Sunday, 15 October 2017

Three mini reviews: A History of My Times by Xenophon, Gorgias by Plato, and Rhetoric by Aristotle.

These three reviews have been a thorn in my side for quite some time so I thought I'd try and tackle them together in three very (very) brief reviews! A History of My TimesGorgias, and Rhetoric were written in the 4th Century B.C.: A History of My Times, also known as Hellenica (Ἑλληνικά) is, as the title suggests, a history by Xenophon, Gorgias is one of Plato's many philosophical dialogues, and Aristotle's Rhetoric is a response and expansion of Plato's ideas in Gorgias.

Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War takes us from the beginnings of the Peloponnesian War from 433 B.C. to 411 B.C. where his account abruptly ends. Xenophon picks it up there and, writing in style very similar to Thucydides, he continues the account to 362 B.C. Here's the end of History and the start of Hellenica:
Tʜᴜᴄʏᴅɪᴅᴇs: Tissaphernes saw this as the work of the Peloponnesians, added to the similar expulsions of his garrisons at Miletus and Cnidus. he realised that his stock was very low with them, and feared that they could do him further har,. At the same time he was vexed to find that Pharnabazus had secured their services in less time and at less expense, and was more likely than himself to achieve success against the Athenians. He therefore determined to go and meet them at the Hellespont to complain of the business at Antandrus and to present the most plausible defence he could to the various charges made against him including the question of the Phoenician ships. His first stop was at Ephesus, where he offered sacrifice to Artemis.
Xᴇɴᴏᴘʜᴏɴ: Some days later Thymochares arrived from Athens with a few ships, and the Spartans and Athenians immediately fought another naval action in which the Spartans, under the command of Agesandridas, were victorious.
Both these accounts are concerned with the operations at Hellespont though there is a gap between where Thucydides leaves off and Xenophon takes over: Xenophon does not pick up from Thucydides very last sentence. Nonetheless he continues the narrative and in A History of My Times we learn not only about the unrest following the Peloponnesian War (such as the war with Thebes and Persia) but also about Xenophon himself, who was at one stage banished from Athens because of his open admiration for not only Sparta but also Socrates, who was executed in 399 B.C. It is a very interesting time, but Xenophon's account (and Thucydides' for that matter) is very overwhelming for a beginner. One day, perhaps, when I know a little more I'll revisit them both.

Xenophon's account was written around the 360s B.C. during his banishment; Plato's Gorgias (Γοργίας) was written a little earlier, in around 386 B.C. It's a Socratic dialogue, something that always intrigues me but I never seem to do too well with. It explores the concept of virtue as discussed by the characters Socrates, Gorgias, Polus, Callicles, and Chaerephon. They talk about the idea of rhetoric and the art of finding the truth within it, before moving on to power and the false notion of the absolute power of a tyrant. They then return to the idea of rhetoric, truth, and illusion, and the importance in philosophy (as well as temperance) in discerning the reality behind words as well as the actually morality of influencing others with rhetoric. It ends with Socrates recounting the 'judgement of the naked souls' in which Zeus is said to have stripped men of their clothes so that they may judged without distraction.

As ever, I find the Socratic dialogues impossibly hard, and this was far harder than Meno and Protagoras; after those I thought reading couldn't get any harder! Symposium is still my favourite of Plato's works, and still in my mind the most accessible.

Remaining on the subject of rhetoric, my final mini review: Aristotle's Rhetoric (Ῥητορική). We are still in the 4th Century B.C. - this was written quite a few years after Plato's Gorgias and is an expansion of Plato's thoughts as well as sharing some of the themes of Poetics. He distinguishes the different types of rhetoric, legal, political, and social, and he goes on to enforce the importance of understanding different audiences and indeed the speaker. Rhetoric, he argues, is often misused to gain influence falsely, however if used properly and logically it can be a tool for good, promoting justice and truth.

It no doubt goes without saying that I found all three of these difficult. When it comes to Xenophon, I much preferred The Persian Expedition, so the difficulty lay in the actual enjoyment. As for Aristotle and Plato - a part of me wonders why I put myself through such excruciating reads! But these were all for my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge and I did want to say a few words on each, however insufficient. Happily, I am now almost finished with my dreaded 4th Century B.C. section: now all I have to read is Plato's Republic, and oddly enough, in a strange way, I still am looking forward to it.


  1. I am still struggling to finish The History of Peloponnesian War and I had read this very interesting fictional novel on Xenophon that had made me want to read his work ( The novel was the The 10,000 or something) but so far I have not and it will be a while before I do. I read The Republic in college and then again for graduate school and then revisited it a couple of years ago. I really really do like Plato, and I hope you have a better reading experience than either Pelopnnesian or Xenophon!

    1. I'll have to check out this novel. I'm really looking forward to Plato, but to be honest I'll be thrilled when I've finished this section of my challenge. 4th century BC is the absolute hardest, never found a period more difficult to read!


Popular Posts of the Year