Bibliotheca Alexandrina

A bust of Xenophon; from The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika

In 396 BCE the Spartan king Agesilaus had planned an expedition to liberate the Greeks of Asia Minor from the tyranny of Persian satraps, and he had transported his forces to the island of Euboea, intending to launch an invasion from its southeast coast. But not far away on the Greek mainland lay Aulis, where the king badly wanted to sacrifice a deer to the goddess Artemis in order to win favoring winds for crossing the Aegean. This was a publicity stunt that every Greek would have immediately understood, for here Agamemnon had departed for the war against Troy over 850 years before. Agamemnon had famously sacrificed his own daughter Iphigeneia, even if tradition held that Artemis had snatched her from the altar in the nick of time.

Agesilaus clearly wanted to present himself as a second Agamemnon, although he declined to offer up his own son in imitation of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigeneia. But the Thebans, in whose territory Aulis was located, were not at all pleased to see their legendary site used for Spartan self-promotion. So they broke up the sacrifice ceremony and forced the Spartan king to depart without his homage to Agamemnon.

Agesilaus’ plan shows how deeply the Trojan War was embedded in the collective memory of the Greeks. Homer’s Iliad, which takes its name from Ilion, the Greek name for Troy, was, along with the Odyssey, the secular scripture of Hellenism. Although it described only part of the tenth and final year of the conflict, its power depended upon the background of a futile war that seemed never to end.

In her new book, The War That Killed Achilles, Caroline Alexander recalls not only the brutal conflicts of that last, fateful year but also the events before and after it. Poets whose works are now lost had told the stories that were presupposed in the Iliad, and all of this was well known to the Greeks who watched tragedies on stage or used the elegantly painted red-and-black-figured pottery that is now the pride of museum curators and private collectors. When Aeschylus wrote his Agamemnon, he knowingly challenged his audience by making the chorus lament that Iphigeneia really had been murdered at Aulis, whereas Euripides would subsequently create two moving plays with different stories of her deliverance. The myths were both fundamental and fluid.

Even so austere a historian as Thucydides felt obliged to mention Troy at the start of his history of the internecine war that tore Greece apart in the fifth century BCE. Although he considered the Peloponnesian War the greatest upheaval (kinesis) of recorded history, he knew that the backdrop for all Greek warfare was the ten-year siege at Troy. Xenophon, an Athenian who continued the history that Thucydides left unfinished when he died, was no less conscious of the allure and prestige of the Trojan story. He had actually fought with Agesilaus on the Spartan side and greatly admired him. He knew what the king was trying to do at Aulis and took care to record the episode in his continuation of Thucydides. His history has now been published in a new translation, with lavish documentation, as TheLandmark Xenophon’s Hellenika.

The Theban assault on Agesilaus’ grandiose embarkation from Aulis instilled in him a lasting hatred of the Thebans, which could on occasion cloud his judgment and impair his leadership. It partially explains the Spartan defeat at the hands of the Thebans at Leuctra in 371. The interruption of the sacrifice was so embarrassing that when Xenophon wrote a eulogy of Agesilaus after his death he had to omit it. Agesilaus had failed to be a new Agamemnon.

The Trojan heroes held the Greeks in such thrall that under the Roman Empire there was a lively industry in literary forgeries that claimed to have been written before Homer and furnished non-Greek perspectives— Phrygian, Phoenician—on the Trojan War. This was the only way to escape from the tenacious grip of the Iliad and related poems about Troy. But not surprisingly Homer prevailed and still does.

In a book that is far better than its title and subtitle would lead anyone to expect, Caroline Alexander tells the plot of the Iliad with interesting comments along the way. It seems odd to call the book The War That Killed Achilles, since Achilles is not actually killed in the Iliad (although his death is foretold in Book 22). Of course he did finally die in the war at the hands of Paris and through the agency of Apollo, but as this episode lies outside Alexander’s retelling of the Homeric narrative she has to introduce it incidentally. The subtitle, “The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War,” is puzzling, because there is no true story of the Iliad : we have only the story that is in the Iliad. The true story of the Trojan War is beyond knowing. But what Alexander does, and does very well, is summarize what is in the poem. She accomplishes this in a way that will engage a reader who may not be ready to take on all twenty-four books of the original, and will be illuminating for those who already know them.


