CHS 2020 Spring Fellows | Carol Atack

Xenophon on liberality and freedom: ancient aristocratic values and contemporary inequalities

My project at CHS continues and develops my work on Xenophon’s political thought. I’m interested in how aristocratic elements permeate his system of character values and thus are incorporated on his thought on leadership in both democratic and non-democratic contexts. Classical Athenian discussion of freedom is marked by an interplay between the aristocratic character virtue of liberality (eleutheriotēs) and the political and economic status of freedom (eleutheria). Any citizen was eleutheros but only an elite citizen could be considered eleutherios, a distinction that Kurt Raaflaub suggests emerged at the time that Xenophon was writing (The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece, 2004). As well as the theoretical analysis of freedom as a concept, I’m interested in Xenophon’s understanding of freedom as a character quality embodied in performance in political and social spaces, and its development as part of a political aesthetics.

It is not only in Athens that political concepts and value judgements are entwined. The idea of the eleutherios seeps into modern political thought. Did the idealisation of Xenophon’s gentleman farmers by the American founding fathers participate in a similar aesthetic economy? In contemporary political debate, ‘liberal’ can mean both a positive and negative set of character qualities, depending on the political perspective of the person deploying it. The adjective ‘free’ when applied to political acts and speech may also bring along overtones of eleutherios; is there, for example, a classicising aesthetics of free speech?

Ancient sources provide an exemplar of an aestheticised discourse of freedom. The ethical and political insights of Xenophon’s fictionalised depictions of powerful political leaders such as Cyrus the Great (Cyropaedia) and Agesilaus (Agesilaus, Hellenica) can contribute to our understanding of freedom as a concept evoked by the powerful as well as the powerless. We can see that Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ empire with its hierarchical political and social arrangements illustrates character virtues outlined in Aristotle’s ethical writings, particularly those associated with ‘greatness’: liberality, magnificence and greatness of soul (Aristotle EE 3.4-6, EN 4.1-2, and Rhetoric 1.9, especially 1366b1-22). Xenophon’s account of Cyrus as king illustrates the virtues associated with greatness embodied in his actions, from the hierarchy of his court to the ritual display of his procession (Xenophon Cyropaedia books 7-8).

The eleutherios as exemplar of freedom is opposed to the aneleutheros, the one who acts as unfree. Xenophon deploys the analogy of slavery to suggest that some citizens display what he identifies as a vice associated with this quality. Again, the aesthetic elements of this critique appear to parallel contemporary political discourse.

This research will be incorporated into a paper to be presented at the Xenophon conference at the University of Liverpool, July 2020. But this research will also form part of other projects I am undertaking on Xenophon and his work, including the introduction and notes for a new translation of the Memorabilia and Apology. My long-term hope is to develop a monograph on Xenophon’s political thought, centred on transitions between forms of rule depicted in the Cyropaedia.

Carol Atack

Carol Atack is currently a bye-fellow, director of studies and tutor at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. She was previously a junior research fellow at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and a postdoctoral researcher on the Anachronism and Antiquity project in the Faculty of Classics at Oxford, and she has also held teaching positions in Classics at St Hugh’s College and the University of Warwick. She is an associate editor of Polis: the journal for Greek and Roman Political Thought.

Her books include The Discourse of Kingship in Classical Greece (Routledge, 2020) and Anachronism and Antiquity (Bloomsbury, 2020, co-authored with Tim Rood and Tom Phillips). Articles and book chapters include ‘Plato’s Queer Time: dialogic moments in the life and death of Socrates’, Classical Receptions Journal (2020); ‘Plato, Foucault and the conceptualization of parrhēsia’, History of Political Thought (2019), and ‘Xenophon and the performativity of kingship’, in D. Allen, P. Christesen and P. Millett (eds.), How To Do Things With History (Oxford University Press, 2018), along with other papers on topics in Greek political thought and the works of Aristotle and Isocrates. She has also contributed to the Anachronism and Antiquity project blog at