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Xenophon’s Cyropaedia: Educating our

Political Hopes
Laura K. Field Rhodes College

Xenophon’s Cyropaedia is the gripping account of one young man’s rise to unprecedented political prominence. As
has often been noted, however, the text is marked by an abrupt and chilling conclusion. Some have taken the
ending to signify not only Cyrus’ particular political inadequacy, but also the tragic inadequacy of politics in
general, and political philosophy in particular, to promote stability, justice, and the common good. By examining
Xenophon’s portrayal of Cyrus’ nature, education, and actions, and by comparing Cyrus to other characters of the
Cyropaedia, I come to a different conclusion. Cyrus’ limits prove not to be inevitable, and the failure of his empire
is not ‘‘generalizable’’ to all political endeavors. In studying Cyrus’ case, we deepen our thinking about civic
education, justice, rule, freedom, and the law—matters that Cyrus neglected—and are led to prudential insights
that are vital to the cultivation and support of healthy politics.

X enophon’s Cyropaedia is the gripping account

of one young man’s rise to extraordinary
political prominence. Maintaining an exhila-
rating narrative tempo, Xenophon tells us of the
Great Persian King’s development from a promising
variety of disciplines are taking Xenophon to be a
legitimate student of Socrates—one, moreover, who
possessed a literary talent comparable to Plato’s, and
political acumen worthy of close study by Cicero,
Machiavelli, and Bacon (see Howland 2000, 875). The
child in austere Old Persia, through his charmed Cyropaedia, known in English as The Education of
youth in more urbane Media, and then as an ex- Cyrus, was long considered Xenophon’s masterpiece
plosive young man—one who is chosen to head the (Nadon, 2001, 4, n14), and it too has shared in this
Persian army on a campaign that founds a vast and general resurgence. Several book-length studies of
unprecedented new empire. Cyrus is an impressive the text have emerged over the last few decades, and a
figure by any standard, and Xenophon’s book is a new English translation by Wayne Ambler was
captivating and sympathetic tribute to this com- published 2001.2
manding life. In antiquity, and during the Renais- The Cyropaedia has been the focal point of emerg-
sance and early modern periods, Xenophon’s corpus ing debates concerning Xenophon’s literary expertise
was often appreciated alongside those of Plato and in particular. The book is marked by an abrupt, and
Aristotle as worthy of serious philosophical inquiry.1 even somewhat chilling, conclusion: over the last few
In the nineteenth century, however, Xenophon’s chapters of the text, having gently recounted the
popularity plummeted; it is only over the course of circumstances of Cyrus’ old age and death (8.7) and
the last half-century that Xenophon has received in the face of all our hopes for a pleasant denouement,
renewed attention. At long last, readers in a wide Xenophon curtly informs us of the rapid corruption

See Nadon (2001, 1–25) for a thorough account of the history of Xenophon scholarship (an account which informs my comments
here). Nadon’s introduction also includes a helpful treatment of contemporary pieces on the Cyropaedia, and a rich discussion of
‘‘Machiavelli’s Cyrus.’’ See also Whidden (2008, 32–36), Johnson (2005, 181), and Howland (2000, 875–76).
Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent citations are to book, chapter, and (when appropriate) section numbers of the 2001 Wayne
Ambler translation of the Cyropaedia (The Education of Cyrus).

The Journal of Politics, Vol. 74, No. 3, July 2012, Pp. 723–738 doi:10.1017/S0022381612000424
Ó Southern Political Science Association, 2012 ISSN 0022-3816

724 laura k. field

of Cyrus’ posthumous empire (8.8).3 For the most The answers offered by the Cyropaedia seem to
enthusiastic supporters of Cyrus, the conclusion of hinge upon the narrative structure of the book. In his
the book is bound to seem tragic. At the very least, it 1996 article and 2001 book, Nadon suggests that the
is a genuine letdown. Over the course of the last disheartening closing chapter of the Cyropaedia is not
century, some interpreters have been tempted to an anomaly, but is well-foreshadowed by Xenophon
suggest that the book is ultimately incoherent, or if one attends to the rest of the text. A careful
that the last chapter is in some ways spurious, since study—which he goes very far in providing—reveals
Xenophon’s intention could not have been to ques- Cyrus’ many troubling characteristics. But Nadon
tion Cyrus’ standard-setting role. I join several other goes further. To him, the disappointing conclusion to
more recent commentators in defending the coher- the work not only casts Cyrus’ accomplishments into
ence of Xenophon’s book, but the grounds for my doubt, but also encapsulates Xenophon’s thorough
reading, and its implications, differ in significant disenchantment with political life as such; in light of
ways from theirs. I disagree with the suggestion made the closing chapter, the book as a whole can be read
by Due (1989, 19 and 237) and Sage (1994, 161–74) as ‘‘a critique of politics, tout court’’ (Nadon, 1996,
that the austere ending of the Cyropaedia highlights 373; 2001, 164 and 178). Though Nadon concedes
the justice and excellence of Cyrus’ life by contrasting that the Cyropaedia remains outside the range of
it with the chaos that ensued after his death. Nor do I tragedy strictly speaking (since Cyrus is too wily and
believe that Xenophon’s Cyrus represents an idealized Odyssean to be a tragic hero; 2001, 100), towards the
political type, whose image is subtly challenged by end of his commentary, he nevertheless employs the
Xenophon’s historical realism only retrospectively in language of tragedy to explain Xenophon’s main
the final chapter (see Tatum 1989, 238), or that Cyrus intention:
represents an ambiguous Machiavellian ideal of be-
Xenophon may tempt us with the charms of an
nevolence and despotism that makes his legacy entirely austere and virtuous republic devoted to producing
fitting (see Gera 1993, 297–98; see also Danzig 2009 good men, or with the portrait of a perfect prince
for a similar outlook on Cyrus). Rather, I argue that capable of governing the entire world; he may engage
the bleak finale casts a shadow back over the rest of our deepest passions for justice, glory and unlimited
the text, somewhat like a Platonic aporia, and acts as wealth; but he then purges them by demonstrating
a deliberate invitation to consider the book and its the impossibility, and even the undesirability, of their
complete fulfillment (1.6.19). (2001, 179)
protagonist anew. This interpretation is more in line
with that of Christopher Nadon. In important re- To Nadon, the book has the effect of purging our
spects, however, I disagree with Nadon and others deepest political passions, just as, according to
about where such a reconsideration leads us. The dis- Aristotle’s Poetics, tragedy purges our hopes and
agreement concerns two questions that are of funda- fears. In a similar vein, W. R. Newell suggests that
mental importance to us as political theorists, citizens, ‘‘neither republic nor empire—the two archetypal
and human beings: how legitimate are our hopes for possibilities presented by the Cyropaedia—can pro-
real improvement in politics? And, can philosophy mote the fullest human satisfaction. . . . Within the
help us to understand how healthy political life might realm of politics simply speaking, it appears that the
be cultivated and preserved? longing for the noble can have no issue’’ (1983, 904–
905). Historian Robin Waterfield suggests in his 2006
book on the Anabasis that Xenophon became de-
spondent about politics and turned to the scholarly
It is important here as elsewhere to distinguish Xenophon’s life as a response (see 2006, 192). Christopher Whidden
Cyrus from the historical figure. Historically, the empire lasted comes to a similar conclusion, stating that ‘‘if at the
long after Cyrus’ death, since it still existed during Xenophon’s beginning of his intellectual odyssey Xenophon was
time and posed an enduring threat to Greek stability. In his final
chapter, however, Xenophon relates that, when Cyrus died, ‘‘his optimistic that wisdom can provide salvation for
sons immediately fell into dissension, cities and nations imme- political life, throughout the Cyropaedia he shows the
diately revolted, and everything took a turn for the worse’’ reasons for rejecting his opening hypothesis. He con-
(8.8.1). The chapter is a careful delineation of the character of
this decline and emphasizes not only the moral decline of the
cludes that wisdom is no match for and thus cannot
Persian rulers and their subjects, but also the pervasive sense of tame politics’’ (2007, 567). Whidden looks at Xeno-
instability brought about by the moral disorder. This exagger- phon’s Cyrus through an Aristotelian lens and finds
ation highlights Cyrus’ ultimate failure in a way that a more still further evidence for the ‘‘ancients’ sober resigna-
accurate portrait could not have matched. For an alternative
interpretation of Xenophon’s account of Persian corruption, see tion’’ with regards to political life’’ (2008, 62). Accord-
Reisert (2009, 306–12). ing to these commentators, Cyrus represents the very
xenophon’s cyropaedia 725

