Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Xenophon’s Cyropaedia
Literally, the title of this piece translates to “the education of Cyrus,” though in truth only about the first book or two cover Cyrus’s “education,” while the others describe the rest of his life. This is meant as a sort of “how to” book on how to rule well, in the form of a biographical treatment of Cyrus, but unlike in The Ten Thousand, Xenophon is not here describing contemporary events, and many historians doubt that this is in more than the most general of ways an accurate depiction of Cyrus’s life. Note: by “how to,” I mean a book on how to rule as a semi-benevolent authoritarian dictator who is loved and feared by his subjects. I find this book rather ironic, considering how the Greeks struggled against the Persians for centuries in a desire to maintain their freedom from just the sort of rulers that Cyrus was, and yet this book depicts him as a sort of ideal leader. This might be a little like the “dialogue” affectation that authors like Plato used at a similar time period to convey ideas; that is, that this is intended as a sort of framing story for ideas that Xenophon wanted to express about leadership, rather than a factual biography of a real individual. This seems the more likely when you consider that Cyrus’s education sounds awfully similar to Spartan education.
Inevitably, I compare this book to The Ten Thousand, and it simply does not measure up; I found it less interesting, less engaging, less useful, and more challenging. I mostly read it out of a sense of obligation, stubbornness, and scholarly interest. Unlike The Ten Thousand, which read like a narrative, this read at least as much like a polemic as it did like a narrative; everyone and everything in the text seemed to exist for the sole purpose of extolling the greatness of Cyrus. Even the people who fought against him or argued with him usually ended up having a moment where they realized the error of their ways and became ardent supporters of Cyrus conquering them. For someone who strives always to see nuance to every position and subject, the unending exultation and adoration of Cyrus was a difficult pill to swallow.
It does have some historical interest, so I’m not disappointed that I’ve read it, but I am glad that I’ve finished with it. The last book or two (there are eight that compose the Cyropaedia), after Cyrus has conquered his lands and essentially established himself, felt quite superfluous, and I will admit to skimming parts of them. My attention was absorbed again at the very end, when Xenophon starts talking about what Dan Carlin describes as “the silk slippers of history.” This is a fascinating concept to explore, and Xenophon does a decent job of presenting it: I will summarize here. For much of history, the idea that “barbaric” societies encourage, promote, and develop traits that make them particularly well-adapted to conquering others, but that once the conquest has been completed they tend to lose those traits to the forces of luxury gained through their conquest, has been prevalent in historical analysis. It has been proposed to explain the fall of empires around the world in many different eras: Persia, China, Rome, Egypt, et cetera. To frame it in a more modern context, consider how many businesses do well under their rags-to-riches founder, only to falter or stumble or in some way lose their way after the founder dies or steps down.
For all that this felt like a long read, I don’t have all that much else to say about it. It’s not that there weren’t valuable lessons about leadership, especially military leadership, in this book (some of the things that the modern US military (and other militaries) trains its forces to do are almost unchanged from what Xenophon is describing in 500 BCE, which is probably a discussion for a different post on a different site) that are still relevant today; it’s just that it was a very tedious way of making those points, especially if we can’t really trust the biographical component as possessing historical veracity. Next week, we’ll move on to a review of Hellenica, the next book in my collected works of Xenophon.
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