- Xenophon, Oeconomicus: A Social and Historical Commentary
Xenophon has often been dismissed as a light-weight essayist of considerable charm but limited analytical capacity. His dialogue, Oeconomicus, tends to be perceived primarily as a ragbag for social historians in pursuit of a reference. Both deserve better, and this Sarah Pomeroy’s new commentary now provides. As its full title promises, it constitutes an invaluable supplement both to the study of Xenophon and to ancient social history. Discussion is well informed throughout, and many fundamental questions arise for consideration regarding modern perceptions of the ancient economy, Xenophon’s own economic viewpoint, and the true nature of the dialogue. The introduction, while inevitably addressing all the familiar topics, stands on the far less familiar premise that Xenophon pursues a coherent, consistent, and in some ways quite radical agenda, and that what has been widely regarded as episodic or anecdotal in nature is a unity in style and argument (5ff. and 14–20). Oeconomicus is for P. a combination of philosophical dialogue and agricultural treatise (263). The central theme, therefore, remains the obvious topic of household and estate management, with this difference that Xenophon intends an analysis of the domestic economy—its nature and what makes it tick, not a mere exposition of “how to run” a marriage, a house, and an estate—as his own dismissive remarks on manual-writers (xvi.1), and the sharp Socratic character of the dialogue might suggest. But the complex literary style and the telling dramatic character of the dialogue, of which her comments make us aware, are such as to suggest that Xenophon’s argument is even more authoritative than she allows.
Amidst the commentary’s great wealth is the discussion of Ischomachus’ role. How historical a figure is he? P. gives a succinct account of the matter (259–64), and deals with Xenophon’s use of humor which has been variously interpreted. Some see the portrayal of Ischomachus’ marriage as a satirical joke against the historical figure, but P. while allowing for humor within the conversation between husband and wife considers that Xenophon’s overall intention is [End Page 492] serious, if not necessarily factual, and the ideal marriage is integral to the idealisation of the past which is part of the overall design. P. points out that the dramatic date of the dialogue is fixed very imprecisely within the later fifth century (18f.). At the same time Xenophon moves between past and present from the good old days to the less glorious now when, P. and others have argued, Athenian society had been irrevocably altered by the effects of the Peloponnesian War (47). She observes (31) that institutions may only elicit overt comment on the inception of their decline, so that Xenophon can be understood as recording the fading-away of traditional mores in marriage and the self-sufficiency of the household. Yet the existence of a written account need only signify a new interest within narrow literary circles in certain subjects—power-politics surely outlasted Thucydides’ time.
Is it a problem that Xenophon appears both as a conservative traditionalist and as an analytical observer of Athenian society and domestic economy in its present state? We may simply regard the apparent contradiction as intentional on Xenophon’s part in this multifaceted and many-layered work, as P. does, or we can make additional assumptions. One might be that the war’s effects were less severe than P. supposes, and that Xenophon is both responding to a need to reenforce traditional values, rather than to recommend them to an age which has lost them, and commenting on the enduring good practices which have always produced beneficial results. Another might be that Xenophon certainly is playing many games here, the most complex of which is to refer to his real concerns by analogy, and that what seems to be the big picture (the domestic economy) is only the reflection. He does indeed idealise the past, as P. points out, particularly in his Persian section (iv, her commentary on...