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Xenophon: Warrior and Chronicler of Ancient Greece

“Xenophon dictating his memoirs Credit: A. C. Weatherstone (1888–1929)‘Hutchinson’s History of the Nations’, 1915/Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

The Greek military leader, philosopher and historian Xenophon of Athens was beyond a doubt one of the most extraordinary figures of ancient Greece. Indeed, the primary question of researchers who study his life and works is what to call him — a brilliant war tactician, a great writer, an insightful philosopher or an invaluable historian of the tumultuous times he lived in.

He was all of these, to be sure, a man who was a polymath, a man of action and deep, nuanced thought as well. Someone who seemed to be in the right place at the right time,  being able to not only chronicle the life of one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived, Socrates, his teacher — but to also lead Greek troops into battle and create battle strategies that are still used today.

Xenophon as pictured by an 19th-century artist, leading the Ten Thousand in the Persian campaign. John Steeple Davis The story of the greatest nations, from the dawn of history to the twentieth century (published in 1900) Credit: Public domain

Born in approximately 430 BC in Athens to a father, Gryllus, who was a member of the equestrian class,  he died in 354 BC, aged approximately 77, most likely in Corinth.

The author of works including Hellenica, Anabasis, Education of Cyrus, Memorabilia the Symposium, Oeconomicus, Hiero, (Socrates’) Apology, Agesilaus, and the Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, his military exploits took him far afield, as he served as a general in the army of the great Persian King Cyrus the Younger.

At the age of 30, Xenophon was elected to be a commander of one of the largest Greek mercenary armies, “The Ten Thousand,” which marched on and came close to capturing Babylon in 401 BC.

As the military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge wrote, “the centuries since have devised nothing to surpass the genius of this warrior.”

Xenophon established precedents for many logistical operations for the military, and was among the first to use flanking maneuvers and feints. Xenophon’s work Anabasis recounts his adventures with The Ten Thousand, Cyrus’s failed campaign to claim the Persian throne from Artaxerxes II of Persia, and the return of Greek mercenaries after Cyrus’s death in the Battle of Cunaxa.

Xenophon bust
The Greek warrior, historian and philosopher Xenophon. Credit: Public domain

Anabasis is a work of unique genius, a first-hand account showing great humility and self-awareness, written by the brilliant general after he returned from battle.

Xenophon also wrote “Cyropaedia,” which not only outlined both the military and political methods used by Cyrus the Great to conquer the late Assyrian Empire in 539 BC but outlined his thoughts on the nature of governance itself.

Historians believe that both Anabasis and Cyropaedia inspired Alexander the Great to conquer Babylon and the Achaemenid Empire in 331 BC.

As a student and friend of Socrates, Xenophon recounted several Socratic dialogues – the Symposium, a tribute to Socrates called Memorabilia, and a chronicle of the philosopher’s trial in 399 BC, the Apology of Socrates to the Jury.

The mere reading Xenophon’s “Memorabilia” inspired Zeno of Citium to completely change his life and create the Stoic school of philosophy.

For at least two millennia, Xenophon’s many talents fueled the debate of whether to place Xenophon with history’s greatest generals, historians or philosophers. For the majority of time in the past two millennia, Xenophon was actually recognized foremost as a philosopher.

A surviving papyrus fragment of Xenopon’s work Hellenica, Papyrus PSI 1197, Laurentian Library, Florence. Credit: Sailko/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Quintilian, in “The Orator’s Education,” discusses the most prominent historians, orators and philosophers as examples of eloquence and recognizes Xenophon’s work in the realm of history, but ultimately places Xenophon next to Plato as a philosopher.

Today, Xenophon is best known for his historical writings. The “Hellenica” continues directly from the final sentence of Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War,” covering the last seven years of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) and the subsequent forty two years (404 BC–362 BC) ending with the Second Battle of Mantinea.

Persian campaign
The route of Xenophon and the Ten Thousand (red line) in the Achaemenid Empire. The satrapy of Cyrus the Younger is delineated in green. Tabula geographica Cyri et Xenophontis expeditionem illustrans – Universiteitsbibliotheek VU.jpg Credit: Public domain

Despite being born an Athenian citizen, Xenophon came to be associated with Sparta, the city-state that was the traditional opponent of Athens. Experience as a mercenary and a military leader, service under Spartan commanders in Ionia, Asia Minor, Persia and elsewhere, exile from Athens, and his friendship with King Agesilaus II endeared Xenophon to the Spartans themselves.