Alexander has frequent recourse to quotations from the Iliad, which she has chosen to give in the translation by Richmond Lattimore. This she commends for its “plain diction but epic gravitas and tone.” There is much to be said for her choice. When the late Hugh Lloyd-Jones reviewed the excellent translation by Robert Fagles in The New York Review he found that overall the Lattimore version was still the best.1 In a tour de force, however, Alexander abandons Lattimore when she turns, in her ninth chapter, to the death of Hector, the leader of the Trojan armies who was killed by Achilles. This chapter consists entirely of her own translation of Book 22 of the Iliad, because “it seemed an impertinence to lift an entire chapter of another scholar’s work.” Her exposition of Hector’s death thereby becomes a virtuoso rendering of one of the most riveting books in Homer, and we can see from what she has done that a fine translation may well be the most elegant and revealing form of commentary. Not that Alexander is lacking any of the scholarly equipment she needs. Her endnotes are a repository of erudition that would not look out of place in a learned monograph addressed to her peers.

Her traversal of the Iliad begins, as it must, with Achilles’ attack upon the leadership of Agamemnon and the subsequent rift between the two men that caused the wrath that is the very first word (mênin) of the entire poem. Alexander stresses the futility of nine years of war against Troy without success on either side. The Iliad begins with a vivid demonstration of Agamemnon’s incompetence as a general and his arrogance as a person. Although a shadow team of gods and goddesses motivates the action, we are left in no doubt that Agamemnon mistreated Achilles by depriving him of his concubine Briseis.

The failure of the war up to this point, moreover, is proof enough of Agamemnon’s inability to lead. It is good to be reminded of this, because the radiance of Homeric legend later transformed Agamemnon into the kind of leader that Agesilaus would want to imitate at Aulis. The Roman poet Horace could even write that many brave men lived before Agamemnon (vixere fortes ante Agamemnona/multi), but according to Horace, we’ve never heard about them because they had no Homer to praise them. The reality is that Homer’s poem highlights the weakness, not the bravery, of Agamemnon.

Alexander’s selection of material in the Iliad for special comment is consistently judicious and arresting. She gives proper emphasis to the two extraordinary horses that Achilles’ father had presented to him before he went to Troy. Readers of Homer have always found these horses memorable. Even the modern poet Constantine Cavafy, who had little interest in Homer, was moved to write a poem about them. They shed tears when they witness the death of Achilles’ friend Patroclus, and later, when Achilles rebukes them for leaving Patroclus in the dust, one of them, Xanthus, suddenly acquires a voice to speak in their defense. This is a moment of magic realism that Alexander rightly calls “one of the most nakedly outlandish events of the epic.” Xanthos goes on to anticipate Achilles’ own death: “We shall keep you safe for this time, o hard Achilles./And yet the day of your death is near…”

It was the death of Patroclus that drove Achilles into a frenzy of slaughter. Although he had hitherto been deliberately sparing of the lives of others, as he says himself, the loss of his friend unhinged him. Alexander concisely describes the anguished Achilles, “slashing through the Trojan forces, his chariot axle-high in blood and his immortal team of horses trampling underfoot the dead.”2 Alexander briefly but tellingly compares the transformation of Achilles to combat trauma in modern warfare and cites a Vietnam veteran who recalled, “I just went crazy. I pulled him out into the paddy and carved him up with my knife…. I lost all my mercy…. I couldn’t do enough damage…. For every one that I killed I felt better.”3 Alexander does not press her modern parallels, but she has chosen them well.

As for Achilles’ death, signaled in the title of her book, this happens after the Iliad has come to a close when Paris shoots an arrow into his proverbial heel. Curiously, as Alexander knows, the explanation of this vulnerable spot on the hero’s body is unknown to the ancient record before the Roman Empire, when we first hear that Achilles’ mother Thetis dipped her baby into the River Styx to ensure his immortality. Unfortunately she held him by the heel and left him vulnerable there, rather like the single vulnerable spot on Siegfried’s back in the Nibelungenlied. What Achilles did before his death but after the close of the Iliad has many variants in the ancient tradition, but the most intriguing is his alleged infatuation with the Amazon Penthesilea. Although he was believed ultimately to have killed her, the German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist seized upon an ancient hint that he may have actually died by her hand. In his still shocking play, Penthesilea, the queen not only kills Achilles but joins her dogs in ravaging his dead body with her teeth.


