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 entire section is 1472 words.)