Among the surviving authors of ancient Greek literature, Xenophon has the distinction of being the first who wrote in a variety of prose genres, forms that in turn deal with an even greater variety of subject matter. Most of the early prose writers of Greece devoted themselves with notable single-mindedness to history, the philosophic or scientific treatise of a given sort, dialogue, or rhetoric. Xenophon, however, wrote in nearly all of these forms. What is more, one of his latest works is a composition that even now is essentially sui generis. Cyropaedia has been called a historical romance. The name may be convenient, but there is no adequate classification for the work. “Didactic-romantic-political-fictional-biography” might come closer.
Xenophon incorporated into Cyropaedia some treatment of nearly all the topics that he developed separately in his more restricted works. Of his historical interests, despite the title and ostensible subject, there is only a slight trace: The historical and geographical reliability of Xenophon’s tale is minimal. The Ellnika (411-362 b.c.e.; History of the Affairs of Greece, 1685), covering Greek history from the point where Thucydides left off in 411 b.c.e. to the death of Epaminondas in 362 b.c.e., and Kyrou anabasis (between 394 and 371 b.c.e.; Anabasis, 1623) remain his only strictly historical creations. The latter, a famous account of the author’s participation as a young man in a Greek mercenary army expedition deep into the Persian Empire, is probably his best work. Cyropaedia resumes some of the Anabasis’s telling of expert generalship in exotic terrain. The extensive discussions of Cyrus’s wise arrangements in military, political, social, and economic order recall the concerns reflected in Xenophon’s Lakedaimonin politeia (n.d.; Constitution of Sparta, 1832), Logos eis Agsilaon Basilea (wr. c. 361/360 b.c.e.; Agesilaus, 1832) on the Spartan king, here treated as a model leader, Hiern tyrannikos (date unknown; Hiero, 1832), and Oikonomikos (c. 362-361 b.c.e.; Xenophon’s Treatise of Household, 1532), all written in the fourth century b.c.e. The account of Cyrus’s education and the portrait of his personal virtues and world-wisdom, which culminates in his deathbed discourse to his sons on the soul, continue in their way the philosophical writings of Xenophon that are centered on Socrates, chiefly in the Apomnmoneumata (c. 381-355 b.c.e.; Memorabilia of Socrates, 1712). The attentions devoted to horsemanship, hunting, and conviviality (“Cyrus at Banquet,” for example) are vestiges of still other works of his. As a final seasoning for the whole, Xenophon includes the first love romance in Western literature, the story of Pantheia and Abradatas.
This topical cross section presents a complex of matters from which a writer of genius might well have woven an absorbing tapestry comprising an intellectual and cultural summary of the age, an encyclopedic bildungsroman, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824) or Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927). Xenophon failed to do so. The quality of the product can be assessed after the following summary.
In book 1, Cyrus the Great is born of Cambyses, king of Persia, and Mandane, the daughter of Astyages, king of Media. Reared until his twelfth year in Persian simplicity and discipline, he then visits Media for five years. There, he learns to ride a horse and hunt, and he wins the friendship and admiration of the Medes by his virtues. He returns home and completes his training under his father’s guidance. When Media is threatened by an Assyrian invasion, Cyaxares, the son of the now-deceased Astyages, asks aid of the Persians. Cyrus...
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is sent in command of the Persian forces.
In book 2, which begins in Media, Cyrus reorganizes his army and prepares it physically and psychologically for combat. The king of Armenia, a vassal to Cyaxares, revolts.
In book 3, Cyrus reconquers the king of Armenia by brilliant strategy and recovers his allegiance to Cyaxares by equally brilliant diplomacy. He executes a similar feat with the Chaldeans, the neighbors of the Armenians. Cyaxares and Cyrus then advance together to meet the Assyrians, and, thanks largely to Cyrus’s generalship, the Assyrians are defeated in a first engagement at the border.
