Society / People

430BC , Duration 76Y

Event #5241: Xenophon

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Text #9169

"Xenophon", in Wikipedia.

Xenophon (c. 430 – 354 BC), son of Gryllus, of the deme Erchia of Athens, also known as Xenophon of Athens, was a Greek historian, soldier, mercenary, and student of Socrates. While not referred to as a philosopher by his contemporaries, his status as such is now a topic of debate. He is known for writing about the history of his own times, the late 5th and early 4th centuries BC, especially for his account of the final years of the Peloponnesian War. His Hellenica, which recounts these times, is considered to be the continuation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. His youthful participation in the failed campaign of Cyrus the Younger to claim the Persian throne inspired him to write his most famous work, Anabasis.

Despite his birth-association with Athens, Xenophon affiliated himself with Sparta for most of his life. His pro-oligarchic views, service under Spartan generals in the Persian campaign and beyond, as well as his friendship with King Agesilaus II endeared Xenophon to the Spartans, and them to him. A number of his writings display his pro-Spartan bias and admiration, especially Agesilaus and Constitution of Sparta. Other than Plato, Xenophon is the foremost authority on Socrates, having learned under the great philosopher while a young man. He greatly admired his teacher, and well after Socrates’ death in 399 Xenophon wrote several Socratic dialogues, including an Apology concerning the events of his trial and death. Xenophon’s works cover a wide range of genres and are written in very uncomplicated Attic Greek. Xenophon’s works are among the first that many students of Ancient Greek translate on account of the straightforward and succinct nature of his prose. This sentiment was apparent even in ancient times, as Diogenes Laertius states in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers (2.6) that Xenophon was sometimes known as the “Attic Muse” for the sweetness of his diction.

Little is known about Xenophon other than what he wrote about himself. Xenophon was born around 430 BC near the city of Athens to a wealthy equestrian family. The years of his youth are not well attested before 401 BC. It was in this year that Xenophon was convinced by his Boeotian friend Proxenus (Anabasis 3.1.9) to participate in the expedition led by Cyrus the Younger against his older brother, King Artaxerxes II of Persia.

Written years after these events, Xenophon’s book Anabasis (Greek: ἀνάβασις, literally “going up”) is his record of the entire expedition of Cyrus against the Persians and the Greek mercenaries’ journey home. Xenophon writes that he had asked the veteran Socrates for advice on whether to go with Cyrus, and that Socrates referred him to the divinely inspired Delphic oracle. Xenophon’s query to the oracle, however, was not whether or not to accept Cyrus’ invitation, but “to which of the gods he must pray and do sacrifice, so that he might best accomplish his intended journey and return in safety, with good fortune”. The oracle answered his question and told him to which gods to pray and sacrifice. When Xenophon returned to Athens and told Socrates of the oracle’s advice, Socrates chastised him for asking so disingenuous a question (Anabasis 3.1.5–7).

Under the pretext of fighting Tissaphernes, the Persian satrap of Ionia, Cyrus assembled a massive army composed of native Persian soldiers, but also a large number of Greeks. Prior to waging war against Artaxerxes, Cyrus proposed that the enemy was the Pisidians, and so the Greeks were unaware that they were to battle against the larger army of King Artaxerxes II (Anabasis 1.1.8–11). At Tarsus the soldiers became aware of Cyrus’s plans to depose the king, and as a result, refused to continue (Anabasis 1.3.1). However, Clearchus, a Spartan general, convinced the Greeks to continue with the expedition. The army of Cyrus met the army of Artaxerxes II in the Battle of Cunaxa. Despite effective fighting by the Greeks, Cyrus was killed in the battle (Anabasis 1.8.27–1.9.1). Shortly thereafter, Clearchus was invited to a peace conference, where, alongside four other generals and many captains, he was betrayed and executed (Anabasis 2.5.31–32).

The mercenaries, known as the Ten Thousand, found themselves without leadership far from the sea, deep in hostile territory near the heart of Mesopotamia. They elected new leaders, including Xenophon himself, and fought their way north along the Tigris through hostile Persians and Medes to Trapezus on the coast of the Black Sea (Anabasis 4.8.22). They then made their way westward back to Greece via Chrysopolis (Anabasis 6.3.16). Once there, they helped Seuthes II make himself king of Thrace, before being recruited into the army of the Spartan general Thibron. The Spartans were at war with Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus, Persian satraps in Anatolia, probably on account of the aforementioned treacherous slaughter of their general Clearchus. Xenophon’s military activity with these Spartans marks the final episodes of the Anabasis (Books 6–7).

