Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010


Xenophon (ca. 431-354 B.c.) Greek historian, essayist, and biographer

An Athenian cavalryman as well as a writer and historian, Xenophon wrote eyewitness accounts of imperial conflicts. The son of Gryllus of Erchia, he studied under the philosopher Socrates and took part in the last years of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.c.) between Athens and Sparta. In 401, he hired out as a hoplite, or heavy infantry mercenary, under the Persian Cyrus the Younger, son of Darius II, during a civil uprising against Cyrus's brother Artaxerxes II. In his combat memoir Anabasis (The Expedition of Cyrus, or The March Up Country, 354 B.c.), Xenophon describes himself as the youngest regimental commander and typifies Cyrus as the most worthy of all to rule. After Artaxerxes had treacherously killed many of the Greek generals, Xenophon led the remainder of the Ten Thousand on a 1,000-mile journey north from Babylonia through the territories of hostile Armenians, Kurds, and Persians to Trapezus, a port on the Black Sea. Before turning west toward home, the Greek irregulars assisted Seuthes II to become ruler of Thrace.

On his return to Greece, Xenophon supported Agesilaus II of Sparta against Athens at the battle of Coronea, in 394 B.c. Athenians stripped him of his property and banished him, whereupon he moved to the western Spartan city of Scillus in Elis, two miles from Olympia. With his wife Philesia and their sons Gryllus and Diodorus, Xenophon spent his time writing. He set up a temple and grove to Diana the huntress, his patron goddess, and held annual feasts and games in her honor. Apparently the orator Eubulus recalled him to Athens in 355 B.c., but the chronicler was past his mid-70s and did not do so. History suggests that Xenophon received state honor as the father of the hero Gryllus, who was slain at the battle of Mantinea in 362 B.c. after killing the Theban general Epaminondas. Ironically, Xenophon died at Corinth, halfway between Athens and Sparta. As models of unembellished soldierly writing akin to Julius Caesar's The Gallic Wars, Xenophon's histories have survived for centuries as textbooks for students learning Greek

The Histories

After the Athenian historiographer THUCYDIDES died, leaving unfinished The History of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 400 B.c.), Xenophon appended the seven-book Hellenica (ca. 354 B.c.), an account of events from 411 to 362 B.c. Though he lacked Thucydides's astute reasoning, he earned regard for straightforward reportage of a half-century of events. In book 5, he noted the selfish logic that perpetuated expansionism in Attica: “The Athenians . . were none the less eager for the war being of the opinion that empire was theirs by right” (Xenophon Hellenica, 2007, 198). His commentary on imperial rationalization displays an unbiased view of his own empire's wrongheadedness.

Xenophon also wrote Cyropaedia (The Education of Cyrus, ca. 354 B.c.), a fictional biography of the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great that became a popular form of classic literature. The eight-book romance included genealogy, court tales, and monarchic chronicles. Hero worship robs the narrative of objectivity. Some historians believe it may be an attack on the teachings of Plato. During the didactic interaction between young Cyrus and his father, Cambyses I, the elder established the grounds of leadership: “Observe the sacrifices and pay heed to the omens; when they are against you, never risk your army or yourself” (Xenophon 2000, 33). Refuting the ideals of Greek individualism and democracy, Xenophon insists that the concept of empire is conducive to social order and serenity. The text influenced later statesmen, including Scipio Africanus, the Roman general during the Punic Wars; the English poet Edmund Spenser; and Thomas Jefferson, who valued the work equally with NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI’S Renaissance statecraft handbook The Prince (1513).

An Imperial Error in Judgment

More memorable in the literature of empire, Xenophon’s seven-book Anabasis chronicles a lengthy southeastern march from the Aegean Sea to the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in Mesopotamia, a march that ended with the battle of Cunaxa (401 B.C.). In his account of soldiers of fortune from many tribes and nations, Xenophon emulates the epic lists of Homer’s Iliad (ca. 850 B.C.) by numbering light-armed infantry, hoplites, archers, slingers, javelin throwers, and horsemen. The 10,400 Greek hoplites, extolled as the “Ten Thousand,” triumph at Cunaxa, but Cyrus dies of a javelin wound to the eye, stranding the Greeks without a patron. Xenophon mourns the Persian leader, who fell alongside eight of his companions of the suskenia (mess table), despite a “bodyguard of cavalry about 600 strong, all armed with corselets” (Xenophon Anabasis, 2007, 57). A senseless vengeance takes place in the mutilation of his remains by Cyrus’s enemies, who lop off his head and right hand, a meaningless posthumous insult.

After Cyrus’s demise, the Anabasis summarizes the rapid overturn of fortunes. Xenophon describes the unstable fortunes of war: “We were not a whit more able to injure the enemy, while we had considerable difficulty in beating a retreat ourselves” (175). He portrays hireling soldiers foraging and battling their way out of a no-win situation in Babylonia along a more than 4,000mile retreat to northern Armenia. The overland journey requires constant pragmatic strategy and ad hoc decisions, the kind of spur-of-the-moment policy making necessary in adversity. Xenophon urges every man to take responsibility for group safety: “Whoever has a better play, let him speak” (175). The journey took eight months of marching, skirmishing, fighting, and negotiating, with frequent starvation, exhaustion, and frostbite. Xenophon regrets that more than 5,000 Greeks died on the route home.

Xenophon’s Anabasis reveals exemplary standards of leadership. He, like conqueror Alexander I the Great, believed that no man could be “a good officer who does not undergo more than those he commands” (175). The historian dramatizes matters of loyalty and courage in a soldier’s words: “If any man fail in aught of this, the goddess herself will look to it that the matter shall not sleep” (298). Until the great day when the Hellenes at last reach the sea, they live off the land, peacefully when they can but fighting when they have to do so.

Xenophon included such valuable data and advice on camping, ethnic relations, eating, sanitation, and health care that Alexander the Great carried the Anabasis along on his first foray against the Persians in 334 B.C. The events of the narrative influenced Machiavelli’s The Prince as well as the Guadeloupian poet SAINT-JOHN PERSE’S Anabase (Anabasis, 1924) and Sol Yurick’s novel The Warriors, filmed in 1979 and reset as a gang war in Brooklyn, New York.


Lee, John W. I. A Greek Army on the March: Soldiers and Survival in Xenophon’s Anabasis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Xenophon. Anabasis. Translated by H. G. Dakyns. New York: BiblioBazaar, 2007.

------- . Cyropaedia: The Education of Cyrus. Translated by H. G. Dakyns. London: Macmillan, 2000.

----- . Hellenica. Translated by H. G. Dakyns. New York: BiblioBazaar, 2007.