best one can expect from politics, and the best none- education (see 1.1.6). I then turn to consider some
theless proves deeply problematic.4 episodes that demonstrate the extent of Cyrus’ psy-
Though recent studies on the book have much to chological insight into others, and how this serves him
offer, there is a growing consensus that Xenophon’s as a ruler, before turning in the third part to consider
perspective on politics was, or at least became, wholly elements of Xenophon’s account that reveal the limits
negative. According to these interpreters, Xenophon of Cyrus’ psyche. In light of insights gained in the early
wishes to purge our passion for politics, because wisdom sections regarding Cyrus’ education, reign, and char-
is incapable of taming the political world; he rejects acter, I finally turn to present my own interpretation
optimism and instead promotes realistic disenchantment of the work’s meaning and purpose.
and sober resignation; he encourages a full retreat to the
private, contemplative life. While my reading agrees with
the body of work that defends the Cyropaedia as a subtle Education or Corruption?
and coherent whole, it challenges these reigning inter-
pretive conclusions. This article aims to demonstrate First, then, let us turn to Xenophon’s opening
that a negative assessment of Cyrus hardly need translate description of Cyrus’ ‘‘birth, nature, and upbringing’’
into tragic resignation regarding political life in general. (1.1.6), which spans the first Book of the Cyropaedia.
The meaning of the Cyropaedia clearly depends From the outset, the portrait of Cyrus contains subtle
on what Cyrus represents: if he represents the best ambiguities that raise questions, and also provide
possible ruler, who nevertheless proves inadequate, early clues, about how we should interpret his
then the failure and demise of his empire represents character. First, Cyrus’ parentage is called into ques-
the tragic, inevitable, and predictable result of all tion when we are told that ‘‘Cyrus’ father is said to
political endeavors. But if Cyrus is a man with great have been Cambyses [the King of Persia]’’ whereas
potential, who nevertheless misses the mark for detect- ‘‘his mother is agreed to have been Mandane’’ (1.2.1).
able reasons, the outcome of the Cyropaedia can be seen A tension is hereby acknowledged between the
as far less inevitable. Cyrus’ ‘‘education’’ takes place reputed austerity of Old Persia and some, at least,
against a dramatic background that is sufficiently of its mores. Second, by switching to the third
coherent psychologically so as to guide our judgment person, Xenophon introduces an element of hearsay
of the book’s principal figure quite narrowly. In a into his account of Cyrus’ nature. And third, while
manner comparable to other ancient authors in the for the most part it is a very elevated portrait—Cyrus
Socratic tradition, Xenophon concerns himself with is said to have earned a remarkable reputation among
the wide spectrum of human longings, hopes, and the Persians and is remembered for his beauty,
fears. In the Cyropaedia, these themes are discussed by benevolence, curiosity, and ambition—Xenophon also
Xenophon as narrator (in rare but important pas- notes that Cyrus was willing to risk anything for the
sages), as well as by the characters Xenophon depicts; sake of praise and honor (1.2.1). Even from a
they are also illuminated by Cyrus’ unfolding story and preliminary perspective it is questionable whether this
its adjoining dramas. By drawing on all three dimen- kind of risk taking is praiseworthy in itself. In the
sions of the work, it is possible to give an accurate opening passage of the work, then, Xenophon inti-
characterization of Cyrus’ strengths and limitations. mates that there is a streak of corruption in the Persian
My argument is that Xenophon’s work is at regime and that there is some tension between the
bottom so seriously critical of Cyrus’ rule that the myths about Cyrus’ nature and his own view.
ending of the book must be considered a wholly In the very next section, Xenophon turns to Cyrus’
fitting one, and further that the question of whether a formal Persian education, and here further questions
wiser man, or a Cyrus under different circumstances, emerge. Cyrus’ early education in Persia is an education
could have succeeded where Xenophon’s Cyrus failed in austerity and basic law-abidingness. The account of
must be considered open. To make my case for such this education is contained in three pages (1.2.2–12), a
openness, I begin by exploring the brief but revealing brevity that replicates the austere simplicity of the
account of Cyrus’ childhood and youth, which serves Persian way of life, which seems to involve a long chain
to illuminate Cyrus’ lineage, ‘‘nature,’’ and early of personal hardship and strict obedience to the law.
Citizens spend almost all of their time, from a very
young age, engaged in common, public activity char-
Even Robert Faulkner—whose recent book, The Case for Greatness, acterized by extreme continence and an economy of
contains a nuanced interpretation of the Cyropaedia and a powerful
critique of Cyrus—insists that Cyrus’s political quest proceeded honors. There is training in the punishment of injustice
‘‘without failures or mistakes, strategic or otherwise’’ (2007, 127). and ingratitude (1.2.6–7), and training in hunting,
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which is seen as preparation for war (1.2.10). The aim Cyrus claims that the episode taught him all about
of the education seems to be respect for the laws, in justice. Once, acting as judge among his peers, he was
conjunction with a submission of the self. Xenophon beaten for ruling in favor of distributing goods
describes a life devoted exclusively to bodily preserva- according to need, but contrary to the laws of owner-
tion and justice understood as obedience to the laws. ship; the beating taught him that justice requires strict
Cyrus himself is undaunted by the many basic adherence to the law, even against what is fitting, for,
challenges presented by the Persian way of life. It is according to the Persians, the fitting often proves
clear that Cyrus has extraordinary natural capacities unlawful and violent (1.3.17). When Mandane points
that emerge early on (see 1.3.1); that he has ambitions out to Cyrus that the laws in Media are different—that,
and talents beyond those supported in Old Persia is in contrast to the equitable laws of Old Persia, every-
clear upon his arrival in the more urbane nation of his thing in Media is oriented towards the gratification of
mother’s family. Cyrus’ natural gregariousness com- the tyrannical king—Cyrus’ clever reply betrays the
bined with his cultivated Persian continence are soon shallowness of his commitment to the lawful (see
put to use to make him a great favourite with his 1.3.18). Not for the last time, Cyrus’ prudent charm
grandfather Astyages, King of Media, as well as with the allows him to dodge serious questions about justice.
people of Media. Cyrus is impressed with the riches Over the course of his stay in Media, as Cyrus
he sees in Media, but does not seem to be desirous of repeatedly encounters the community’s demand for
the material benefits that he encounters there, and as discipline and restraint, his internal development takes
such is able to display a great deal of warmth and the form of an ongoing struggle between his unruly
generosity towards others (see 1.3.2, 1.4.1). Media also desires, his growing self-consciousness in relation to
presents Cyrus, who is called a lover of learning by others, and his prudence. He learns to get past his own
Xenophon in this context, with many new opportu- self-consciousness and vulnerability by developing
nities to educate himself (see 1.3.15, 1.4.3; compare prudent shame and humility (see 1.4.4, 1.4.15) and
1.2.6). In Media, there is ample room for Cyrus to becoming ‘‘a Sakas to himself’’ (1.4.15). He also
escape the deep-seated rigidity of the Persian laws and develops a surprising mercenary streak—learning to
tradition—his sense of personal strength and his use men like Sakas and the King to his own ultimate
natural benevolence can be exercised there in a way advantage (1.4.6, 1.4.12–13). Though this does not
that was not possible in Persia—however, Cyrus also diminish his actual dependence on others, as he is
finds himself newly confined with regards to what he more at the mercy of public opinion than ever (see
can accomplish with impunity. Cyrus’ animosity to- 1.4.13), it does perhaps serve to obscure it. His self-
wards his grandfather’s servant Sakas is the most control and prudence continue to develop during this
obvious example of such a limit. It infuriates Cyrus to period and serve to check some of his more impetuous
discover that his grandfather’s love is finite (contra and ambitious instincts.
Reisert 2009, 301), and he soon seeks to take Sakas’ We learn in the course of Book 1, Chapter 4,
place in his grandfather’s affections (1.3.11). Ultimately, however, that Cyrus’ natural exuberance is never fully
of course, Cyrus will seek to supersede Astyages. quelled in Media: the naturally exuberant Cyrus
The danger that Media poses to Cyrus’ Old Persian repeatedly faces external constraints and conventions,
virtue does not go unnoticed. Before leaving him in and, through growing prudence and an irresistible
Media ‘‘to be raised’’ (1.4.1), Cyrus’ mother Mandane charm, he manages to break through unbowed (see,
registers a major reservation: how will Cyrus learn justice for example, 1.4.8–10). Such experiences culminate in
in Media when his teachers are in Persia? This question, an incredible act of military boldness when Median
which Mandane poses to Cyrus directly, leads to Cyrus’ lands are invaded by the Assyrian Prince (1.4.16–24).
famous recollection of an incident from his youth At the time in youth that ‘‘seems especially in need of
involving the just distribution of tunics (1.3.16–18).5 care’’ (1.2.9), ‘‘just as a well-bred but inexperienced
dog rushes without forethought against a boar’’
(1.4.21) and ‘‘mad with daring’’ (1.4.24), Cyrus
For alternative accounts of this incident, see Nadon (2001, successfully leads the Median cavalry against the
47–48), Newell (1983, 896–97), Gera (1993, 75) and Danzig
(2009). Most commentators take Cyrus’ youthful understanding
Assyrians. The ultimate implications of this act
of justice—as that which is fitting—to be correct and to represent (which humiliates the young Assyrian Prince on the
a natural standard against which conventional laws come to light threshold of his marriage and likely contributes to his
as harsh and injurious to the individual. In my mind this becoming a particularly vicious despot) emerge only
formulation pits natural justice too starkly against convention
and fails to appreciate the extent to which conventional agree- gradually over the course of the book, but it is
ment contributes to our living well, and indeed justly, together. immediately clear that Cyrus’ risk taking on this
xenophon’s cyropaedia 727