Upon his return to Greece proper, Xenophon continued to associate with the Spartans, even so far as to fight under the Spartan king Agesilaus II against his native Athens at Coronea in 394 BC. On account of this he was exiled from Athens. However, there may have been contributory causes, such as his support for Socrates, as well as the fact that he had taken service with the Persians. The Spartans gave him property at Scillus, near Olympia in Elis, where he likely composed the Anabasis. However, because his son Gryllus fought and died for Athens at the Battle of Mantinea while Xenophon was still alive, Xenophon’s banishment may have been revoked. Nevertheless, after the Battle of Leuktra in 371 and the end of Spartan hegemony, Xenophon moved to Corinth or Athens where he died. He died around 355 BCE, but the exact date is uncertain; historians know only that he survived his patron Agesilaus II, for whom he wrote an encomium which shared the Spartan king’s name.

Xenophon has long been associated with the opposition of democracy. Although Xenophon seems to prefer oligarchy, or at least the aristocracy, especially in light of his associations with Sparta, none of his works explicitly attack democracy, unless his account of democratic proceedings in the Anabasis be interpreted as anti-democracy when deliberations are intimidated by cries of “pelt” if a speaker says something others disagree with. Some scholars go so far as to say his views aligned with those of the democracy in his time. However, certain works of Xenophon, in particular the Cyropaedia, appear to display his pro-oligarchic politics. This historical-fiction serves as a forum for Xenophon to subtly display his political inclinations.

Xenophon wrote the Cyropaedia to present his political and moral philosophy. He did this by endowing a historical figure, Cyrus, with the qualities that should be possessed by Xenophon’s ideal ruler. Historians have asked whether Xenophon’s portrait was an accurate portrayal Cyrus alone or if Xenophon imbued him with events from his own life. The consensus is that Cyrus’s career is best outlined in the Histories of Herodotus. But Steven Hirsch writes, “Yet there are occasions when it can be confirmed from Oriental evidence that Xenophon is correct where Herodotus is wrong or lacks information.

The strength of Cyrus in holding the empire together is praiseworthy according to Xenophon. However, the empire began to decline upon the death of Cyrus. By this example Xenophon sought to show that empires lacked stability and could only be maintained by a person of remarkable prowess, such as Cyrus. Cyrus is idealized greatly in the narrative. Xenophon displays Cyrus as a cold, passionless man. This is not to say that he was not a good ruler, but he is depicted as surreal and not subject to the foibles of other men. By showing that only someone who is almost beyond human could conduct such an enterprise as empire, Xenophon indirectly censures imperial design. Thus he also reflects on the state of his own reality in an even more indirect fashion, using the example of the Persians to decry the attempts at empire made by Athens and Sparta. Although partially graced with hindsight, having written the Cyropaedia after the downfall of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, this work criticizes the Greek attempts at empire and “monarchy”, dooming them to failure.

Another passage that Johnson cites as criticism of monarchy and empire concerns the devaluation of the homotīmoi. The manner in which this occurs seems also to be a subtle yet poignant jab at democracy. Through his dual critique of empire and democracy, Xenophon subtly relates his support of oligarchy. Xenophon’s affinity for the Spartans is clear in the Constitution of the Spartans, as well as his penchant for oligarchy.

Xenophon’s works includes a selection of Socratic dialogues. These writings are completely preserved. Except for the dialogues of Plato, they are the only surviving representatives of the genre of Sokratikoi logoi (Socratic dialogues). These works include Xenophon’s Apology, Memorabilia, Symposium, and Oeconomicus. The Symposium outlines the character of Socrates as he and his companions discuss what attribute they take pride in. In Oeconomicus, Socrates explains how to manage a household. Both the Apology and Memorabilia defend Socrates’ character and teachings. The former is set during the trial of Socrates, essentially defending Socrates’ loss and death, while the latter is a general defense of Socrates, explaining his moral principles and that he was not a corrupter of the youth.

Xenophon was a student of Socrates, and their personal relationship is evident through a direct conversation between the two in Xenophon’s Anabasis. Xenophon’s admiration for his teacher is clear in writings such as Symposium, Apology, and Memorabilia. Xenophon was away on his Persian campaign during the trial and death of Socrates. Nevertheless, much of Xenophon’s Socratic writing, especially Apology, concerns that very trial and the defense Socrates put forward.

