Classic Works

Xenophon, The Education of Cyrus (ca. 370 BCE)

Xenophon was an Athenian rhetorician, soldier, and historian who lived from 430 to 354 BC. Little is known of his life until 401 BC, when he took part in an expedition that ended in a failed coup for the Persian Empire, recorded in his Anabasis. Later, for unknown reasons Xenophon was exiled from Athens. He settled in Lacedaemonia, where he lived a comfortable life until the Spartan defeat at Leuctra in 371 BC. It seems that Xenophon was notably connected to Spartan leadership, for his assets were seized and he was exiled once again. He moved to Corinth where he lived out the rest of his days writing. He spent his youth in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, and claimed the preeminent philosopher Socrates as his teacher.

Xenophon wrote The Education of Cyrus between the Peloponnesian War and the advent of Macedonian rule. He undoubtedly saw a great deal of political upheaval, whether it was the Spartan rise to hegemony over the Greek cities and subsequent decline at the hands of Thebes, or the political turbulence that rocked Athens after the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, or touring the Persian Empire with a mercenary army, concluding that Persia was a hollow kingdom, ready to be taken the Greeks if they so choose. In this twilight time of the Greek system of states, Xenophon appears prescient about the rise of new empires by choosing to reflect on the origins of an older empire, Persia, and the character of its founder, Cyrus the Great. It is worth noting the character of the reflection, however, lest we mistake Xenophon’s purposes in writing.

Xenophon wrote his work centuries after the life of Cyrus the Great. When introducing his own work, Xenophon poses the question as to how universal peace and stability could be achieved through an understanding of human nature and the power of universal benevolence as a means of persuading nations to sign away their freedom for the sake of being ruled by a man they thought “more prudent about their own advantage than they themselves.” But while the character of Xenophon’s work might appear historical or biographical, there are good reasons for not taking it as a historical work. To take an obvious example, the Asians regularly swear by Greek gods, but occasionally by Asian deities, suggesting that Xenophon is fully in control of his story. Likewise, the early regime of the Persians seems suspiciously like Xenophon’s description of the regime of the Spartans. While other historians claim that Persia acquired its dominion over other nations by revolting against Median overlords, Xenophon is silent about such a revolt, instead indicating that Cyrus’ natural superiority made him attractive as a ruler. These reasons explain why some scholars characterize The Education of Cyrus as a political “novel,” rather than a history, biography, or treatise. It is more poetic than anything else, but for that reason it could teach better the nature of imperial rule and the consequences of destroying a system of states for the sake of peace. So we should not expect a historical work such as Xenophon’s Hellenika when reading The Education of Cyrus – instead, it seems wiser to see Cyrus as a kind of human being that overcomes one of the chief difficulties of politics through unlimited conquest and rule.


I. The Structure of the Work

Xenophon states the essential question from the outset: How can human beings rule other human beings without revolution? Xenophon claims that he first thought the problem of regime stability insoluble, but reflecting on the life of Cyrus the Great changed his mind toward thinking that ruling human beings is not only possible, but “not even difficult if done with knowledge.” The life of Cyrus caused this change in Xenophon’s thought because Cyrus not only ruled the Persians, but also many nations and cities – indeed, he for all intents and purposes ruled the known world. Thus Cyrus was not only a successful king of Persia, he was also a successful emperor that found separate and independent polities with the concomitant continual war and shifting alliances, and brought them into an ordered whole that guaranteed peace in Asia. The Education of Cyrus, then, is about a man who not only learned how to rule his own people, but took rule to its maximal case – rule over all human beings.

Xenophon’s work covers the rise of Cyrus the Great and Persia, described as a small republic, over the other Asian nations. Book I offers a consideration the regime of the Persians, where boys learn “justice” as boys from other regimes learn grammar, and where hunting is a matter of public concern because it prepares the youths to endure hardship and learn the skills necessary for warfare. Cyrus is raised in the regime of the Persians, where the laws look to the common good in all things. But he also spent time as a child in the kingdom of the Medes, which Xenophon paints as an education in tyranny. Thus Cyrus’ education is a mixture of lawful pursuit of the common good, and tyrannical taking of all things for himself. When the king of Assyria, fearful of the Persian-Median alliance, forms a coalition of nations to destroy Medea, the Medes call upon Persian help and ask for Cyrus as a general. This act of Assyrian injustice against the Medes begins Cyrus’ rise to greatness.