occasion is more than even his doting Median family Reisert 2009, 311–15). There is no mention of him in
will tolerate. He is sent home. the description of Cyrus’ early childhood, and he
In the dense first book of the Cyropaedia, we can makes no objections to Cyrus’ being raised in Media
see the general character of the dynamics at play in (1.4.1) despite its being contrary to tradition (see
Cyrus’ soul. He is well-born and is shown to have a 1.2.15; compare also Mandane’s claim that Cambyses
very impressive nature; he is called a lover of learning, always obeys the laws, 1.3.18). Furthermore, he is
under certain circumstances is capable of great pleased upon learning of Cyrus’ rash behavior there,
degrees of self-control, but is also bold and spirited though ultimately he recognizes some need for Cyrus
to the point of recklessness. Cyrus is driven by a to return home to fulfill what was ‘‘customary among
powerful desire to be seen as best and most benev- the Persians’’ (1.4.25). Cyrus’ education does con-
olent in all things and thus to be the most beloved of tinue in Persia, but not according to custom (see
all human beings. As Xenophon’s Socrates argues, it 1.6.12–14, compare 1.2.9–14). When Cyrus is chosen
is precisely those who are the most gifted who are in as the ruler of the expedition to defend Media against
danger of becoming the most harmful through lack of Assyria, Cambyses is apparently supportive, as evi-
education and learning (Memorabilia, 4.1.3–4, see denced by the long strategic, or ‘‘calculative,’’ discus-
also Plato’s Republic, 491d–492e). Because of his great sion between them that closes Book 1, and includes
nature, Cyrus arguably needs a good education more references to similar prior conversations at 1.6.3,
than most, and it is far from clear that he gets it in 1.6.5–8, 1.6.12–15, and 1.6.43 (compare Republic,
Persia or Media. The education in Old Persia is 550b). Whidden argues that this is ‘‘the capstone in
excessively negative, focused narrowly on obedience a long series of rather philosophic conversations
and the body, and even tinged with brutality (see 1.2, between father and son’’ and ‘‘it is not as though on
entire). In Media, Cyrus’ development proceeds largely a single occasion Cambyses tried to moderate his son
unchecked for several years, and here our questions and failed’’ (2007, 560). But it is not entirely clear that
about his education grow more acute. Cyrus receives Cambyses is trying to moderate Cyrus. While Camb-
no guidance or admonishment while there. Instead, he yses has Cyrus agree that taking good care of oneself is
builds favor with his grandfather the king, and gains ‘‘sufficient and noble work for man,’’ the next agree-
influence over all with his natural gifts and charms. He ment he gains concerns the wondrous character of
alleviates his dependence on others primarily by caring for others (1.6.7). Furthermore, Cambyses’ long
making them beholden to him. Indeed, Cyrus’ form speech at 1.6 begins: ‘‘That the gods send you forth
of benevolence, to the extent that it is not informed by propitiously and favorably is clear son, both in the
real wisdom, may be of the most harmful variety, since sacrifices and from the heavenly signs’’ (1.6.2). This
it directly threatens others’ freedom. There is no hint powerful endorsement is followed by the reiteration of
from Xenophon that Cyrus ever recognizes the tension a fatherly lesson on taking care of the divinations
between his benevolent goals and his lawless manner oneself.
of accomplishing them. In this, Cyrus manages to Though Cambyses does go some way towards
avoid thinking through the tensions between his own discussing the ends of politics with his son (1.6.7), he
political aspirations and the needs of those whose falls short of having Cyrus question the coherence of
affection he seeks. The same is true upon his return his own actions and ends, and does not shy away
home to Persia. from supportive lessons in political ambition. For the
If there is one person who seems capable of most part Cambyses ratifies previous advice about the
bringing a greater degree of self-awareness to Cyrus practical business of campaigning and adds new
upon his return to Persia, it is Cambyses, the Persian Machiavellian insights about gaining the advantage
king and Cyrus’ father. Cambyses is interesting over enemies through deception and manipulation.
because he is one of several figures who call to mind He concludes with a message about the limits of hu-
Xenophon’s Socrates. Christopher Whidden goes so man knowledge and the many failures of men (1.6.46,
far as to suggest not only that Cambyses is meant to see Memorabilia 1.1.8). This may have been intended as
represent a philosophic type, but that any failure on a message of moderation, but it might also be read as at
his part to transform Cyrus indicates the incorrigi- least partly ironic given the character of the speech’s
bility of Cyrus’ nature (2007, 560). Christopher beginning. Cambyses’ influence, therefore, is rather
Nadon suggests that the limits pertain to rational mixed. He is largely absent throughout Cyrus’ child-
discourse itself (2001, 178). But the extent and nature hood and never tries to dampen Cyrus’ ambitions to
of Cambyses’ involvement with his son’s education dominion in any obvious way, nor does he turn him
are in fact both difficult to discern (on this point, see towards other kinds of pursuits and interests, including
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the pursuit of self-knowledge.6 Thus, by the end of his psychological machinations. I will consider some of
Persian education, Cyrus is well-prepared to fulfill his the passages that best reveal Cyrus’ capacities in this
youthful pledge to return to Media (1.4.26–28). The regard, before turning to consider Xenophon’s com-
final departure from Persia highlights the inability of plex exploration of the limits of Cyrus’ outlook.
the Old Persian regime to deal with powerful individ- Ten years pass between Cyrus’ departure from
ual ambition internally. Media and his being appointed general of the Persian
At the end of the first chapter of the Cyropaedia, army. As his first speech to his two hundred men
and in keeping with the book’s title, Xenophon shows, by the time his own political ‘‘opportunity’’
suggests that Cyrus’ ‘‘birth, nature, and education’’ arises, Cyrus has had much time to formulate his
will be the main themes of the whole book (1.1.6).7 It aspirations and to plan accordingly. These ambitions
is perhaps surprising, then, that by the end of Book 1, are extraordinary and, once brought into play, irrever-
Cyrus is leading the Persian army as general and that sible. The speech takes aim at the core of the ancient
the remaining seven books tell the story of his con- Persian establishment. Cyrus argues that all their
quests. Of course, Cyrus will continue to learn over the practice of virtue has had no proper purpose until
course of his campaigning career, but through the now: ‘‘I do not think human beings practice virtue in
brevity and sparse content of the account of his formal order that those who become good have no more than
upbringing, Xenophon raises questions early on about do the worthless. Rather those who abstain from the
the adequacy of Cyrus’ ‘‘education.’’ pleasures at hand do so not in order that they may never
have enjoyment, but through their present continence
they prepare themselves to have much more enjoyment
Cyrus’ Psychological Prowess in the future’’ (1.5.9). The enjoyments Cyrus then lists as
Unleashed possible ends include ‘‘many and great goods,’’ such as
wealth, happiness, and great honors both for themselves
and their city (1.5.9). That attaining such pleasures will
For all the lurking uncertainties, Xenophon makes it
not occur without great sacrifice and pain is quietly
clear that Cyrus is a capable psychologist when it
acknowledged by Cyrus at the end of his speech, where
comes to those over whom he rules.8 While his own
he explains that ‘‘lovers of praise must of necessity take
goals remain static, Cyrus is portrayed as a diligent
on with pleasure every labor and every risk’’ (1.5.12).
learner with regards to the ambitions, hopes, and
With these comments Cyrus points to one of the
fears of others. This is perhaps best illustrated by
problems presented by a community devoted exclu-
considering Cyrus’ growing practical ability to help,
sively to basic civic virtue and well-being: the entice-
gratify, and otherwise manipulate people towards his
ments Cyrus offers are all the more alluring because they
ultimate purpose of maintaining his dominance and
are novel to the Persians, who have spent their lives
receiving their love and praise. Cyrus’ manner of
suppressing their unruly passions.
influencing the hopes and fears of those he conquers
Cyrus’ undermining of the traditional Persian
is subtle and often impressive; it does not seem to be
education starts very early on and seems to be based
dependent upon his sharing their sentiments. He
on an insight into the problematic character of the
rules using sophisticated, and often well-meaning,
common good (stability and ‘‘justice’’) that is achieved
in Old Persia. Because it is intangible and incomplete,
In the Memorabilia, Socrates does not discourage political the common good in Persia proves fragile. The strength
involvement, but he does encourage psychological self-analysis.
See 3.7.9, 4.2.25, and Plato’s Alcibiades I. of Cyrus’ psychological understanding is evident in the
momentum of Book 2, where he is able to cultivate
For a discussion of several other interpretations of the signifi-
cance of Xenophon’s title, see Due (1989, 15). great hope among his troops, as well as to sustain it
through the difficult parts of the campaign. One of the
This is not to say that Cyrus is able to conquer everyone. There are
some suggestive silences in Xenophon’s list of the people over most vivid examples of Cyrus’ psychological skill takes
whom Cyrus rules in Book 1, Chapter 1 (1.2.4–5). These include place in Book 2, Chapter 2. Having been recently
the Armenians, Chaldeans, and the Caducians. The philosophically reminded by his father that there are ways to rule
educated Armenian Tigranes and Gadatas the Caducian are
probably the closest Cyrus comes to having friends, and the
besides fear (1.6.21–24), this chapter demonstrates how
suggestion seems to be that they preserve their rule in some form. Cyrus used humour to his advantage, in stark contrast
The roaming troop of plundering Chaldeans are the only group to the austere Persian traditions. Having orchestrated a
that seem to achieve lasting freedom (Cyrus never gives them up to major shift in the hierarchy of the Persian army by
a Satrap, even upon his death). Their mode of life (see 3.2.7, 7.2.2–8)
warrants comparison with the discussion of the ‘‘foreign policy’’ of promoting all the mercenary and common soldiers,
the city in speech in Plato’s Republic (422a–423e and 468–471e). Cyrus needs some way in which to mitigate the fears of
xenophon’s cyropaedia 729