Both Plato and Xenophon wrote an Apology concerning the death of Socrates. The two writers seem more concerned about answering questions that arose after the trial than about the actual charges. In particular, Xenophon and Plato are concerned with the failures of Socrates to defend himself. The Socrates that Xenophon portrayed was different from Plato’s in multiple respects. Xenophon asserts that Socrates dealt with his prosecution in an exceedingly arrogant manner, or at least was perceived to have spoken arrogantly. Conversely, while not omitting it completely, Plato worked to temper that arrogance in his own Apology. Xenophon framed Socrates’ defense, which both men admit was not prepared at all, not as failure to effectively argue his side, but as striving for death even in the light of unconvincing charges. As Danzig interprets it, convincing the jury to condemn him even on unconvincing charges would be a rhetorical challenge worthy of the great persuader. Xenophon uses this interpretation as justification for Socrates’ arrogant stance and conventional failure. By contrast, Plato does not go so far as to claim that Socrates actually desired death, but seems to argue that Socrates was attempting to demonstrate a higher moral standard and teach a lesson, although his defense failed by conventional standards. This places Socrates in a higher moral position than his prosecutors, a typical Platonic example of absolving “Socrates from blame in every conceivable way.”

Works and References:

Anabasis (also: The Persian Expedition or The March Up Country or The Expedition of Cyrus): Provides an early life biography of Xenophon. Anabasis was used as a field guide by Alexander the Great during the early phases of his expedition into Persia.
Cyropaedia (also: The Education of Cyrus)
Hellenica: His Hellenica is a major primary source for events in Greece from 411 to 362 BC, and is considered to be the continuation of the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, going so far as to begin with the phrase “Following these events…”. The Hellenica recounts the last seven years of the Peloponnesian war, as well as its aftermath.
Agesilaus: The biography of Agesilaus II, king of Sparta and companion of Xenophon.
Constitution of Sparta: Xenophon’s history and description of the Spartan government and institutions.

Socratic works and dialogues

Defenses of Socrates

Memorabilia: Collection of Socratic dialogues serving as a defense of Socrates outside of court. Apology: Xenophon’s defense of Socrates in court.

Other Socratic dialogues

Oeconomicus: Socratic dialogue of a different sort, pertaining to household management. Symposium: Symposic literature in which Socrates and his companions discuss what they take pride in with respect to themselves.


Hiero: Dialogue about happiness between Hiero, the tyrant of Syracuse, and the lyric poet Simonides.

Short treatises

These works were probably written by Xenophon when he was living in Scillus. His days were likely spent in relative leisure here, and he wrote these treatises about the sorts of activities he spent time on.

On Horsemanship: Treatise on how to break, train, and care for horses.
Hipparchikos: Outlines the duties of a cavalry officer.
Hunting with Dogs: Treatise on the proper methods of hunting with dogs and the advantages of hunting.
Ways and Means: Describes how Athens should deal with financial and economic crisis.


Bradley, Patrick J. “Irony and the Narrator in Xenophon’s Anabasis”, in Xenophon. Ed. Vivienne J. Gray. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Anderson, J.K. Xenophon. London: Duckworth, 2001
Dillery, John. Xenophon and the History of His Times. London; New York: Routledge, 1995
Evans, R.L.S. “Xenophon” in The Dictionary of Literary Biography: Greek Writers. Ed.Ward Briggs. Vol. 176, 1997.
Gray, V.J. “The Years 375 to 371 BC: A Case Study in the Reliability of Diodorus Siculus and Xenophon, The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2. (1980), pp. 306–326.
Higgins, William Edward. Xenophon the Athenian: The Problem of the Individual and the Society of the “Polis”. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977 .
Hirsch, Steven W. The Friendship of the Barbarians: Xenophon and the Persian Empire. Hanover; London: University Press of New England, 1985
Hutchinson, Godfrey. Xenophon and the Art of Command. London: Greenhill Books, 2000
The Long March: Xenophon and the Ten Thousand, edited by Robin Lane Fox. New Heaven, Connecticut; London: Yale University Press, 2004
Strauss, Leo. Xenophon’s Socrates. Ithaca, New York; London: Cornell University Press, 1972 (hardcover, ISBN 0-8014-0712-5); South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustines Press, 2004
Stronk, J.P. The Ten Thousand in Thrace: An Archaeological and Historical Commentary on Xenophon’s

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