1902 Encyclopedia > Xenophon

Greek soldier and writer
(c. 430 - c. 350 BC)

XENOPHON, Greek historian and essayist, was born at Athens about 430 B.C. He was a citizen of good position, belonging to the order of the knights. Early in life he came under the influence of Socrates.

Xenophon image

(Marble bust in the Royal Museum, Berlin, Germany)

In 401 B.C. being invited by his friend Proxenus to join the expedition of the younger Cyrus against his brother, Artaxerxes II. of Persia, he jumped at the offer, for he was a needy man, and his prospects at home may not have been very good, as the knights were at this time out of favor from having supported the Thirty Tyrants. At the suggestion of Socrates Xenophon went to Delphi to consult the oracle; but his mind was already made up, and he at once crossed to Asia, to Sardis, the place of rendezvous. He joined neither as officer nor as soldier; he went simply to see new countries and peoples out a spirit of curiosity and love of excitement. Of the expedition itself he has given a full and detailed account in his Anabasis, or the "Up-Country march." (See PERSIA, vol. xviii. P. 577).

After the battle of Cunaxa the officers in command of the Greeks were treacherously murdered by the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, with whom they were negotiating an armistice with a view to a safe return. The army was now in the heart of an unknown country, more than a thousand miles from home and in the presence of a troublesome enemy. It was decided to march northwards up the Tigris valley and make for the shores of the Euxine, on which there were several Greek colonies.

Xenophon became the leading spirit of the army; he was elected an officer, and he it was who mainly directed the retreat. This his skill, good temper, and firmness the Greeks seem to have largely owed their safety. He seems indeed to have been an Athenian of the best type, having tact and sympathy, with a singular readiness of resource and a straightforward businesslike eloquence which could both persuade and convince. All through the perils and hardship of the retreat he shared the men’s privations.

Part of the way lay through the wilds of Kurdistan, where they had to encounter the harassing guerilla attacks of savage mountain tribes, and part through the highlands of Armenia and Georgia.

After a five months march they reached Trapezus (Trebizond) on the Black Sea (February 400 B.C.), having given splendid proof of what Greek discipline and spirit could accomplish. When they reached the Euxine a tendency to demoralization began to show itself, and even Xenophon almost lost his control over the solidery. At Cotyora he aspired to found a new colony; but the idea, not being unanimously accepted, was abandoned, and ultimately Xenophon with his Greeks arrived at Chrysopolis (Scutari) on the Bosphorus, opposite Byzantium.

After a brief period of service under a Thracian chief, Seuthes, they were finally in corporated in a Lacedaemonian army which has crossed over into Asia to wage war against the Persian satraps Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus, Xenophon going with them. near Pergamum he captured a wealthy Persian nobleman with his family, and the ransom paid for his recovery seems to have been sufficient to provide Xenophon with a fair competency.

On his return to Greece Xenophon served under Agesilaus, king of Sparta, which state was at this time at the head of the Greek world. With his native Athens and its general policy and institutions he was not in sympathy. At Coronea he fought with the Spartans against the Athenians and Thebans, for which his fellow-citizens decreed his banishment.

The exile found a home at Scillus in Elis, about two miles from Olympia; there he settled down to indulge his tastes for sport and for literature. It was probably at Scillus that he wrote most of his books; there too he built and endowed a temple to Artemis, modelled on the great temple at Ephesus. After Sparta’s great defeat at Leuctra in 371 B.C., which fatally shattered its ascendancy, Xenophon was driven from his home by the people of Elis.

Meantime Sparta and Athens had become allies, and the Athenians repealed the decree which had condemned Xenophon to exile. There is, however, no evidence that he ever returned to his native city. According to the not very trusthworthy authority of his biographer (Diogenes Laertius), he made his home at Corinth. He was still living in 357 B.C. but how much longer he lived we have no means of knowing.

The Anabasis is a work of singular interest, and is brightly and pleasantly written. Xenophon, like Caesar, tells the story in the third person, and there is a straightforward manliness about the style, with a distinct flavor of a cheerful lightheartedness, which at once enlists our sympathies. His description of places and of relative distances is very minute and painstaking. The researches of modern travellers attest his general accuracy.

The Cyropaedia, which describes the boyhood and training of Cyrus, hardly answers to its name, being for the most part an account of the beginning of the Persian empire and of the victorious career of Cyrus its founder. But Xenophon had little or nothing to build on except the floating stories and traditions of the East that had gathered round the figure of the great Persian hero-king. The Cyropaedia contains in fact the author’s own ideas of training and education, as derived conjointly from the teachings of Socrates and his favorite Spartan institutions. A distinct moral purpose, to which literal truth is sacrificed, runs through the work.

The Hellenica, though by no means a first-class historical work, fills a gap by giving the events of the fifty years from 411 to 362 B.C. Thus it includes the downfall of the Athenian empire, the supremacy of Sparta, and the sudden collapse of that power after Leuctra in 371 B.C. It takes up Greek history at the point at which Thucydides’s great work abruptly ends. His credit as an historian has been specially impugned, and it has been suggested that he was much more influenced by his political likes an dislikes than by a love of truth. However that may be there are certainly serious omissions and defects in the work, which greatly detract from its value. At the time he probably wrote it he was no doubt a strong political partisan and a thorough believer in Sparta. But subsequently a change came over him; and, when he described the terrible reverse at Leuctra, he seems to have felt that Sparta’s prestige had been deservedly destroyed, and that its downfall was heaven’s vengeance on an ungracious and treacherous policy. He always clings to a belief in a divine overruling providence, though in the Hellenica there are unmistakable traces of a pettiness of mind and narrowness of view very far below the dignity of an historian.