the elite peers (see 2.2.18). The jesting he encourages in the brutality perpetrated by the campaign, and con-
Chapter 2, though divisive, also serves to alleviate the doned by Cyrus, are in some tension with his seeming-
fears of his leading men and (by fostering hopes) to spirit of justice and benevolence.
‘‘motivate toward the good’’ (2.2.1); we should note Cyrus does not restrict his soul-machinations to
that the lone dissenter to the jesting (Aglaitadas at the realm of material desires and ‘‘base’’ erotic mo-
2.2.14–2.2.16) is never heard from again. tives, for he is also keenly aware of the power that
Cyrus is able to manipulate the general hopes of individual loves can have over men and women. He
his men for progress and change, and we soon learn willingly uses this sophisticated awareness wherever
that he is also a careful calculator with respect to the it proves expedient, against enemies and so-called
particular types of goods that will satisfy them. In his friends alike. We see him use the Armenian’s love for
first speech to his men, the goods to which Cyrus his family, for example, to his humiliation (3.1.9),
directs his troops’ hopes are generally of the material and time and time again Cyrus manages to make
variety, though he also speaks of honor and praise. As himself look generous through his continence with
the plot unfolds it becomes clear that Cyrus also respect to women (3.1.35–37, 4.4.9, 5.1.1, 5.1, 6.1.45).
maneuvers his men’s erotic desires quite capably. He also doubtless gains some knowledge of love by
Xenophon does not dwell on Cyrus’ reliance on this witnessing the effect that he has on those around him.
aspect of the campaign’s progression, but the full Perhaps the most vivid case is that of his ‘‘noble and
story of the plunder that so motivates his armies is good’’ ‘‘relative’’ Artabazus, who is struck by Cyrus’
gradually brought to the surface in the course of the beauty during his youth in Media, and evidently
telling. Xenophon often speaks only euphemistically never recovers; he follows and serves Cyrus to the
about the fate of vanquished women (see 4.1.9, 4.2.32, end, only to be treated with general indifference (see
4.4.4, 4.5.3, 4.4.7, 4.5.39; not so euphemistically at 1.4.28, 7.5.55). Cyrus has a similar effect on his old
3.3.67), but the juxtaposition of Cyrus’ injunction friend Tigranes, though Tigranes’ affection for Cyrus
against plunder of this kind (4.2.25–26), and the appears more lighthearted than that of Artabazus (see
subsequent description of all the women captured by 3.1.42–43). The extent to which Cyrus understands
the Medes and Hyrcanians (4.3.2) brings the ugly truth the phenomenon of love emerges in his conversation
to the surface. That the defiance does not come as a with his old friend Araspas, where Cyrus mounts an
surprise to Cyrus is made clear by Xenophon, who, eloquent attack on Araspas’ claim that love is strictly
right after explaining the reasons for which the Asians voluntary (5.1.12). Cyrus understands the power of
take women on campaign, and relating the capture of beauty and love to enslave men and has made a
the women by the Medes, tells us: ‘‘When he saw the conscious decision not to take such risks with his
deeds of the Medes and the Hyrcanians, it was as if own soul.10 Xenophon alerts us to the reflexive
Cyrus blamed both himself and those with him, since implications of this understanding of love with the
the others seemed at this time both to be flourishing inclusion of two brief speeches in loving support of
more than they themselves, and to be acquiring things, Cyrus’ coup against his uncle (one by Artabazas, the
while [the Persians] themselves seemed to be waiting other by Tigranes), in the very same chapter. That
in a place of relative inactivity’’ (4.3.3). For just a Cyrus’ understanding of love’s force hardly impels
moment Xenophon allows his reader to think (hope?)
that Cyrus’ moral scruples are causing him some
regret . . . before he reveals that in fact Cyrus’ feelings, As has often been noted, this discussion merits comparison to
if they are sincere at all, pertain to the Persians’ relative Socrates’ encounter with the beautiful courtesan Theodote in
Memorabilia 3.11; see also his advice to Xenophon in 1.3. In the
poverty in plunder.9 Not to put too fine a point on it, former, Socrates seems to endorse encounters with the beautiful,
whereas in Xenophon’s case he playfully encourages the kind of
conscious avoidance taken on by Cyrus. There are numerous
The full truth of the situation may be even more sinister than possible explanations for Cyrus’ ability to make the choice he does
this. Upon further consideration it seems that Cyrus is in fact regarding the beautiful: it may signal weak eros, a lack of experience
only pretending to feel even the sinister regret about his failure to of beauty as a youth, strong powers of self-control and/or reason,
satisfy his troops. The order of Cyrus’ tale may suggest that Cyrus powerful alternate drives, or some combination of these. What
has orchestrated the entire drama—including the feeling of envy seems most important in Cyrus’ case is the fact that his self-control,
that would be born in the Persians upon the return of the however impressive, is in the service of shallow ends. Howland
triumphant plunderers (see Cambyses’ advice in such matters, (2000) provides a very helpful discussion of this aspect of Cyrus’
1.6.42). This is suggested by the cunning timing of both his psychology. There, he suggests that ‘‘Cyrus renders himself imper-
saccharine speech to the Persians about moderation before the vious to the educative power of music, which has everything to
return of the plunderers (4.2.45), and his and Chrysantas’ poetic do with ‘‘love matters [erotika] that concern the fair’’ (Republic
speeches about the Persians’ desperate need for horses immedi- 403c6–7)’’ (2000, 877). See Newell (1983, 901ff.) for another view
ately on the heels of their return (4.3.4–23). of the significance of eros in the Cyropaedia.
730 laura k. field

