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on 27 June 2017
“History of our times” (or “Hellenica”) by Xenophon tells the story of the war in Greece between 411 to 362 BC. A less well-known period in Classical Greece, it can be summarised as the decline and fall of the Greek system of city states. Or alternatively, as the prelude to the rise of the Macedonians under Phillips II and his son Alexander the Great. The known world would never be the same again. Participant of and eye-witness to many of the important moments in this chaotic and violent period, “Hellenica” is a mix between history, and Xenophon’s memoirs, political views and moral convictions.

Rather than repeat what has already been written in some of the excellent reviews here I will simply say that I found the “History of our times” enjoyable but hard going at times. Besides some great stories and keen observations, the endless list of names of people, battles and places requires perseverance. This is not helped by the poor maps at the back of the book. I therefore recommend to read the story in short bursts in combination with additional background reading.

All in all, as a major primary source of an important period, and with an excellent introduction by George Cawkwell, I can recommend Xenophon’s “History of our times” to anyone interested in Classical Greece.
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on 31 January 2014
Xenophon's Hellenica or History of My Times picks up where Thucydides stopped, which is a few years before the Peloponnesian War ended. This then, has key episodes such as the admirals' trial, where Socrates resisted the popular urge for a death sentence without due process, and the siege of Athens. Covering the period from 411 to 362BC, though, Xenophon's history goes well beyond the defeat of Athens, covering the period of Lacedaemonian hegemony and its eventual dismantlement at the hand of the Thebans. Like Thucydides, this consists mostly of military narrative, though that is interspersed with political and diplomatic analysis, less successfully in the case of Xenophon than Thucydides. Some of the Hellenica is filled in, or even contradicted by the much later history of Diodorus of Sicily, but Xenophon remains the main narrative source, and the only extant contemporary source, for this key period in classical Greek history. Xenophon indeed lived through many of the events related, or was in position to speak to people who did. Finally, though he was an Athenian by birth, he spent so much time among the Spartans and was so partial to their cause that he can almost be considered a Spartan author, filling a major informational gap on that paramount ancient Greek city state.

The introduction by the Oxford scholar George Cawkwell provides an excellent account of the rise and fall of Xenophon's reputation among modern historians. It is essential preliminary reading, warning of the various lacks and silences that unfortunately plague the Hellenica. Cawkwell's notes to the text, though, tend to become annoying after a while as, harping on they do on the same message, they become almost sneering. Cawkwell's view is that Xenophon was a memoirist, not a historian. Fine, but before the age of print, the difference was always going to be slim. And historians such as Diodorus, who wrote based on earlier manuscripts, were exposed to their own risks of error and textual corruption. And the master himself, Thucydides, was writing from oral reports, though he was more careful in compiling and marshalling his information. Cawkwell's introduction is interesting and useful, but let it not spoil your enjoyment of the Hellenica.
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Xenophon wrote this book to complete the story which Thucydides began with "The History of the Peloponnesian war". In the introduction to this volume, George Cawkill argues persuasively that Xenophon was not in the same class as Thucydides as a historian. However, he is certainly a good storyteller, and the events which he describe are absolutely gripping.

The Peloponnesian war began as the struggle between two of the greatest cities of the ancient Greek civilisation - Athens and Sparta. After both cities had been weakened by costly victories and even more costly defeats, they were both attacked by Sparta's former ally, Thebes. Eventually this series of wars, one of the most catastrophic of ancient times, devastated much of Greece. All the participants suffered greatly, weakening themselves sufficiently that they were to fall first to Alexander the Great, and after his death to Rome.

Thucydides' history of the first 21 years of this war was one of the very earliest and most brilliant pieces of true historical writing.

However, Thucydides' account ends suddenly in the middle of a sentence while describing the events of 411 BC. Many years later, Xenophon set out to finish the story, actually beginning with the words "Some days later ..."

Xenophon was born in Athens and was a student of Socrates in his youth. He then served as a soldier, first for Athens, then as a mercenary in one of the most extraordinary adventures in history. He was one of "The Ten Thousand" Greeks who joined an attempt by Prince Cyrus to overthrow his brother the Persian emperor. When Cyrus was killed in battle the Greek mercenaries who had supported him had to march many miles through enemy territory to safety. By the end of their trek Xenophon was in command of the remaining survivors. He wrote the story of this ill-fated expedition in a separate book called the Anabasis (Published by Penguin Classics under the title "The Persian Expedition" and sometimes referred to as "The Ten Thousand".)

Xenophon was exiled after the failure of Cyrus's rebellion and spent the latter part of his life in Sparta and Corinth. He had witnessed a serious of political upheavals in Athens, usually marked by the judicial murder of those on the losing side, and Xenophon also saw his mentor Socrates meet the same fate. This made him very cynical about democracy.

(Although the expression "judicial murder" is a modern concept I use it quite deliberately to make the point that Xenophon regarded these executions as unjust for many of same reasons that we would.)

He participated in many of the events of the latter stages of the Peloponnesian wars, and many of his statements are either from personal knowledge or from having spoken to eye-witnesses.

Xenophon's account of those wars is now regarded by historians as overly influenced by his own experiences and views, and not entirely reliable. Nevertheless, it is gripping and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand these pivotal historical events. If you've read Thucydides and want to know what happened next, you have to read Xenophon.

The translation by Rex Warner is clear and easy to follow.

Anyone who is under the impression that democracies cannot be tyrannical, or that free elections will produce a free and fair society without the rule of law, should familiarise themselves with the terrible events of the Peloponnesian war by reading both Thucydides and Xenophon.
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This is by all means a heavily underrated book.

Xenophon lays bare the essential characteristics of his (and our) time and its crucial kernel, independence.

Inside the Greek cities, independence meant democracy, which was the political regime in Athens. The latter's arch-rival, Sparta, had an oligarchic rule, a government controlled by a king and the aristocracy.

When Sparta defeated Athens, it put immediately a lackey oligarchic government (the Thirty) in place. The oligarchs could `do exactly what they liked with the state.' They went on a killing spree, murdering all democratic opponents, in casu, `more Athenians than all the Peloponnesians did in ten years of war.' They confiscated illegally the property of resident aliens and when people could vote, it was in full view.

Xenophon knows perfectly the importance of education: `For I know that in Persia everybody except one man is educated to be a slave rather than stand up for himself.'

Inside the Peloponnesus, independence meant freedom for every city: `the cities must be independent, which means not to set up your own government ... what you aim at is not that they should govern in accordance with the laws, but that they should be strong enough to hold down the city by force. This makes it look like as though what gives you pleasure is dictatorship and not constitutional government.'

The Greek cities fought against each other to become `like the king of Persia ... the richest man on earth ... he gets his revenue from a continent.' The reward for control was solid tribute, but also the goldmines of Mount Pangaeum.

This continuous infighting and the relentless changes of alliances were a catastrophe for the populations. The inhabitants of the conquered cities were enslaved and sold or slaughtered, the crops and towns burned, cattle and precious metals stolen. The city was completely annihilated.

The war ended with the peace of Antalcidas in 387 B.C. on very favorable terms for Sparta.

Xenophon's book could also serve as a manual for vicious (bribery, infiltration, spying, informants) or clever diplomacy: `guard against the emergence of any single strong Greek state by seeing that they were all kept weak by constantly fighting among themselves.'

It is also an encyclopedia for military tactics: where, when and how to fight and how to keep the morale of the troops high.

He is also a fine psychologist: `people call a man `good' merely because he has been good to them.'

To the contrary of his joke, `even the golden plane tree was not big enough to give shade to a grasshopper', Xenophon's book puts many authors in the shadow.

A must read for all historians and lovers of classical literature.
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on 19 November 2014
The very best short history of the early Classical period!
Written by a man who was active participant; translated by Rex Warner - the most sympathetic and resonant critic of the period!
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on 11 March 2014
Kindle version very poor. Layout is poor and text has too many typographical errors. Became awkward to read. Could have been much better.
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