amalgam of Homer, Polybius and Pliny the Elder. He isn’t an historian, but an holistic compiler, almost an encyclopedia writer. Actually we’ve made an historiographical soap-opera out of a rivalry that doesn’t really exist.

But, supposed rivalry aside, it would be unfair and churlish to dwell on the limitations or bias of such a great and innovative source as Thucydides. This is a period of history which included such great writers as Plato, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes – none are more enlightening on the politics of the times than our exiled historian.