Warfare was the fountainhead of Greek literature and culture, and it is therefore not surprising that the first three extant Greek histories from antiquity are all concerned with war. Herodotus described the great war between Persia and Greece in the early fifth century BCE, Thucydides took up the Peloponnesian War that pitted Athens and Sparta against each other in the aftermath of the victory over Persia, and Xenophon completed Thucydides’ work with an account of the last six years of the Peloponnesian War as well as the subsequent wars down to the defeat of the Theban hegemony at Mantinea in 362. More than a decade ago Robert Strassler conceived the idea of presenting the great classics of Greek historiography in new translations with ample annotation, excellent maps, and contributions from major scholars. He calls his volumes Landmark editions, and indeed they are. There is nothing like them. With the publication of the first Landmark volume, covering Thucydides, it was immediately apparent that for the first time a Greekless reader could study the text closely and critically, much as a professional classicist would. After Thucydides, Strassler produced the equally successful Landmark Herodotus.4 Now he has given us his Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika.


Vatican Museum

Achilles and Ajax playing a game; detail from an amphora by Exekias, circa 540 BCE

No one would put Xenophon in the same class as Thucydides or Herodotus, but the story he tells is essential for understanding the turbulent transitional half-century from the end of the Peloponnesian War to the rise of Macedon. The ancients esteemed Xenophon more highly than we do, not least for his limpid Greek style but also for his contributions to philosophy. His four Socratic treatises are the principal contemporary alternative to the image of Socrates that Plato conjured up in his dialogues. In the Greek history (Hellenika), however, there is no trace of Xenophon the philosopher. Socrates himself appears only once in the work, when he is named as objecting to the cries for vengeance against the generals responsible for the Athenian naval disaster at Arginousai in 406. There is not a word of the trial of Socrates in 399.

Xenophon’s own life in the years after the Peloponnesian War was nothing if not exciting. He signed on with the rebellious brother of the Persian king Artaxerxes to lead an army of Greek mercenaries across Asia Minor into Mesopotamia to overthrow the king in favor of his brother, but the expedition ended with a humiliating defeat in a battle at Cunaxa, not far from Baghdad. Xenophon found himself in charge of leading the demoralized Greek army westward to the Black Sea. He later wrote up the whole story in his Anabasis (The Journey to the Interior). Few moments in Greek history are more moving than when the Greeks in their long retreat finally reach the coast and cry out Thalatta, thalatta! (“The sea, the sea!”). It was after this that Xenophon joined Agesilaus and fought with the Spartan army in 394 against a coalition that included Athenians, his own people, at the Battle of Coronea. This was undoubtedly the cause of his exile from Athens for at least several decades. The grateful Spartans provided him with an estate in the vicinity of Olympia.

So turbulent a career may seem surprising in a writer of such mellifluous, even bland prose, but this may be why, as in the climactic event in the Anabasis, Xenophon can rise on occasion to uncommon eloquence. There is general agreement, although no certainty, that the first book and a half of the Hellenika, which complete Thucydides, were written early in Xenophon’s literary activity, perhaps not long after his exile from Athens. The memories seem fresh, even raw. In these pages Xenophon poignantly depicts the degradation of his native city. Ever since, the Western world has seen this humiliation through his eyes:

The Paralos [a sacred trireme] arrived at Athens during the night, bringing news of the disaster at Aigospotamoi, and a cry arose in the Peiraieus and ran up through the Long Walls and into the city itself as one man imparted the calamitous news to the next. As a result, no one slept that night as they mourned not only for the men destroyed but even more for themselves, thinking they would suffer the same catastrophes they had inflicted on others.

John Marincola’s translation, here as throughout, is very well done, although in this passage I would have preferred “wailing” (oimôgê) to “cry.”

The evocation of lamentation along the walls that linked the port of Peiraieus with Athens is balanced not many pages later when Xenophon reports the demolition of the walls as the Spartans and the returned exiles came on shore:

With great zeal they dismantled the walls, to the accompaniment of music provided by flute girls, and they believed that that day would be the beginning of freedom for all of Greece.

Xenophon would have been well aware that the humbling of Athens was not the beginning of freedom for Greece, but merely the beginning of the new cycle of warfare that he was later to chronicle in the rest of his Hellenika.

