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|Xenophon (c.431 - c.355 BC)|
Greek historian, essayist, and soldier, the author of Anabasis Kyrou (The Persian Expedition), a tale of Greek mercenaries who fought their way back from the gates of Babylon to the Euxine (Black Sea). Among Xenophon's other works are Hellenica, a continuation of Thucydides' history of the Greeks from 411 to 362 BC, the Memorabilia of Socrates, and the Cyropedia (Education of Cyrus), a historical novel about Cyrus the Elder, the founder of the Persian empire.
"To read his Anabasis at school is memorable, not merely as a coming into contact with one of the great literary mouthpieces of the world, but as if it were an adventure that you made yourself. You are one of the ten thousand men retreating in good order from the defeat of the monarch who employed you. ... And you were surrounded by semi-hostile tribes just as today would be the case in the hot sands of the desert; and you fought an outpost battle here and there. But always you had at the back of your mind the feeling of the comfortable, quiet brain of General Xenophon who was never unduly disturbed or despondent and who knew always what to do and how to do it." (Ford Madox Ford in The March of Literature, 1938)
Xenophon was born in Attica into a land-owning family of moderate oligarchs. His father, Gryllus, was a citizen of Athens. A later biographer, Diogenes Laertius, called Xenophon "a man of great modesty, and as handsome as can be imagined."
Xenophon grew in the early years of the war between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BC). As a member of the class of Knights, men rich enough to maitain a horse, Xenophon took part in the wars in the Athenian cavalry. At an early age he became a friend of Socrates, but he did not mention later in his books, did his father Gryllus defend Socrates, who was accused of corrupting the youth. In his own writings Xenophon focused mostly on practical subjects or historical questions, without showing much enthusiasm for philosophical speculation. Xenophon tackled philosophical issues as they relate to everyday life. In the Memorabilia, which consist of short conversations, he gives a much lighter version of Socrates' teachings than Plato, also his contemporary.
Xenophon portrayed Socrates as a cheerful, down-to-earth character, who, like Aesop, solves moral problems pragmatically and instructs on duties and even on table manners. When his friend Aristarchus complains that his house is full of deserted, bad-tempered female relatives, and he cannot feed so many mouths, Socrates advises him to give them productive work: "And so do you tell your flock yonder that like the dog in the fable you are their guardian and overseer, and it is thanks to you that they are protected from evil and evildoers, so that they work their work and live their lives in blissful security." (Memorabilia, tr. H. G. Dakyns) The idea that the statesman is a sort of herdsman Xenophon attributed to Socrates. In a similar uncomplicated narrative style, he wrote on horses, too.
In Xenophon's Symposion (Banquet) Socrates participates in an imaginary wine party as a guest. Apologia Socratous was written some fifteen years after Socrates' condemnation and death. Xenophon argues that the philosopher wanted to die partly to end his old age the easiest way. "I know that I cannot escape paying the penalty of old age, in increasing dimness of sight and dullness of hearing. I shall find myself slower to learn new lessons, and apter to forget the lessons I have learnt. And if to these be added the consciousness of failing powers, the sting of self-reproach, what prospect have I of any further joy in living?" (Apologia Socratalous, tr. H. G. Dakyns)
Xenophon himself was not present when Socrates killed himself by drinking a cup of hemlock; his second-hand source was Hermogenes, whom Plato mentions in his Phaedo. Apology of Socrates and Symposion were probably intended as responses to Plato's Apology and Symposium, but generally they are considered inferior to Plato in their philosophical importance. The speech in court in Apologia probably bears only a little resemblance to the actual defence. Socrates also appeared in Xenophon's Oeconomicus, in a discussion between the philosopher and his disciple Critobulus on the good life and household and estate management. Xenophon put into Socrates's mouth words which he had never heard himself.
Although Xenophon was an Athenian, he spent much of his life in Sparta. When democracy was re-established in Athens in 401 BC, Xenophon, a man of right-wing political opinions, turned his back on its new leaders and went abroad. He joined with ten thousand Greek mercenaries the expedition (anabasis, march up country) of Cyrus the younger into the hinterland of Asia Minor. However, Cyrus's real aim was to oust his brother King Artaxerxes II of Persia. His plan failed – Cyrus lost his life in the battle of Cunaxa.
