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Xenophon and the Arginusae Trial

Alex Lee

Florida State University

The trial of the Athenian generals after the Battle of Arginusae presents a number of difficulties, due in part to the complexity of the events themselves and especially to their seemingly contradictory representation in our two surviving narrative sources for the period, Xenophon (Hell. 1.7) and Diodorus (13.101–103). Since the time of Grote, scholars have abandoned Xenophon’s account in favor of Diodorus’, a move which has found its way it into many current narratives of the period (e.g. Hornblower 2002; Rhodes 2006; Kagan 1987; Hamel 2015). Much of the motivation to reject Xenophon’s account stems from the actions he imparts to Theramenes at the Apatouria festival which happened to occur in the midst of the trial, during which Theramenes is said to have induced false mourners to attend the following meeting of the assembly 'as if they were relatives of the deceased' (ὡς δὴ συγγενεῖς ὄντες τῶν ἀπολωλότων, Hell. 1.7.8) in an apparent attempt to turn the Athenian people against the generals. In this paper, I consider three commonly made arguments against the historicity of Xenophon’s narrative and, in particular, Theramenes’ actions at the Apatouria festival. I demonstrate in turn why they do not stand up to scrutiny.

The first argument claims that we ought to abandon Xenophon’s account on the basis of its apparent implausibility: it was not in Theramenes’ best interest to further stoke the flames, and he would have taken on a considerable risk to do so (Andrewes 1974; Kagan 1987; Lang 1992). The risk would have been amplified, the argument continues, because real relatives of the deceased would have recognized Theramenes’ spurious mourners as such (Grote 1853; Cloché 1919). This argument starts from the flawed assumption that any action which does not live up to the standards of rationality is historically suspect. This argument is especially ironic given that its proponents also stress that the highly emotional nature of the Apatouria and surrounding trial (Grote 1853; Kagan 1987; cf. Roberts 1977). That the spurious mourners would have been recognized as such rests on the dated view of Athens as a face-to-face society (convincingly put to rest by Cohen 2000). Furthermore, as estimates of the casualty rate range from around 3,000 to 5,000 (Gish 2012), it is highly unlikely that the cover would be blown for any false mourners. 

The second argument holds that if Theramenes had procured spurious mourners in the way Xenophon describes, Lysias would have mentioned this in his verbal thrashing of Theramenes in Or. 12 (Kagan 1987; cf. Lang 1992). Besides being an argument from silence (which alone should discredit it), it does not follow that Theramenes’ machinations would have been widely known if they in fact occurred. 

The third argument claims that we should prefer Diodorus’ narrative as it represents an independent witness to the events, one unmarred by Xenophon’s confusions (Grote 1853; Andrewes 1974; Hornblower 2002; Rhodes 2006; Hamel 2015). The standard view of Diodorus’ modus operandi is that he chooses one source for a period and closely follows it (Stylianou 1998); here his main source is Ephorus, who himself preferred the Oxyrhynchus historian and made little to no use of Xenophon (BNJ 70 Parker). Recent work, however, has challenged the standard view of Diodorus’ method (Rubincam 2018) and Ephorus’ (lack of) engagement with Xenophon (Stylianou 2004). I add to the discussion a comparison of the two accounts of the trial’s aftermath (Hell. 1.7.35; Diod.13.103.1–2), which I argue calls into question the independent status of Diodorus’ account. The arguments commonly given against Xenophon’s account do not hold up—but where does that leave us? I end by considering the importance of the Apatouria festival as a site for Theramenes’ deceit (apatē).

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Greek Historiography

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