Much of what is known today about Spartan society comes from Xenophon’s works – including the royal biography of the Spartan king Agesilaus and the “Constitution of the Lacedaemonians.”

Recognized universally as one of the greatest writers of antiquity, Xenophon’s works span multiple genres and are written in plain Attic Greek, which is why they have often been used in translation exercises for contemporary students of the Ancient Greek language.

The “Attic Muse” was also a brilliant military tactician

In the “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers,” Diogenes Laërtius observed that Xenophon was known as the “Attic Muse” because of the sweetness of his diction. Several centuries later, the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero described Xenophon’s mastery of Greek composition in “Orator” by saying “the muses were said to speak with the voice of Xenophon.”

The Roman orator, attorney and teacher of rhetoric Quintilian echos Cicero in “The Orator’s Education,” saying “the Graces themselves seem to have molded his style and the goddess of persuasion sat upon his lips.”

Detailed accounts of events in his work “Hellenica” suggest that Xenophon personally witnessed the Return of Alcibiades in 407 BC, the Trial of the Generals in 406 BC, and the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants in 403 BC.

As he himself recounted in Anabasis, he was personally invited by Proxenus of Beotia, one of the captains in Cyrus’ mercenary army, to join forces with the Persians as a paid soldier. Xenophon promptly sailed to Ephesus to meet Cyrus the Younger and participate in the military campaign against Tissaphernes, the Persian satrap of Ionia.

The Anabasis has been called a narrative of how “Xenophon rouses the despairing Greeks into action and leads them on their long march home; and the narrative of his successes has won him noteworthy, if uneven, admiration for over two millennia.”

“Anabasis” recounts military exploits as mercenary for Persians

Written years after he returned, Anabasis (Greek: ἀνάβασις, literally “going up”) is his record of the expedition of Cyrus and the Greek mercenaries’ journey home.

The mercenaries, known as the Ten Thousand, found themselves without leadership, far from the sea, deep in hostile territory near the heart of Mesopotamia, with a hostile population and armies to deal with. They then elected new leaders, including Xenophon himself.

Dodge says of Xenophon’s generalship, “Xenophon is the father of the system of retreat, the originator of all that appertains to the science of rear-guard fighting. He reduced its management to a perfect method.

“More originality in tactics has come from the Anabasis than from any dozen other books.  Necessity to Xenophon was truly the mother of invention, but the centuries since have devised nothing to surpass the genius of this warrior. No general ever possessed a grander moral ascendant over his men. None ever worked for the safety of his soldiers with greater ardor or to better effect.”

He often would make it appear as if his army was going to fight along many different fronts, leading the enemy to space their troops so sparsely that he could blast through their thinned ranks with ease.

Filled with originality and tactical genius, Xenophon’s brilliant conduct of the retreat caused the historian Dodge to name the Athenian knight as the greatest general up to the time of Alexander the Great.

Xenophon’s exhortation “Let us strive so that each one of us can consider ourselves architects of victory,” appears to reflect his insight into leading men on the field of battle.

Xenophon’s political thought

Xenophon has long been associated with the opposition to the Athenian democracy of his time, of which he saw the shortcomings, and the ultimate defeat of Sparta’s oligarchic power as well.

Although Xenophon seems to prefer oligarchy, or at least the aristocracy, especially in light of his association with Sparta, none of his works places a major focus on attacking the notion of democracy.

His beliefs on the moral correctness, or at least the utilitarianism, of freedom, can be seen in his epithet “Voluntary obedience is always better than forced obedience.”

But there are definitely some mockeries and subtle criticisms here and there in his works, for instance a dialogue between the Spartan commander and Xenophon himself (Book IV, Chap.6, l.16).

Xenophon cleverly places the critique in the mouth of his Spartan interlocutor when he says “I, too, hear that you Athenians are clever at stealing public funds, and this even though the danger is quite extreme for the thief; and indeed the best do it the most, if indeed the best among you are those considered worthy of ruling.”

Some scholars go so far as to say Xenophon’s views aligned with those of the democracy in his time. However, certain of his works, in particular the Cyropaedia, seem to show his oligarchic mindset.

