Initial Thoughts on Xenophon’s Cyropaedia

In Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus (or Cyropaedia – the latinized version of the Greek Kúrou paideía meaning “The Education of Cyrus”) we receive a modified account of Cyrus’s nature and upbringing. It is a conscious narrative text written in Xenophon’s own words, not a dramatic or performed book as in the case of some Platonic dialogues or a play by Shakespeare. However similar to a Platonic dialogue, we see Cyrus engaged in dialogue and inquiry with friends and family. The distinction is that in Plato’s dialogues, he offers one whole and complete moment of a dialogue, while Xenophon offers a series of reflections (certain aspects of the Cyropaedia are reminiscent of Herodotus’s logoi). Both Plato and Xenophon disguise themselves in their writing, but Xenophon distinguishes himself by hiding under the guise of a simpleton or perhaps even a fool. Despite this obfuscation there is tremendous complexity in the works of Xenophon. In the Cyropaedia Xenophon invites us to consider the life of Cyrus by sharing a collection of particular moments in his life in order to contemplate his character.

Xenophon wrote two books about two different men named Cyrus. In the Cyropaedia we are offered an a-historical account of Cyrus The Great. Xenophon also wrote the Anabasis of Cyrus, an autobiographical account of Cyrus, a brother of the ruler of Persia, who leads a group of ten thousand Greek mercenaries to overthrow his brother. However Cyrus is killed and the soldiers are trapped near Babylon until a common soldier unites the group and leads the Greeks on a massive march to safety ending up at the Greek city of Byzantium. Both men named Cyrus are related but they are about six generations apart.

In the Cyropaedia, Persia is described in an a-historical context. The Persian regime detailed by Xenophon better reflects the character of the ancient Greek city of Sparta. The text almost reads like a novel about Cyrus, the ruler who was praised by both Greeks and Israelites alike. Cyrus was the greatest emperor prior to the rise of Alexander the Great. In classical antiquity, the Cyropeadia was considered the great military text par excellence by the likes of Scipio, and Machiavelli also drew upon Xenophon for his masterful work, The Prince.

At the outset, Xenophon offers an introduction, or a “reflection.” As he looks around the world, he sees political instability everywhere. Here, the “people” overthrow their rulers, and there a tyrant claims power. Even animals in herds obey shepherds better than humans obey their rulers. How can a regime endure? How does a leader succeed?

“Now when we considered these things, we inclined to this judgment about them: It is easier, given his nature, for a human being to rule all other kinds of animals than to rule human beings. But when we reflected that there was Cyrus, a Persian, who acquired very many people, very many cities, and very many nations, all obedient to himself, we were thus compelled to change our mind to the view that ruling human beings does not belong to those tasks that are impossible, or even among those that are difficult, if one does it with knowledge” (1.3).

Cyrus was able to extend fear of himself all over the world, and to such a great extent that many people never expected to see him in their lifetime, but nevertheless submitted to his authority. He is surely a leader worthy of “wonder.” Xenophon alludes to the fact that all men seem to desire to rule rather than be ruled, yet many fail at both. However, Cyrus stands alone as a man with “knowledge” capable of ably ruling and being ruled.

The title of the text is unusual, since it points us only to the contents of Book I which deals with Cyrus’s education. It draws our attention to Cyrus’s unique rearing which becomes the catalyst for his political career. The rest of the text focuses on Cyrus’s superb military conquests, and the text finally closes with the decline of the Persian empire. We are invited to consider how Cyrus’s education (or perhaps miseducation) has influenced the rise and decline of the Persian empire. What makes Cyrus’s education unique? What distinguishes Cyrus as a ruler from a mere demagogue?


Cyrus’s Birth (Book I)
Book I is the most important Book in the Cyropaedia since it explicates Cyrus’s education. What are the habits he gains up until the age of twelve? Cyrus is said to be the son of Cambyses (per Herodotus) who descends from the Perseidae, so-named after Perseus. Everyone accepts that his mother descends from the Medes. Cyrus is remembered as beautiful, benevolent, most eager to learn, and ambitious. He was educated in the Persian laws, which look to the common good (a clear allusion to Spartan rule -in fact the “Free Square” image of the public marketplace indicates a well-regimented society in ancient Persia). For example, Xenophon refers to schools of justice in Persia wherein young boys learn the nature justice. As a child Cyrus learns both the “equal” way of doing things in Persia, as well as the “kingly” way of ruling among the Medes from his mother’s father, Astyages. Implicitly, Cyrus has learned the desire to imitate the gods by maintaining control of himself. He has also been educated abroad, and so he gains a certain sense of the diversity of men across the world. Notably, Cyrus is not offered a virtuous aristocratic education.

