Hiero the Tyrant and other treatises
by Xenophon translated by Robin Waterfield, with introduction and notes by Paul Cartledge, Penguin Classics, 1997, price £7.99
reviewed by R. B. Bradshaw
In Xenophon's Hiero The Tyrant and Other Treatises (Penguin Classics) plenty of assistance is given to the translation for each piece, and notes are provided by Paul Cartledge. Besides there are three maps and a picture to show the points of a horse, textual notes and extensive bibliography.
We have a collection here of a dialogue, a biography, instruction manuals for cavalry-commanders, horsemen and hunters, and recommendations on the economy of Athens. If for no other reason, Xenophon should be admired for his versatility (assuming of course, they are his) in attempting so many different genres; so too those who played a part in putting these pieces together in our book.
The introduction and notes are packed with much fascinating information about so many different matters: we learn that horses in Ancient Greece were smaller than now, a contemporary of Xenophon wrote a cookery book and the moon was thought to be hot.
The translation by Robin Waterfield is free of archaisms and for the reader at this late moment of the millennium is comfortable. Agesilaus, the subject of a biography, was `labelled ... a devoted family man.' This is idiomatic. `Labelling' is truly a twentieth-century metaphor. One is amazed to consider that a king of Sparta was a `devoted family man.' In such ways characters from remote antiquity are paraded in the modern world.
As we are told in the main introduction, one of Xenophon's purposes is pedagogic. We may then ask what lessons he can give in our times. We have no city-states, the last cavalry charge was in 1939 and hunting's days are numbered. The few, however, who need advice on what to look for in a horse might find help in the excellent pamphlet on horsemanship (doubtfully by Xenophon).
Such an approach is utilitarian and may be philistine but for me to enquire what benefit it is to read a translation from a classical author does sort the sheep from the goats.
The dialogue in which Simonides and Hiero discuss the pleasures available to a tyrant is lucid but not challenging. Those who have read the Socratic dialogues will recognise the form and the `elenchus' is still surely there, but whereas with Socrates we are admitted, for example, to a discussion on whether virtue can be taught, a matter of universal importance, and the talking takes us to the heights, with Xenophon we are confined to the foot-hills.
The king Agesilaus, the aforementioned `devoted family man' was a colourful figure, but Xenophon had personal favours to repay in praising him. It is good to have an annotator who is prepared to tell us on occasion that what Xenophon wrote is `balderdash'. Agesilaus would make a strange rôle-model now. What are we to think of a man whose main object was to attain virtue and who practised always due reverence to the gods?
Paul Cartledge admits that Xenophon has a negative rating, but discerns `glimmerings of new readings.' While he can not yet clearly spell out the qualities that might bring about a Xenophontic revival, he achieves his goal of supplying the bounteous information so that we can place the writer in his social milieu and see how conformable he was to his times.
In many ways the most interesting work here is the pamphlet `Ways and Means' in which Xenophon has suggestions for the benefit of the Athenian economy such as the need to develop the silver mines. It is also pacific in the sense that he believes he can show historically that Athens has always been better off in peace than in war. Our commentator calls the work an oddity in Xenophon's oeuvre but also in Greek literature as a whole. It is in this case the absence of moral preaching that brings that judgement.
We may indeed be grateful for a fluent translation and the numerous views afforded in these notes which stimulate us with the love of the pursuit, in much the same way that the Greek author himself once indulged among the Peloponnesian thickets in the sport of hunting hares.