V.J. Gray, “Dialogue in Xenophon’s Hellenica”

While I don’t know whether I agree with what seem to be Gray’s conclusions, her paper is a good starting point for discussing the Hellenica. She goes through various examples of characters involved in dialogue in the work and wonders aloud about what that tells us about the characters themselves.

Her key examples concern Agesilaus, King of Sparta. He persuades Otys, King of Paphlagonia to marry the daughter of an impoverished and exiled Persian nobleman, Spithridates (321-2). Agesilaus builds up an “attractive picture of the family” to Otys. He also hides his interest in the Otys-Spithridates alliance, going so far as to make it look like he is coercing Spithridates to give up his daughter (323). Gray considers how elaborate the wordplay is; she concludes that Agesilaus was “highly persuasive and ironic,” making him sound like Socrates (324). Yet one can’t help but note that the Agesilaus-Otys alliance, sealed before this deception, broke down fairly quickly (323). Much attention is paid to Agesilaus’ use of irony, but what of Xenophon’s?

Peace talks between Agesilaus and Pharnabazus that fail also get Gray’s attention. Pharnabazus wants the Spartans to stop plundering his lands ; he has been “a good friend of the Spartans”(324). He gives a “lovingly detailed description of the domains that his father left him.” Agesilaus argues that “helping friends and harming enemies” has a limit: private friends war with each other, kill each other. Pharnabazus is still subject to the King of Persia. “Friends” means friends within a city, an empire. Agesilaus implores Pharnabazus to desert the king so as to enjoy his possessions (325). Pharnabazus replies that would only happen if the king demoted him.

Gray tells us the following results of the peace talks:

Pharnabazus never was replaced and never did ally with the Spartans… [The dialogue establishes] Agesilaus’ political wisdom and the talent he had for establishing what he wanted to know. The dialogue form reveals his persuasive and ironic skill and how he cunningly leads his interlocutor to give him the information he seeks. Agesilaus also got Pharnabazus to admit there were circumstances in which he would come over to him, which might be considered a valuable admission (325).

I can’t prove this yet, but my suspicion is that Agesilaus’ dialogues are proving that people can be very dumb even while being trained in the subtle use of words, even while knowing what lends itself to political gain. I seriously doubt one wants to characterize Agesilaus as wise. And winning lots of battles and being fairly competent at governance isn’t the same thing as prudence. Prudence isn’t some mystical, magical skill; it isn’t dependent on results. But it isn’t characterized by elaborate contrivances that fail to win allies.

A third example of dialogue concerns Agesilaus’ injustice outright (327-8); a fourth, involving Dercylidas and Meidias, again concerns themes of justice, property and prudence. If these are the only extended dialogues in the work – I don’t remember if they are or not – what strikes me is how close they come to Socratic themes. Only: the issue of property is the search for knowledge, and all these passages fall short of true justice. The primary component of Socratic rhetoric and dialectic is that it does no harm.


Gray, V.J. “Dialogue in Xenophon’s Hellenica.” The Classical Quarterly 31.2 (1981): 321-334

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