Xenophon’s Cyropaedia

Xenophon wrote the Cyropaedia as a way to give form to his political and moral philosophy. He accomplished this by endowing a fictional version of the boyhood of Cyrus the Great, founder of the first Persian Empire, with the qualities of what Xenophon considered the ideal ruler.

The Cyropaedia as a whole lavishes a great deal of praise on the first Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, on account of his virtue and leadership quality, and it was only through his greatness that the Persian Empire held together.

This book is normally read as a positive treatise about Cyrus. However, following the lead of Leo Strauss, David Johnson suggests that there is a subtle but strong message there, in which Xenophon conveys criticism of not only the Persians but the Spartans and Athenians as well.

Subtle criticisms of empire/monarchy

The strength of Cyrus in holding the empire together is indeed praiseworthy, according to Xenophon. However, the empire began to decline upon the death of Cyrus. By this example, Xenophon sought to show that empires in themselves lacked stability and could only be maintained by a person of extraordinary prowess, such as Cyrus.

By showing that only someone whose leadership abilities are nearly superhuman could keep an empire together, Xenophon indirectly censures the imperial model of political organization.

He also reflects on the state of his own reality in an even more indirect fashion, using the example of the Persians to decry the attempts at empire made by both Athens and Sparta. Although partially graced with hindsight, having written the Cyropaedia after the downfall of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, this work criticizes the Greek attempts at empire and “monarchy”, dooming them to failure.

A phrase Xenophon employed, “The rich who don’t know how to use their wealth are incurably poor of spirit,” seems to encapsulate his vision of the futility of great wealth and power in the wrong hands.

Since the Spartans wrote nothing about their society — or it has been completely lost  — what we know about them comes exclusively from those from other city states such as Xenophon.

Xenophon’s natural affinity for the Spartans is clear in his work “Constitution of the Spartans,” as well as his leaning toward oligarchy. As the opening line says:

“It occurred to me one day that Sparta, though among the most thinly populated of states, was evidently the most powerful and most celebrated city in Greece; and I fell to wondering how this could have happened. But when I considered the institutions of the Spartans, I wondered no longer.”

Interpreter of Socratic works and dialogues

Xenophon’s literary works include a selection of Socratic dialogues, as remembered from the days when he was taught by the great man; amazingly, these writings are completely preserved. Perhaps a tribute to the brilliant teacher is reflected in Xenophon’s phrase when he says “The sweetest of all sounds is praise.”

Along with the dialogues of Plato, these works are the only surviving writings of Socratic dialogue. These include Xenophon’s “Apology,” “Memorabilia,” “Symposium,” “and Oeconomicus.” The Symposium outlines the character of Socrates as he and his companions discuss what human attributes they take pride in.

No doubt referring to his brilliant teacher, “Where the teacher is not pleasing to the pupil, there is no education.”

Both the Apology and the Memorabilia defend Socrates’ character and teachings. The former is set during the trial of Socrates, essentially defending Socrates’ character, while the latter explains his moral principles, emphasizing that he was not a corrupter of the youth.

Personal relationship with Socrates

In his “Lives of Eminent Philosophers,” the Greek biographer Diogenes Laërtius, writing many centuries later, reports how Xenophon met Socrates.

“They say that Socrates met (Xenophon) in a narrow lane, and put his stick across it and prevented him from passing by, asking him where all kinds of necessary things were sold. And when Xenophon had answered him, Socrates asked him again where men were made good and virtuous. And as he did not know, he said, ‘Follow me, then, and learn.'”

Xenophon was away on his Persian campaign during the trial and death of Socrates, but much of Xenophon’s Socratic writing, especially his Apology, concerns that very trial and the defense Socrates made for himself, answering questions that arose after the trial as well.

Many scholars believe that Xenophon wrote his Apology and Memorabilia as defenses of his former teacher, and to further his philosophy, not to present a literal transcript of Socrates’ response to the historical charges against him.

His devotion to his beloved teacher was clear, and the old warrior must have felt he had done his duty to the brilliant philosopher in his Apologia.

The Greek historian Diogenes recorded that Xenophon lived in Corinth until his death in 354 BC. The geographer Pausanias mentions that the old warrior and philosopher’s tomb is in Scillus, near Olympia.

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