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Bad Leaders in Xenophon’s Hellenica

Frances Pownall

Three of the most memorable episodes in the Hellenica involve leaders whom Xenophon is careful to portray as tyrants (as observed by, e.g., Higgins, Gray, Tuplin, Dillery, and Pownall 2004): Critias and the Thirty in Athens (2.3.11–2.4.43), Jason of Pherae (6.1.2–18 and 6.4.20–32), and Euphron of Sicyon (7.1.44–6 and 7.3.1–12). In Xenophon’s narrative, all three leaders serve as “textbook” examples of tyrants, in that they seize autocratic power unlawfully, motivated solely by personal aggrandizement, and maintain that illegitimate rule by force, particularly through the removal of actual or potential political opponents and the appropriation of private or sacred funds for their own selfish ends. Recently, doubt has been cast upon Xenophon’s portrayal of all three régimes as unconstitutional tyrannies (Critias and the Thirty: Pownall 2012; Jason: Sprawski 1999 and 2004; Euphron: Lewis). I intend to contribute to this debate by examining a facet of Xenophon’s portrayal of these tyrants which has received little attention, his allegation that each of these tyrants acted impiously.

Xenophon’s portrayal of Critias and the Thirty serves an important programmatic function in the Hellenica by illustrating the stereotypical features of a tyranny, which recur in his narratives of Jason and Euphron (Dillery, Krentz, and Tuplin). One of the most vivid scenes in his narrative of the Thirty occurs in the showdown between Critias and his erstwhile friend turned political opponent, Theramenes, when Critias violates the traditional rules of supplication by forcibly dragging Theramenes away from the altar where he had taken refuge (2.3.55). Xenophon implies that this act of impiety is responsible for Critias’ downfall, for in the fighting which immediately ensues in his narrative between the Thirty and the democratic resistance culminating in Critias’ death at the Battle of Munychia, the hand of the gods is prominent (2.4.3, 2.4.14, 2.4.18). But the manner of Critias’ death does not match the stereotypical fate of tyrants, in that he was not assassinated, but died in battle. As I argue, the necessity to provide an explanation for the “unusual” death of Critias lies behind the emphasis that Xenophon places on divine retribution in this section of his narrative. Furthermore, because the figure of Critias is intended to serve as the paradigmatic example of a tyrant, Xenophon subsequently highlights the element of impiety in his narratives of both Jason (7.3.8) and Euphron (7.1.46 and 7.3.8), although it should be noted that he does not vouch for the veracity of Jason’s intended appropriation of the treasure at Delphi or express moral indignation for Euphron’s pillaging of the temples in Sicyon in propria persona.

In the Hellenica, not only does Xenophon single out Critias, Jason, and Euphron as paradigmatic bad leaders by portraying them as tyrants, but also emphasizes their alleged crimes against the gods as the crucial explanatory factor in their downfalls. I shall conclude that it is only with Xenophon that impiety becomes one of the standard topoi of tyranny, as this aspect is curiously underplayed in Herodotus’ depiction of Greek tyrants (e.g., 3.48–53 and 5.92).

Session/Panel Title

Xenophon on the Challenges of Leadership

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