Book II outlines the preparations made by Cyrus and his Median uncle, Cyaxares to meet the Assyrian coalition. Faced with superior numbers, Cyrus does not delude himself that he will defeat the enemy through simple cunning or maneuver. Instead, he changes the very nature of the Persian army. Most Asian nations, including the Persians, had placed an emphasis on long-distance skirmishing with javelins and bows. The Persians, however, included an element of heavy infantry made up of aristocrats. Cyrus recognizes the possibilities of changing the Persian army into an army of heavy infantry, and expands the heavy infantry element to include all Persians. This democratization of the military has far-reaching effects. The first and most obvious effect is the ease with which the Persian army defeats its enemies using shock tactics. The second is disruption of the Persian regime, which begins to change from an aristocratic regime to a democratic one. In this democratic vein, Cyrus easily mingles and gets to know his men, inviting them to his tent to share dinner and jokes. Shared laughter is an important way to obscure the distinction between the ruler and the ruled, thus increasing the appearance of democratic rule even in the presence of the greatest of monarchs.

Book III opens with Cyrus and Cyaxares turning their combined forces against the Armenian king, an erstwhile Persian subject who saw an opportunity to revolt with the Assyrian threat. Xenophon gives a none-too flattering portrait of the Armenian king – at the news of Cyrus’ coming, the king does little to rally his own troops and instead focuses on saving his possessions and his own skin. Cyrus causes the king to surrender. Rather than summarily executing the king, or keeping him as a prisoner, Cyrus holds a public trial. Cyrus then asks a series of questions about justice and retribution that sounds like a simple Socratic dialogue, all leading to the proposition that the Armenian king deserves to die. The king’s son persuades Cyrus, however, that it would not be advantageous to kill the king. Xenophon suggests strongly that this was the outcome that Cyrus desired anyway: the appearance of adhering to a severe form of justice, tempered by what appears to be mercy. The whole spectacle serves Cyrus’ own purposes: to make the Armenian a more reliable ally than ever before, while proving his own justice and reasonableness. And so just shortly after, the Armenian’s considerable power is added to Cyrus’, along with a very high opinion of Cyrus’ virtue and nobility. Book III ends with the rout of the Assyrian army at the hands of the Persians led by Cyrus shouting, “Who will follow? Who will be good?”

While Book III concludes with the retreat of the Assyrian army, Book IV deals with its near annihilation. The Assyrian army, unused to the shock combat of the Persians, do not stay within their fortified camp, but instead flee back to Assyria. Cyrus argues for immediate pursuit, but his uncle Cyaxares would prefer to remain looting the remains of the camp – Xenophon notes that a combination of jealousy at not being the one to recommend pursuit, but also because he did not want to “run risks” and he was “enjoying” himself, led Cyaxares to oppose Cyrus’ plan. Cyrus persuades his uncle by claiming that he will use as many Medes as wish to go. His uncle agrees, not realizing that nearly his entire army follows Cyrus’ mere suggestion. In this book we also see Cyrus’ skill at recruiting defectors from the Assyrians: either long subjected peoples who wish to improve their condition in life, or Assyrian defectors who resent the Assyrian king.

Book V is a curious part of Xenophon’s story. Previously he had provided reflections on leadership and strategy, and the skillful use of allies, as preeminent aspects of Cyrus’ character. Book V begins, however, with a small discourse on love and beauty between Cyrus and Araspas the Mede. Araspas tells Cyrus that the Persians have captured a remarkably beautiful woman (later identified as Panthea), and that Cyrus should see her beauty. Cyrus refuses, because he does not believe men are strong enough to resist beauty of that order, and he should be “caught by love.” Araspas doubts his own weakness and argues that objects of love can be chosen or rejected by human beings. Cyrus tells Araspas to continue guarding the woman, but to take care to not be caught in love. Of course, Araspas does indeed “fall in love.” This event precedes a break between Cyaxares and Cyrus when Cyaxares realizes that nearly his entire army followed Cyrus in pursuing the Assyrians. Cyrus is able to win his uncle back into the alliance by persuading him that he means no harm and does not intend to deprive Cyaxares of his kingship. Xenophon, however, makes it plain that Cyrus has already done so, as the Median troops follow and care for their king at Cyrus’ behest. What is Xenophon getting at? It appears that Cyrus is unwilling to fall in love with a beautiful woman because he does not want to love – he wants to be be loved. Private life with a beautiful woman is possibly incompatible with rule that already extends beyond the Persians to the Medes as well. But Cyrus’ nearly ascetic approach to beautiful women seems prudent as well – he understands the power of eros and beauty, and knows it could lead him toward injustice.

This theme is intensified in Book VI when Cyrus has Cyaxares introduce the idea of dissolving the army and returning home. His men beg him not to do so, pointing out that if they leave without utterly vanquishing the Assyrian king, he would grow strong again and make more war. In order to have true security, there must be the annihilation of all enemies, and the annihilation of all enemies requires leadership by Cyrus. Cyrus agrees, and he begins preparations to stay over the winter, and, as he did with the Persian infantry, develops a new mode of fighting with chariots that relied on them coming into close combat with the enemy rather than long distance skirmishing. We also see the dénouement of Araspas’ erotic attraction to Panthea. After courting the married woman, he threatens to rape her. Cyrus uses Araspas’ shame to ask him to perform a dangerous espionage mission but Panthea, when she sees Araspas leave for the Lydian army, mistakes the reason for his departure and offers to send for her husband, who will become a new ally for Cyrus.

