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Mercenary Wisdom: The Role of Simonides in Xenophon’s Hieron

Mitchell H. Parks

Scholars writing on Xenophon’s Hieron have usually grappled with the author’s choice of interlocutors: the tyrant Hieron I of Syracuse and the poet Simonides. Leo Strauss, by far the most influential reader of the Hieron in the twentieth century, points to Hieron’s claim that Simonides is a “wise man” (σοφὸς ἀνήρ, 1.1) and all but equates the poet with Socrates. While one must read the dialogue against relevant Socratic comparanda, this equation of the two figures, even if proximate, does not adequately explain Simonides’ presence: we should also attempt to determine what Xenophon’s specific choice of Simonides would have represented for the dialogue’s fourth-century audience. Gray (1986) began to answer this question by explaining how the dialogue fits the literary pattern of the meeting of the wise man and the tyrant, though Gray (2007:34) has recently restated the thesis that the dialogue is not concerned with portraying the historical Simonides. Sevieri has made progress toward treating Simonides as Simonides through comparing the dialogue’s conclusions with the themes of epinician poetry, though here we must rely largely on Pindaric evidence. We know, however, of several anecdotal narratives specific to Simonides (e.g., Aristotle Rhetoric 1391a) that were current in the fourth century (Bell, Lefkowitz) and that cast Simonides in a role more specific than that of the wise counselor or even the epinician poet. I argue, on the basis of the anecdotal tradition and the content of the dialogue, that Xenophon has chosen Simonides because of his reputation as a virtuous mercenary.

Particularly given the vagaries of his own biography, mercenaries are never far from Xenophon’s ethical and political thought (Azoulay). Within this dialogue, Hieron often expresses concern about the use of mercenaries (4.3, 5.3, 8.10, 10.1), particularly because they incur the hatred of the citizens. Mercenaries are indeed symptomatic of his central complaint, that the tyrant receives no genuine affection (7.5–10): neither his bodyguards nor his citizens can give him this, because the latter are intimidated by the former and the former work for pay. Simonides devotes considerable breath to suggesting ways for Hieron to maintain both a bodyguard and the goodwill of his citizens (10.2–8), and I argue that this passage constitutes a defense of Simonides’ own position in the court: he advises Hieron to use the mercenaries for the good of the community; by implication, employing a wise poet to give such advice can likewise make the tyrant happier without arousing the citizens’ envy (cf. 11.15). Once Simonides has resolved Hieron’s fears regarding mercenaries, the poet finishes the dialogue uninterrupted, summarizing his apparently practicable suggestions for improving the tyrant’s lot alongside that of the community.

In the conclusion of the paper, I confront the Straussian ironic reading of the dialogue and attempt to redirect Strauss’s darker insinuations of self-interest toward an understanding of Xenophon’s pragmatic political philosophy. Simonides does not merely tell Hieron what he wants to hear, nor, as Strauss suggests, does he become a threat to Hieron’s rule. Rather, while Simonides reveals himself as acting out of self-interest and indeed spurs Hieron to keep self-interest as the basis of his government, the poet nonetheless ties his own happiness and that of the tyrant to the common good: it is in their common interest to improve the state.

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Greek Philosophy

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