Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises by Xenophon

It may be hard to tell since I didn’t really review it, but I loved Anabasis enough that I was eager to read more from Xenophon right after finishing it. He’s one of the fortunate Classical authors to have had many of his works survive to the present day, so there’s plenty to choose from. His Socratic dialogues seemed like an obvious next step, but I’ve decided to put that on hold until I finish Plato’s. In the meantime, I noticed that Robin Waterfield, who did the excellent translations for AnabasisThe Histories, and The First Philosophers, has translated a collection of his shorter works, published by Penguin Books as Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises.

The first work, which gives its title to the collection, is a dialogue between Hiero, the ruler of Sicilian Syracuse  from 478-467 B.C., and an advisor, Simonides, on happiness and whether a tyrant is happier than common people. On the surface, it would seem that tyrants must be, since obviously all of their appetites can easily be fulfilled. If you’ve read much didactic literature, though, you can guess that it’s not so simple, and Hiero points out several areas where tyrants are, in fact, less happy than their citizens. For example, Hiero may be able to feast daily on delicacies that commoners only get at festivals and special occasions, but, he says, “If there’s no novelty for a person in having a sumptuous and varied diet, he doesn’t fancy anything he is offered; it is the person for whom something is a rare treat who eats his fill with delight when it is served up to him.” This is why tyrants like himself often request strongly flavoured food, even though, in his own words, “for an appetite to crave that kind of food it would have to be effete and debilitated, don’t you think? I mean, you know as well as I that people who enjoy their food have no need of such contrivances.” So, a tyrant may have access to all the material comforts he desires, but soon finds no joy in them and must go on a search for ever increasing novelty. Friendship is also difficult for a tyrant. Today, the wealthy and powerful certainly gather many “friends” with ease, but it’s often difficult to know whether the companionship is from genuine affection for someone, an attempt to curry favour, or if they simply feel they have no choice but to feign friendship out of fear of a man’s power. Hiero explains:

[T]he very act of gratification [e.g., a kiss from a loved one] is immediate proof for an ordinary citizen that it is affection that makes his beloved compliant, because he knows that his submission isn’t forced, whereas a tyrant can never be sure that he is actually liked. I mean, we all know that when people submit out of fear they simulate as accurately as possible compliance born out of genuine affection. In fact, plots against tyrants are hatched, as often as not, by those who claim the greatest friendship towards them.

Perhaps I should mention that this discussion is in the context of a boy Hiero was particularly fond of. Xenophon is the first Classical author I’ve read so far to address this, but both here and in Anabasis he mentions sodomy with young men casually enough that it was clearly accepted, at least among some classes of people. I won’t go farther into the subject, but I didn’t want to give a big recommendation to the book only to have people getting scandalised about this aspect of it. I don’t approve but, well, it’s the Greeks.

Back on-topic, though, Simonides points out that a tyrant can certainly bring happiness to others. “Imagine,” he says, “first, a ruler and an ordinary citizen catching sight of someone and greeting him in a friendly fashion. In this example, whose greeting, do you think, would be more welcome? Now let’s have both of them complimenting the man. Whose compliments would afford more pleasure, do you think?” He then extends this example to both a ruler and an ordinary citizen inviting someone to a sacrificial feast, and to looking after a sick man. He then continues:

In fact I’d go so far as to say that the gods cause a kind of aura of dignity and grace to surround a ruler. Not only does authority make a man more prepossessing, but despite the fact that it’s still the same person, we also get more pleasure from seeing him when he is in a position of authority than we did when he was an ordinary citizen, and it’s more of a thrill to talk to eminent members of society than it is to talk to our social equals. […]

So identical acts of kindness are appreciated more when performed by tyrants than they are when performed by ordinary citizens. Under these circumstances, since you’re actually capable of doing far greater favours and of giving far more generous gifts than ordinary citizens can, doesn’t it follow that you’re bound to be liked much more than ordinary people as well?