Book VII begins with the Battle of Thymbra, where Croesus, king of Lydia and ally to the Assyrian king, was finally defeated. Although most of the Lydian army is easily defeated by Cyrus’ troops, a contingent of Egyptian spearmen hold out bitterly, killing many Persians. Cyrus calls for a ceasefire, and realizing the nobility and usefulness of such stalwart troops, persuades the Egyptians to join his army. The husband of Panthea is killed in battle, however, and she commits suicide, much to the bewilderment of Cyrus. He then moves on to Babylon, the seat of the Assyrian king, and after draining the river that feeds into the city, moves his troops into the city along the riverbed during a Babylonian celebration. At this point, Xenophon tells us that Cyrus wished to establish himself as a king.

The conclusion of Book VII and the whole of Book VIII is devoted to Cyrus’ development of his empire. Setting up a centralized administrative state, developing a sophisticated espionage network, and taking on the flamboyant Median style of dress to “bewitch” the people, Cyrus seems to fall somewhere between a king and a tyrant. Book VIII and the work as a whole concludes with Xenophon describing the decline of the Persian Empire after the death of Cyrus, claiming that whereas Cyrus’ Persians thought of nothing but justice and the common good, the Persians encountered by Xenophon many years later are the most impious, unjust, and unmanly of men.


II. Themes

Since Xenophon poses the problem of The Education of Cyrus as the problem of political stability, we would expect a discourse on obedience, justice, and political authority. Instead, Xenophon retells the founding of a great empire. What are we to think of this? How does empire affect stability and human happiness? Should we yearn for universal rule? How could it be achieved? The question as to how Cyrus established his empire and was able to so easily rule human beings receives a complicated answer from Xenophon. There are some obvious points: the democratization of the army, and the preference for shock combat, whether in the case of infantry or chariots, obviously played a large role in defeating the enemy. There is also constant maintenance of alliances while keeping on the lookout for new ones. But as Xenophon does not tire of pointing out, successful close combat and diplomacy require the possession of virtues, especially self-control, endurance, obedience, prudence, generosity, and courage. Thus the Persians did not possess only technological and tactical superiority, but also superior souls. But superior troops, tactics, diplomacy, and technology do not mean much without a leader commensurate to the task of leading such an army.

Cyrus appears to be such a leader. He moves from victory to victory, bringing more great men and nations under his banner as he does so. It is not hard to see why so many people flock to his army. He is an attractive ruler, possessing benevolence, gratitude, courage, and that rare combination, mercy and justice. Along with all these qualities, he also possesses the virtues of the soldier, as well as the skill in ordering his army and using his troops effectively. As if all these qualities were not enough, we also see Cyrus in the context of other rulers, who are variously incompetent, cowardly, greedy, or malicious. Cyrus’ establishment of his empire seems to bring about a superior ordering of human life than the previous chaos. Indeed, we might say that rather than relying on his ancestry or allegedly divine heritage, or even by right, Cyrus does not even need to claim rule. He practically has rule foisted upon him due to his moral qualities and his status as a bringer of good things to good men and women, and bad things to the bad. Cyaxares asks Cyrus to lead the coalition; the Armenian king gives away all his belongings to Cyrus even though Cyrus did not ask for them. Obedience to rule seems to rely on the recognition of a good ruler, rather than strident claims about right.

But being a good leader is itself a complex mixture. Cyrus was raised in the Spartan-like regime of the Persians, learning the arts of combat and endurance. While he with the other Persians boys “learned justice” the way most boys learn grammar, meaning they learned to be lawful, Cyrus supplemented his education by learning the Median way of life, a tyrannical way of life. Thus we might suggest that Cyrus’ blending of Persian lawfulness and Median tyranny is one element in his style of successful leadership. More obviously, Xenophon points to Cyrus skill in handling alliances as a necessary aspect of his empire building. Cyrus never misses an opportunity to enlarge his coalition, either by subjugating the Armenian rebels or detaching Assyrian noblemen from their king. But not only did Cyrus enlarge his coalition, he then changed that coalition into his own empire by being an object of love for all his subjects. Xenophon notices the tangible benefits to being ruled by Cyrus. Thus Xenophon is not necessarily arguing that selfless love was the basis of Cyrus’ rule – he at least partly bought the love of the ruled. To attain love, the basis of political stability of empire, one must give good things to the ruled.