In book 4, Cyaxares becomes jealous of Cyrus’s reputation and decides to stay behind with his own army, allowing Cyrus to move ahead as he pleases. Cyrus, however, persuades most of the Median army to accompany him as well. He wins over to his side the Hyrcanians, a subject people of the Assyrians. After a second defeat of the Assyrians, he provides the Persians with a cavalry force of their own. In growing vexation, Cyaxares orders that the Median “volunteers” with Cyrus be sent home. Cyrus sends a message in justification of his noncompliance. Gobryas, a vassal of the Assyrian king, defects to Cyrus.
In book 5, Cyrus advances to the walls of Babylon, but he postpones an assault on the city. Three more subject peoples accede to the Persians. Cyrus returns to the border of Media and there confronts the spleen and chagrin of Cyaxares with such dexterity that his uncle is publicly reconciled to him.
In book 6, further military preparations are carried on in winter quarters. Pantheia, the wife of a noble subject of the Assyrian king, was captured earlier and given to the keeping of Araspas, a Median officer in Cyrus’s entourage. Araspas attempts to seduce her, but she appeals to Cyrus and is protected. In consequence, her husband, Abradatas, is won over to Cyrus.
In book 7, a massive army of Assyrians and allies under the command of Croesus, king of Lydia, is defeated. Before the battle, Pantheia takes leave of Abradatas, who dies a hero’s death in the fighting. Pantheia kills herself over his body. Croesus, captured after the siege of Sardis, is generously treated by Cyrus. After several other campaigns, Babylon is taken by stratagem, and victory is complete.
In book 8, Cyrus organizes his empire, marries the daughter of Cyaxares, and after a long reign holds a final edifying discourse on his deathbed. A surprising postscript sarcastically details the degeneration of the Persians since the time of Cyrus.
On the very face of it the arrangement is unpromising. The action advances without complication except for such essentially irrelevant episodes as those involving Pantheia. Xenophon’s political and moral concerns, to be sure, are worked in by series of dialogues and speeches, devices that Thucydides employed with brilliant effect. (Mann’s The Magic Mountain again provides some parallels.) For Thucydides, however, the issues and personalities of the Peloponnesian War were problematic and many-sided. Xenophon’s Cyrus, by contrast, is so idealized that no counterforce can provide tension. The nearest thing to confrontation lies in the theme of the growing jealousy of Cyaxares. Thucydides would have presented in Cyaxares a distillate of everything vital in Spartan and Athenian culture that opposed the composite of Athenian-Spartan ideals read by Xenophon into the figure of Cyrus. Xenophon’s Cyaxares, however, is no such foil; he is a pathetic individual manipulated by his hero-gentleman nephew.
The didactic material is not simply embedded in the framework of successive events without human complication; a degree of attention to context could still have made the segments memorable. For the most part, however, when Xenophon settles into a discourse or dialogue, he produces repetitious, platitudinous elegance. Skill in specious conversation was clearly part of the Greek ideal of the gentleman. In this fashion, Xenophon manages to flesh out his stick-figure design to some four hundred pages.
One moral to be drawn, then, is that Cyropaedia should never be read straight through except in Greek, where style gives some spice to many dull pages. In justice, it should also be admitted that a wisely condensed English version is worth its reading time. Anecdotes possessed of point and humor, moments with some vividness of situation and character, do occur. For example, some country bumpkin rookies in training are told that they must march behind their lieutenant. When the lieutenant is by chance sent on a postal errand, the entire platoon obediently runs off behind him. At times, the practical wisdom has its interest. Cambyses Cyrus tells how to manage his men: When encouraging them with hopes that are not certain to be fulfilled, one should not personally suggest these doubtful hopes; get someone else to act as a mouthpiece.
More important, however, some acquaintance with the text of Cyropaedia will always be worthwhile because of the position this book occupies in the development of the ancient political imagination. Both Xenophon and another Socratic enthusiast gave their minds to the problem of the inadequacy of existing Greek political systems. In its artistry and profundity, Plato’s Politeia (388-366 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701) may transcend Xenophon. Plato, however, never conceived of a satisfactory political order larger than the city-state, and the times were leaving him behind.