BMCR 2002.06.10

Xenophon’s Prince. Republic and Empire in the Cyropaedia

, Xenophon's prince : republic and empire in the Cyropaedia. The Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. xiii, 198 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0520224043.

The Cyropaedia is a difficult text. As with so much of Xenophon’s writing, it presents us with a number of puzzles. We simply do not have the answers to a number of basic questions: what kind of work is it; when was it written; for what purpose? As Grayson acutely observed some time ago, its notorious final chapter (8.8), the authenticity of which is sometimes doubted, is but one more case of a conclusion to a text of Xenophon that seems to undercut or cast doubt on the preceding narrative.1 Although much admired and read in antiquity as well as the Renaissance, until recently the work was little studied by classicists. This radically changed about a dozen years ago, when the first in a line of important studies appeared: James Tatum’s Xenophon’s Imperial Fiction (1989). Tatum’s book was followed immediately by Bodil Due’s The Cyropaedia. Xenophon’s Aims and Methods (1989), and then a little later by Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. Style, Genre, and Literary Technique (1993) by Deborah Levine Gera. Finally, most recently, Christian Mueller-Goldingen brought out his Habilitationsschrift, Untersuchungen zu Xenophons Kyrupädie (1995).2 Thus Christopher Nadon’s book, Xenophon’s Prince. Republic and Empire in the Cyropaedia, joins a suddenly bustling, even crowded field.

Xenophon’s Prince is very different from its immediate predecessors. The Xenophon that emerges from its pages is very much the Chicago Xenophon. This is no surprise. Nadon identifies himself as a student of the University of Chicago, dedicates the volume to Allan Bloom, and Leo Strauss is clearly an important guiding light throughout. The Chicago Xenophon is a writer of irony and innuendo; the surface of his narrative often conceals a covert message. The many apparent reversals found in several of his works lend support to such an interpretation. Indeed, viewed through a Straussian lens, these passages no longer seem anomalous, but rather are found to be connected to the entire texts in which they are situated. Although many have their reservations about this approach, it has real merit, namely that Xenophon is treated as a serious author with important views he wishes to communicate and that he did so without contradicting himself. Where many part company with those who follow this line of criticism is precisely over the question how subtle or ironic Xenophon could be. In its extreme form, this approach can seem deliberately contrarian: if Xenophon appears to others to have wanted to say ‘x’, he in fact was trying to say ‘not-x’.3 Nadon has produced an analysis of the Cyr. that in many ways conforms to these strengths and limitations. His central point, that the picture we get of Cyrus is in fact uniformly that of an ambitious prince aiming at autocratic rule, is presented in three main chapters (‘Republic’, ‘Transformation’, ‘Empire’), followed by two concluding ones (‘Motives’ and ‘Xenophon’s Intentions’). But he begins with a critical review of the books by Tatum, Due and Gera, though not in this order.4 Due is first faulted for providing a ‘bland, if sunny characterization’ of Cyrus, essentially on the grounds that her treatment is shallow and politically naïve (p.6). Nadon’s main focus is on Tatum and Gera. He finds the launching point for his own discussion in what he sees as a major disagreement between the two: according to Nadon, while Tatum sees the last portion of Xenophon’s text as showing a positive picture of Cyrus and empire, Gera argues that the negative character of Cyrus’ imperial rule is suggested. Moreover, these critical stances are thought to be at odds with the rest of the discussions in which they are found. Nadon observes: ‘the fact that where Tatum sees good, Gera sees bad, and where Gera sees good Tatum sees bad, suggests the possibility that Xenophon and his presentation of Cyrus are in fact consistent throughout the work, indeed, consistently “Machiavellian”‘ (13). Indeed, it is Machiavelli who rescues the Cyr. for us in Nadon’s eyes, suggesting through his own apparently contradictory views as found in the Prince and Discourses that the text ‘contain[s] a covert teaching’ (20).

There are two points that need to be raised here. First, the justification Nadon constructs for his own discussion seems distinctly artificial, and is at points unfair. Not really a statio quaestionis, the opening section of his book creates the impression that the inspiration for his reading is not the Cyr. itself, but the reception of it. Furthermore, the books of both Tatum and Gera are in fact far more nuanced than Nadon’s summaries of them; and Due’s work is misrepresented. But, even were he right, these modern treatments ought not to serve as the starting point for discussion, but rather the Cyr. itself. Secondly, the very notion of a ‘covert teaching’ is highly problematic. I am aware that it is precisely here where opinions divide. But it seems to me that Nadon’s methods in establishing this hidden message, as well as his insistence that it can be found throughout the Cyr., are questionable. And major problems seem connected to the message itself that Nadon advances for the Cyr.