him to protect his friends against it is evident in the quered. While he hopes to be the greatest of benefac-
fate of Araspas, who is made pliable to Cyrus’ whim tors, he willingly steals some of the greatest goods,
as a result of his unrequited love (see 6.1.31–44). namely self-sufficiency and freedom, from friends as
Cyrus’ psychological understanding of eros is not well as enemies.
limited to an appreciation of the magnetic force that The problem of the value of Cyrus’ ends is never
‘‘the beautiful’’ exerts over human beings. He is also overcome. Rather, much of Xenophon’s text seems
attentive to the hopes that are fostered through designed to demonstrate the proportions to which
familial love and to the vulnerability effected by all such dynamics can be magnified when they originate
love. Cyrus recognizes and manipulates the fears in so capable an individual. Cyrus’ rule becomes
fostered in most people by the prospects of a loveless increasingly tyrannical and cruel, and Cyrus becomes
life, as well as the spirit of vengeance that is born more isolated and dependent on others for his safety.
from the ruining of such attachments. Over the length Perhaps the most concise evidence of Cyrus’ growing
of the campaign, Cyrus increasingly depends on the brutality is Xenophon’s admission at 5.4.51 that,
spirit of revenge rather than love, as he takes advantage whereas Gobryas and Gadatas use violence and per-
of the particular vulnerabilities of the kings Gobryas suasion in their respective conquests, Cyrus uses
(who is left without an heir after the murder of his son terror.11 He also comes to look the part of the tyrant,
by the Assyrian Prince), and Gadatas (who is made a with rising reliance on the adornment which he had
eunuch by the same Assyrian in a fit of rage). With his previously scorned in others (compare, for example,
ever-growing power, Cyrus promises to help both men 2.4.5 with 8.3.1–5). Cyrus’ growing preoccupation with
achieve vengeance and is hereby able to bring them personal security is clearly in view when he has to
under his authority almost effortlessly. Each of them consider the possibility of treachery upon seating his
admits his vulnerability to Cyrus and is grateful for the best friends to a feast (8.4.3). At one point, Xen-
protection he offers (see 4.6.2, 5.2.7, 5.3.18, 5.4.29–32, ophon explicitly articulates what we have suspected
and 6.1.1). Cyrus’ treatment of them is not always about Cyrus’ dependence on others’ vulnerability,
magnanimous (see 5.3.56–5.4.9, 6.1.1), but they are when he explains Cyrus’ reliance on eunuchs at length
loyal to him and become important allies because of (7.5.61–65); the eunuch Gadatas obtains a role of
this reliability. honor that only highlights Cyrus’ isolation (8.4.2).
Cyrus’ prudential ability to see what is required These tyrannical traits are presented lucidly to the
to accomplish his ambitious military objectives is reader. In the next section I hope to show that the lack
impressive. He is an able learner of these strategic of redeeming ends in Cyrus’ empire mirrors Cyrus’
kinds of truths, and this practical knowledge of how general lack of self-reflection and thoughtfulness.
to use peoples’ hopes and fears becomes his most
impressive possession. However, in light of the obvious
unscrupulousness of Cyrus’ method, a pressing ques- The Limits of Cyrus’ Rule and the
tion emerges: that of the ultimate ends served by his Limits of Cyrus’ Psyche
campaign. As a youth in Media it was clear that Cyrus
was ambitious for praise and honors, but whether
While Xenophon continues to hint at misgivings
Cyrus’ rule is truly advantageous, either to him or to
about our protagonist’s character, it is clear that
those over whom he rules, remains unclear. Many of
Cyrus continues to think of himself as the greatest of
his men are satisfied with the material gains they have
benefactors. The incoherence of Cyrus’ youth is
made and show gratitude for the good Cyrus has done
perpetuated and enlarged through his whole lifetime
them (consider Artabazus’ declaration at 6.1.10 that,
of martial triumphs, and Cyrus never seems to gain
‘‘since what is at home is a campaign, but this is a
much awareness of the difficulties attending his
holiday, I do not think that we should disband this
notion of a good life. Several episodes in the text
festive gathering’’). Cyrus is able to bring peace to some
attest to Cyrus’ lack of self-reflection, and Xenophon
nations and a better life to some individuals (most
enhances our attentiveness to Cyrus’ faults through
notable in this regard is Pheraulas, but see 8.3.40). He
the inclusion of several characters who provide
certainly gains brute power and a certain degree of
compelling points of psychological comparison.
freedom for himself; his ability to provide help to
Gobryas and Gadatas, in the form of retribution, makes 11
him appear god-like to them and others (including Other straightforward examples of Cyrus’ growing harshness
include the use of women in battle (6.3.30), and his changing
himself, see 5.3.56–5.4.9, 7.1.16–18, 7.5.9, and 7.5.16). standards of warfare (compare 4.4 and 5.4.25–27 with 7.5.31 and
But in general Cyrus’ victories are bad for the con- 7.5.69). See also 1.1.5.
xenophon’s cyropaedia 731

An early example arises when Cyrus is trying to dubiousness of his ends. In Book 5, as his campaign
sort out a pressing situation with the Armenian king. gains momentum, Cyrus goes out of his way to help
The king, caught red-handed in defiance of his Gadatas, and in response Gadatas comes bearing a
obligations to Cyrus’ uncle Cyaxares, and in the wealth of gifts. Cyrus justifies his unwillingness to
midst of an attempted flight from Cyrus’ approach, accept this gesture of gratitude as follows:
is in a terribly vulnerable position (3.1.10). We see
I accept the horses, for I will benefit you by giving
Cyrus torn between, on the one hand, belief in them to troops better disposed toward you than were
retributive justice and the idea that the Armenian those troops of yours who just had them, as it seems,
king ought to suffer the harshest of punishments for and for my part, I will more quickly increase the
his crimes (3.1.12), and, on the other, his desire to be Persian cavalry up to ten thousand knights, some-
a just benefactor. Cyrus is uncertain whether it is just thing I have long desired to do. As for the other
valuables, take them away and guard them until you
to let the king live, especially since the king frankly see me having enough that I will not be outdone in
admits that in Cyrus’ position he would opt for reciprocating with gifts to you. If you go away after
execution. To his credit, Cyrus appeals to his old giving to me more than you receive from me, by the
(and, it would seem, Socratically educated) playmate gods I do not know how I could possibly avoid being
Tigranes for help, and it is only through the latter’s ashamed. (5.4.32)
careful reasoning that the dilemma is resolved Of course, as is evident in this passage, Cyrus has no
(3.1.23–31). Tigranes is able to convince Cyrus that difficulty making others—even his next of kin—
he can have his retributive cake and give his benefac- experience the shame of inferiority. His Median uncle
tion too. Only once Cyrus is persuaded that the Cyaxares articulates some of the psychological effects
Armenian has suffered considerably, and that in being of Cyrus’ brand of generosity with candor:
merciful he is proving himself to be the better man, is
he willing to overcome his indignation and produce the And as for the valuables and the way you are now
giving them to me, I think it would be more pleasant
outcome favored by his more benevolent self. In this
to bestow them upon you than to receive them from
case the outcome is good from every perspective: the you like this, for being enriched in them by you, I
private interests of Cyrus, the king, and Tigranes are perceive even more those things in which I am
achieved, and so too is the common good of continued becoming impoverished . . . Be assured that if you
harmonious relations. That Cyrus is persuaded by cared for me at all, you would guard against depriv-
Tigranes, however, is not to say that he has learned ing me of nothing so much as my dignity and honor.
from him. This is one of those rare incidents early in
the book where a clear common good is achieved (see Cyrus is not willing to linger on this thought for long.
also 3.2); more typically, at key moments when his rule He interrupts his uncle, who has no choice but to
might have become genuinely political—when it might submit to Cyrus’ sheer power. When confronted with
have taken on a shared good as its end—Cyrus retreats the contradiction he is perpetuating, Cyrus responds
into isolation.12 The example of the Armenian king also with nothing but vague unease. Despite his uncanny
demonstrates Cyrus’ persistent failure to consider his ability to wield authority through complex psycho-
own conflicting opinions about justice. logical maneuvering, Cyrus demonstrates that there
Another later series of conversations confirms are real limits to his self-understanding, and a dogged
our suspicion that Cyrus fails to understand the unwillingness to confront the question of the ulti-
moral intricacies of his own actions and the moral mate worthiness of the ends he pursues (though he is
able to articulate these ends; see 7.1.13 and 7.1.18).
The narrative thread that best demonstrates
In his most recent article, Whidden persuasively argues that Cyrus’ lack of self-knowledge is the tragic love story
Cyrus’ rule is not ‘‘political’’ at all, since, at least according to the of Panthea and Abradatas. The stories of Panthea and
Aristotelian sense of the word, genuine political rule involves
political deliberation and helps to fulfill man’s rational nature Abradatas, like those of Gobryas and Gadatas, take
(2008, 38; see Aristotle Politics 1253a2–18). Political rule in its place over the course of Books V through VII and are
fullest sense ‘‘involves a relationship between free and equal woven together with the continuing tale of Cyrus’
persons, one in which ‘‘there is an alternation of ruler and ruled’’
between those who ‘‘tend by their nature to be on an equal
growing empire. Xenophon’s intermittent descrip-
footing and to differ in nothing’’’ (57; see Aristotle Politics tions of Cyrus’ diverse and impressive innovations,
1255b20, 1259b1–6). In his 2007 article, by contrast, Whidden and of the magnificent armaments and well-ordering
argues that Cyrus represents the ‘‘most virtuous and knowledge- of his troops, help to remind the reader of the
able of leaders’’ (540), and in both pieces holds the ancients to be
deeply skeptical about the possibility of political improvement excitement and expectation that can be generated in
(see 2007, 563–67 and 2008, 62). times of war and imperial expansion. Along with the
732 laura k. field