That seems true enough, but Hiero immediately rebuts that they must also do things which make them extremely unpopular, particularly in imposing taxes, handing down punishments, and raising mercenaries - the last of these being particularly resented because they’re expensive and perceived as being done purely out of self-interest.

Given all this, it seems that a tyrant should just give up power, but Hiero says “this is exactly the most pitiful aspect of tyranny. It is impossible to let go of it.” After all, there’s no way a tyrant could ever repay the people whose property he’s confiscated, compensate for prison sentences and executions, and so on.

The next treatise is “Agesilaus,” a hagiography of Agesilaus II, joint king of Sparta who lived c. 445-360. On excerpt should suffice to convey the tone of whole work:

Agesilaus appreciated that a devastated and depopulated land would be unable to support an army for long, whereas an inhabited and cultivated land would be a permanent source of nourishment, so he took care to win some of his enemies over with leniency, as well as defeating others by force of arms. It was a frequent injunction of his to his men not to treat prisoners-of-war as criminals to be punished, but as human beings to be guarded; and if he ever noticed, when shifting camps, that any small children had been abandoned by the dealers (who would commonly try to sell the children because they doubted that they would be able to support them and feed them), he took care that they were rounded up and taken off somewhere. He also gave orders that any prisoners who were abandoned because of their old age were to be provided for, to prevent their being killed by dogs or wolves. Consequently, he came to be regarded with goodwill not just by those who heard about this behaviour of his, but even by his prisoners-of-war.

So, it’s partly a biography of a specific figure from recent history, but primarily it’s a depiction of Xenophon’s ideal ruler. Whereas we saw Hiero ruling by force, Agesilaus (at least in this depiction) rules by virtue. “[D]espite his unrivalled political power,” Xenophon says, “he was obviously the most assiduous servant of the laws. After all, how could anyone have been prepared to break the law when he saw how law-abiding the king was?” Some of this work even sounds more like didactic literature than biography, and several passages could easily be adapted into straightforward proverbs. On keeping good company, for example, “It was his practice to be acquainted with all kinds of people, but to be intimate only with the good.” On speaking about the character of others, “He thought that praise or criticism gave him as much insight into the character of the speakers as it did into the people they were speaking about.”

This concern with virtue is a recurring theme for Xenophon. In the next treatise, “How to be a Good Cavalry Commander,” he begins, “Before doing anything else, you should offer up a sacrifice and ask the gods to ensure that the way in which you conduct your command – your thoughts, words and deeds – not only may afford them particular pleasure, but also may be particularly effective in bringing yourself, your friends and your state alliances, honour and general benefit.” Only after that should a commander begin recruiting horsemen. Those who’ve read Anabasis will recall that there, too, Xenophon made sacrifices before doing anything of importance. Though pleasing the gods should be a commander’s first concern, he does include the more immediately practical advice one would expect, such as:

During expeditions a cavalry commander constantly has to think ahead and plan to have his men alternate reasonable periods of riding with reasonable periods of going on foot, because their walking gives not only them but the horses’ seats a rest. It is easy to form a correct notion of what constitutes a reasonable period, because every individual is himself a measure whereby you can observe when they are getting exhausted. However, if you cannot tell, while you are on your way somewhere, whether or not you will meet the enemy, you should have each regiment take turns to rest, since it would be awkward to encounter the enemy with all your men dismounted.

Xenophon himself was an accomplished horseman and cavalry commander, and he wrote a second, related treatise, “On Horsemanship.” Well, possibly. Waterfield notes in the introduction to this work that it’s doubtful whether Xenophon was the author or not, but it has been attributed to him and, he says, “in content and sentiment it is no less certainly Xenophontic.” I found this one to be the least interesting work in the collection, since it mostly concerns buying and caring for horses and, well, that’s a field I have no plans to go into. That’s as the title advertises, of course, and I can’t say Xenophon or his impersonator don’t accomplish what they set out to do, but there’s less here for the modern layman than the other treatises.