The strength of Nadon’s book lies in its recognition that, among other things, the Cyr. is a political treatise. So much is made clear by Xenophon’s musings on government in the opening paragraphs. As I mentioned earlier, Nadon’s main point is that a ‘Machiavellian’ Cyrus needs to be understood throughout the narrative. Where others have seen Cyrus’ residence in Babylon (7.5.37ff.) as the beginning of his autocratic rule and thus also the beginning of Xenophon’s negative shading of him,5 Nadon asserts that this characterization can be found throughout the Cyr., from the first book onward. Some of his readings are illuminating, and all are intelligently presented. However, I do not believe that the case he makes for the presence of the covert teaching in the first six, almost seven, books of the Cyr. is compelling. Nadon’s handling of the dialogue between Cyrus and his father Cambyses (1.6) is representative of the problem. He treats this important section at length at the end of his book (164-78), in the chapter ‘Xenophon’s Intentions’. Nadon believes that while Cambyses encourages his son to be both a good man and a good ruler, Cyrus is really only interested in the latter project. This claim is first clearly articulated on the basis of remarks we see at the beginning of their conversation. Cambyses reminds Cyrus that while it was a fitting and good task ( ἱκανὸν … καὶ καλὸν … ἔργον) for a man to take care to be good and to look after his household, it was a wondrous thing ( θαυμαστόν) to know how to rule others. Cyrus responds by saying that the art of ruling was indeed an exceedingly difficult task ( ὑπερμέγεθες … ἔργον, 1.6.7-8). Because Cyrus did not also speak of learning to be a good man, Nadon detects ‘a real difference of opinion’ between father and son (165): ‘he does not share Cambyses’ opinion as to the difficulty or importance of becoming “truly good and noble” himself’. I frankly do not see how the passage gives any warrant for Nadon to draw the conclusion he does. Cambyses has presented Cyrus with a pair of related ideas: being good oneself is difficult, but being a good ruler is remarkable. Cyrus responds to the thrust of the point: indeed, ruling well is very difficult. To my eyes at least, there is no sinister elision here of Cambyses’ first remarks; learning to be a good person was not the point of what he was trying to impress upon his son. Much of the rest of Nadon’s discussion of this crucial portion of the Cyr. is built on such casuistic reading.

Another major difficulty with Nadon’s understanding of the ‘covert teaching’ of the Cyr. is its purpose. Asserting that the work was written ‘when the Spartans exercised “hegemony over all of the Greeks”‘, he claims that the Lac. Pol. was intended to make clear the failure of Spartan society, the Hellenica the failure of Sparta’s foreign policy, and the Cyr.‘how the attempt to overcome these difficulties by transforming an idealized Spartan republic into a full-fledged imperial power ultimately results in the “rebarbarization” of its citizens’ (162-3). Although we do not know the precise date of the Cyr., most place it late in Xenophon’s life, say in the mid 360s.6 By this time Sparta’s hegemony was crumbling, and its weakness exposed, first by the defeat at Leuctra (in 371), and then by the subsequent invasions of the Peloponnese by the Thebans. Furthermore, Nadon’s argument relies on the understanding that Persia is but a transparent stand-in for Sparta, a point that has some merit, but which has been shown to be significantly overstated, if not incorrect.7 And even within the framework of his own discussion, the connection to Sparta comes as something of a surprise; the linkage is not really justified by the discussion (in the index, the entry ‘Sparta’ lists only pages 30-32, 33, 161-63).