hints about the increasingly despotic tenor of Cyrus’ seized by their love, they forget the fact that they
rule, the story of Abradatas and Panthea dampens themselves are what matters to the other, and that,
this tale of enthusiasm with a rising sense of tragic therefore, proper attention to themselves is a prereq-
fear and foreboding. Abradatas and Panthea each uisite for sustaining their love. In this they provide a
seem to be models of human virtue and nobility; they mirror-image to Cyrus. While their moral purity and
have no difficulty gaining the reader’s affections. Both devotion to one another leads them to risk everything,
are renowned for their beauty, and this quality seems such that the ends they seek are thwarted, Cyrus’
to be reflected in their actions, which are solidly unwillingness to compromise himself for anything
grounded in love for one another, despite being mixed ensures honor and a kind of political success, but his
with excessive credulity.13 Abradatas and Panthea come situation is isolated and ethically compromised. Ulti-
to represent the model of romantic love (complete with mately Xenophon discloses that his deeper sympathies
a human-all-too-human crescendo of delusions). lie with the noble pair.
Blinded, it would seem, by their love of one As we have already seen, Cyrus is aware of
another, Panthea and Abradatas become ensnared in Panthea’s beauty, but suppresses any desires he may
Cyrus’ operations, only to come to a terrible end. Out have to be with her out of skepticism about love and
of misbegotten gratitude to the ‘‘pious, moderate and deference to his other ambitions; he is so keenly
pitying’’ Cyrus (who has only shown restraint to- aware of the devastating effects of love on others that
wards Panthea out of fear of excessive entanglement he avoids it at all costs. Nevertheless, Cyrus does not
with ‘‘the beautiful’’ and his hopes that she might go unaffected by the presence of Panthea and
prove otherwise useful, see 5.1.12–17), Panthea feels Abradatas. They are some of the few people Cyrus
obliged to send for her husband (6.1.47, see 6.4.6–7); feels admiration for—Abradatas for his goodness and
out of similarly deluded gratitude (also rooted in his faith and Panthea for her beauty and moderation (see
love for his wife), and perhaps the slightest hint of 6.3.36, 7.3.8–16), and perhaps this is an indication on
envy (reciprocated by Cyrus, see 6.1.50 and 6.1.52), Xenophon’s part that they surpass Cyrus in some
Abradatas comes eagerly to Cyrus and gallantly ways. It speaks to Cyrus’ character that, while he does
volunteers to take the most dangerous position in seem willing to make use of the two of them, he in no
battle (6.3.35). Panthea, in turn, sacrifices her own way bears them actual ill will. Though he misses the
riches to make beautiful armaments for her husband, poignant departure scene between Panthea and Abra-
and, losing sight of her husband’s actual well-being, datas because he is busy attending to the sacrifices
she passionately promotes Abradatas’ actions (6.4.4–8). (6.4.1), he gives Abradatas pious words of encourage-
The noble Abradatas fights courageously alongside ment prior to the battle that seem sincere (7.1.15–18).
loyal friends (7.1.30); his death takes place at the Perhaps in part because Cyrus believed the reassuring
work’s height of violence and confusion (7.1.30–32, message he had spoken, he is quite affected by
see also 7.3.8). True to her word (6.4.6), Panthea Abradatas’ death (7.3.6). When he hears of Panthea’s
joins her husband in death (7.4.14). taking her own life despite his reassuring words to her
Abradatas and Panthea have our sympathies, (7.3.12–15), he is similarly stunned, even though her
even while Xenophon shows us that their expectations final words to him were ominous (see 7.3.13). Cyrus’
are unattainable. Abradatas and Panthea are linked lack of foresight and general perplexity regarding these
with the idea of nobility in Xenophon’s text, and this is tragic events betray his lack of experience and reflec-
reflected in their appearances, their speeches, and their tion upon at least two seminal dimensions of human
actions. Insofar as they each represent so much that is life as they are presented in ancient thought: eros and
good, it is not surprising that Abradatas and Panthea mortality.
are very much in love with one another and care about Xenophon makes it clear to his reader that neither
the other so much that they lose sight of themselves; Abradatas nor Panthea have a perfect understanding of
their love for one another, or of their mortal natures.
Panthea is modest and faithful, as evidenced by her horror at Just as Cyrus’ perspective contains an escalating tension
the thought of conjugal betrayal (5.1.4–6). She is also mindful of between his capacity to provide great benefactions and
her husband’s safety, not sending for him until she has come to
trust Cyrus (6.2.45). Abradatas is a powerful and trusted
his desire to obtain the good for himself, theirs contains
representative of the (old) Assyrian King (5.1.3) and is said by an escalating misunderstanding about the meaning of
Xenophon to have a nature ‘‘most handsome and most free.’’ He their love for one another and their capacity to sustain
is moderate even in his eventual disloyalty—awaiting Panthea’s that love through martyr-like devotion. There is, how-
faithful word before he comes over to Cyrus’ side. When he does
so (6.2.48), it is in a noble, restrained fashion that is in marked ever, one remarkable difference between Cyrus’ per-
contrast to the capitulations of earlier rulers. spective and theirs, which is indicated by Xenophon in
xenophon’s cyropaedia 733

his customarily quiet way: Panthea, upon the death of hero and dies a most wretched and violent death
her husband, attains a degree of self-reflexive clarity. We (1452a20); she ‘‘discovers’’ her hamartia, or missing of
witness this moment in the following striking scene: the mark, too late (but at the same time as she finds
out about the reversal, which is said by Aristotle to be
When he [Cyrus] saw the woman seated on the
ground and the corpse lying there, he wept at the the most beautiful possibility in a story, 1452a30–33);
sorrowful event and said, ‘‘Alas! You good and as a result she suffers terribly (1452b1); the reader feels
faithful soul, are you going away and leaving us?’’ both fear and pity for her and is left in a state of
And at the same time he grasped Abradatas’ right catharsis and wonder about the events (1449b29,
hand, but the hand of the corpse stayed with his, for 1452b2, 1452b30, 1453b).15 Cyrus’ story lacks this
it had been cut off with a sword by the Egyptians. On
seeing this, he was still more grieved by far. And the
tragic structure. He is a gifted individual, but he never
woman wailed, and taking the hand back from encounters a terrible turn of events in his own lifetime.
Cyrus, kissed it and attached it again as best she Though his own actions do help us to understand the
could, and said, ‘‘The rest is also like this, Cyrus. But ‘‘reversal’’ that happens after his death, and we are left
why must you see? I know that he suffered this not in a state of curiosity, Cyrus himself is always portrayed
least because of me, and perhaps also no less because as happy, even at the time of his passing. Unlike
of you, Cyrus. For I, foolish I, frequently encouraged
him to act in such a way that he might show himself Panthea, he never makes any ‘‘discovery’’ about the
to be a noteworthy friend for you. I myself know that implications of his actions, nor about the many ways in
he did not have in mind what he would suffer but which he ‘‘misses the mark’’ concerning the common
what he could do in gratitude to you. Accordingly, he good and justice; the reader does not feel fear or pity
himself died a blameless death, but I who exhorted for Cyrus, either before or after his death, and
him sit beside him alive. (7.3.8–10)
experiences no ‘‘purge’’ or catharsis of the emotions.
Though Panthea’s thoughts, as well as her subsequent The story of Cyrus lacks the most important elements
actions, may still contain some problematic elements, of tragedy as they are outlined by Aristotle in the
it is nonetheless true that she reaches a degree of self- Poetics, and this raises problems for the reigning
awareness that is never matched by Cyrus, who proves interpretation which sees Cyropaedia as representing a
unable to confront the contradictory elements in his thorough-going critique of politics. That reading is
life. Panthea comes to realize the folly of her earlier predicated on the idea that the book’s ending contains
exhortations to Abradatas and provides a clear articu- the purgative elements of tragedy, by which our
lation of her motives; she also acknowledges the com- political hopes are effaced; such pessimism has to be
plicated role of Cyrus. Upon hearing Panthea’s tentative challenged given our discovery of the Cyropaedia’s
accusation, Cyrus weeps in silence before offering her singularly nontragic character.
further consolation (7.3.11), but there is no indication
that he recognizes any connection between his own
ambitions and the ugly death of Abradatas.14 Xenophon’s Counter-Paedia
This difference is significant, since it points to a
core difference between the narrative constitution of
In the Cyropaedia, Xenophon provides a provocative
Panthea’s story and Cyrus’. The story of Panthea
portrayal of the opportunities available to an ambi-
follows the characteristic pattern of tragedy very much
tious and talented political ruler who obtains an
as it is outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics: an excellent
impressive degree of psychological insight. But Cyrus
individual (see Poetics 1453a15, 1454b9) encounters a
is not in fact the perfect political man, nor should his
terrible turn of events that follow ‘‘as if by design’’
story be interpreted as a lesson about the tragic and
from her very own actions (1452a7, 1453b); there is a
irremediable character of political life, as it has been
‘‘reversal’’ of fortune by which Panthea’s husband, at
by several otherwise impressive interpreters of the
her own convincing, heads off to battle like a shining
Cyropaedia. Instead, he is Xenophon’s preeminent
14 representative of a recurring and significant political
Cyrus is portrayed as genuinely stunned (from ekplesso—to be
astonished, stricken with terror) and aggrieved at the sight of problem: the extremely talented and ambitious
Abradatas and Panthea dead, as well as disturbed by the youth who, however well-meaning, is insufficiently
mutilated state of Abradatas’ corpse. This bespeaks a certain
naivety in Cyrus’ outlook—he is genuinely surprised that
Abradatas proved mortal—more than any morbid eros for killing See Sach’s introduction to his translation of Aristotle’s Poetics
and the dead (for the latter suggestion, see Nadon 2001: 159–160 (2006) for a most helpful analysis of Aristotle and tragedy. For
and 1.4.24). The scene also provides a counterpoint to the other discussions of tragedy in Xenophon, see Gera (1993,
romantic outlook of Panthea and Abradatas; perhaps it also 221–45), Kingsbury (1956), Sage (1994, 171–72), and Nadon
provides some hint of Xenophon’s macabre sense of humor. (2001, 146).
734 laura k. field