Bearing in mind the poetic element of Xenophon’s work, The Education of Cyrus comes across less a hagiography of the long dead Persian king than a forerunner of the “mirror of princes” genre. But while that genre attempted to persuade rulers to take up the life of virtue, Xenophon’s purposes are much more ambiguous and less straightforward. It is not surprising that Machiavelli suggests this work as the most valuable expression of classical political science. Xenophon carefully paints a portrait of Cyrus the virtuous ruler: courageous, just, moderate, particularly pious, and most of all benevolent and generous. But while classical political philosophy, especially in the case of Aristotle, saw these virtues and ends in themselves, and the practice of virtue as happiness, Cyrus has a clearly more utilitarian vision of the virtuous life. He is virtuous because virtue leads to rule over others while also pleasing the gods. A happy life for Cyrus is one in which it is possible to receive the most pleasure by universal rule, while remaining pious. One can thus get the most out of this life and still be prepared for the afterlife. Although more philosophic men (including Xenophon himself) would question the adequacy of this easy conflation of pleasure-seeking and piety, Cyrus does not appear to be a particularly reflective man – in a sense, the most kingly of kings is does not overly trouble himself with the question of what it means to be a good man. Xenophon considers Cyrus, but Cyrus does not consider Xenophon.

Although there were undeniable benefits to being ruled by Cyrus, Xenophon, in a quiet manner, also reveals the unpleasant side of universal empire. He adds that not only was Cyrus loved, but he was universally feared. At one point he states that Cyrus ruled in fact by a kind of intimidation. A concrete example of this intimidation in the setting up of a surveillance state, wherein informers were paid to tell Cyrus what was being said about him. Xenophon notes that everyone was afraid to speak ill of Cyrus for fear of being overheard by the “ears of the king.”

Xenophon further questions the virtue of Cyrus by blandly pointing to the complete ruin of Persia after Cyrus’ death. The empire falls apart, the leading men fall to squabbling, and the antique Spartan-like virtue of Persia is replaced by impiety, injustice, and short-sighted pleasure seeking. Xenophon does not reveal the corruption of Persia as something surprising. We are led to think that Xenophon saw the corruption of Persia, and indeed all of Asia, as a reasonable consequence of imperial rule, or at least Cyrus’ rule. He ends by noting that the Persians are now incapable of what they achieved under Cyrus, largely due to their lack of stringent discipline and virtue. He compares the contemporary Persians and Greeks to make his point. Whereas Cyrus had changed the Persian army from primarily skirmishers to very effective shock troops, the current Persians are too frightened and undisciplined to stand up to Greek hoplites. Indeed, the Persians hire Greeks to fight their wars, having lost the “manliness” necessary for successful warfare. Although Cyrus may have been a superior ruler to those who opposed him, and although he probably brought about a superior ordering of human life, it could not last. Empire, in the final analysis, is not a solution to the political problem of stability. If anything, it is more akin to regime suicide. And when we remember that the chief theme of The Education of Cyrus is the question about political stability, we are forced to question Cyrus’ democratization of the Persian regime. Indeed, the virtuous, small, warlike republic stands as the most serious political alternative to universal, benevolent, peaceful empire.

Thus The Education of Cyrus is no simple paean to Cyrus, nor a handbook showing how to rule the world. Xenophon meditates on the conditions of uniting independent nations under unified political leadership, and the costs of so doing. The possession of empire can be as detrimental to the rulers as it is to the ruled. The Persians were once much like the Spartans, but they were changed by the rule of Cyrus. Xenophon thus shows that little is “natural” in the superior qualities of Greek soldiers when compared against the Persians. Keeping independent and separate political communities, with the attendant possibility of war and instability, seems very much wrapped up with the virtues necessary for successful warfare. The choice between empire and independence is one of the most fundamental political choices, and Xenophon deftly shows the Greeks and the later world the costs, limits, and possibilities of becoming an imperial power.


For Further Reading:

Ambler, Wayne. “Introduction” in Xenophon, The Education of Cyrus, translated by Wayne Ambler. Agora Edition, Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2001.

Bartlett, Robert C. “How to Rule the World: An Introduction to Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus. American Political Science Review, Vol. 109, No. 1. February 2015.

Bruell, Christopher. “Xenophon” in History of Political Philosophy, edited by Joseph Cropsey and Leo Strauss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1987.

Nadon, Christopher. Xenophon’s Prince: Republic and Empire in the Cyropaedia. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. 2001.

Sandridge, Norman. Loving Humanity, Learning, and Being Honored: The Foundations for Leadership in Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus. Washington D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies. 2012

Recommended Resource: For an alternative view of Cyrus the Great and the establishment of the Persian Empire, see Herodotus, The Histories.