Xenophon of Athens was a man who wore many hats. If you met him later in life, you’d maybe call him a historian or a philosopher. He was a close friend and student of Socrates. His writings are still some of the most influential works to come out of Classical Antiquity. But Xenophon lived two lives.
Before he was a respected writer and philosopher, Xenophon was just a young soldier, trapped deep in enemy territory, with nothing to take him and his men home but their feet and the will to survive.
Plato and Socrates were great thinkers, but I doubt either of them would have survived the nightmare that was the Anabasis.
Xenophon’s story starts the same as most famous Greeks: He was born to a wealthy family in Athens in 430 BC. Chances are, if you’re a Greek who made history, that meant you were part of the elite, and Xenophon was no different. But while plenty of his countrymen squandered their privilege, Xenophon made a name for himself.
During Xenophon’s lifetime, the Greeks were some of the best soldiers on Earth—and that made them valuable. Many states hired Greek mercenaries to do their dirty work. By the time Xenophon was 30, he had joined The Ten Thousand, an elite mercenary force. Cyrus the Younger, a Persian prince, hired the Ten Thousand to help him steal his brother’s throne. It…didn’t go as planned.
With the Ten Thousand at his back, Cyrus defeated his brother’s force near Babylon. The only problem? He got himself killed in the process, making the entire thing moot. With their leader gone, Cyrus’s force unraveled, and nobody cared to bring the Greek mercenaries home with them. So, Xenophon and his countrymen found themselves stranded deep in Persia with no allies, no supplies, and no way home.
Since the Ten Thousand’s generals had been all been executed in the aftermath of the battle, they needed new leaders. They held a vote, and Xenophon made the cut. No one really knew it yet, but that was an excellent decision. Xenophon was one of the most brilliant men in antiquity, and he was their only hope.
The Fight Begins
Xenophon knew he had no choice but to get moving. Though it was thousands of miles north, their best hope for survival was to reach the Black Sea. But the remaining Persian force wasn’t about to let the Ten Thousand walk away unbothered, to potentially return to finish the job some day. As if Xenophon’s job wasn’t hard enough, the Persians followed them tirelessly, harrying them from a distance.
Xenophon focused on getting his men traveling north, so he ignored the Persians. That made them bolder, edging closer and closer to the Greeks with each passing day. They didn’t realize they were walking into a trap until it was too late. After days without resistance, the Persians approached the Greek encampment one morning—and the Ten Thousand were waiting for them. Their cavalry smashed into the Persians, completely decimating them.
It was an important lesson for anyone who might challenge the Ten Thousand: They were trapped deep in Persia without supplies, but they’d be no easy prey.
The return didn’t get any easier from there. The Ten Thousand had only the food they carried with them; not nearly enough to make it home. They traded for food when they could, but most often they simply pillaged whatever defenseless village they came across. It wasn’t particularly honorable, and they no doubt claimed countless innocent lives, but they had little choice.
Despite their lack of supplies, food was among the least of their troubles. They were an elite fighting force who could likely force anyone to give them food. But that couldn’t save them from needing to march thousands of miles across barren deserts and snowcapped mountains. Throw in the Persian king’s armies, who harried the Ten Thousand for leagues, it seemed like the Greeks stood a snowflake’s chance in hell.
But they were some of the most well-trained, disciplined soldiers in the world—and they had Xenophon. That would be enough.
“Thalatta! Thalatta!” In Ancient Greek, that means, “The sea! The sea!” and it’s what the Ten Thousand cried out when they finally reached their first goal: The Black Sea. Finally, they’d reached Greek territory—but their journey was far from over. The Greeks were a surly and divided lot, and the Ten Thousand were still one of the world’s greatest fighting forces, exhausted and depleted as they were. They were in high demand.
Xenophon didn’t even get to enjoy a moment’s peace at the end of his journey. On the journey back along the coast of the Black Sea, the Ten Thousand helped a Thracian warlord named Seuthes become king. Next, a Spartan general hired them, so Xenophon and the boys went straight off again to fight another war. By the time he finally made it back to Greece, he’d been gone seven years.
No Rest For The Wicked
Xenophon had earned a minute’s rest. For his service, he received an estate in Spartan territory, where he remained for the rest of his life. He filled his time with writing, producing some of the most influential and well-read works of Classical Antiquity, the greatest of which was his Anabasis (“The Ascent”). It detailed the harrowing march of the Ten Thousand, forever enshrining one of the most remarkable adventures in human history.
All About Xenophon
Xenophon, (born c. 430 BCE, Attica, Greece—died shortly before 350, Attica), Greek historian and philosopher whose numerous surviving works are valuable for their depiction of late Classical Greece. His Anabasis (“Upcountry March”) in particular was highly regarded in antiquity and had a strong influence on Latin literature.
