Xenophon on the Purpose of History


Xenophon is often placed alongside Herodotus and Thucydides as one of the greatest historians of Greek antiquity, but Xenophon is by far the least well-known of the three chief Greek historians. Thucydides and Herodotus share the honor of being the most celebrated historians, and not without justice, it would seem, insofar as Xenophon, while known in antiquity as an historian, was not merely an historian. Whereas Thucydides and Herodotus wrote chiefly, or even solely, what is considered history, Xenophon wrote in a variety of genres. In addition to history, he wrote dialogues, treatises on governments, guides for developing skills, a book that has been called the first novel, and he also wrote works about his teacher, Socrates. So here we have an historian who has the curious distinction of having been liberally educated by arguably the greatest teacher of all time.   

Yet despite, or maybe in fact because of his peculiar education, Xenophon’s mode of writing history, and his understanding of the purpose of history and its place among human inquiries, differed greatly from his historical predecessors. Herodotus chronicled events that happened during his lifetime, but he also reported events that happened long before he was alive. Thucydides, by contrast, wrote only contemporary history; that is, he was a first-hand witness of sorts to the events he describes. On one hand, Xenophon seems to follow both of his predecessors. Like Herodotus, he wrote a book covering events long before he was alive in his Cyropaedia or Education of Cyrus. And he wrote two accounts of contemporary events which he would have known well, including the Hellenika and another, the events of which he would have known very well, the Anabasis of Cyrus. On the other hand, whatever their differences, Thucydides and Herodotus seemed to have striven for historical accuracy or objectivity (Thucydides begs forgiveness for the few places he felt compelled to invent but he reassures us his inventions are very close to what must have been said). The same simply cannot be said of Xenophon; he departs widely and makes no bones about it. No one, for example, or at least no serious person holds that his Cyropaedia is meant to be an historically accurate account of the life of Cyrus. Similarly, although to lesser degrees, the Hellenika and Anabasis stray from historical accuracy. Scholars are quick to point out that Xenophon often omits important historical facts and at other times he seems to invent things. What, then, is Xenophon up to?  If Xenophon is indeed an historian, he is surely an historian of a curious kind. Perhaps looking afresh at Xenophon’s historical writings can help us critically to evaluate history—what is it, and what is its purpose?   

Very briefly, in order to sketch an answer to this question, I will discuss two of Xenophon’s three chief “historical” works: the Hellenika and the Cyropaedia (or Education of Cyrus). In order to limit the length of this essay, I will only mention the third, the Anabasis, in passing.   

The Hellenika is sometimes called A History of My Times; other times, it is simply left untranslated, as I have done. Quite literally, it simply means “Greek things,” and so the title Greek Affairs would capture the idea well while aiming for literalness. This historical work basically covers the concluding years of the Peloponnesian War, the subsequent rise and fall of Sparta, and the rise of Thebes. 

The Anabasis of Cyrus is usually called something like The Persian Expedition or the March of the 10,000 because the literal title, Cyrou-Anabasis, which literally translates as the Ascent of Cyrus or the Rise of Cyrus, seems quite misleading. Although the work consists of seven books, the titular character, Cyrus the younger, unexpectedly dies in the opening book. This work chronicles Cyrus’s failed attempt to overthrow the Persian Empire, which was then under the rule of his brother, Artaxerxes. The remainder of the work traces the perilous retreat, ultimately successful, of the Greek mercenary army out of Persia back to Greece, under the very unlikely rule of a previously anonymous character in its midst, Xenophon himself.   

The Cyropaedia, or Education of Cyrus, gives an account of the life of the founder of the Persian Empire, from cradle to the grave, though again the title appears misleading insofar as it indicates Cyrus’s education is of central importance. Xenophon devotes only one chapter to the formal education that Cyrus would have received.  

I turn to Xenophon guided by the notion that we can learn not merely historical facts from him, but that we can learn what history is about, or what it ought to be about. We can learn the purpose of history. Xenophon’s historical works are guided by a purpose, one to which concerns for historical accuracy or objectivity are subordinated. For Xenophon, the primary purpose of history is pedagogical. History must be ennobling. That is, Xenophon’s principal concern in his writings is with the education of his audience, and in the first place, that means he is concerned, above all, with educating for virtue. His histories must be morally salutary, and they ought also to contribute to the intellectual virtue of his audience. Xenophon aims to improve us, both morally and intellectually. This is a goal shared, no doubt, by the friends of Classical Education.1   

Now, first, let me state Xenophon’s manner of proceeding controversially: in order to achieve his goals, “history” must occasionally be embellished. Or, to put it less problematically, we may have to emphasize some things over other.  