There is a fascinating exchange between Cyrus and his mother wherein Cyrus tries to demonstrate to his mother that he has learned about justice. Cyrus is appointed a minor judge over his peers. There is a large boy with a small cloak, and a small boy with a large cloak. The question emerges among the boys: would it not be just for the two boys to exchange cloaks? According to Cyrus’s grandfather, Astyagas (a tyrant of Medea), what is just is what is fitting (perhaps a tyrannical idea that whatever is decided by the dictator is decided to be fitting). However, Cyrus suggests to the boys that what belongs to each is just, or said in another way, whatever is lawful is just. Thus Cyrus reassures his mother that he fully understands justice. The principle that justice is the ‘fitting’ requires a need for a wise judicial mind who determines what is truly fit. The principle that justice is law is a less expansive understanding perhaps. This little anecdote is alluded to in the writings of Rousseau, among other later philosophers.


Cyrus’s Growth (Books II-VII)
Cyrus learns that to be an excellent leader, he must possess a stronger endurance than those he rules, as well as the ability to be a wily cheat in doing harm to his enemies. The rule of advantage is better used against enemies. A just ruler defends himself, and comes to the aid of his friends. Cyrus proves himself to be an able tactician, anticipating the fears and faults and weaknesses of his opponents, such as the Median-Persian defense against the enemy Assyrian army (Babylon). Yet, Cyrus represents the perfect polarity between generalship (the directorship to kill) and philanthropy (the love of human beings). The character of Cyrus’s rule comes to light as imperial, the rule of all men. Cyrus conquers the world but he loses his soul. In the end his empty shell of a kingdom collapses.

There is a fascinating part in the text wherein the love between spouses is transformed under the rule of Cyrus. The ultimate self-sacrifice for love becomes the submission to the tyrant, Cyrus. Cyrus is the perfect ruler for the Persians because he makes all of his citizens happy, however this comes at the expense of others. It also comes with a certain deprivation for Cyrus. He skeptical of women, worrying that he may fall in love and become distracted from his duties as a ruler. He is also somewhat skeptical of the love of wisdom (philosophy). Perhaps he is not fully human. To what extent does Xenophon agree or disagree with Plato regarding the impossibility of a philosopher king?

In all of these developments we have to wonder if the virtue of Cyrus is something he gained naturally, not by means of education. To what extent is Xenophon offering, in the case of Cyrus, a striking example of a leader who shows that virtue cannot be taught? If so, this would be a stark contrast between Xenophon and his contemporaries: Plato and Aristotle.

Xenophon invents Persia as a classical republic in the Greek sense, though it certainly was not. Xenophon invents some wonderful speeches in the book, including conversations with philosophical characters. In Herodotus, Cyrus dies in a bloody battle with his head cut off, while in Xenophon Cyrus dies in bed after delivering one final speech.


The End of Cyrus (Book VIII)
The Cyropeadia shows the inevitable defect of the rule of one wise man, because he may not necessarily be succeeded by another wise man. The last Book of the text reveals the failure of Cyrus and the ultimate demise of his kingdom. The collapse of Cyrus’s rule returns us to the political instability described by Xenophon at the beginning.

Cyrus represents the polar opposite of Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, though he is not the embodiment of a Platonic philosopher king. The Education of Cyrus comes to like as a praise of the rule of Cyrus. But upon close reading, we see this praise is qualified. The text corresponds to Plato in its search for the best regime, or perhaps its discussion of the perfect ruler, his virtues and vices, and how the problems associated with the rule of one man. There is a certain impossibility and untruth to the rule of Cyrus, as evidenced in Xenophon’s deliberately inaccurate portrayal of Cyrus, and in that way the impossibility of Cyrus shares a kinship with the impossibility of the “city in speech” in Plato’s Republic. They both agree, tacitly, with Aristotle’s claim that a human being is fit for live in a city, or polis, a political life. However, political life has certain limitations, and the limitations of the city point beyond themselves toward something higher. This leads those who transcend the city’s essential limits (a la Aristotle’s life of “pure contemplation”) to search for something which is impossible: a perfect polis or politeia. However, this regime is impossible in practice, but nevertheless crucial to the telos of the city.

In contrast to Cyrus, Socrates lived a most happy and just life (as detailed by Xenophon in his Memorabilia) despite also living through a great war and political strife. Philosophy shows us an example of how we might rule during times of great difficulty, and also how we might live a happy life amidst chaos.


For this reading I used the Agora Edition of Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus as translated by Wayne Ambler, a Humanities Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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