A central component of Nadon’s analysis is the belief that passages of Xenophon’s text ‘interlock’ (24), and in particular that these interlockings reveal significant discontinuities between speech and act (see, e.g., 40: this is called ‘disclosure’). An example: although Cyrus would seem to have been reconciled to his uncle Cyaxares at 5.5.36-7, the ‘true nature’ of his attitude towards his relative and Media as a whole is revealed, ‘if indirectly’, in his bestowal of Media as a satrapy upon his son Tanaoxares reported much later in the text (8.7.11). Since ‘satraps, we are elsewhere told, are sent to rule over conquered peoples (8.6.1)’, we have proof that Cyrus had in mind all the time the cruel subjugation of his mother’s homeland (100). This procedure is problematic in two ways. First, the contexts of the sections in question are different and are not taken into account; in particular 8.6.1, while indeed referring to ‘the conquered peoples’ ( τὰ κατεστραμμένα ἔθνη), is really more about Cyrus’ wish to control the satraps themselves, rather than the subject ἔθνη. And secondly, a larger, historical issue: what else was Xenophon to call Media but a satrapy? As we know from Herodotus (most notably, Hdt. 3.92), indeed as is clear from Persian documents (e.g. DB I.12-17), Media was in fact a satrapy. This fact is unexceptional when seen from a historical point of view. Xenophon himself was quite aware of the satrapal system of governance, as we can tell from numerous passages from both the Hellenica and Anabasis. Yet, it is precisely a historian’s view that we are missing in Nadon’s treatment. To extract the sort of special meaning he sees in Media’s status as a satrapy, and to apply it to a passage that is found pages before, does not seem justified (see Cyr. 1.1.4). This sort of argument based on an alleged ‘interlocking’ of passages is found throughout Xenophon’s Prince. When Nadon attacks others for ‘reductionist explanations’ lacking textual support, as opposed to conclusions that are based ‘on what [Xenophon] actually wrote’ (162), the criticism seems more fitting at points for his own line of argument.

Other methodological difficulties have to do with linguistic issues. When Nadon explains that words in a translation of Xenophon have been emphasized by him with italics (’emphasis added’ 34, 168), as though showing us a latent meaning in Xenophon’s own text, this suggests an odd understanding of the status of the translation, indeed a distance from the original Greek. Other problems arise because of choices in translation or favored terms in the argument; so, for example, Greek politeia is frequently translated ‘regime’. Not an impossible rendering I suppose, but one that is not offered by standard lexica (see LSJ s.v.).

As is by now no doubt clear, I have several reservations about Xenophon’s Prince. I believe it is an intelligent book, and that it grapples with a real problem: is a unified reading of the Cyr. possible? In the end I often do not see the connections between passages that Nadon sees; I cannot believe that Xenophon was as subtle and ironic as Nadon’s argument requires him to be. This is not to say that Xenophon was incapable of irony, understatement, and even commentary through omission. But it is a question of degree. And we should probably also not forget in all this that Xenophon could be a very straightforward, direct, and declarative author, and not just in those notorious ‘palinodes’ mentioned at the beginning of this review. Hellenica 5.3.7 or 5.4.1, or Mem. 1.1.20 especially come to mind. What is more, Xenophon could even endorse leadership that was, when needed, deceptive: Cyrus the Younger had to conceal his revolt from his brother Artaxerxes II and yet was a leader whom Xenophon obviously admired — indeed, he was in his eyes the man most like his ancestor and namesake, Cyrus the Great ( An. 1.9.1).


1. C.H. Grayson, ‘Did Xenophon intend to write History’, in The Ancient Historian and His Materials, B. Levick ed. (Farnborough 1975) 34-5: in addition to Cyr. 8.8, Hellenica 7.5.27, Anabasis 7.8., Lac. Pol. 14. Grayson was not the first to notice these apparently inconsistent passages but discusses well the fact that several of Xenophon’s major works seem to have them.

2. I have not seen the dissertations on the Cyr. by G. Hogg (Edinburgh 1996), or W.R. Newell (Yale 1981).

3. For a recent critique of the approach see P. Cartledge, ‘The Socratics’ Sparta and Rousseau’s’, in Sparta. New Perspectives, S. Hodkinson and A. Powell eds. (London 1999) 320.

4. Mueller-Goldingen is treated briefly in a footnote, 12 n.55.

5. I am thinking esp. of Gera’s splendid treatment. But see also V. Azoulay, ‘Xénophon, le Roi et les Eunuques’, Revue d’Histoire des Idées Politiques 11 (2000) 3-26, as well as his forthcoming paper in the proceedings from The World of Xenophon International Conference, held in July 1999 in Liverpool.

6. Cf. Mueller-Goldingen 55.

7. See, e.g., C. Tuplin, ‘Xenophon, Sparta and the Cyropaedia’, in The Shadow of Sparta, A. Powell and S. Hodkinson eds. (London and New York 1994) 127-81, a text cited by Nadon but not really refuted. Nadon’s remarks about Tuplin and his alleged unrecorded debt to Strauss, 2 n.7, are grossly unfair.