Xenophon lays out a general rule regarding his manner of writing histories—or his manner of writing any book, or even of speaking, for that matter—in the Anabasis. There, Xenophon the character is being put on trial by his own troops for some of the harsher things he had to do as general during the army’s retreat for its own good, things that he in fact not reported so far in the book. Among the things he says in his own defense, he declares, “it is noble [or beautiful, kalon], just, pious, and more pleasant to recall the good things more than the bad.2 

This mode of writing contributes to our moral education by steering us away from cynicism and by providing us with human beings to admire. It also contributes to our intellectual education, for we, as readers, have to work harder to determine the bad things that are ignoble to recall. If Xenophon focuses on the good, then he necessarily suppresses the nasty stuff, and we can only see it if we pay careful attention.   

Let me give an example in the spirit of Xenophon. Imagine two students about whom one must write a letter of recommendation. The concluding paragraph for the first student reads as follows: “Susan was an excellent student. She was always on time, respectful, and industrious. She was an excellent writer who also expressed herself well in speech. She had a commitment to education, not merely for the advantages it would bring, but as a goal worthy of pursuit in its own right. She is among the best students I have ever had. I whole-heartedly recommend her acceptance for this program.” The concluding paragraph for the second student runs thus: “Jim is a good student who is committed to education. I recommend his acceptance to this program.” Only by having the two in front of you can you determine how poorly Jim compares to Susan. Xenophon writes in a similar manner. For example, in the Anabasis, he will say the army marched through a large, inhabited, prosperous town. Then, he will say the army marched through a large, inhabited town. The reader must determine for himself or herself what his omission implies.3 Xenophon frequently uses long lists, longer even than these; he often repeats himself, but his repetitions are usually not identical. In such cases, one has to reflect on the reasons for the departure. In the Education of Cyrus, Xenophon lists the number of troops in Cyrus’ army by its role; he does not give the total. Only if one adds it up for oneself (31,000) does one notice that Cyrus reports a different number (20,000) to his Uncle Cyaxares, King of the Medes.4 One has to work even harder to figure out why he might misrepresent his forces to an ally, a blood-related ally, no less. Suffice it to say, his misrepresentation is likely not simply the result of bad math.  

Xenophon’s focus on good things implies a critique on other historians. Other historians mistakenly elevate the importance of deeds. especially of nasty deeds, by reporting them rather indiscriminately, and, as a result, they insufficiently recognize that their primary purpose ought to be to ennoble their readers, to draw them toward justice and piety, or more generally to educate and to improve their readers—and entertain them—not merely to report facts to them or to make chronicles for posterity.   

Toward that end, Xenophon’s best histories tell a story. Telling a story is indispensable to cultivating virtue through the teaching of history. The best such histories open students up to questions and provide them with “a brilliant array of examples for examination.”5 The stories can encourage the student’s desire to want to know what is good, what is virtuous, what will make them happy. Often, stories have a clear hero, a hero whose virtues and vices are on full display, whose words and deeds inspire our admiration. While I will first discuss the Hellenika, I believe we will see this principle at work more clearly when I turn to the Education of Cyrus, Xenophon’s greatest work. If one were looking for a single book to introduce a young person to the study of ancient history, I can think of no better book than this one.   

Let me add that the need for morally salutary histories, stories that point to the good a virtuous man can accomplish, stories that warn of the evils a wicked man can do, seems especially pronounced in democratic times. As usual, I can think of no better commentator on the state of our democratic souls than that great psychologist, Alexis de Tocqueville: 

Historians who live in democratic times, therefore, not only deny to a citizens the power to act on the destiny of a people, they also take away from people themselves the ability to modify their own fate, and they subject them either to an inflexible providence to a sort of bling fatality. 6    

He contrasts democratic works of histories with the histories of aristocratic times:  


In reading the historians of aristocratic ages, and particularly those of antiquity, it seems that to become master of his fate and to govern those like him, a man has only to know how to subdue himself.  In running through the histories written in our time, one would say that man can do nothing either about himself or his surroundings.  Historians of antiquity instruct on how to command, those of our day teach hardly anything other than how to obey.7   

Modern history inclines its readers, Tocqueville warns, to submit to a doctrine of fatalism, a doctrine particularly dangerous in democratic times.8 And, to repeat, Tocqueville recommends the reading of ancient literature, which has left us beautiful histories (histoires), as a remedy for these ills.9  Ancient literature provides us with models of human excellence, or virtue, that can help us to rule ourselves and to enjoy the blessings of liberty. The study of ancient Greek and Roman literature, in which he includes histories, “is the most fitting of all to combat the literary defects inherent in [democratic] centuries.”10 With that by way of introduction, let us turn to Xenophon’s chief historical works.   