Xenophon’s life history before 401 is scantily recorded; at that time, prompted by a Boeotian friend, he left postwar Athens, joined the Greek mercenary army of the Achaemenian prince Cyrus the Younger, and became involved in Cyrus’s rebellion against his brother, the Persian king Artaxerxes II. After Cyrus’s defeat at Cunaxa (about 50 miles [80 km] from Babylon in what is now Iraq), the Greeks (later known as the Ten Thousand) returned to Byzantium via Mesopotamia, Armenia, and northern Anatolia. Xenophon was one of the men selected to replace five generals seized and executed by the Persians. The persistence and skill of the Greek soldiers were used by proponents of Panhellenism as proof that the Persians were vulnerable. Initially viewed with hostility by Sparta (the current Greek hegemonic power), the mercenaries found employment in the winter of 400–399 with the Thracian prince Seuthes but then entered Spartan service for a war to liberate Anatolian Greeks from Persian rule. Unpersuaded by Seuthes’s offers of land and marriage to his daughter and evidently disinclined (despite protestations to the contrary) to return home, Xenophon remained with his comrades. Although the Anabasis narrative stops at this point and further details are lacking, he clearly became closely involved with senior Spartans, notably (after 396) King Agesilaus II. When a Greek coalition, including Athens, rebelled against Spartan hegemony in mainland Greece, Xenophon fought (at Coronea in 394) for Sparta.
Whether his service to Sparta caused or reflected his formal exile from Athens remains a matter of some dispute, but exiled he certainly was. The Spartans gave him somewhere to live at Scillus (across the Alpheus River from Olympia), a small city in the Triphylian state created after Sparta’s defeat of Elis in 400. During his years there, Xenophon served as Sparta’s representative at Olympia, and he sent his sons to Sparta for their education. Some historians believe that he also made a trip to Sicily during this period. He certainly used his mercenary booty to buy land and erect a small-scale copy of Artemis’s famous temple at Ephesus. (In Anabasis, Book V, there is a well-known description of this sacred estate and of the annual quasi-civic festival celebrated there.) Too prominent to be unscathed by Sparta’s loss of authority after the Battle of Leuctra (371), Xenophon was expelled from Scillus and is said to have settled in Corinth—though here, as elsewhere, the biographical tradition is of debatable authority, since the episode does not appear in Xenophon’s own writings.
The claim that his exile was formally repealed is another case in point, but his Hipparchicus (Cavalry Commander) and Vectigalia (Ways and Means) suggest that Xenophon had a sympathetic interest in Athens’s fortunes, and rapprochement is reflected in his sons’ service in the Athenian cavalry at the second Battle of Mantinea (362). The death of Xenophon’s son Gryllus there unleashed such a profusion of eulogies that Aristotle later gave the subtitle Gryllus to a dialogue that criticized Isocrates’ views of rhetoric. At the time of his own death, Xenophon’s standing—as author of a considerable oeuvre and hero of an adventure nearly five decades old but ideologically vivid in a Greek world defined by its relationship to Persia—had never been higher. Posthumously his place in the canon of ancient authors was secure; he was a historian, philosopher, and man of action, a perfect model for the young (a view expressed, for example, by Dion Chrysostom [Dio Cocceianus]) and an object of systematic literary imitation by Arrian.
Xenophon produced a large body of work, all of which survives to the present day. (Indeed, the manuscript tradition includes Constitution of the Athenians, which is not by Xenophon.) The great majority of his works were probably written during the last 15 to 20 years of his life, but their chronology has not been decisively established. His output was formally varied—the main categories were long historical or ostensibly historical narratives, Socratic texts, and short technical, biographical, or political treatises—but these had common features, as enumerated below.
First, Xenophon’s work is characterized by novelty. His output includes the earliest or earliest surviving examples of the short nonmedical treatise and of autobiographical narrative (Anabasis). Other works, although not without precedent in genre, are unusual in various ways; this is true of the idiosyncratic contemporary history of Hellenica (“Greek History”) and the fictive history of Cyropaedia (“Education of Cyrus”); the second-order, philosophically nontechnical response to (or exploitation of) Socratic literature found in Memorabilia, Symposium (“Drinking Party”), Oeconomicus (“Household Management”), and Apology; and the novel form of encomiastic biography exemplified by Agesilaus.
Second, the subject matter reflects Xenophon’s personal experiences. Anabasis and Cyropaedia flowed from the adventure of 401–400; the Socratic writings stemmed from youthful association with a charismatic teacher; Hellenica arose from a personal take on the politico-military history of his times; treatises on military command, horsemanship, household management, and hunting derived from prolonged personal experience of each; Ways and Means was inspired by concern about Athens’s finances and political fortunes; and Hiero may have originated in a visit to Sicily.
