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Xenophon as a Critic of the Athenian Democracy

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Scholars have generally held that Xenophon the Athenian favoured oligarchic constitutions and was therefore opposed to the Athenian democracy. Yet Xenophon's writings often seem to display remarkable sympathy for the democracy, and the issue is complicated by the difficulty of assigning any ancient author to a definite place on the political spectrum. Using the categories that M. Walzer employs to analyse modern social critics, this study finds that although Xenophon can take an external/rejectionist approach to the criticism of the Athenian democracy, he more commonly takes an internal/immanent stance. Moreover, his works sometimes seem to express a sympathy for the democracy that extends beyond a patriotic desire for the betterment of his native city regardless of constitution to a solidarity with the foundational ideology of the democratic regime. This suggests, among other things, that the ideological hegemony of the people over the traditional aristocracy in fourth-century Athens was wider than is usually thought; it is reflected not only in the speeches of the active politicians, the orators, who needed the approval of the masses to win honour in the city, but also in the writings of a politically uninvolved philosopher, who had no clear, practical motivation for supporting democratic ideology.

Keywords: Ancient democracy; Ancient politics; Athenian democracy; Greek democracy; Xenophon; ancient Athens; ancient Greek political history; political criticism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Classical Studies, University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, Ontario, CANADA, N2L 3G1, Email:

Publication date: January 1, 2009


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