The mercenaries were left leaderless on the plains between the Tigris and the Euphrates, over 1,600 kilometers (about 1,000 miles) from home. Xenophon was elected one of the generals. In this role he took the principal part in the struggle of the Greeks to return home through the "barbarian" world – the Greeks referred to the Persians as "barbarians". Less than 6,000 mercenaries survived. The Anabasis became not only an account of the expedition, but also a tale of military virtues, discipline, leadership, and courage.
Xenophon wrote his book in the third person. The author himself rode casually onto the scene in the first book: "Cyrus, riding past at some distance from the lines, glanced his eye first in one direction and then in the other, so as to take a complete survey of friends and foes; when Xenophon the Athenian, seeing him, rode up from the Hellenic quarter to meet him, asking him whether he had any orders to give. Cyrus, pulling up his horse, begged him to make the announcement generally known that the omens from the victims, internal and external alike, were good." (tr. H. G. Dakyns)
A famous part of the Anabasis is Xenophon's description of the Greeks, shouting "Thalassa, thalassa" (the sea, the sea) at the top of a great dune, when they saw the sea. "Thereupon they began running, rearguard and all, and the baggage animals and horses came galloping up. But when they had reached the summit, then indeed they fell to embracing one another – generals and officers and all – and the tears trickled down their cheeks."
Socrates was put to death in 399 BC, and it seems probable that Xenophon was banished by Athens. After "the march of the 10,000" Xenophon entered the service of the Thracian king Seuthes and in 396-394 he served the Spartan king Agesilaus II, who defeated a coalition of Greek states at the Battle of Coronea in 394. About 365 Xenophon returned home, and settled with his wife Philesia and two sons at Scillus in Elis. There, during the following two decades, he probably composed most of his works. The Hellenica, his chief historical work, covers the end of the Peloponnesian War to the restoration of democracy in 403 BC. Again Xenophon's Spartan bias is evident.
Xenophon's experiences in cavalry and his love of horses prompted two books, Hipparchikos (Cavalry Officer) and Peri hippikes (On Horsemanship), the oldest surviving complete manual on this subject. Xenophon starts the latter work by explaining, how to avoid being cheated when buying a horse. No doubt Xenophon himself had bought and sold horses, and spent much time with them. In Hieron, a fictitious discussion between King Hiero I of Syracuse and the poet Simonides of Ceos, Xenophon presents his ideas on how an autocrat can secure his subjects' loyalty. Agesilaos, one of the earliest Greek biographies, dealt with King Agelilaus II of Sparta.
After Sparta lost possession of Scillus, Xenophon moved to a new residence on the isthmus of Corinth. The sentence of his banishment from Athens was repealed. It is possible that before his death he lived in Athens; at least his sons Gryllus and Diodorus fought with Athens and Spartans against the Thebans. Xenophon died in Corinth. His last book was probably Poroi e peri prosodon (Ways and Means), in which he suggested methods for improvement of Athenian public to become famous in the Roman imperial period. The Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BC) praised especially his Education of Cyrus, a summarization of Xenophon's practical and moral teachings. Its clear and pure style perhaps inspired Julius Caesar's Commentarii, the unfinished histories of the Gallic and Civil wars.
By the fifteenth century Xenophon had secured his place among the great writers of antiquity, and from the 16th century his works were printed in many European languages. Xenophon's elegant style, sometimes rhetorical but straightforward, was much admired, although Xenophon did not enjoy a reputation as an original thinker. On the other hand, it has been argued that Xenophon's writings demand more serious philosophical analysis than they have received. The Anabasis inspired the Swedish Nobel writer Gustaf Fröding's (1860-1911) poem 'Ur Anabasis'. Italo Calvino noted in his essay 'Xenophon's Anabasis' (1978), that the work is similar to the memoirs written by Italian Alpini troops on their retreat from Russia. Calvino also draws parallels between Xenophon, Hemingway's novels, and "the modern ethic of perfect technical efficiency".
Selected works in alphabetical order: