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Xenophon’s Flute Girls

In response to:

A Four Handkerchief Tragedy from the February 9, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

I wish to thank you for Bernard Knox’s excellent review of W.S. Merwin’s and my translation of Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis (NYR, February 9). In almost everything he said about my share in the task Professor Knox was only too kind. Nevertheless, I feel I should protest mildly against his imputing to me an error in translating Xenophon since such an error tends to cast doubt on Merwin’s and my whole effort.

Xenophon’s flute girls, Professor Knox says, did not express the sentiments of the Athenians as a whole, but only of the pro-Spartan minority; the sentence runs that way. Perhaps so; but the paragraph as a whole runs my way, as I think a (reasonably accurate) translation of its concluding sentences will show:

These were the terms which Theramenes and his fellow envoys brought back to Athens. As they entered the city a great multitude crowded about them, afraid that the embassy had failed, for it was impossible to delay any longer with so many dying of hunger. On the next day Theramenes, as spokesman for the envoys, reported the conditions on which the Lacedaemonians were willing to make peace, adding that the Athenians should comply with the terms and dismantle their walls. Some few opposed him but many more approved, and it was voted to accept the peace. Whereupon Lysander sailed into the Peiraeus, the exiles returned, and they pulled down their walls to the music of flute girls and with great enthusiasm, believing that day was the beginning of freedom for Greece.

Surely it was not just the exiles who so eagerly tore down the walls?

George E. Dimock, Jr.

Smith College

Northampton, Massachusetts

Bernard Knox replies:

I did not of course intend to cast doubt on Professor Dimock’s competence as a Greek scholar. What is at issue here is a point of interpretation: since the original specifies no subject for the verb translated “pull down,” it has to be supplied by the reader. My contention was (and still is) that the run of the sentence militates against a change of subject for this verb and that the enthusiasm displayed for the demolition of the walls was therefore that of the Spartan commander Lysander, his troops and the returning Athenian exiles. As for “the paragraph as a whole” (which, incidentally, has no Greek equivalent of the possessive adjective in Dimock’s “their walls”), that has to be considered in its wider context.

After the destruction of the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami in 405, the Athenians, Xenophon tells us, were in despair—besieged by land and sea and terrified that they would be subjected to the massacre and enslavement they had themselves inflicted on smaller cities. So they held out, “although many died of hunger in the city…. But when the grain supplies ran out…” they sent an embassy to Sparta, offering to surrender on one condition—that they be allowed to keep the walls without which they would be permanently at the mercy of Sparta’s superior land forces. The embassy was refused a hearing; the Athenians now suspected the Sparta intended to annihilate their city (as indeed Sparta’s principal allies advised) but, says Xenophon, “no one was willing to propose a motion about the demolition of the walls. For Archestratus, who proposed in the Council [a smaller deliberative body which prepared the business for the full Assembly] that the best thing was to make peace on the Spartan terms, was imprisoned. And a decree was passed which prohibited any discussion of the subject.” At this point Theramenes, one of the organizers of the anti-democratic coup of 411, offered to go to Sparta (where his political background would win him a sympathetic audience) and sound out their real intentions. So commissioned, he went to the headquarters of Lysander, the Spartan admiral in charge of the blockade, “and procrastinated there three months and more, waiting for the moment when the Athenians, at the end of their supplies, would be willing to accept any terms that might be offered.” Eventually he returned with terms which included the destruction of the walls; this is where the paragraph translated by Dimock begins.

It had taken three extra months of starvation and the connivance of their own ambassador with the enemy (not to mention the execution of the democratic leader Cleophon by his political enemies on a trumped-up charge) to bring the Athenians to the point where they could accept the demand for the destruction of the walls. Does it seem likely that many of them shared the enthusiasm which Xenophon describes? It is worth noting, too, that exactly ten years later, in the summer of 394, as Persia threw its weight into the scale on the side of the Greek cities opposed to Sparta, the Athenians were busily engaged in rebuilding those walls which had been demolished “to the music of flute-girls.”

I would like to take this opportunity to correct a passage in my review where strict accuracy suffered in the process of compression and simplification—the statement that though Persian subsidies were channeled mainly to Sparta, “on one occasion Athens too had been the beneficiary.” Though it is true that the promise and prospect of Persian support enabled the ologarchs to undermine and temporarily overthrow the democratic regime in 411 (and to this extent Athens was “dancing to the Persian tune”), no such financial aid ever, in fact, arrived.

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