Third, Xenophon’s agenda was essentially didactic (usually with direct or indirect reference to military or leadership skills), and it was often advanced through the use of history as a source of material. As a narrative historian Xenophon has a reputation for inaccuracy and incompleteness, but he clearly assumed that people and events from the past were tools for promoting political and ethical improvement. His ethical system contained little that jars in modern terms; but in today’s cynical world, the apparent ingenuousness of its expression strikes some as by turns bland and irritating. The system’s interconnection with the gods may challenge readers who either disavow the divine or are not reconciled to a pagan theological environment, simply because—in ethical contexts, though not in specific ritual ones (as illustrated in Anabasis, Book VII)—divine power in Xenophon is frequently anonymous and often singular or because he could apparently take a pragmatic attitude (e.g., posing a question to the Delphic oracle that was framed to produce the “right” answer). His contemporaries perhaps saw things differently: for them the gods were unproblematic (not that everyone thought the same way about them, but Xenophon’s terms of reference were readily understood), and his insistence on a moral component to practical and (broadly) political skills may have been distinctive.
Fourth, charges of ingenuousness have been partly fueled by Xenophon’s style. Judged in antiquity to be plain, sweet, persuasive, graceful, poetic, and a model of Attic purity, it now strikes some as jejune. A more charitable, and fairer, description would be that his style is understated—the range of stylistic figures is modest, and the finest effects are produced by his simplicity of expression. Rereading a famous passage in which the Ten Thousand first glimpse the sea, one is struck by the disproportion between its remembered impact and its brevity and indirect approach. Xenophon does not describe seeing the sea; instead he describes, first, his gradual realization that a commotion up ahead is caused by the shouts of those who have seen the sea and, second, the scenes of celebration as men embrace with tears and laughter, build a huge cairn of stones, and shower gifts upon their local guide.
Historical themes of Xenophon
Hellenica is a seven-book account of 411–362 in two distinct (perhaps chronologically widely separated) sections: the first (Book I and Book II through chapter 3, line 10) “completes” Thucydides (in largely un-Thucydidean fashion) by covering the last years of the Peloponnesian War (i.e., 411–404); the second (the remainder) recounts the long-term results of Spartan victory, ending with Greece in an unabated state of uncertainty and confusion after the indecisive second Battle of Mantinea (362). It is an idiosyncratic account, notable for omissions, an unexpected focus, a critical attitude to all parties, and a hostility to hegemonic aspirations—an intensely personal reaction to the period rather than an orderly history.
Anabasis, which probably initially circulated pseudonymously (under the name Themistogenes of Syracuse), tells the story of the Ten Thousand in a distinctive version, one in which Xenophon himself plays a central role in Books III–VII. The work provides a narrative that is varied and genuinely arresting in its own right, but it also invites the reader to think about the tactical, strategic, and leadership skills of those involved. On a political and ethnocultural front, it expresses a general view of Greek superiority to “barbarians,” but, although it evokes Panhellenism (the thesis that Persia was vulnerable to concerted attack—and should therefore be attacked), it does not provide unambiguous support for that view.
In Cyropaedia Xenophon investigated leadership by presenting the life story of Cyrus II, founder of the Persian Empire. Because the story differs flagrantly from other sources and the narrative’s pace and texture are unlike those of ordinary Greek historiography, many analysts have classed the work as fiction. Story line is certainly subordinate to didactic agenda, but Xenophon may have drawn opportunistically on current versions of the Cyrus story rather than pure imagination. The result is fictive history, more analogous to Socratic literature than to the Greek novel (to which it is sometimes pictured as antecedent). In the Cyropaedia, techniques of military and political leadership are exposed both through example and through direct instruction; but Cyrus’s achievement (i.e., absolute autocracy) is not an unambiguous (or readily transferable) good, and the final chapter recalls that, Cyrus notwithstanding, Persia had declined. (As is often the case in the stories of Classical Greece, barbarian achievements worthy of respect lie in the past.)
Xenophon’s longest Socratic work is Memorabilia, a four-book collection whose often charming conversational vignettes depict a down-to-earth Socrates dispensing practical wisdom on all manner of topics. The work also refutes the charges of corruption and religious deviance advanced at Socrates’ trial (also addressed in Apology—a work very different from Plato’s) by showing someone whose views on religion, friendship, personal relations, ambition, education, theology, temperance, and justice were entirely proper.