The Hellenika is Xenophon’s work that most closely fits our understanding of what a work of history is and ought to do. As I mentioned above, the title is something simple like Greek Things. But the work isn’t simply about Greek things; it’s about war, specifically the Greek war that led to the end of Greek civilization, the Peloponnesian War. It seems that for most times and places, the study of history has been preoccupied, above all, with recounting the great deeds performed by great men. And that, more or less, has translated into accounts of war.   

To the extent, then, that one might have an interest in ancient Greece, an ordinary starting place might be with its chief wars. And, to be sure, our earliest books from the Ancient Greek world deals with the war that started it all, the Trojan War. Any student of elementary Greek can confirm that the first vocabulary words one learns in the study of attic Greek are “war,” “plane,” “hoplites,” “weapons,” and “general.” This contrasts with the first words one learns in the study of, say, French, for example. 

Accordingly, Xenophon wrote an account of the Peloponnesian War. Now, anyone familiar with Greek history knows not Xenophon, but Thucydides is the historian most closely—and justly—associated with the Peloponnesian War. But in his “Life of Xenophon,” Diogenes Laertius, the famous biographer of the Greek philosophers,  claims, “And it is said that, since the books of Thucydides were becoming forgotten, he himself [that is, Xenophon] was able to exploit them and bring them to fame.”11 The claim is outlandish, but it is useful for the purposes of a thought experiment, to entertain the notion that somehow Xenophon is responsible for the publication and fame of Thucydides’ great book. For whatever we make of the claim, Xenophon’s Hellenika picks up more or less where Thucydides left and off and seems to be a mere continuation of that book.   

Why might Xenophon have wanted to publish a book on war that seems merely to continue Thucydides’ works? There are countless potential answers but let me suggest one. To the extent one becomes interested in the splendor of Greece, one’s gaze is drawn to its two principal cities, Athens and Sparta. Xenophon would have understood this and therefore he could have wanted to attract the attention of persons drawn to the martial histories of these ancient cities.   

Given this primary interest in the political history of Greece, I suppose, but have no way of knowing or proving, that Xenophon suspected that for certain types of readers, the Hellenika would be his first book to which they would turn. Xenophon preys on our natural historical curiosity regarding wars and he hopes to shape it or form it—better, he hopes to lead it toward other inquiries. In the Hellenika, Xenophon alludes to topics he covers elsewhere: he covers the history of a Spartan King, Agesilaus, for whom he wrote a eulogy; he briefly mentions Cyrus the Younger’s failed military expedition, the topic of his Anabasis of Cyrus; he focuses on Athens and Sparta, two cities whose constitutions he outlines in treatise form, as I mentioned above; and, last but surely not least, he recounts a story of ten generals being tried en masse and one lonely dissenter who refuses to break the law requiring each general to get a separate and fair trial: one Socrates of Athens. All that to say, the Hellenika might appeal to someone interested in Greek affairs, especially in knowing how the Peloponnesian War concludes, and aims, among other aims, to alert the reader to other matters of interest.   

To repeat, I believe Xenophon writes his history of Greek affairs in part to capture the attention of certain types of young people, to shape their moral and intellectual outlook, and to redirect their attention to other, higher matters. So, this is a work of history as we would understand it and contemporary historians indeed turn to it for historical facts. But there are problems, small and subtle problems, but still problems. I’ll mention but a few. 

In the Hellenica (3.1.2), Xenophon suppresses his authorship of another of his books, the Anabasis of Cyrus, and gives credit instead to one Themistogenes of Syracuse.12 Moreover, it is widely recognized that Xenophon alters his style in the Hellenica at about 2.3.10, when the war ends.13 He there changes his use of particles, and he begins to report sacrifices, something he had not done up to this point. Moreover, Xenophon’s work on Greek affairs concerns principally the serious deeds of gentlemen.14 But as we all know, it’s not only gentlemen who shape history but the gangsters as well. A study of World War II would be incomplete without mention of Mussolini and Hitler, but these men were by no mean gentlemen. Xenophon does not simply omit the gangsters in his Hellenika, but he treats of the most exceptional gangsters, tyrants, in what are explicitly called digressions.15 In other words, they are not, properly speaking, part of the book. 

Last, but surely not least, let me mention that, unlike the Anabasis and Cyropaedia, which are rollicking adventure stories, the Hellinika can comes across as a little tedious, confused, and disconnected. The war ends, which would seem like an appropriate place to finish the work, but it continues for another five or so books. It next traces the rise and fall of the Spartan empire, but, again, it does not end. Instead it begins to trace the rise of Thebes. Many sentences begin with the word “and then,” and occasionally Xenophon will use a “thereafter” or a “thereupon.” The result is that his history begins to read simply like a list of events. If the initial appearance reflects Xenophon’s real opinion on the matter somehow, perhaps what he is doing, in contrast to Thucydides, who insists upon the importance of his “History,” is downplaying the importance of history. I realize this sounds strange. But Thucydides leaves one with the impression that history is of the highest importance and that there is a kind of clear order to history. He gives the impression that if one steps back, one can see the arc of history. I wonder if Xenophon is not relaying the notion that actually, history is just an endless string of “and then’s.” For his Hellenika concludes just as it began, without a clear end.16 The opening and final lines of the book are almost literally “thereafter.” Xenophon’s manner of writing history stresses the disordered and confusing character of history.17 This perhaps explains the fictional element of most of his other historical writings. Let us turn to the chief such writing. 

Cyrus the Great 

I will devote the rest of this paper to one of Xenophon’s fictionalized histories, to the work I take to be Xenophon’s masterpiece, and I strongly encourage anyone who has not read it to do so. It is a fantastic adventure story, and it is almost always loved by the college students to whom I teach it. It ought to be more widely taught. Cicero and Tacitus loved it. Machiavelli loved it. Rulers such as Alexander the Great and Caesar are said to have loved it. Apparently, Thomas Jefferson loved it. Even for those with no expertise in Greek history, this book comes alive. It practically teaches itself, as all the great ones do. It is a great story in part because it has a great hero. And in my experience, students pay closer attention when there’s a clear hero to follow, as opposed to a rotating cast of character (like, say, in the Hellenika). Good stories make for good histories to teach. And this story is fantastically good. There is war, intrigue, politics, and even a well-developed love story. 

The book is more or less an account of the life of the founder of the Persian Empire, from cradle to the grave, though the title would indicate his education is of central importance, despite Xenophon spending very little time covering his formal education.18   

Unlike many of Xenophon’s other books, which can tend to open rather abruptly, the Cyropaedia opens with a proper introduction. It opens by stating what it takes to be the political problem, stability. Regimes of all types are constantly being overthrown and brought down: Democracies are brought down, monarchies and oligarchies overthrown, and tyrannies are regularly brought down completely as soon as they start. Based on this observation, our author draws the tentative conclusion that, “It is easier, given his nature, for a human being to rule all the other kinds of animals than to rule human beings” (1.1.3). But then, our authors shares, we noticed Cyrus. And we reflected on him and were compelled to change our minds. Cyrus, it seems, possessed the science or knowledge (epistēmē) of ruling. Cyrus apparently offers a solution to the political problem that has plagued mankind throughout history. Cyrus first appears on stage, so to speak, as a savior. 

The book then provides an account of Cyrus’ birth and nature, followed by an account of how boys are educated in Persia. There is a brief account of a trip Cyrus took while still a boy to visit the court of his grandfather, Astyages, King of Media. The vast bulk of the book recounts Cyrus’ spectacular military and political rise to power, climaxing in his triumphant conquest of Babylon. There is then a relatively brief account of what Cyrus’ rule looked like, followed by a flash forward to Cyrus’ death scene and its aftermath. Xenophon’s account of the aftermath serves as a kind of conclusion to the work. So outside of the introduction and conclusion, the book is principally concerned with Cyrus’ life, especially his martial or political life.   

First things first: this book, admittedly, is the least historically accurate of Xenophon’s historical works. If one were to go through and compare Herodotus’ account of Cyrus, for example, with Xenophon’s, one would see enormous departures. Regarding Cyrus’ birth for example, and his virtues and vices, his reign, and, last, his death. In Herodotus, Cyrus is quite nasty. He’s prone to anger, he’s irrational, he’s blood-thirsty, and he’s not necessarily pious. By contrast, in Xenophon Cyrus seems to possess many of the moral virtues: he has self-control, he’s industrious if not even a lover of hard work, he’s willing to take risks, and he appears to be pious. Ostensibly, Cyrus’ virtues can be traced to the Persian educational system, which aims to promote certain virtues, and the common good of the Persian Republic (1.2.15). Principally: the boys learn justice, moderation, obedience, continence or self-control, and they learn various martial skills as well. And the goal seems to be to teach the boys to practice virtue for its own sake. And throughout the book Cyrus indeed appears to be just, insofar as he treats the members of his military with respect, removing class distinctions and introducing a system of reward based on merit in its place. He’s clever—good with military strategy and tactics, and he’s also innovative. He benefits nearly everyone with whom he comes into contact. Moreover, he seems to have the names of every member of his army memorized and is eager to reward any noble deed he witnesses. Xenophon specifically tells us that he was said to be beautiful with respect to his body (1.2.1). And with regard to his soul, he was said to be marked especially by three traits: he was a lover of humanity, a lover of learning, and a lover of honor.  

Next, Xenophon recounts the Persian education system, as I alluded to above. But Cyrus does not complete the education. Instead, he’s sent for by his grandfather, Astyages, King of Media, to visit when he’s roughly twelve years old, and he ends up staying there for several years. I will point to two instances from his visit that reveal the limitations of Cyrus’ education.  The first has to do with the problem of nobility (or beauty, kalon) and the second with justice.   

When Cyrus first arrives in Media, Xenophon recounts three so-called beauty or nobility contests that Cyrus must judge. First, when Cyrus meets his grandfather, a man dressed in extravagant robes, wearing rouge and eye shadow, a wig and expensive jewelry, the young Cyrus exclaims how beautiful (noble) his grandfather is. His mother, however, puts him in a pickle, by asking who is more beautiful (noble), his father or his grandfather. Thinking quickly on his feet, Cyrus responds that his father is the most beautiful Persian and his grandfather is the most beautiful Mede (1.3.2). Now, at first blush, one is impressed by the boy’s quick wit, grace, and charm. But the charm of the response masks a problem which I will show momentarily. There is then another beauty contest, this time between food. The grandfather has provided his grandson with an extensive feast, but the boy is disgusted by the food. When asked, again, which food is more beautiful (noble, or perhaps even “fine” in this instance), Persian or Median, young Cyrus doesn’t hesitate to give his opinion: Persian food is more beautiful, insofar as the road to satisfying one’s appetite is much quicker in Persia than the long extravagant route taken by the Medes. So, in this contest, unlike the first, which was a draw, the Persians win. So, the score between Persia has one win, no losses, and a tie with Media. However, one could easily overlook the central contest, because it’s no contest at all really. In-between the beauty contest over looks and the one over food, Xenophon remarks that Cyrus was pleased by the Median robes and horses. The reason the central case isn’t a contest is because there is no contest. It was rare even to see a horse in Persia, and the Persians eschewed the elaborate dress of the Medes. In the central case, Cyrus prefers Median beauty. Now, especially the first contest reveals that Cyrus has not thought through the question of nobility or beauty. What is the noble? What is beautiful? Throughout his career, Cyrus will insist on his own nobility, but has he thought it through? What is more beautiful, a man like his father with simple dress, hardened from a life of physical toil, or a man adorned like his grandfather, with cosmetics, indicative of an opulent life? Why does Cyrus hold a horse or a robe to be beautiful? I cannot develop the problem fully here but suffice it to say that Cyrus hasn’t thought through entirely what a noble man, especially a noble ruler, ought to look like. Does beauty or nobility involve sacrifice, or does it always resound to the splendor of the noble person? 

The failure to think through fundamental problems is revealed more clearly in a discussion Cyrus has with his mother about justice as the two debate whether Cyrus should return to Persia or remain in Media. His mother would like for Cyrus to return to Persia to continue his boyhood education, which is supposed to take ten years, and in which, the boys are to learn moderation, continence, and, above all, justice. To assuage his mother’s fears about remaining in Media, Cyrus proclaims that he’s already learned Persian justice, and so there’s no real need to return. To show to his mother that he has learned justice sufficiently, Cyrus relates to her a story when he happened to have been appointed judge in the case of a dispute between two boys. The case was like this: a small boy had a large tunic and a large boy had a small tunic. The big boy swapped the tunics. Cyrus judged it was better that each boy now had a more fitting. The teacher who had appointed Cyrus judge then beat Cyrus, insisting that just possessions is determined by the law. To do otherwise would be unlawful, and thus violent (apparently, the irony of beating Cyrus to stamp out violence was lost on the teacher, but perhaps not on Cyrus). In any event, the teacher insists that the just is the lawful, and Cyrus can confidently proclaim that he now knows what Persian justice is: the just is the legal. Cyrus’ mother is still worried, insofar as Median justice is not the same as Persian justice, but Cyrus again tries to put her fears to rest. No need to worry, mother, your grandfather, the ruler of Media, won’t teach me to be greedy, insofar as he teaches all of the Medes to have less than he does. Nevertheless, Cyrus’ mother still seems to harbor fears that her son will learn the tyrannical ways of her father (1.4.18).     

For my purposes, I only hope to show the deficiency of Cyrus’ education. Here Cyrus recounts a story from earlier in his youth when he was brought face to face with a fundamental problem, a question worthy of investigation in any liberal education worthy of the name, the problem of justice. Cyrus, even if unaware, was brought face to face with competing understandings of the just: what is its relation to the beneficial, the fitting, and the legal? One can imagine a young Cyrus being led through these inchoate expressions under the direction not of a Persian teacher inclined to beatings, but under the direction of a teacher more inclined to lead students to genuine human virtue, a Socratic teacher (but consider 1.6.31 and ff.). Instead of dialectically proceeding by examining the opinions Cyrus hold dear, his liberal education is cut off, literally with a beating. Cyrus’ incomplete understanding of justice will manifest itself in various ways during his rise, and his incomplete understanding will become evident to all when he finally achieves imperial reign.   

There are plenty of other examples that point to the shortcomings of Cyrus’ education in virtue, but let us turn, instead, to the manifestations of those defects. From the start, we can see evidence of Cyrus’ corruption. Cyrus is thrust into military and political matters because Media is threatened with an invasion by the neighboring Assyrian Empire. Persia is still an ally of the Medes, who are now under the kingship of Cyaxares, Cyrus’ maternal uncle, who inherited his rule from his deceased father. As a result of the impending invasion, Cyaxares asks the Persians to furnish an army and, given his familiarity with Cyrus’ impressive skills from when he was an adolescent in Media, he asks that Cyrus be put at its head. Accordingly, Cyrus has just been put in charge of a sizable Persian army, and army comprised of 800 Persian peers who will immediately be charged with expanding the size of the army to 31,000. We first encounter the adult Cyrus as he gives a speech to the initial 800 men.   

So, Cyrus has been put in charge of the army, and the first thing he does, after sacrificing to the gods, is to assemble the troops and give them a speech. This speech radically transforms the Persian understanding of virtue. At the beginning of his speech, he praises the group’s Persian ancestors, but says the current generation is no worse than they were. While this seems to be deferential, it is by no means follows the typically conservative tendency to elevate one’s ancestors. Then he drops the façade and critiques the ancestors directly. They practiced virtue, to be sure, but “What good they acquired from being [virtuous], however, either for the community of the Persians or for themselves, I cannot see” (1.5.8).19 And yet, he says, he doesn’t think people practice virtue in order to have less than the worthless. To put the position more bluntly than Cyrus here does: virtue must pay. Otherwise, it would be foolish to practice it. He then gives four examples of artisans who practice their art in order to become excellent at it, whom we would all deem foolish if they didn’t capitalize on their hard work. What man would learn how to make excellent public speeches and not use this ability? We undertake military training to achieve wealth, happiness, and honor, Cyrus avers. It would be foolish to eschew them. And similarly, it would be foolish for a farmer not to reap what he’s sown, or an Olympic athlete to train and skip competition. All such persons would justly be blamed for their folly (1.5.10). To repeat, virtue must pay. 

Cyrus emphasizes that the Persians, including and especially those men standing before him, have been educated to practice virtue. But why? Cyrus points to but does not make clear the presupposition of the inherited Persian education’s emphasis on virtue: virtue is to be practiced for its own sake.20 He leads them to draw the unstated conclusion. Presently, virtue does not pay. So, the republican regime of the ancestors could justly be blamed for its folly. Cyrus’ speech thus radically reorients the minds of these Persian Peers with regard to virtue, and hereafter, things change. To repeat, the education of the peers focused on inculcating virtue, but the peers were taught to practice virtue for its own sake. And now Cyrus teaches them to practice it for the rewards.21 The goal of the regime, its purpose, has been radically altered.22   

As a result of the change in the purpose of the regime, changes in its constitutional structure change as well. Cyrus abolishes the de facto class distinction between Peers and Commoners of the Persian republic and institutes in its stead a sort of meritocracy. And this serves the military well. The military succeeds, and succeeds, and succeeds. They eventually conquer the enemy and capture Babylon. To skip over large parts of the book, including other corrupting influences, including his father Cambyses and his childhood friend Tigranes, Cyrus’ new meritocratic military regime is wildly successful. In the end, the constitution is radically altered. The Persian Republic gives way to the Persian Empire. There is no longer a kind of constitutional monarchy constrained by a council (1.2.15, 1.5.4). In its stead, Cyrus sets himself up as emperor, with the ornate clothes, platform shoes, and make-up to boot (notice how he now appears like his tyrannical grandfather, Astyages). Instead of citizens, Persia has subjects.  Instead of an education in virtue, Cyrus institutes a system of secret police combined with a policy of rewarding those most obedient to him. Finally, instead of a virtuous populace, Xenophon reports that, in the end, the Persians became highly corrupt (8.8, in its entirety). Immediately upon Cyrus’ death, the people fell into vice: they became impious toward the gods, irreverent toward relatives, unjust toward others, and cowardly. The end of the book brings disappointment crashing down, and the reader, especially the firsttime reader, can be stupefied and dissatisfied.   

What, then, makes this such an excellent book? The Education of Cyrus is an excellent book in large part because of its highly unsatisfying ending. That is, the end is deliberately meant to be jarring. And it’s meant to compel the reader to go back and look for the reason why things fell apart. The simple answer is that things fell apart because Cyrus the Great died and no one could imitate his wild success. Some readers may rest satisfied there. But if Cyrus was such an impressive ruler, why didn’t he lay the groundwork for success postmortem? Isn’t that what the truly impressive founders do? Founders like the American Framers, or Moses, Romulus, and the like? Wasn’t one of the driving reasons to study the life and education of Cyrus ostensibly that he had solved the problem of political instability? How stable is a political regime if its survival is contingent upon a single person not dying? On another note, maybe the political problem is not simply one of stability. Perhaps a thoroughly unjust regime could be stable for quite some time. Would we prefer long term stability to justice?   

Similarly, the book contains a teaching regarding the character of Republican government. Republican regimes that emphasize the virtue of citizens are precious and fragile.  Dedication to virtue is a difficult task and citizens’ dedication to virtue is always precarious.   

Cyrus is born into a small civic minded republic, one with flaws, to be sure. These flaws are in part what allows for a change in regime. That is, the regime rests on an arbitrary (and hence unjust) class structure. But he leaves behind an empire. He starts with fellow citizens and ends with subjects. No republic is perfect, that seems to be part of the lesson, and the impulse to perfect a republic may lead to regimes that are far worse. Cyrus initially attempts to instill greater equality in his military regime, a goal we as democrats can support. But his regime ends in near perfect equality for all save one—the emperor Cyrus. The injustice of the Persian Empire dwarfs the injustice of the Persian Republic. 

In addition, at the level of the individual, the book ought also to get us to reflect on what a genuine education in virtue looks like. If we come around to the realization that Cyrus is an unjust, tyrannical emperor in the closing pages of the book, how did he personally get there?   

One can recast the question in a slightly different form: why does Xenophon call the book the Education of Cyrus? Is Xenophon trying to encourage the reader to keep this question in mind throughout the book? What did Cyrus learn, or know? Did he possess political science, as Xenophon asserts in the introduction to the book? Did he understand virtue? Does political science or knowledge entail knowledge of virtue or justice or of what constitutes the human good, either individually or collectively? Cyrus appears to have been genuinely concerned with or dedicated to justice throughout his life, which makes his turn all the more curious. Toward the end of the book, Cyrus says that he thinks “He who is able to acquire the most while keeping to what is just and to use the most while keeping to the noble, him do I believe to be happiest” (8.2.23). Now, one could argue that Cyrus was simply lying here, but I suspect his devotion to justice was sincere. However, his attachment to justice is not girded by sufficient reflection on the nature of justice. Throughout this paper, I have tried to build the case that the title of this book is not intended to make us look at the education that Cyrus received. Rather, it’s intended to make us look at the education he did not receive. Through the title, Xenophon tries to draw the reader back to Cyrus’ lack of education or his defective education. Cyrus simply didn’t get an education in virtue. It’s not clear to me that Cyrus ever reflected on the important words in the aforementioned quote: just, noble, happiness. A genuine education, perhaps the only education worthy of the name, is the one immersed in reflections on these and similar questions.   

As I just mentioned, I would not deny that Cyrus is concerned with justice. It suffices to compare Cyrus with the Assyrian Prince (who becomes their King) to see that Cyrus is in fact concerned with justice. Indeed, he seems genuinely remorseful the one time he seems to become aware he’s done wrong (1.5.10). He’s regularly praised by his soldiers throughout the book. Consider also his remark that he never voluntarily does evil deeds (5.2.9-11). But, as I argued above, when still a young boy, Cyrus was not allowed to think through the problem of justice, and justice is, I think, a problem. That is, justice is a fundamental question for human beings in all times and places; it is a question that does not immediately admit of an uncontroversial answer. Remember the story of the two boys with the coats. Cyrus was beaten when trying to think through the relationship of the just to the beneficial and the fitting, and this beating completely stifled any chance for reflection. Worse still, the beating may have taught Cyrus that justice is merely the advantage of the stronger.   

