Xenophon as a Chronicler and Commentator on Sparta

Xenophon was a fourth century Athenian exile who lived in the Peloponnese for some two decades, which means that he was in close proximity to Sparta as a contemporary source. He fought with the Spartans in Persia, during the failed attempt of Cyrus to usurp the throne from Artaxerxes II. Xenophon fought against the Athenians under Agesilaus at the battle of Coronea in 394 BC; and this would result in his exile from Athens. Xenophon had his sons educated within the Spartan agoge system. Although an outsider, he was highly sympathetic to the Spartan way of life and also idealised the Lycurgic reforms of the Lacedaemonians. His relationship to his patron Agesilaus, the Eurypontid Spartan king, meant that he offered an insider’s view of this period of Spartan history. Xenophon did at the conclusion of his Constitution of the Lacedaemonians paint a somewhat negative view of contemporary Spartan society, indicating that they had not lived up to the ideals of Lycurgus and had become more interested in controlling others, than in being worthy of being leaders. After the death of Agesilaus, Xenophon moved away to Corinth and his love affair with an idealised Sparta began to cool somewhat. His ideas in the Oeconomicus are not particularly aligned with the Spartan ideals.

Xenophon as a Chronicler and Commentator on Sparta

The strongest point in favour of Xenophon as a chronicler of Spartan history is his pro-Spartan bent, as one of a handful of sources on Sparta, almost all who are non-Spartan, in some way this balances out the more negative stances of Thucydides and Herodotus. He is also closer to the action on the Spartan side of things. Xenophon wrote a great deal about the Spartans in his Constitution of the Lacedaemonians and Agesilaus, but also in the Hellenica and even in Memorabilia and Oeconomicus; without his contribution as a chronicler we would be chronically short of information about Sparta.

Xenophon in his Agesilaus omits the details of Agesilaus’ struggle for the throne with Leotychidas. Distortion of the truth through omission of certain information or a lack of detail is prevalent in Xenophon’s books on Sparta.

Xenophon was most concerned with military leadership in nearly all of his books and so his focus is on this theme underpinned most everything he wrote about. Forrest and other modern scholars identified his ‘hero worship’ of the Spartan military machine. Xenophon through his early education with Socrates, and association with Plato, is enamoured of the ideal ‘politea’; his books rarely recount failures within the Spartan system; you would have to say that Xenophon is an optimistic chronicler of Spartan history.

Xenophon in his Constitution of the Lacedaemonians depicts the Spartan practice of assigning young boys to older men as non-sexual and platonic, whereas other sources like Plutarch indicate that these relationships were often erotic in nature. Xenophon is considered to be anti-male love himself and therefore denies its prevalence in Sparta. He is very aware of its prevalence in the Greek world at this time, but argues against its popularity in Sparta. He does raise the topic again in his Agesilaus and again praises the self-control of Agesilaus in resisting his desires for Megabates, the son of Spithridates. This is another example of his idealising the virtue of leadership through self-control of the human passions.

Xenophon in his highly idealistic accounting of the Spartan system fails to address issues like existing property ownership among wealthy Spartans, which Aristotle would target as a root cause through female hereditary land ownership of the serious decline in the Spartan population during the fourth century. Xenophon writes as if the reality of Sparta is always in concord with the reforms of Lycurgus.

When the Thebans, led by Epaminondas, defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 and then invaded Lacedaimonia in 369, Xenophon was almost silent about the achievements of this great Theban general; an example of his subjectivity. There is debate as to the chronological veracity of Xenophon’s account of the period 376 to 371 in his Hellenica; and scholars like Gray and Ehrhardt prefer Diodorus’ account of this period of Spartan history.

©Robert Hamilton