thoughtful about the most important human con- Media and providing him with a better understand-
cerns. This failure points to characteristic, but not ing of the relative merits and virtues of the traditional
inevitable, limitations of extraordinary political Persian regime. For example, if Cyrus had been in
men, and close study of the text suggests that it Persia rather than Media during his early youth,
has at least three obvious political dimensions. First perhaps he would have come to understand the
and foremost is the fact that Cyrus receives an benefits of laws—something that is beaten into him
inadequate education from his political community. when he is very young, but which is ultimately a
Second, and partly as a result of his faulty education, lesson that Cyrus never learns. Stated simply, Cyrus is
Cyrus governs only by means of increasingly brutal never taught how justice and the law (or other
personal command and manipulation, failing to people) at times compromise short-term interests
enact any good laws. Finally, Cyrus fails to question for the sake of more important goals, like the peace,
the coherence of his own motives and therefore stability, and flourishing of one’s homeland. Having
neglects the essential question of the proper ends of only ever experienced the law as something that
politics. The recognition of Cyrus’ defects, rather interferes with his desires, he learns to work around
than leading to resignation about politics, allows us it. With greater vigilance, informed by a surer under-
to begin to articulate avenues which Xenophon leaves standing of the merits of Old Persia, Cyrus’ revolu-
open for contemplation and prospective action. In tionary activity might have been prevented.
what follows, I outline the main course of reflection It is not altogether clear, however, that Old Persia
that Xenophon seems to me to recommend in light of was truly flourishing, or that Cyrus’ natural ambition
his condemnation of Cyrus’ empire. could have been satisfied without some change in
In Plato’s Laws, the Athenian Stranger criticizes conditions there. The regime had troubling dimen-
Cyrus for not educating his own sons, saying that he sions worthy of criticism, and possibly of reform. In
‘‘failed completely to grasp what is a correct educa- his description of Cyrus’ early education, as well as of
tion’’ (694c). The failure Plato ascribes to Cyrus with the life that it preconditions, Xenophon encourages
respect to his own sons, Xenophon also quietly us to question the premises of a life singularly devoted
ascribes to the Persians with respect to Cyrus. While to basic forms of the common good such as security
it is true that Cyrus receives training from Old Persia, and order. The fleeting description of the Persian
the Medes, and his father Cambyses, and that this education illustrates the problem of having concern
combination provides him with many of his most for physical sustenance and stability dominate so
impressive qualities (such as discipline, charm, and a overwhelmingly, and Cyrus’ life confirms that this
sharp strategic mind), Xenophon also indicates several exclusive focus on the most basic elements of com-
ways in which Cyrus’ education was haphazard and munity ultimately makes the old regime vulnerable.
faulty. As far as the reader is shown, he is offered little The monotony of this life and the apparent absence of
opportunity to learn that politics consists of more than many higher order goods (such as family life, music,
prudent dominion, and he never undertook a serious literature, sciences, and even friendship) prove prob-
consideration of the character of genuine political life. lematic. While we might not notice such deficiencies
By portraying Cyrus’ education as such, Xenophon at in the course of a preliminary reading, Xenophon
once indicates how Cyrus became what he was, and would surely have us note that there are no ‘‘arts and
reveals some of the basic parameters of genuine letters’’ or ‘‘musical arts’’ in Old. Indeed, when poets
political education. or poems are mentioned in the book, it is usually in
It is hard to deny that Old Persia was more just reference to war strategy (see the references to war
and ultimately more impressive than the new empire, paeans at 3.3.55 and 3.3.59, the ‘‘poet of stratagems’’ at
in spite of its various inadequacies (see Whidden 1.6.38, and the ‘‘tragic stage’’ at 6.1.54; see also
2008, 56). First in comparison to Media, and sub- Strauss1939, 510).
sequently in contrast with Cyrus’ empire, Old Persia Although sweeping political change like Cyrus’
is especially impressive in its respect for law and the can be dangerously single-minded, Xenophon’s book
longstanding stability which this brings to the regime, demonstrates how the stultification of a traditional
as well as for the character of its citizens (see system can make it vulnerable. The laws of Old Persia
Whidden 2007, 554–63). The political question that are obeyed without being understood and are dis-
lurks here is whether Cyrus’ ambitions might some- obeyed by the rulers without any real sense of
how have been channeled within the regime without foreboding. The old system is defenseless against
undermining its stable character. This would have Cyrus’ bold initiatives, whereas its vitality might have
involved preventing Cyrus’ morally corrosive trip to been sustained and improved through more careful,
xenophon’s cyropaedia 735

