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Biography of Xenophon

Name: Xenophon
Bith Date: c. 430 B.C.
Death Date: c. 355 B.C.
Place of Birth:
Nationality: Greek
Gender: Male
Occupations: historian, essayist

The Greek historian, essayist, and military expert Xenophon (ca. 430-ca. 355 BC) was the most popular of the Greek historians. He facilitated the change from the Thucydidean tradition of history to rhetoric.

The son of Gryllus of the Athenian deme of Erchia Xenophon was of aristocratic background and means. He studied under Socrates. Married to Philesia, he had two sons, both of whom were educated in Sparta. In 401, despite a warning from Socrates and consultation with the oracle at Delphi, he became involved in the expedition of Cyrus against Artaxerxes at the invitation of Proxenus of Thebes. Xenophon was initially unaware of Cyrus's true purpose, which was to gain the crown of Persia. After Cyrus was killed at the battle of Cunaxa in Babylonia, his troops dispersed; Clearchus and other Greek commanders were treacherously murdered by the Persian satrap Tissaphernes, and Xenophon was elected general.

The Spartan general Chirisophus and Xenophon took command of the retreat of the Ten Thousand, the Greek force trapped in the center of the Persian Empire. The generals led the Ten Thousand along the Tigris, across Armenia to Trapezus (modern Trabzon) on the Black Sea, to Chrysopolis (modern Üsküdar) on the Bosporus in 399-an incredible journey of some 1,500 miles. This "March Up Country" is the subject of Xenophon's Anabasis.

Some of Xenophon's troops joined Seuthes, King of Thrace. In the spring of 399 others joined the Lacedaemonian Thibron, who warred against Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus. We have no knowledge of Xenophon's activities in the years immediately thereafter. Three years later Xenophon joined the Spartan king Agesilaus in the continuing battle against Persia. A warm and intimate friendship grew up between the two men, and the eulogistic sketch Agesilaus is a permanent record of this friendship. When Agesilaus was recalled in 394, Xenophon accompanied him and was present at the battle against the Athenians at Coronea. He was then banished from Athens. There is some dispute as to whether his participation in the expedition of Cyrus against the Persian king, his close association with the Spartans, or his presence at the battle of Coronea with Athens's enemy was the reason.

Agesilaus gave Xenophon an estate at Scillus near Olympia in Elis, and he lived there happily, writing prolifically, until the Spartans were defeated at the battle of Leuctra in 371, when the Eleans expelled him. Xenophon is reported to have removed himself to Corinth, where he may have ended his days. Though the decree of banishment against him was revoked, probably in 369 (presumably because his "Laconism" was acceptable when Athens and Sparta were allies), Xenophon never returned to Athens. The exact date of his death is uncertain; tradition and a reference in the Hellenica (IV, 4, 35ff) to the assassination of Alexander of Pherae would seem to point to a time after 357 B.C., probably in 355. Apparently all his works have survived, and they may be arbitrarily grouped into three general categories.

Historical Works

The Anabasis ("March Up Country"), perhaps Xenophon's most famous and most exciting work, in seven books, was originally published under the pen name Themistogenes of Syracuse. It is a history of the expedition of the Greek mercenaries of the younger Cyrus through the Persian Empire. The Hellenica, in seven books, is a continuation of the history of Thucydides, from the Peloponnesian War to the Theban supremacy, and employs the annalistic method and exhibits a bias. The period covered stretches from the end of Thucydides (411 B.C.) to the Battle of Mantinea (362 B.C.). There is some question about the division and completeness of the work. The encomium to Agesilaus may have been composed shortly after the Spartan king's death in 360. Written in the style of the rhetorician Gorgias, it is not carefully constructed.

Technical and Didactic Works

The Hipparchus, which is in two parts--one on memoranda and another on proposals for implementations--is a tract on the duties of a cavalry commander, addressed to one who is about to assume that position. The Cynegeticus is a curious medley on hunting, an enumeration of the pupils of Chiron, praise of the hunt, and an attack on the Sophists. On Equitation, the oldest treatise on the subject, is authoritatively done and well written.

Philosophical Works

Xenophon's philosophical writings fall into two subdivisions. The first, subject-or theme-oriented (political science, education, economics), includes The Lacedaemonian Constitution, an unequal and careless account of Spartan political institutions, adulatory in tone, assigning their origin to Lycurgus, with whom Xenophon identifies his own ideas; and the Cyropaedia, in eight books, described as a political romance. Using the history of the elder Cyrus, the founder of the Persian monarchy, Xenophon presents the reader with a dull, monotonous, repetitious handbook of ideal kingly behavior with Cyrus as the model. Considered Xenophon's most polished work, the Cyropaedia clearly demonstrates his dislike of democratic constitutions and his preference for a Spartanlike constitution, with practical advice for military commanders, lively descriptions of battle, and suggestions for the education of good citizens. The treatise On Revenues (On Finance) contains advice for the amelioration of the Athenian public treasury and also an argument for peace.

The second philosophical subdivision is much more concerned with individuals and their ethical behavior, particularly with Socrates. The most famous of this group is undoubtedly The Memorabilia of Socrates, in four books. Reflecting his own practical mind, Xenophon here strives to defend his teacher against the charges of impiety and corruption of youth; he proceeds through a series of conversations to illustrate Socrates's moral teachings. It is a limited picture of one side of the great philosopher, and a work whose historicity, construction, depth, credibility, and value have been subject to debate. The Apology of Socrates is a brief speech written to justify Socrates's weak defense of himself, and it claims to have recorded material from Hermogenes. Parts of it are found also in Plato. The Symposium is also useful for reconstructing the picture of Socrates. Its setting is the house of the rich Athenian Callias during a celebration of the victory of Autolycus at the Great Panathenaia in 422 B.C. The nature of love and friendship is the philosophical subject, and it is discussed with lightness and pleasantness, though Socrates's speech to Callias is pointedly serious. Plato may have written his Symposium as a corrective to Xenophon's. The Hieron, a dialogue between king Hiero of Syracuse and Simonides of Ceos, who paid a visit to Syracuse in 476, contrasts the lot of the ruler with that of a private person. Which of them is happier is argued out in a way that must have been of particular interest to the Socratics. The Oeconomicus is considered a charming work that reflects Xenophon's life at Scillus, though it is a dialogue between Socrates and Critobulus on estate management and records a discussion on the subject between Socrates and Ischomachus.

Although Xenophon's works were admired in antiquity, he is not an author of high critical ability or of outstanding intellectual or moral caliber. His style was simple and straightforward. A man of action as well as a man of letters, he was a nonprofessional in many subjects but a master of military science. More a popularizer and adapter of other people's works, he was not creative, profound, or even original. Nevertheless, he was a meticulous observer and a fair assessor of character, and his sympathies were broad and real.

Further Reading

  • There have been numerous translations of Xenophon's works, but no recent books of a general nature on Xenophon. G. B. Nussbaum, The Ten Thousand: A Study in Social Organization and Action in Xenophon's Anabasis (1967), is a useful study. Xenophon and his works are also discussed in Michael Grant, The Ancient Historians (1970), and Stephen Usher, The Historians of Greece and Rome (1970).

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