101. The Cyropaedia by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

101. The Cyropaedia by Xenophon (c.365 BC)

Plot:   A romantic account of the life of Cyrus II of Persia (Cyrus the Great) mostly concerned with his campaign against the Assyrians.

My version is the 2-volume set from Loeb Classical Library published by Heinemann and translated by Walter Miller. ISBNs 0674990579 (v.1) and 0674990587 (v.2).

My thoughts:  Another enjoyable “Boys’ own adventure” from Xenophon with an idealised ruler-general winning over friends and enemies alike with his valour and magnanimity.

Cyrus was a Persian prince who was begged by the neighbouring King of the Medes to bring an army to help defend against an expected attack by the Assyrians and their allies. Believing attack is the best form  of defence, Cyrus takes the fight to the Assyrians, and wins over allies by his combination of strategy and generous treatment of the defeated tribes, thereby adding to the size and nature of his army. He builds up a cavalry by insisting his Persian soldiers ride everywhere, and sets up games to keep all his soldiers fit and determined.  Cyrus befriends local princes who have been wronged by the Assyrian King, and takes on their causes as well.

He succeeds in the battle to take the city of Sardis by superior tactics, despite facing a much larger army on the field, yet he spares the life of the opposing general Croesus and keeps him by his side  thereafter. He then marches on to the walled city of Babylon. Unable to breach this city, his army digs a trench to divert the Euphrates river which runs through the city, leaving a dry riverbed for his army to march through.

Other  notable tactics employed include the use of camels to scare the cavalry horses of the enemy (did that really work?) and attaching scythes to the wheels of chariots and using them as tanks rather than for skirmishing.

Cyrus now rules over a huge empire including the various alliances he has made along the way. Later he will marry the daughter of the Median King, and inherit the throne of Persia, and extend his rule from the Indian Ocean to Cyprus and Egypt, from the Black Sea in the north to Ethiopia in the south ; “the extremes of his empire are uninhabitable, on the one side because of the heat and another because of the cold, on another because of too much water, and on the fourth because of too little.”  (page 421)

The last book details his last days, and the almost immediate downfall of his empire after his death until the Persians are the weakest and least respected race in the Ancient World (at least according to Xenophon)

An interesting point was Cyrus’ preference for eunuchs to be appointed to his personal guard, as they could not put their own families’ needs before his own.  A eunuch as adviser to the king has become a cliche in many stories, but I hadn’t thought about this aspect before. LIkewise, the seat of most honour was on the left of Cyrus (not  the right) as it was the side most vulnerable to attack and hence the place given to the most trusted friend.

One last point – the first book describes the isolated education of boys and youths at court n Persia, but has largely been interpreted as more like a description of the Spartan society as it does not match other accounts of the Persian lifestyle.

The Cyropaedia was seen as a mirror for the ideal conduct of young princes in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and is said to have influenced Machiavelli’s The Prince. I’ve also read that it provides a real-world example of some of the ideas in Plato’s Republic with regard to the virtue of rulers. Like The Anabasis, It was also a favourite of later classical generals such as Scipio, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.

Favourite lines/passages:

Although I enjoyed pretty much the whole read, I found the best parts were the camaraderie between Cyrus and his troops. At one feast he has his officers sit in a large circle for a three course dinner. The servers start with Cyrus and pass the food around the circle. By the time the platters reach the last men, there is only a few small pieces of meat remaining, so Cyrus commands that the next course be served in the opposite direction. He overhears one solider in the middle of the circle (opposite Cyrus) complaining that it is just his bad luck that he sits where he will never get the biggest pieces, so Cyrus calls him over to sit beside him for the third course. When the final platters appear, the grumbling soldier grabs a large piece of meat but then seeing an even larger piece, puts his first piece back. The server interprets that as meaning he has had enough to eat, and moves on before the solider can grab any meat at all. I laughed aloud along with the rest of the diners.

Personal rating:  Another entertaining read even if the historical detail might be a little suspect.  Probably a 7.

Next : Plato’s Symposium

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