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Agesilaus, Athens, and Communicating Civic Virtue

Mitchell Parks

Knox College

As Tomas Hägg demonstrated with the title of the first chapter of The Art of Biography in Antiquity—“In the beginning was Xenophon”—the study of how ancient authors depicted the lives of individuals must begin with Xenophon’s literary experiments, particularly his works in praise of Socrates and Agesilaus. Within the cultural milieu of democratic Athens, however, Xenophon’s choice to elevate individuals above the collective polis was not an obvious one: one need only think of the epitaphios logos and its role in reinforcing democratic ideology. In order to make the Spartan king Agesilaus an acceptable subject for an encomium in Attic prose, Xenophon, as has long been recognized (Hägg 41–2, Harman 430), selected his evidence with care. Nonetheless, Xenophon’s encomiastic strategies go far beyond selection. In this paper I argue that Xenophon accommodated the Agesilaus to fourth-century Athens by emphasizing the importance of communicating and imitating virtue: the text is as much an encomium of the ability of an author to bestow praise as it is an encomium of its notional subject. Furthermore, I propose that, in this regard, Xenophon anticipated and perhaps inspired trends in honorific decrees in the Athens of Eubulus and Lycurgus.

In the Agesilaus, author and subject are inseparable partners in promoting the imitation of ethical behavior. This is not overt; as Hägg noted, Xenophon “does not, like Isocrates, compete with his hero for the audience’s attention” (44). Rather, Xenophon signals this partnership through verbal parallels between his display of Agesilaus’ virtues in writing (1.9, cf. 1.1) and Agesilaus’ own display of those virtues in action (1.12, 1.37, 6.4, 9.6, 11.9, 11.14). Although Xenophon’s use of the verb epideiknumi for these displays (cf. Harman 432–3 on apodeiknumi) may seem to indicate an affiliation with the genre later defined as epideictic oratory, the Agesilaus predates Aristotle’s division of rhetoric (Schiappa). Xenophon’s emphasis is instead on the shared interest of author and subject in providing models for behavior (e.g., 1.25–8). Indeed, the overlap is most apparent when the topic turns to how praise itself should be performed: each time Agesilaus delivers a lesson in praise (7.3, 8.2, 11.4, 11.5), the audience is reminded of the purpose of the text as a whole (1.1, 5.7, 10.2–3).

Where author and subject diverge is in how effectively each promotes imitation. Contrary to fourth-century trends (Gauthier, Oliver, Ma), Agesilaus refused to allow statues to be made in his image (11.7). This decision left him dependent on an encomiast to amplify his message (Ferrario 250–4). Xenophon takes advantage of this need: he strips down the controversial specifics of Agesilaus’ career and leaves in their place the image of an unobjectionably virtuous soul, to be imitated not just by Spartan kings, but by everyone who exercises leadership. In doing so, he also demonstrates how virtue requires an encomiast, who in turn, by Agesilaus’ own definition (11.4, cf. Hägg 49), himself becomes praiseworthy. Agesilaus thus secures his reputation for virtue, but it comes at the cost of being subordinated to his encomiast’s political philosophy.

This dependence of honorand on praise-giver resembles the interplay between the Athenian dēmos and the honorands of its inscribed decrees; indeed, Xenophon’s measured praise for a deceased Spartan may have been a crucial step toward normalizing the praise of living Athenians. Only a few years after Xenophon wrote the Agesilaus, Athens began inscribing honors for individual citizens in record numbers, and many of these inscriptions prominently exhort others to imitate the honorand (Lambert). Here too the specifics of the honorand’s bios are subsumed under a general rubric of, e.g., andragathia, which the audience is to imitate for the benefit of the praise-giver, the dēmos itself (see further Engen). Emerging from the same political culture, the Agesilaus is therefore an important witness not only to the beginnings of biography, but also to the history of ancient democracy.

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The Art of Biography in Antiquity

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