Xenophon as a historian

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What Kind of “History” Is This? “History books that do not lie are all very dull” (“Les livres d'histoire qui ne mentent pas sont tous fort maussades”), observes the protagonist in Anatole France's novel Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard (1881). A reader who comes to the “history books” of Xenophon with an interest in learning about the events of the first half of the fourth century BC will certainly not find them dull. But this reader will also want to know certain things about the nature of these works. First of all, when Xenophon's narrative is contradicted by other extant sources, whose account should one prefer? Which account, in other words, is more truthful, in the narrow sense of corresponding more closely to “what actually happened” in the past? Secondly, this reader will wonder why Xenophon has chosen not to discuss some of the most important developments of the period in question. Do these omissions make him a “bad” historian? In this chapter I want to evaluate Xenophon's Hellenica (a history of Greece between 411 and 362) as a narrative of historical events. This is not nearly as straightforward a matter as one might expect. The traditional way in which one evaluates a work of history is in terms of its factual accuracy and the cogency of its interpretations. But being a “good” historian is not exclusively a function of “getting the facts right” and of explaining them persuasively. The most admired and enduring historical narratives, both ancient and modern, are those that conjure up the past in the reader's imagination, creating the illusion that events are being witnessed in the mind's eye just as they had happened. Ancient critics called this aspect of historical narrative enargeia or “vividness.” Facts alone constitute a chronicle, not a narrative. To create a historical narrative one must also arrange the “facts” into a story with a plot, characters, and themes, and one must do so in such a way that this particular story is a memorable one. Of course, as soon as one does this, to a greater or lesser degree, one begins to fictionalize, and that can come close to what Anatole France considered “telling lies.”

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Xenophon
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781107279308
ISBN (Print)9781107050068
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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