incremental changes. Cyrus would have benefited from however, our author lifts the veil on Cyrus’ system,
long conversations, perhaps with a more thoughtful informing us that instead of fostering justice it fueled
Cambyses, about how Persian political life might have envy and hatred (and probably corruption and bribery
been improved (rather than just maintained), the too; see 8.8.13).17 Xenophon even holds out the
relative merits of other types of regimes (such as promise of leisure to his readers (8.1.13), but in Cyrus’
monarchy, and the more commercial Athenian de- empire life at the top is devoted mostly to wealth and
mocracy), and even the possibilities pertaining to pageantry (8.2.20, 8.3); even the leisurely symposium
various kinds of empire. Xenophon indicates that such at 8.4.1–27 involves its share of sycophantic banter,
alternative forms of education are a real possibility by and when finally we arrive at the question of Cyrus’
having Cambyses mention how for a time there was a happiness, Xenophon punts (8.7.6). By showing us
more sophisticated form of education in Old Persia, what is missing in Cyrus’ empire, and in such a
but that it threatened civic virtue and was therefore tantalizing way, Xenophon reminds us of what is
put to a stop (1.6.31–33). The deep question this short essential to genuine political life as understood and
interlude raises is whether the political stability prized practiced by the ancient Hellenes.
by the Old Persians, and in the new Persian empire, is Unlike Plato or Aristotle, Xenophon does not, in
worth everything that might be gained through more the Cyropaedia or elsewhere, articulate a definite ‘‘best
cosmopolitan forms of education. If the pseudo- regime,’’ or set of ends. But as Cyrus’ own empire
enlightenment of 1.6.31–33 inadequately taught young grows, what becomes most obvious is that Cyrus
citizens the merits of the law, it does not follow that would have benefited from a thorough consideration
a return to simplicity was the optimal pedagogical of the final ends of politics—that great theme of
response. The Cyropaedia shows us the pitfalls of this ancient political philosophy. Cyrus has little personal
choice writ large. understanding of the kinds of goods that are most
Xenophon further indicates some of the partic- important to human beings, nor of the kind of
ular advantages of a more cosmopolitan, or Hellenic, architectonic prudence that would work to arrange
education in Book 8 of the Cyropaedia. He does this such goods within a shared political order (see
through his graduated revelation of the dissatisfying Aristotle, Ethics 1141b25, 1152b2–3). In Book 8, some
character of Cyrus’ despotism. Chapter by chapter, of these goods, like freedom, virtue, justice, leisure,
Xenophon raises his readers’ hopes about the ultimate and happiness, are grasped at by Cyrus, with thor-
state of affairs under Cyrus’ rule, only to disappoint. In oughly dissatisfying results. Genuine prudence surely
8.1, for example, Xenophon holds out the promise of involves the rare ability to rank such goods, and to
freedom, when, in an early speech by Chrysantas, a order one’s life accordingly with a view to living well
distinction is made between those who obey freely and (in light of one’s own particular character); genuine
willingly and those who do so under compulsion political prudence, in the ancient view, involves the
(8.1.1–5). The initial suggestion seems to be that rarer ability to make such judgments on others’ behalf
Cyrus’ subjects are free in their willing obedience, (see Aristotle, Ethics 1140a25–1140b14, 1141b7–34,
but by 8.2, Cyrus’ servants are likened to dogs (8.2.4) 1129b31–1130a15).
and his friends to sheep (8.2.14); everyone is kept in Which leads us back to the question of the mean-
check through an elaborate surveillance system ing of the law—a question raised early on in Old
(known as the king’s Eyes and Ears, and especially Persia, but set aside by a youthful Cyrus convinced of
punitive of the free thinking; see 8.2.10–12, 8.3.22, and his exact understanding of justice (1.3.16). Though
8.6.16–18). Next, Xenophon holds out the promise of Cyrus can offer some explanation of the merits of law
virtue (8.1.17), but soon we are shown how Cyrus (3.3.49–54), he himself lives only by the ‘‘law’’ of
abides by the Old Persian methods of petty honors, conquest, which he believes to be eternal (7.5.73).
competition, animal appetites, and fear.16 The hope Cyrus’ failure to legislate adequately at home (i.e., the
for justice is also enlivened in Book 8 when Xenophon inadequacy of his petty tribunals) points to an enor-
mentions Cyrus’ establishment of a system of legal mous area of political activity that remains virtually
judgments (8.2.27–28). In the course of the telling, untouched, and doubtless contributes to the demise of
the empire upon his death. His failure at legislation
See 8.1.42, 8.1.18, 8.2.12, 8.2.25–27, 8.3.22, and 8.1.39; on food
see 8.1.38, 8.2.6–7, and 8.4.6. These echoes of Old Persia indicate
the extent to which Cyrus’ empire relies on traditional virtue. For a helpful discussion of the contrast between Cyrus’ rule and
This may also be Xenophon’s way of indicating the latent the rule of law in the Cyropaedia, see Whidden (2007); for an
instability of the empire, since, absent a better legislator than analysis of Cyrus’ other main piece of legislation (4.3.22; see also
Cyrus, the Old Persian ways will not be sustainable there. 8.4.5), see Johnson (2005).
736 laura k. field

does more than this, however. It also ensures that while a different education remains an open question, but
he is alive it is nearly impossible for anyone else to be he is called a lover of learning by Xenophon, and
free. In displaying for us the shallow austerity of Old there are several instances when Cyrus’ rule was made
Persia, Xenophon teaches that the law must exist for more just by the advice of thoughtful characters like
the sake of something more than Persian self-control; Tigranes. This suggests that under different circum-
in illuminating the dreadful proportions of Cyrus’ stances he might have learned the lessons discussed
empire, he shows us what can happen in law’s absence. above. Xenophon tells us that ‘‘When the person in
If the meaning or purpose of the law has been forgotten control is better, the lawful things are observed with
among the Old Persians (who have lawfulness beaten greater purity,’’ and that ‘‘when he is worse, they are
into them sans the accompaniment of understanding), observed in an inferior way’’ (8.1.8), which indicates
by the end of the book it is not lost upon the reader. that there is ample room in Xenophon’s outlook for
And it would not be lost on the ancient Greeks, either, political improvement, and furthermore that it is
who were so manifestly concerned with the laws’ role connected to the virtue of the ruler. As we gain this
in establishing and preserving the conditions of genu- understanding, and trace out the difficulties with
ine freedom.18 The ancients too teach that laws can Cyrus’ rule—the limitations of his education and
be a powerful expression of political moderation and self-understanding, the lack of redemptive final ends
are a necessary condition of virtue and freedom; while to his dominion, and his failure to legislate—any
it is easy to delineate the differences between ancient lingering tragic dimensions of the story fall away.
forms of rule and contemporary notions of personal My reading does not produce a singular positive
autonomy enshrined in rights-based constitutions, it is teaching about the proper direction of political
important not to overstate them.19 Cyrus’ tyranny life. This, I think, is in keeping with the spirit of
reminds us of the import of such Hellenic norms, as Xenophon and of ancient thought more generally,
well as of their fragility in the absence of institutional but it is also especially appropriate to the Cyropaedia,
and cultural supports. which as a pedagogical text operates primarily by way
of Cyrus’ negative example. Indeed, if there is a clear
message that does emerge from the Cyropaedia, it is
Conclusion to be especially on guard against single-minded
political solutions. While Cyrus’ conquests are excit-
ing and impressive, the system he ultimately estab-
In studying Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, we learn that
lishes is brutal and hollow (see Faulkner 2007,
Cyrus’ empire reflects the unexamined contradictions
170–76). Like so many regimes throughout history,
of its founder’s life. The book attunes us to the rare
it suppresses the human potential of its subjects for
and unique qualities of a good education, as well as to
the sake of singular dominion. While Cyrus dramat-
the dangers of a faulty one. Whether Cyrus’ nature
ically proves that knowledge of how this may be done
was such that he ever could have been transformed by
is attainable (see 1.1.3), such know-how falls short of
the kind of wisdom that would enable one to live a
fulfilling and benevolent life within a stable political
community, let alone to establish one. This does not
mean that genuine political wisdom is an illusion.
A straightforward proof of the Ancients’ deep regard for legal While the ancients are careful to avoid universal
forms can be found in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, which celebrates political solutions that are bound in time to falter,
Athena’s establishment of the court of the Areopagus in Athens. their political works seek above all to cultivate genuine
Athena’s speeches in the play highlight several legal principles
that are essential even today. These include equality before the prudence and wisdom, especially in their most ambi-
law and the presumption of innocence (407–13), the restraint tious readers. Though this targeted educative project is
demanded of individuals (and even gods like Athena) in the a far cry from universal enlightenment, it does promise
establishment of courts of justice (see 470–89), the role of courts
in achieving a genuinely political order, as opposed to anarchy
something—namely prudential wisdom—that is ap-
and despotism (681–710), and their role in countering individual propriate to all times and places. The Cyropaedia is
ambition (864–65). thus best seen as a work that illuminates questions that
Ruderman’s concise suggestion about the difference between are explored more fully in other ancient texts, like
ancient and modern understandings of political judgment also Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics; it is written to
pertains to the respective notions of political freedom: ‘‘A key attract and inspire ambitious young people, as well as
difference between the [contemporary] advocates of political
judgment and Aristotle is that they, but not he, insist that all to introduce them to some of the abiding concerns
citizens exercise it’’ (1997, 412; see also 419n23). of politics.
xenophon’s cyropaedia 737

Cyrus’ failure, then, is not inevitable, and a major the University of Texas at Austin. I am grateful to
purpose of Xenophon’s work is to cultivate in his Lorraine Pangle for many helpful comments and
reader that which Cyrus lacked.20 Indeed, my ultimate suggestions on this manuscript. Thank you as well
reservation about the suggestion that Xenophon’s goal to Stephen Lange, Devin Stauffer, Eduardo Dargent,
in the Cyropaedia is to undermine political hopes rests and Austin Hart for valuable support and advice and
in this literary experience of the work. The gripping to the editors at JOP and anonymous reviewers for
power of Xenophon’s narrative defies an apolitical their thorough and thoughtful comments. All linger-
reading. The excitement of the book, achieved through ing errors remain my own.
its inviting novel form and terrific tempo, was surely
meant to attract young politically minded readers
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