Xenophon: Extract from 'Oeconomicus' (The Estate Manager) | Sabidius.com
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Ancient Greece

Xenophon: Extract from ‘Oeconomicus’ (The Estate Manager)


Xenophon (c.428-354 B.C.) was a historian and a miscellaneous writer, a military leader and a disciple of Socrates, of whom he was a pupil at an early age. As a writer, he was together with Thucydides and Plato one of the great exponents of Attic Greek. His principal works are the ‘Anabasis’, an account of the campaign of the Greek army which marched into Asia in 401, and their subsequent retreat along the Tigris and the plateaux of Armenia to Trapezus on the Black Sea, during which Xenophon was elected as one of the generals; the ‘Cyropaedia’, a political romance based on the early life and education of Cyrus, the founder of the Persian monarchy; and the ‘Hellenica’, a continuation of Thucydides’ history, which covers the last seven years of the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath. Besides these he was also the author of a number of minor works, the most important of which is the ‘Oeconomicus’, a treatise on estate management. In this and his other Socratic dialogues, Xenophon seeks to preserve the sayings of his mentor, but in these Socrates comes over as less of a philosopher than a dispenser of practical advice.

The text of the extract translated below and the introduction to it are taken from ‘A Greek Anthology’, JACT, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

‘Oeconomicus’, Sections 7.16 – 7.32.2. The duties of husband and wife.

This short treatise, ‘the Estate Manager’, takes the form of a Socratic dialogue. In it Xenophon describes a conversation which Socrates had with Critobulus (‘I once heard him discussing estate management as follows…’) in which he discusses the various qualities required by an estate manager. It is agreed that the estate manager should be ‘a truly good man’. In the second part of the dialogue, Socrates reports to Critobulus the words of ‘a truly good man’, Ischomachus, who owns a small estate and has recently married a young wife. He tells Socrates how he runs his estate and how he has trained his wife to take her share of the responsibilities. In this section we have three layers of narration: ‘Xenophon says that Socrates said that Ischomachus said that…’ Much of the time in the description of Ischomachus’ conversation with his wife direct speech is used, though occasionally ‘he said that he said’ or just ‘he said’ is inserted to remind us that this is a reported narrative.

Ischomachus’ wife was ‘not yet fifteen years old’ when he married her, with no experience of life outside her own home. Ischomachus was probably in his mid-thirties, and regarded himself as responsible for training her, in the same way as he would have trained his horses, his servants or his overseers. It is agreed that ‘a truly good man’ like Ischomachus can train his wife (or his foreman or his horse) to be a good and useful asset. An underlying theme of the dialogue is the question whether good qualities are innate or can be taught.

My wife said ‘Can you see what (there is) that I, (by) doing (it), can help to increase our property?’

‘Yes by Zeus,’ said I, ‘try to do as well as possible those things which the gods made you capable (of doing) and custom sanctions.’

‘And pray what is that?’ said she.

‘Not things worth very little, I think,’ said he, ‘unless indeed the queen bee in the hive presides over tasks worth very little. For indeed the gods seem to me, O wife, he said that he said, very prudently, to have joined together this couple (lit. yoke-pair), which is called female and male, in order that it may be as useful as possible to itself in partnership. For, in the first place, so that the races of living creatures may not fail, this pair is established with each other for the breeding of children, (and) then the outcome of that partnership provides for them carers in old age, among human beings at any rate. Then, the way of life for humans is not in the open air, as (it is) for wild animals, but there is clearly a need for roofs. However, for men intending to store what they can carry into the shelter, it is necessary for someone to work at occupations in the open-air. For ploughing and sowing and planting and pasturings are all such open-air tasks. And from these the supplies (of food) occur. And again, it is necessary, as soon as these things have been brought into the shelter, for someone to look after them and for someone to work at the tasks that are needing (to be done) in covered places. The nursing of new-born children needs covered places, and the making of bread from corn needs covered places also. And, similarly too, the manufacture of clothing from wool. And, since both these indoor and outdoor tasks need labour and care, and, he said, God straightway adapted the nature of the woman, as it seems to me, to the indoor tasks and cares, and that of the man to the outdoor (ones).

‘For he made the body and the mind of the man more able to endure cold and heat and journeys and campaigns; with the result that he assigns to him the outdoor tasks; and to the woman, having made her body less able in respect of these things, God seems to me, he said that he said, to have assigned the indoor tasks to her. And knowing that he had implanted and assigned to the woman the rearing of the newly-born, he also gave more of the love for new-born babies to her than to the man. And, since he assigned to the woman the protection of what had been stored, God, knowing that for protection it is not a worse thing to be fearful in respect of one’s disposition, he gave a greater share of fear to the woman than to the man. And, knowing that it would be necessary for the man, having the outdoor tasks, to be their defender as well if anyone did (them) a wrong, he gave to him in turn a greater share of courage. But, because it is necessary for both to give and to take, he assigned to both impartially (lit. into the middle) memory and attention; with the result that you could not distinguish whether the female or the male sex have a larger share of these. And, to be in control (of oneself), (something) which it is necessary (for both), he assigned to both impartially (lit. into the middle), and God has given power to whomever is the better, whether (it is) the man or the woman, to win a larger proportion of this good. On account of the fact that the nature of both (sexes) is not well formed towards all the same things, on account of this they need each other (all the) more, and the pair has become more useful to itself, (as) where the one falls short, the other (is) capable.’

He said, ‘It is necessary for us, O wife, knowing those things which have been assigned to each of us by God, to try to carry out what is fitting for each of us as well as possible. Moreover, he said that he said, the law approves of them, joining man and woman together. Just as God has made (them) partners in their children, so the law (makes) them partners in their home. And besides custom declares that they are honourable things in respect of which God has made each one more capable (than the other). Thus, for the woman it is more honourable to remain indoors than to abide in the fields, and for the man (it is) more shameful to remain indoors than to attend to the (tasks) outside. If a man acts contrary to what God has made (him), perhaps he does not altogether escape the attention of the gods for his indiscipline, and he pays the penalty for neglecting his own tasks, or for doing his wife’s tasks. The queen of the bees seems to me, he said, to be working hard at such tasks as assigned by God.’

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