Xenophon Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

0111205903-Xenophon.jpg Xenophon (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Greek historian and philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Xenophon} Through his writings on subjects ranging from the practical to the philosophical, Xenophon, a pupil of Socrates, sought in the fourth century b.c.e. to instruct and improve Greek society. His works provide the modern reader with a clearer picture of the ancient world.

Early Life

Xenophon (ZEN-oh-fuhn) was born in Athens around 431 b.c.e. His father, Gryllus, was a wealthy Athenian aristocrat. Little is known of Xenophon’s early life, but he would have come of age during the latter years of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.), the great conflict between Athens and Sparta. He probably served in one of the crack Athenian cavalry units.

As a youth, Xenophon became a pupil of Socrates, joining an intellectual circle that included at various times such diverse personalities as Alcibiades and Plato. Socrates’ teaching was frequently conducted out of doors and in an informal manner. No citizen was barred from listening to him or taking part in the discussions, and in a sense his pupils taught themselves. Each student thus developed his own concepts of who Socrates was and what he was saying; therefore, Xenophon should not be faulted because his views of Socrates were not those of Plato, who was gifted with an entirely different quality of mind.

Socrates’ belief in moral purposes and his emphasis on the essential goodness of humankind would have appealed to Xenophon’s sense of conventional morality. He was not a clever or brilliant pupil but a solid, practical person; probably he took some notes during Socrates’ conversations, which would become in later years part of his Apomnēmoneumata (c. 381-355 b.c.e.; Memorabilia of Socrates, 1712) and the Apologia Sōcratous (c. 384 b.c.e.; Apology of Socrates, 1762). The latter work was thought at one time to be by another author, but it is most likely genuine. Another brief work, the Symposion (Symposium, 1710), whose date, like much of Xenophon’s writing, is unknown, places Socrates at an Athenian dinner party, where he discusses a variety of subjects, including the nature of love.

Athens was slipping beyond her golden age as the fifth century waned; Sparta’s triumph and the political infighting between the parties of the right and left had tarnished the Athenian democracy. Socrates was increasingly viewed as a suspicious and even dangerous person, for he asked too many questions.

Xenophon was uncertain as to what career he should pursue. In 401, a friend and professional soldier, Proxenus, suggested that he join a band of mercenaries commanded by Prince Cyrus (Cyrus the Younger), son of King Darius II of Persia, on an expedition against his brother, Artaxerxes II. The lure of adventure, riches, and military glory was strong, but Xenophon hesitated and consulted Socrates, who advised him to seek counsel of the oracle at Delphi.

Xenophon went to Delphi but apparently had already made a decision before his arrival, since he asked Apollo not whether he should take service with the Persians, but how best the journey might be made. Returning home, he bade Socrates farewell, and the old man advised him to do the will of the god. They were never to meet again.

Life’s Work

The high point of Xenophon’s life was his military adventures in the Persian Empire, which he vividly describes in the Kyrou anabasis (between 394 and 371 b.c.e.; Anabasis, 1623). In March, 401, Prince Cyrus led his mixed force of Greeks, Persians, and other troops from the city of Sardis in western Asia Minor to the Euphrates River and on toward Babylon. At Cunaxa on September 3, 401, a battle was fought between his and Artaxerxes’ forces, and Cyrus was killed. Leaderless and isolated in hostile country, the Greeks were further devastated by the murder of their officers, who had been negotiating after the conflict with the Persians, under a flag of truce. Among the slain was Xenophon’s friend Proxenus.

There could be no time for mourning; the ten thousand Greeks who survived elected new commanders, Xenophon being one, and hastily retreated northward into the mountains of Kurdistan and Armenia and fought their way back to the Greek colony of Trapezus on the Black Sea. The March of the Ten Thousand took approximately five months, and Xenophon undoubtedly played a vital role in its success. He kept a journal, which he would use in writing the Anabasis decades later.

As Julius Caesar would later do, Xenophon told his story in the third person. Indeed, for reasons now unknown it was originally published under an assumed name. There is, however, no question of authorship; the writing style is Xenophon’s, and several ancient authors, Plutarch being one, list the Anabasis among his works.

Lively and well written, the Anabasis is filled with details of army life, scenes of the countrysides through which the Greeks were passing, descriptions of strange animals and birds (such as ostriches, which ran too fast for the soldiers to catch), and the savage tribes that harassed the “Ten Thousand” on their long march to the sea. The Anabasis is Xenophon’s most popular work.

The conclusion of these five months of danger and hardship was not as Xenophon had hoped. Denied the opportunity of enrichment and glory serving Prince Cyrus, Xenophon considered founding a colony on the Black Sea. Omens from the gods were unfavorable, however, and the Greeks were now divided in their aims. He and some of his friends were...

(The entire section is 2320 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Military History)

Article abstract: Military significance: Xenophon wrote two of the earliest surviving textbooks dealing with the cavalry and horsemanship.

Xenophon was born into an upper-class Athenian family during the early years of the Peloponnesian Wars. As a youth, he was acquainted with Socrates. He was born into the knights, men who were wealthy enough to maintain a horse and serve in the cavalry. He reached maturity in time to serve in the final years of the Peloponnesian Wars.

In 401 b.c.e., he left Athens to seek his fortune in the service of Cyrus the Younger against Cyrus’s brother King Artaxerxes II Mnemon of Persia. At the Battle of Cunaxa (401 b.c.e.), Cyrus was killed and the Greek forces (the Ten Thousand) were forced to flee. Xenophon played a critical role, according to his own account in Kurou anabasis (Anabasis, 1623; also known as Expedition of Cyrus and March Up Country), in the evacuation of the Greek forces. Xenophon’s other writings include Hipparchikos (On the Cavalry General, 1832), which dealt with the duties of a cavalry commander, and Peri hippikēs (The Art of Riding, 1584), both studies on military science. Eventually, Xenophon became commander in chief of the force serving under the Thracian king Seuthes II against Persia from 399 to 377 b.c.e.

Meanwhile, in Athens, at the time of Socrates’ execution, Xenophon was deemed a traitor and banished in absentia. The banishment was lifted in 371 b.c.e., but Xenophon spent the remainder of his life in Corinth.

Further Reading:

Anderson, J. K. Xenophon. New York: Scribner, 1974.

Grant, Michael. The Classical Greeks. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1997.

Hutchinson, Godfrey. Xenophon: And the Art of Command. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 2000.

Xenophon. A History of My Times (Hellenica). London: Penguin, 1979.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Further Reading:

Anderson, J. K. Military Theory and Practice in the Age of Xenophon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. The title gives the focus of the work. This lengthy study (more than four hundred pages, including index and bibliography) is enhanced by diagrams of formations and battle plans, as well as nineteen black-and-white plates illustrating military costumes and weapons.

Dillery, John. Xenophon and the History of His Times. New York: Routledge, 1995. An extensive treatment of Xenophon’s historical writing and the times they address. Includes discussions of the Battle of Mantinea, the...

(The entire section is 565 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Born in Athens about 431 b.c.e., Xenophon (ZEHN-uh-fuhn), son of Gryllus of the Attic deme Erchia, belonged to a well-to-do family and was a disciple of Socrates, though not a member of his intimate circle. He grew up at a time of oligarchic revolution in Athens, and he probably left Athens in 401 b.c.e. because of political precariousness. That same year, he joined in an adventurous expedition to overthrow the king of Persia. He then spent a few years in Asia Minor with mercenary troops under Spartan command. Exiled from Athens around 399, he eventually settled in the Peloponnese, where he lived with his two sons and wife, Philesia, as a country gentleman on an estate...

(The entire section is 748 words.)