"Work with the god": military divination and rational battle-planning in Xenophon

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Xenophon opens his 'Cavalry Commander' with an injunction to the prospective commander first to seek the help of the gods (before he even procures, let alone trains, either horses or men) and closes it with an explanation of why he has laced his deeply practical advice with exhortations to "work with the god." Modern interpreters have stumbled over this blending of piety and practicality. Some, like Delbrück and, more recently, J. K. Anderson, have seen the blend as impossible, and decided that the rational strategos must have been skilled in circumventing the superstitious impediments placed in his path by irrational soothsayers. Omens, according to them, might be useful in bolstering the morale of the uneducated and superstitious rank and file, but could play no part in serious military planning. Scholarship over the last 40 years or so has been more sympathetic to military divination, and has granted it a significant role in Greek military planning. However, emphasis is often placed on the conflict between the demands of the tactical situation and the dictates of religion. This tendency manifests itself in the form of remarks upon the piety of the Greeks in withdrawing from apparently successful advances simply because of unfavourable omens. This paper offers readings of selected passages in Xenophon that suggest that, on the contrary, divination did not stand in opposition to rational battle-planning, but in fact facilitated it by providing a means of synthesising features of the tactical setting, including not only known elements but also those merely suspected or feared.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDivination and knowledge in Greco-Roman antiquity
EditorsCrystal Addey
Place of PublicationAbingdon, Oxon
PublisherRoutledge Taylor & Francis Group
Number of pages25
ISBN (Electronic)9781315449487
ISBN (Print)9781138212992, 9781032041728
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jul 2021
EventColloquium: Ritual Dynamics in Late Antiquity -
Duration: 3 Jun 2015 → …

Publication series

NameRoutledge monographs in classical studies


OtherColloquium: Ritual Dynamics in Late Antiquity
Period3/06/15 → …


  • Divination
  • Greek warfare
  • Greek religion
  • Xenophon
  • Herodotus
  • Socrates
  • Relational reasoning
  • David Zeitlyn
  • Martin Holbraad
  • Rosalind Shaw


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