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Xenophon and the Elean War: Garbled Chronology or Deliberate Synchronism?

Paul McGilvery

University of Western Ontario

 After narrating in detail the Spartan campaign led by Dercylidas against the Persians in Asia Minor, Xenophon states that the Spartans waged a war against Elis ‟at the same time” (κατὰ τὸν αὐτὸν χρόνον; Hell. 3.2.21). This is at odds with both Diodorus’ (14.17.4-12) and Pausanias’ (3.8.3-5) accounts, which place Dercylidas’ campaign at least a year after the Elean War. Since the discovery of the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia as an independent source for this time period, scholars generally reject Xenophon’s synchronism in Hell. 3.2.21 as a historical blunder. This paper argues that Xenophon deliberately conflated Dercylidas’ campaign and the Elean War to invite his readers to contrast the spectacular successes of Spartan-led Greek armies over the Persians in Ionia with the inter-poleis conflicts on the Greek mainland which would eventually devolve into the Corinthian War. Consequently, the synchronism in Hell. 3.2.21 is not the result of Xenophon’s carelessness, but rather a sophisticated device to advance the author’s literary and philosophical aims.

 Xenophon’s narrative in the beginning of Hell. 3 has been variously interpreted as the flawed recollections of an author who did not consult other sources (Cawkwell 1979); the presentation of ethical philosophy through conversationalized narrative, but which ignores this particular synnchronism (Gray 1989); a historical commentary on the hypocrisy of Spartan imperialism (Krentz 1995); and the illustration of the general failure of both Spartan domestic and foreign imperial policy (Tuplin 1993). Challenging previous interpretations in general and arguing against Tuplin’s view in particular, this paper seeks to demonstrate that the synchronism at Hell. 3.2.21 invites the reader to contrast good moral exempla with bad ones. Xenophon's primary goal in this section is didactic; the reader should not regard Sparta’s campaigns in Asia as a political and military failure, but as a favorable moral counterpoint to the events in the Peloponnese that appear contemporaneous due to Xenophon’s deliberate synchronization.

 Xenophon's divergence at 3.2.21 from other authors' chronologies is part of his greater philosophical purpose, and serves to directly contrast successful Spartan generalship and foreign policy in Asia with poor leadership and political dissolution in the home theater. By synchronizing events which occurred years apart, Xenophon guides his readers to an appreciation of Dercylidas' (and later Agesilaus') pious and capable leadership in Asia, as well as of the explicitly panhellenic aim of a campaign which sought to maintain the freedom of Ionian Greeks from Persian suzerainty (3.1-2). This is deliberately set against the backdrop of increasing political fragmentation in the Peloponnese, squabbles over Spartan accession, and a plot to overthrow the Spartan government (3.3). These last events occurred much earlier than any Spartan campaigns in Asia, however Xenophon's narrative ignores this and provides an artificial chronological link between contrasting events which advances a few of his well-known philosophical criteria, namely good leadership, piety, and panhellenism.

 The contrast between inter-poleis wars in Greece and anti-Persian wars in Asia present two separate political circumstances, only one of which is viewed positively. The first examines the tension between Sparta and its neighbors as the flashpoint for what would become the Corinthian War. The second focuses on the unity of Greeks and the Greek military in Ionia, spearheaded by capable Spartan leaders. Leadership roles are displayed prominently in Hell. 3.1-3, and the author endows the Spartan general Dercylidas with considerable acumen, piety, and – with the aid of hoplites whom Xenophon himself had recently commanded in Thrace – military capability. This role is later taken up by Agesilaus at 3.4.3, and both, by virtue of Xenophon's synchronism at 3.2.21, are implicitly compared to the failed leaders on mainland Greece during the Elean War.

 By understanding the synchronism in Hell. 3.2.21 as a literary means to achieve philosophical and didactic ends, this paper contributes to current scholarship on the Hellenica that seeks to appreciate it as a work with a wider literary appeal (cf. Grey 1989; Pownall 2004), and not simply as a mediocre history.

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Foreign Policy

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