Similarly, Cyrus was forbidden the opportunity—or rather, no one pressed him—to reflect on the question of nobility or beauty (to kalon). Cyrus may well be concerned with justice, but his conception of justice is never at odds with his own self-interest. This robs his otherwise benevolent acts of their nobility or beauty. The category of the beautiful or noble, commonly speaking, has something to do with self-sacrifice. Or at least it would seem to. And we never really see Cyrus sacrifice. For all of the good he does, it never carries a cost. As concerned as he is with the noble, his sense of nobility, like his sense of justice, always aligns with Cyrus’ interests. Similarly, later in life Cyrus is content to have the mere appearance of beauty, insofar as he begins to adorn his body with cosmetics and deceptive, embellishing clothes. I would argue that the noble/beautiful for the Greeks is probably best captured by our concern with morality. We want to the moral to involve some level of sacrifice, and we also want it to be good. We admire most those who risk themselves in some meaningful way, and this means, above all, those who risk their lives. A great advocate for liberal education once reminded us that the Greeks had a beautiful word for vulgarity; they called it lack of experience with things beautiful.23 Cyrus’ defective education revealed a poverty of experience with things beautiful.    

As with justice and nobility, so, too, has Cyrus reflected insufficiently on the question of happiness. Going back at least to Cyrus’ first embark into military and political affairs, Cyrus reveals that he thinks he already knows what makes a human being happy, namely ruling others—empire. Here, Cyrus doesn’t even think the question is worth raising (consider 1.6.8, but also 8.1.23). Cyrus’s desire to rule reveals not only that he thinks he knows what will bring him happiness, but also that he knows how to rule others with a view to their happiness (8.2.14). But are Cyrus’ subjects happy? Is Cyrus happy? As death approaches, he clearly becomes concerned with leaving behind a reputation for happiness (8.7.9), but Xenophon leads the reader to wonder whether he is in fact happy. Cyrus has no friends around him in the end—at least none mentioned by name—there appears to be little love for children (I think he even encourages his sons to fight over the throne once he dies), and his wife is also noticeably absent. Xenophon presents the life of a man who has reached the pinnacle of political success; he has conquered nearly the entire known world. But as his political success has grown, the meaningfulness has dissipated. Cyrus is praised by all—who would dare to criticize him? —but the sincerity of the praise is very much in doubt.   

By way of contrast, let us briefly turn our attention to Xenophon’s account of his teacher, Socrates, in one of the four works he devotes to him, the Memorabilia. In one of the early chapters, a sophist named Antiphon is browbeating Socrates for his seemingly ascetic and impoverished way of life. After enduring this repeated vitriol for some time, Xenophon reports Socrates’ response: 


Accordingly, Antiphon, just as another is pleased by a good horse or a dog or a bird, so I myself am even more pleased by good friends, and if I possess something good I teach it, and I introduce them to others from whom, I believe, they will receive some benefit with a view to virtue.  And reading collectively with my friends, I ho through the treasures of the wise men of old which they wrote and left behind in their books; and if we see something good, we pick it out; and we hold that it is a great gain if we become friends with one another. Memorabilia, 1.6.14 


When Xenophon heard Socrates’ response, he declares that he formed the opinion that Socrates was blessedly happy and that he led those who heard him to nobility and goodness. Socrates, whom Xenophon proclaims to be happy, says that education is man’s greatest good, and I believe Xenophon shows Cyrus’s education to be defective. By calling his book on the perfect prince the education of Cyrus, and not the life of Cyrus or even the Rise of Cyrus, Xenophon indicates Cyrus’ defectiveness points to the need for a genuine education, an education in human virtue. This book offers one attempt by Xenophon to lead readers through and toward such an education.   

By way of conclusion, let me offer the following. In another book, a minor work, Xenophon says that he’s aware that his books might later be judged to be disorderly and to lack beauty. But those who judge in this manner blame too quickly and incorrectly, he says. His writings, he tells us, are orderly, despite appearances to the contrary, and he does not write to make men clever sophisticates, but to make them wise and good. He wants his writings to be good, useful, and to remain unrefuted forever.24 Now, I am a little ashamed to admit that he makes this bold claim in a treatise apparently devoted to teaching the skill of how to hunt well with dogs.   



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Thomas, D. (2009). Appendix N: Compositional Theories of Xenophon’s Hellenika. In Xenophon, & R. B. Strassler, The Landmark Hellenika. New York: Anchor Books. 

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