Xenophon (431-c.348 BC)

Xenophon (431-c.348 BC) was a Greek soldier and writer most famous for his role in the revolt of the Persian Prince Cyrus the Younger and the Anabasis, his account of that revolt and its aftermath.

Xenophon was born into a wealthy Athenian family in 431 BC, at the start of the Great Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). As an aristocrat he served in the Athenian cavalry, and was generally opposed to democracy. He was a student of Socrates and a supporter of the un-democratic regimes of 411 and 404. This second spell of oligarchy ended in 401 with the restoration of the democracy. Xenophon chose to go into exile at this stage, and a few years later was officially exiled as a traitor (probably when serving with the Spartans). His dislike of Athenian democracy was deepened by the execution of Socrates in 399.

Soon after going into exile Xenophon joined the mercenary army being raised by Prince Cyrus the Younger of Persia. He took part in the prince's revolt against his brother Artaxerxes II and was present at the battle of Cunaxa (401 BC), where Cyrus was defeated and killed. Most of his Greek mercenaries survived the battle. Their leaders were murdered by a Persian satrap, and in the aftermath Xenophon was one of the men elected to command. This group, now known as the '10,000', managed to march north through what is now Kurdistan and Armenia and early in 400 reached the relative safety of the Greek city of Trapezus (modern Trabzon) on the Black Sea.

Battles of the Corinthian War
Battles of the
Corinthian War

Xenophon spent some time working for a Thracian prince, before entering the service of Sparta during the Persian-Spartan War that began in 400 (in the aftermath of Spartan support for Cyrus),. In 399 he commanded the 5,000 remaining members of the '10,000' in the Spartan army led by Thibron, and he probably also served his successor Dercylidas. Xenophon served under King Agesilaus II later in the Persian-Spartan War and in the Corinthian War. He was on the king's staff at the Spartan victory of Coronea (394 BC) and in the aftermath of this victory accompanied the king when he went to offer thanks at Delphi. During this visit Xenophon made an offering to Apollo in the Treasury of the Athenians.

Xenophon spent the next few years in Sparta. He married and had two sons, and moved to an estate at Scillus near Olympia. This happy period ended in 371, after the Spartans were defeated by Thebes (Theban-Spartan War, 379-371). In 371 Xenophon moved to Corinth. A few years later (probably in c.365) Athens and Sparta became allies, and Xenophon was able to return home. After 35 years in exile he was able to resume some of his former life, and his sons joined his old cavalry regiment. He remained in Athens for the rest of his live, and died just before 350 BC. One of his sons, Gryllus, died serving with the Athenian cavalry in the Peloponnese in 362 BC.

Xenophon's most famous work is the Anabasis, or 'Upcountry March'. This was written in two parts, the first around 386 BC and the second a decade later and it focused on the story of the Cunaxa campaign and the escape of the '10,000' from the heart of the Persian Empire to the Black Sea coast. The Anabasis is often said to have helped alert the Greeks to the potential vulnerability of the Persian Empire and the inability of its armies to deal with well-led Hoplites.

His second main historical work was the Hellenica, which was originally begun to complete Thucydides (covering the period from 411 to 403 BC). It was later extended to cover 411-362 BC, and is useful although not to the same standard as Thucydides.

He also wrote two books on horses. Peri hippikes (On Horsemanship) was about horsemanship in hunting and war. Hipparchikos (Cavalry Officer) focused on the military use of the cavalry. The next books on horsemanship wouldn't be produced until the 14th century.

Battles of the Theban-Spartan War, 379-371
Battles of the
Theban-Spartan War,
379-371 BC

Kynegetikos (On Hunting), which some doubt was written by him, advocated hunting as a training for war.

He wrote three books on Socrates (Apology, Symposium and Memorabilia) in which he presented a picture of the life of the philosopher.

Oeconomicus is a book on estate management, with interesting sections on farming and the role of the estate owner's wife.

The Cyropaedia was presented as an account of the life of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, but was nearer to being a fictional account of the ideal upbringing for the ideal prince, and may also have been meant as advice for the rulers of a declining Sparta. This was followed by Hieron, a fictional debate between a king and a poet on kingship. The aim of this work was to describe the attributes of an ideal king.

He wrote two books on Sparta, Lakedaimonion politeia (The Constituion of Sparta) and Agesilaus, two useful books on this often under-recorded city, written by a great admirer of the place and of Agesilaus.

His last book, Ways and Means (c.355) was a political tome, advocating a policy of peace between Athens and the other Greek states.

His writings were until recently very highly regarded, and are still very valuable, although his bias does come through on a regular basis.

Sparta at War, Scott M. Rusch. A study of the rise, dominance and fall of Sparta, the most famous military power in the Classical Greek world. Sparta dominated land warfare for two centuries, before suffering a series of defeats that broke its power. The author examines the reasons for that success, and for Sparta's failure to bounce back from defeat. [read full review]
cover cover cover
The Spartan Supremacy 412-371 BC, Mike Roberts and Bob Bennett. . Looks at the short spell between the end of the Great Peloponnesian War and the battle of Leuctra where Sparta's political power matched her military reputation. The authors look at how Sparta proved to be politically unequal to her new position, and how this period of supremacy ended with Sparta's military reputation in tatters and her political power fatally wounded. [read full review]
cover cover cover

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 July 2016), Xenophon (431-c.348 BC) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_xenophon.html

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy