Temple of Diana, Villa Durazzo Pallavicini, Genova. Picture by Sebastian Bayer on Flickr.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are two letters attributed to Xenophon. English translation by us after the French ‘Collected works’, edited by J.A.C Buchon, A. Desrez publisher, Paris 1836. This post inaugurates a little cycle devoted to Xenophon to come soon.
‘Xenophon was born during the early years of the Peloponnesian War, in the outlying deme of Athens called Erchia. Located in the fertile plain known as “Mesogeia” (literally “middle earth”) and overlooked by the beautiful mountains Hymettus and Penteli, Erchia was about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the bustling center of Athens–about a three hour walk or one hour brisk horseback ride. His father Gryllus owned and supervised an estate whose income derived chiefly from farming. Thus, Xenophon will have grown up surrounded by a combination of small hold-farming and urban influences. Coming of an age in turbulent political times, Xenophon is thought to have been in Athens and personally present at the return of Alcibiades (408), the trial of the Generals, and the overthrow of the 30 Tyrants, all signal events in the rough history of Athenian civic life.
Little else is known about Xenophon’s earliest years. From his later writings it can be safely inferred that he received a good basic education and military training as befitted a young member of the Equestrian class, that he was able to ride and hunt extensively, and that in his formative years he observed the careful work needed to keep a modest farm maintained and productive.
In 401. B.C.E at the age of 29, Xenophon was invited by his friend Proxenus to join him on a mercenary military venture to Persia, ostensibly to protect the territory of a minor satrap who was under threat. In fact, though this was not known to Xenophon or Proxenus, the campaign was rather more ambitious than that: it was a game of thrones, nothing less than an assault on the claim of the Persian king Artaxerxes II, by his brother Cyrus the Younger. The unfolding of this journey into foreign territory, with its adventures and mortal hazards, was a formative event in Xenophon’s life. In the very first engagement, Cyrus was himself killed. In a peace parley that followed, the generals of the expeditionary force were executed by treachery, leaving the army stranded, leaderless and surrounded by hostile peoples whose languages they did not speak, and winter was coming. Xenophon eventually assumed leadership of this stranded and confused army, and led them to safety – as many as survived. The book which Xenophon later wrote about their harrowing travels ‘up country’, Anabasis, is a hair-raising and brutally graphic soldier’s journal, of which more will be said later.
Upon his return to Greece, Xenophon continued his mercenary work under a Spartan general named Agesilaus. He even went fighting, with Agesilaus’ “10,000” soldiers who returned from the battle of Coroneia in Persia, against a combined Athenian and Theban force. Athens issued a decree of exile against Xenophon as a result. . Even though it is possible that his banishment was revoked in later years, Xenophon never returned to Athens. When his adoptive city of Sparta was defeated in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C., Elians drove Xenophon from his rural retreat and confiscated it. Xenophon then moved to “flowery Corinth” where he ended his days.’ (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
To his Friends
‘Having the project to celebrate at her Festival, Artemis whom I have erected a temple to, I have sent invitations for you to participate. If you can come, it would be great; otherwise, send ‘the friends you can miss for a while’, you would really oblige me. Aristipus came to see me and before him Phaedo also. Both were charmed by its location and the structure of the building, and even more of the trees I have planted around with my own hands. In the woods, we have many wild animals proper for hunting, activity the Goddess loves so much. Let’s rejoice together and be grateful to her to have saved me from the clutches of the barbarian king, and then in Pontus and Thrace, of even greater evils, at times where I though being out of reach from my enemies.
Even though I think most of you cannot make it to attend, I thought it was my duty to write to you all.
I have just finished to pen some memories about Socrates; when they will be completed, I will have them sent to you. Aristipus and Phaedo seemed to have been quite satisfied with reading them.
Could you greet on my behalf, Simon the Tanner? Advise him to persist in his collection of Socratic discourses. May need or his business not distract him from philosophy, as it did happen to some others who did not want to discover and admire such discourses and the might they contain.’
To a friend
‘Come to see me, my dear friend. I have just finished erecting my temple of Artemis and the building is beautiful. The whole place is planted with trees and already properly consecrated. What is left of the domain will be enough for my subsistence, and as Socrates would say, if they are not in proportion with us, we will make ourselves in proportion to them. I have written to Grylus, my son and your friend, to cease the occasion; I always remind him that, even though he is young, you have displayed great kindness towards him.‘
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