Reading Xenophon's Symposium

Hobden, Fiona (2005). Reading Xenophon's Symposium. Ramus, 34(2) pp. 93–111.



In just over a decade, interest in Xenophon's Symposium has risen dramatically. No longer the poor relation to its author's more popular Socratic works or to Plato's dialogue of the same name, it now merits scholarly attention on a regular basis. However, despite an increased sensitivity to the author's literary and philosophical strategies, modern readings of the text are informed above all by the presence of Socrates. Because the philosopher is assumed to be Xenophon's primary interest, the Symposium is viewed as an apology for the radical philosopher or a promotion of his ideas and methods. This perception derives in part from an old-fashioned dismissal of Xenophon as a poor man's Plato, intellectually incapable of anything more than biography. But it also relates to the work's longstanding association with Xenophon's other Socratic works, namely the Apology, Memorabilia, and Oeconomicus. Since scholarship on Xenophon began, the four texts have been treated as a unit, bound in purpose by their depiction of Socrates. However, although the philosopher certainly features prominently in these four texts, each work is structurally distinct. In the Apology, the narrator invites Hermogenes to replay his final conversation with Socrates and to describe the philosopher's performance in court, in order to correct inadequate understandings of Socrates' choice of death over life. By contrast, the Memorabilia depicts Socrates in extended disputation with many interlocutors on a wide variety of subjects as he seeks to lead them towards virtue and, in the narrator's opinion, demonstrates himself to be kalos kagathos (literally ‘beautiful and good’). Then again, the Oeconomicus records two exchanges, one between Socrates and Critoboulus and another between Socrates and Ischomachus, and juxtaposes their arguments one against the other. And finally, the Symposium locates Socrates within a lively symposion (drinking party) at the house of Callias, son of Hipponicus, in Athens during 422 BCE. Here, the philosopher often directs the conversation. However, his drinking companions also participate freely in the performances and conversations that take place. In short, Xenophon's four Socratic texts all have their own dramatic contexts and conceits, with different structures and ambitions, and different roles for Socrates. Yet even amongst them, the Symposium's dramatic staging of a vibrant and varied symposion particularly stands out.

Viewing alternatives


Public Attention

Altmetrics from Altmetric

Number of Citations

Citations from Dimensions
No digital document available to download for this item

Item Actions