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Xenophon’s Hiero as Literary Criticism: A Revisionary Perspective on Epinician Advice-Giving

Laura Takakjy

This paper analyzes Xenophon’s Hiero as a piece of literary criticism akin to Plato’s Ion. It argues that Xenophon interrogates poetic modes of advice-giving as a way to propose a prose alternative to didactic poetry addressed to leaders. It concludes that Xenophon uses his engagement with praise poetry to transform epinician χάρις into a political tool.

Xenophon’s Hiero is a philosophical dialogue that depicts an interaction between Simonides, the poet, and Hiero, the Sicilian tyrant. The ostensible purpose of the dialogue is to determine whether the tyrant or the private citizen is happier. The work is unique for several reasons: first, Xenophon has chosen to use Simonides, a more problematic interlocutor, in place of his usual Socratic character; second, Hiero appears unusually wise and self-critical about the less savory aspects of his rule.

Scholarship has approached the work from a variety of interpretative perspectives. Strauss (1968) made little attempt to analyze Xenophon’s chosen characters as significant, and Gray (1986) interpreted the dialogue as following the basic generic markers of a “warner-story” (the paradigm being the Croesus-Solon episode in Herodotus 1.29-1.33). Sevieri (2004) recognized that Xenophon overtly alludes to epinician poetry by incorporating many epinician tropes into the dialogue (e.g. calls to moderation, fear of envy, and praise of generosity, etc.). Sevieri suggested that Xenophon’s dialogue merged the tyrant’s voice and the poet’s voice into one cohesive voice that resulted in a near prose encomium.

This paper instead argues that Hiero serves as Xenophon’s critique of poetry’s ability to instruct. Xenophon organizes the dialogue in such a way that Hiero consistently rejects Simonides’ encomiastic rhetoric by objecting to praises of riches (2.1-2), of military exploits (2.7-8), and even of praise itself (1.15-16).

Xenophon’s choice of interlocutor reveals his interest in undermining the relationship between poet and tyrant. Simonides is a problematic character because he had a reputation in antiquity for greed (Parsons, 2001). Simonides stands in stark contrast to the Socratic interlocutor who is uninterested in profit and most interested in truth-telling.

Xenophon’s engagement with epinician tropes, however, allows him to appropriate from epinician poetry content that might be instructive once modified. Most notably, Xenophon has Simonides redefine χάρις outside of a poetic context near the end of the dialogue. In the odes addressed to Hiero in Pindar (e.g. Pythian 2, Olympian 1) and in Bacchylides (e.g. Ode 5), χάρις refers to the grace given to the tyrant and to poetry, as MacLachlan (1993) examined. In a revisionist move, Xenophon’s interlocutor recommends that Hiero confer χάρις onto his subjects rather than accept poetic χάρις. Xenophon therefore redefines χάρις as the foundation upon which he will advocate the creation of a timocracy (9). 

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