Xenophon (ca. 431–ca. 352 B.C.) soldier, historian, biographer. Encyclopedia of World Writers, Beginnings To 20th Century

Xenophon was born in Athens; his father was a
knight in the Athenian army. During his young
years, Xenophon was one of SOCRATES’ most successful
students. He is said to be the first person to
start recording his conversations with Socrates and
noting down the great philosopher’s sayings. These
writings were collected in Memorabilia (relating
Socrates’ life story and his teachings) and Symposium
(written as a dialogue in which Socrates is the
main speaker).
The young historian’s discipleship with Socrates
did not last long, however. In 401, he decided to
join Cyrus, the prince of Persia, in his campaign
against his brother Artaxerxes II, king of Persia.He
joined the prince in Sardis and followed him into
Upper Asia, where Cyrus was killed in the decisive
battle at Cunaxa. Left without a leader on the wide
plains between the Tigris River and the Euphrates
the Greek troops elected Xenophon their new general.
He had not held an official position in Cyrus’s
army or ever served as a soldier, yet the soldiers’
choice turned out to be a wise one. Xenophon successfully
led the remaining 10,000 men on an epic
1,500-mile journey back to Greece.
Xenophon himself, however, did not go back to
Athens at once. Instead, he joined the Spartans,
served the Spartan king and general Agesilaus, and
fought against Athenians in the Battle of Coronea
(394 B.C.).When he returned to Athens a year later,
he was banished for having fought against his own
countrymen. The Spartans, however, rewarded
him by giving him an estate at Scillus near Elis,
where he moved with his wife and children.
For the next 24 years, Xenophon lived peacefully,
writing, managing his slaves, hunting, and
entertaining guests. But when Sparta was defeated
in 371 B.C., he was expelled from his estate. Although
his banishment had been lifted, he still did
not return to Athens but spent his remaining years
in Corinth.While there, he wrote some of his best
works and spent much time contemplating the
reasons for his banishment from Athens. In addition
to having fought against his former countrymen,
he also disagreed with the Athenian attitude
concerning the war.
Xenophon believed that the happiest states are
those that have the longest period of unbroken
peace, and he considered Athens well suited to
peace and happiness. Debating those who believed
that war could benefit the city-state, Xenophon argued
that the harshness of Athenian rulers would
eventually strip it of its prestige and authority. Generosity
and fairness, on the contrary, would gain
Athens valuable alliances and power. Xenophon
also believed that war would destroy the Athenian
Critical Analysis
The most celebrated of Xenophon’s works is Anabasis,
which tells the story of Cyrus’s military
campaigns and the Spartans’ heroic retreat, which
Xenophon had engineered. The title Anabasis
means “The March Up,” although the majority of
the work deals with the march away from the site
of the disastrous battle at Cunaxa.
Anabasis was the first work that acquainted the
Greeks with elements of the Persian Empire; it also
revealed the army’s weakness. Ironically,Xenophon’s
account of the Spartans’ retreat through hostile lands
is said to have influenced Greek pride and eventually
resulted in Alexander’s conquests in Asia. Anabasis
also immortalized Xenophon as a gifted
military leader and a hero of his people.
In addition to writing historical accounts,
Xenophon also wrote biographies, making him a
pioneer in the genre. One such work is Agesilaus, a
panegyric on Agesilaus II, king of Sparta, who was
one of Xenophon’s close friends. His most famous
biographical work, however, is The Cyropaedia,
which tells the life story of Cyrus, the founder of
the Persian monarchy, under whose command
young Xenophon began his military adventures.
The title The Cyropaedia translates as “The Education
of Cyrus,” and the first of the eight books
that make up the work deals with Cyrus’s education,
describing his hunting as preparation for
fighting. Xenophon goes on to paint a highly romanticized
portrait of Cyrus as an outstanding
military leader and ruler. He relates Cyrus’s talent
in warfare, his generosity in forgiving defeated enemies,
and his skill at turning former enemies into
allies. Because of its romanticized nature, The Cyropaedia
is considered by some critics to be a political
romance rather than a biography.
The work also reveals Xenophon’s admiration
for Spartan ways, and his accounts of Persian history
are mixed with details of Greek customs, with
an emphasis on both military service (as influenced
by Cyrus) and the importance of learning
justice (as influenced by Socrates). In particular,
Xenophon describes how boys in Spartan schools
are punished for not returning favors, and how
qualities such as self-control are valued and
In general, Xenophon’s works, even those structured
as historical ones, serve to reflect his views
on philosophy, life, adventure, history, economy,
and politics. In The Constitution of the Lacedaemonians,
for example, he expresses his admiration for
the Spartans’ disciplined life and values. In a later
essay, “Ways and Means,” he proposes methods to
improve Athens’s economy. He describes his adventurous
life and provides vast historical details
of life in ancient Persia and Greece in other essays,
such as “On the Cavalry Commander,”“On the Art
of Horsemanship,” and “On Hunting.”
Xenophon’s Hellenica is a historical account of
Greece from 411 to 362 B.C. He is valued not only
for the detailed information he provides in all his
works, but also for the simple and clear way in
which he provides it.He is one of the foremost historians
of ancient Greece.
English Versions of Works by Xenophon
Anabasis. Translated by Carleton L. Brownson. Revised
by John Dillery. Cambridge,Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1998.
The Education of Cyrus. Translated by Wayne Ambler.
Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001.
Hiero: A New Translation. Translated by Ralph Doty.
Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003.
Xenophon’s “Spartan Constitution”: Introduction, Text,
Commentary. Edited by Michael Lipka. Berlin: De
Gruyter, 2002.
Works about Xenophon
Anderson, John Kinloch. Xenophon. London: Bristol
Classical, 2002.
Hirsch, Steven W. The Friendship of the Barbarians:
Xenophon and the Persian Empire. Lebanon, N.H.:
University Press of New England, 1985.
Hutchinson, Godfrey. Xenophon and the Art of Command.
Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books,
Prevas, John. Xenophon’s March: Into the Lair of the
Persian Lion. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press,