The last work included is another one of dubious authenticity, “On Hunting.” The style apparently differs significantly from Xenophon’s other works, though this isn’t totally clear in translation, but regardless, it’s another treatise attributed to him, and as Waterfield notes, “At least – and at most – we may fairly claim that Xenophon would have endorsed wholeheartedly sentiments of this sort, if not necessarily the manner of their expression.”

Xenophon, or at least this member of his fan club, begins and ends with a defense of hunting as a sport. He begins by noting that “Hunting with hounds was invented by the gods Apollo and Artemis. They presented it to Cheiron in recognition of his virtue, and he, delighted with the gift, put it to use.” Then, he names the many gods and heroes who loved hunting, and says “As a result of their devotion to hounds and hunting, and of course of the rest of their education, they gained heroic stature and became admired for their virtue.” Later on, he says explicitly that hunting is the best hobby for a young man to take up:

[Our ancestors] appreciated that hunting is the only thing young people enjoy doing which does them a very great deal of good, in the sense that it brings them up surrounded by reality, and so gives them self-restraint and honesty; they realized that their successes in war and in other areas were due to these men. Moreover, whereas other enjoyable activities – the base ones, which should not be studied – debar young men from noble pursuits, hunting does not: they can undertake any other honourable occupation they like. These, then, are the kinds of men who develop into fine soldiers and military commanders. For men who have striven to rid their minds and bodies of all that is disgraceful and immoderate, and to instil instead a growing desire for virtue, are men of outstanding worth, because they will not let anyone get away with wronging their city or harming their land.

With the virtues of the sport addressed, Xenophon turns to the more practical aspects of hunting, including how to train hunting dogs, techniques, and advice on the various dangers and difficulties one will encounter. Hunting boars was especially risky, and the author spends a good deal of time discussing how to confront the animal when it becomes enraged:

If despite all the javelins and stones the boar refuses to stretch the surround tight, but slows down, wheels round and confronts any hostile approach, in these circumstances a hunter must take his pike in hand and advance, holding the pike with the left hand in front of the right, because it is the job of the left hand to guide the pike while the right hand drives it in. The left foot should accompany the left hand forward, with the right foot following the right hand. He should make his approach with the pike held out in front of him, with his legs only a little further apart than in a wrestling stance and his left side turned towards the left hand, looking the beast in the eye and assessing what movements it might make by taking note of what it does with its head. He should bring the pike to bear, taking care that the boar does not knock it out of his hands with a jerk of its head, because it will follow up the impetus gained from the jerk. If the pike is knocked out of his hand, he should throw himself on his face and cling on to the lower parts of the undergrowth, because if the beast attacks him when he is in this position, the curve of its tusks will prevent it from lifting him up. If he is off the ground when the beast attacks, however, he is bound to be gored. In any case, the boar will try to get him off the ground; if it cannot do so, it will stand over him and trample him. There is only one way out of this desperate situation, and that is for one of the man’s fellow hunters to approach the boar and provoke it by wielding a pike as if he were going to let fly with it; however, he must not in fact throw the pike, in case he hits his companion on the ground. When the boar sees what is going on, it will leave the man it is standing over and turn all its rage and fury against the person who is provoking it. The man on the ground must waste no time in leaping to his feet, remembering to retain his grip on his pike as he does so, because there is nothing noble about safety unless it is accompanied by victory. He must bring the pike to bear once again just as he did before, and plunge the pike within the shoulder-blades, where he can get at the throat, with a firm thrust. The boar will be so enraged that it will press on, and if it were not for the barbs on the blade of the pike, it would impale itself along the shaft until it reached the man wielding the pike.

Now, Hiero the Tyrant and Other Treatises isn’t as captivating as Anabasis and it’s not as profound as the best work of Greece’s heaviest hitters, Plato and Aristotle, so it’s not a high priority when working through the Classics. However, it is still very enjoyable and has a good deal to offer, and so undoubtedly worth a read.