Xenophon’s description of the demolition of the walls between Peiraieus and Athens has long been emblematic of false hopes. It is worth reminding American readers that in the midst of the Civil War, in 1863, a great classical scholar, Basil Gildersleeve, wrote for the Richmond Examiner that ancient history could provide little comfort through historical parallels, despite the impression that sometimes “we seem to be reading contemporary history.” But, he observed, the plague of Athens had not yet reappeared, although the fourth plague of Egypt (flies) “has spread, with admirable impartiality, through both armies.” Then, with a startling allusion to Xenophon, he targeted the false optimism of his compatriots in Richmond:

The catastrophe is flattering to Southern enthusiasm; and as the walls of Athens were razed to the ground with the music of the flute, so the marble fronts of the Fifth avenue are to be levelled with the street with the notes of the banjo and the rattle of the bones.5

Strassler has assembled an outstanding team of contributors for his Xenophon volume, and the full introductory essay by David Thomas provides all necessary information in the avuncular tone of a benign schoolmaster. A series of learned appendices discuss coinage, chronology, Persians, triremes, and such sources as supplement the narrative of Xenophon with different perspectives. Excerpts are provided from the so-called Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, by an unknown contemporary of Xenophon whose work exists only on fragments of papyrus, and the much later history of Diodorus Siculus, which Thomas correctly and charmingly calls “a very different kettle of fish.” Paul Cartledge, the leading authority on Sparta, contributes valuable analyses of the Spartan material, particularly the career of Agesilaus, whom we know well through Xenophon’s encomium and a biography by Plutarch.

What we do not have in TheLandmark Xenophon’s Hellenika is a serious discussion of the omissions in Xenophon’s history. It would be ungrateful to ask for more, but every reader will want to know how someone who could write four treatises about Socrates, including detailed accounts of Socrates’ defense, chose not even to mention his trial. Thomas’s explanation is: “Xenophon had said what he had to say about Socrates elsewhere and saw no reason to repeat himself.” No doubt that the chapters that cover the year 399 were written much later in the historian’s life than those on the end of the Peloponnesian War, perhaps as late as the 350s. But if Socrates had become so important to Xenophon by that date, why would he not want to register the trial in its proper place in his Hellenika?

Xenophon’s Socrates, as a counterbalance to Plato’s, greatly interested the political theorist Leo Strauss, whose discussions of the Socratic writings, above all in Xenophon’s Socrates (1972), revived the esteem of the ancient and early modern world for Xenophon as a philosopher. It seems likely that Xenophon simply did not view history as a genre that encompassed philosophy, any more than Thucydides did. After all, it is clear from Aristophanes’ parody of Socrates in The Clouds that he was a notorious and provocative figure in Athens already in the 420s. Yet he figures nowhere in Thucydides’ account of those years, unlike other victims of Aristophanes’ wit such as Cleon and Pericles. Xenophon’s omission of Socrates probably reflects his Thucydidean model.

The vast range of talent displayed by Xenophon in historiography, philosophy, and encomium, to say nothing of his eventful life and attractive prose style, ensured the survival of all his works, a fate that many greater writers were denied. Under the Roman Empire the historian Arrian, the author of the Anabasis of Alexander the Great, was proclaimed a new Xenophon, and the philosophical orator Dio Chrysostom, who wrote during the first and second centuries CE, paired him with Homer in the culture of Greeks from youth to old age. Homer, he wrote, “is first, middle, and last for every child, adult, and old man. He gives as much of himself as each can possibly absorb.” But, with equal emphasis in the same work, Dio says that he considers Xenophon the only one from the classical era to provide guidance for a citizen,

whether as a general in war, a statesman in the polis, an orator before the people or in the council chamber, or as an advocate in the courtroom….For me Xenophon is the best of all and the most profitable in all these endeavors.

Caroline Alexander’s reading of the Iliad and Robert Strassler’s edition of the Hellenika help us to understand Dio Chrysostom’s extravagant praise of Homer and Xenophon. These two were the foundation of the Hellenism by which Dio had achieved his success in the Greco-Roman world and his fame in later antiquity. He shows us why the ancients admired these works. But if today, in reading them, we are tempted to think that we are, in Gildersleeve’s words, “reading contemporary history,” we should follow his lead and think again. Historical parallels are rarely parallel, and they breed false hopes.

This Issue

April 29, 2010