Symposium narrates a party where conversation, interspersed with cabaret, shifts continually between frivolity and seriousness. Personal relationships are a common theme in the two most substantial sections (the guests’ quirky accounts of their own most prized assets and Socrates’ speech on physical and spiritual love) and elsewhere. The work’s conclusion—a suggestive tableau of Dionysus and Ariadne has the guests going home full of libidinous thoughts—typically challenges the earnestness of what has just preceded, while leaving a distinct, if tantalizing, feeling that it is not all simply a joke. “What good men do when having fun is as interesting as their serious activities,” Xenophon wrote at the beginning of the work; the beautifully realized, rather brittle comedy of manners that ensues certainly justifies this assertion.
In Oeconomicus Socrates discusses agriculture and household management. Leadership (“a harder skill than agriculture”) is often the real subject. The most famous section is an account of how the rich Ischomachus trains his ingenuous young wife for an important role in running their home. That there was a real Ischomachus who lost his fortune and whose wife and daughter became involved in a squalid sexual ménage with Callias (the host of Symposium) poses a typical Xenophontic puzzle. His Socratic world often resembles a sanitized version of reality; Xenophon created a fictive history in which propositions about the pursuit of virtue—though they derive authority from being rooted in the past—acquire either a mythical aura or an intriguing piquancy through the use of a deviant version of that past.
Six other works came from Xenophon’s pen. Cynegeticus (“On Hunting”) offers technical advice on hunting (on foot, with dogs and nets, the usual prey being a hare); Xenophon sees the pursuit as a pleasurable and divinely ordained means of promoting military, intellectual, and moral excellence (something neither sophists nor politicians can match). De re equestri (“On Horsemanship”) deals with various aspects of horse ownership and riding, and Cavalry Commander is a somewhat unsystematic (but serious) discussion of how to improve the Athenian cavalry corps. Also Athenocentric is Ways and Means, a plan to alleviate the city’s financial problems (and remove excuses for aggressive imperialism) by paying citizens a dole from taxes on foreign residents and from the profits generated by using state-owned slaves in the silver mines.
In Hiero the location is Syracuse (on the east coast of Sicily), perhaps in allusion to contemporary Syracusan tyrants. The 5th-century tyrant Hiero bewails the unpleasantness of his situation, prompting the praise-poet Simonides to suggest that things could improve if Hiero were to adopt some recognizably Xenophontic leadership principles and become a benevolent and much-loved autocrat. There are shades of Cyropaedia (except that the story does not suggest that Hiero’s transformation happened) and of the warnings praise-poets sometimes offered tyrants (except that they tried to check tyrannical self-confidence, whereas Xenophon’s Simonides wants both to enhance and to eliminate it). When defining leadership modes tyrants make good cases. So do Spartan kings, or at least the “completely good man” whose virtues are presented through narrative and analysis in Agesilaus.
Finally, Respublica Lacedaemoniorum (“Constitution of the Spartans”) celebrates the rational eccentricity of the Lycurgan system while admitting its failure to maintain Spartan values—a failure some find perceptibly implicit in the system itself. In this work are shades of the Cyropaedia again, and here the reader may see another example of the slippery nature of the lessons of history.
Legacy of Xenophon
In post-Renaissance Europe Xenophon continued to be highly valued as long as the valuation by antiquity retained its authority. His works were widely edited and translated, and the environment was one in which, for example, the esteem in which Cyropaedia had been held by Romans such as Scipio Aemilianus found an echo. More generally, Xenophon’s moral posture and his conviction that proper instruction, both practical and moral, could achieve human improvement had an appeal even in a world of secular enlightenment.
By the 19th century the onset of the critical study of historical sources, a growing preference for epistemology over ethics, and the general professionalization of research on the Classical world did Xenophon no favours. It became harder to find much relevance in his practical treatises, and a political philosophy that appeared monarchic rather than republican was out of tune with the times. He remained an author commonly read by those learning Greek, but he ceased to be intellectually fashionable both among academics and the wider educated public.
In the late 20th century his reputation began to rise again. Scholars became more interested in early 4th-century history and increasingly concerned with socioeconomic structures, social institutions, and gender issues.
They also became more sensitive to the pitfalls of biographical or quasi-biographical discourse in antiquity. There was a considerable increase in the quantity and sophistication of historical work on Persia and Sparta, and war studies regained its status as a respectable branch of sociocultural history. All these trends made Xenophon an author of crucial importance and encouraged more-discriminating reading of his works.
Xenophon was long characterized as a second-rate practitioner of other people’s literary trades, but more-sympathetic study suggests that the artfully simple style masks a writer of some sophistication. Xenophon was in the early 21st century starting to be taken seriously as a distinctive voice on the history, society, and intellectual attitudes of the later Classical era.