The Memorabilia, or "Recollections of Socrates," is the tribute of an affectionate and admiring discipline who felt that the nobleness of his master’s aims and life was his best defence. The work is not a literary masterpiece; it lacks coherence and unity, and the picture it gives of Socrates fails to do him justice. Still it is an honest piece of work and a labour of love, and, as far as it goes, we may well believe it faithfully describes the philosopher’s manner of life and style of conversation. It was the moral and practical side of Socrates’ teaching which most interested Xenophon; into his abstruse metaphysical speculations he seems to have made no attempt to enter; for these indeed he had neither taste nor genius. It was the philosophy which aims at "a sound mind in a sound body" which specially suited the robust and healthy mind of Xenophon. Moving within a limited range of ideas, he doubtless gives us "considerably less than the real Socrates, while Plato gives us something more."

Xenophon has left several minor works, some of which are very interesting and give us an insight into the home-life of the Greeks.

The Oeconomics, which deals with the management of the house and of the farm, presents a pleasant and amusing picture of the Greek wife and of her home duties. She was to be thoroughly domestic, devoted to her household work, without any intellectual aspirations; she must keep up her good looks by healthy exercise, not by rouging or painting. There are some good practical remarks on matrimony and on the respective duties of husband and wife; in these is assumed that providence has endowed each sex with capacities peculiar to itself and that he highest happiness is to be found in union and in well-organized cooperation. The true sphere of woman is in the faithful and diligent discharge of her home duties; this, above all things, will win her husband’s respect and esteem.

In the essays on horsemanship and hunting (Cynegeticus), Xenophon deals with matters with which he had a thorough practical acquaintance. In the former he gives rules how to choose a horse, and then tell show it is to be groomed and ridden and generally managed. All this has still great interest for the modern reader. We gather from this little work that the ancient Greeks never used the stirrup, nor had they any idea of providing their horses with iron shoes. The book on hunting deals chiefly with the hare, though the author speaks also of boar-hunting and describes the hounds, tells how they are to be bred and trained, and gives specimens of suitable names for them. On all this he writes with the zest of an enthusiastic sportsman, and he observes that those nations will be most likely to be successful in war of which the upper classes have a taste for field-sports.

The Hipparchicus explains the duties of a cavalry officer; it is not, according to our ideas, a very scientific treatise, showing that the art of war was but very imperfectly developed and that the military operations of the Greeks were on a somewhat petty scale. He dwells at some length on the moral qualities which go to the making of a good cavalry officer, and hints very plainly that there must be strict attention to religious duties.

The Agesilaus is a eulogy of the Spartan king, who had two special merits in Xenophon’s eyes: he was a rigid disciplinarian and he was particularly attentive to all religious observances. We have a summary of his virtues rather than a good and striking picture of the man himself.

The Hiero works out the line of thought indicated in the story of the Sword of Damocles. It is a protest against the notion that the "tyrant" is a man to be envied, as having more abundant means of happiness than a private person. This is one of the most pleasing of his minor works; it is cast into the form of a dialogue between Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, and the lyric poet Simonides.

The Symposium, or "Banquet," is a brilliant little dialogue in which Socrates is the prominent figure. He is represented as "improving the occasion," which is that of a lively Athenian supper-party, at which there is much drinking, with flute-playing, and a dancing girl from Syracuse, who amuses the guests with the feats of a professional conjuror. Socrates’ table-talk runs through a variety of topics, and winds up with a philosophical, disquisition on the superiority of true heavenly love to its earthly or sensual counterfeit, and with an earnest exhortation to one of the party, who had just won a victory in the public games, to lead a noble life and do his duty to his country.

There are also two short essays on the political constitution of Sparta and Athens, written with a decided bias in favor of the former, which he praises without attempting to criticize. Sparta seems to have presented to Xenophon the best conceivable mixture of monarchy and aristocracy.

In the essay on the Revenues of Athens, he offers suggestions for making Athens less dependent on tribute received from its allies: first, more foreign settlers should be attracted to the city by holding out strong commercial inducements and from these a moderate capitation tax should be collected; secondly, more should be made of the silver mines of Laurium by leasing them out to private capitalists, who might work them by slaves purchased with public money and hired at a fixed rate by the lessees. But above all, he would have Athens use its influence for the maintenance of peace in the Greek world and for the settlement of questions by diplomacy, the temple at Delphi being for this purpose an independent center and supplying a divine sanction.

The Apology, Socrates' defence before his judges, is rather a feeble production, and in the general opinion of modern critics not a genuine work of Xenophon.

The editions both of Xenophon’s entire and of his separate works, especially of the Anabasis, are very numerous. A few of the best are enumerated below:- (1) Anabasis, text of L. Dindorf, with notes by J. S. Watson, 1868; (2) Memorabilia, edited, with short notes, by J. R. King, 1874 (Oxford); (3) Hellenica, text of C.G. Cobet, 1862; (4) Cyropaedia, from the test of L. Dindorf, with notes by E.H. Barker, 1831. The minor works have been repeatedly edited. Useful editions of the Hiero (London, 1883) and Oeconomics (London, 1884) have been issued by H. A. Holden. There is an English translation of the entire works by various hands published in 1831; also a French translation, similarly executed, in 1845. To Sir A. Grant’s monograph on Xenophon, in Blackwood’s "Ancient Classics for English Readers," the present writer is considerably indebted. (W. J. B.)

The above article was written by Rev. William Jackson Brodribb, M.A., late Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge; Rector of Wootton-Rivers, Wiltshire from 1860; part author of Constantinople: a Sketch of its History to 1453.

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