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Xenophon, of Aegium

Xenophon (2), a Corinthian

Xenophon (3), Athenian sculptor

Xenophon (4), son of Grylus


Xenophon, the son of Gryllus, was born at Athens during the early years of the Peloponnesian War into a family of knights; he died either in Athens or Corinth sometime after 355, making him about seventy-five at the time of his death. He may have been educated by the sophist Prodicus at Thebes, and in all likelihood established some type of connection with Socrates in the last decade of the fifth century. It also seems likely that he was knight under the rule of the Thirty Tyrants at Athens and may have even taken part in the battle of Munychia which brought an end to that regime. In 401 he accepted the invitation of his Theban guest-friend Proxenus to join the Greek mercenaries in the service of the Achaemenid prince Cyrus the Younger who was attempting to usurp the throne of Persia from his brother, Artaxerxes. Following the death of Cyrus at the battle of Cunaxa near Babylon (late summer 401) and the murder of the commanders of the Ten Thousand (as the Greek mercenaries are known), Xenophon was appointed strategos or general and commanded a portion of the troops. After leading them back from the heartland of the Persian empire to the Black Sea and then the coast of Asia Minor, he along with his contingent enrolled in the service of the Spartans then operating in Asia Minor. Fighting there under three successive Spartan commanders Xenophon formed a strong and lasting friendship with the last one, King Agesilaus. In 395, when the home authorities recalled Agesilaus from Asia to lead the Spartan forces against Thebes, Corinth and Athens, Xenophon followed and took part in the battle of Coronea (394). It was shortly after this that Xenophon was exiled from Athens, either because of his participation in the battle of Coronea, or because of this service with Cyrus (an enemy of Athens in the second phase of the Peloponnesian War), or perhaps both. Without a homeland Xenophon's attachments to Sparta became even stronger: sometime shortly after Coronea he was granted an estate by the Spartans at Scillus, a town near Olympia. He had two sons, both born on his estate and educated at Sparta in the agoge (the rigorous Spartan education system designed to produce Spartiates or full citizen-warriors). During his time at Scillus he probably wrote many of his works, remained in touch with his friends at Sparta, but also established and kept up international contacts at the panhellenic festival at Olympia. Although his exile may have been repealed as early as 386, it seems he did not return to Athens but remained at Scillus. After the Spartan defeat at Leuctra in 371 Xenophon was forced to give up his estate and probably went to Corinth. Whether he returned to Athens or stayed at Corinth is uncertain: that some reconciliation took place between Xenophon and his native city seems to be indicated by the focus of his later works on Athenian matters, and by his growing commitment to Spartan and Athenian cooperation. Indeed his eldest son Gryllus was killed fighting for Sparta in an Athenian cavalry contingent in a skirmish before the decisive Spartan defeat at Second Mantinea in 362. References to contemporary events in his last work allow us to say that he was alive in 355; given his extreme old age he surely did not live much longer.


Xenophon's work may be divided into three main categories: historical, Socratic, and Minor Works.

The Anabasis or ‘Trip Up Country’ (late 370s or 360s) is Xenophon's story of the journey of the ten thousand mercenaries under the command of Cyrus the Younger into the heart of the Persian empire and then back again to the Greek world. It is of particular significance because Xenophon himself served on the expedition and he is prominent from Book 3 onwards. It was probably composed after Xenophon's return to Greece from a memoir he kept while with the Ten Thousand. The Hellenica or ‘Hellenic Affairs’, is a history of Greece from 411-362 (early in Xenophon's career; early 350s). This work appears to have been written in two phases: the first portion of the work, going down to the beginning of the Thirty Tyrants at Athens in 403 (Xen. Hell. 2.3.10), may well have been one of the first things Xenophon wrote; the second, much larger portion, goes from 403 and extends down to the battle of Second Mantinea (362), and was probably composed very late in Xenophon's life. Due to certain superficial similarities with the work of Thucydides, and especially to the fact that the work picks up roughly where Thucydides leaves off, it is thought to have been conceived originally as a continuation of Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War. The testimony of Marcellinus' life of Thucydides (Chap. 45) supports this view. A major break is argued for at 2.3.10 on a number of grounds: stylometric (chiefly distribution of particle usage), change in chronological conventions, change in viewpoint (from Athens to Sparta), and subtle changes in thematic focus (increasing attention to the moral evaluation of individuals). Although frequently faulted for its omissions and Spartan bias, especially when compared with the fragmentary remains of another continuator of Thucydides, the Oxyrhyncus Historian, the Hellenica is our major continuous historical narrative for the crucial period between the latter stages of the Peloponnesian War to the years immediately preceding the rise of Macedon. The Cyropaedia or 'The Education of Cyrus' (370s, revised later) is a long (8 books) biographical treatment of Cyrus the Great of Persia (6th century). This work, which also has a strong claim to be categorized under 'philosophy', is a massive account of the education and training of the ideal king. It comprises elements of historiography, legend, ethnography, and romance, and is thought to be a precursor of the later novel. It contains an epilogue (Xen. Cyrop. 8.8) on the decline of Persia since the time of Cyrus which seems to have been written after the work was completed. The Agesilaus is a biography of King Agesilaus of Sparta (c.444/3-360), composed in all likelihood sometime after the winter of 360, when the king died. It too is a study of leadership, but clearly also contains apologetic elements. It overlaps significantly with portions of the Hellenica. Together with the Evagoras of Isocrates Isoc. 9 (374) it is one of the first true biographies in Greek literature.

It is difficult to date precisely any of the Socratic works of Xenophon, only that they must have been composed after the philosopher's death in 399. Like Plato and other Socratics, Xenophon felt the need to compose an Apology or defense of Socrates in response to the charges brought against him by his accusers. Like Plato he also composed a Symposium. The most important of the Socratic works of Xenophon is the Memorabilia, a collection of discussions between Socrates and (typically) young Athenian men which begins in much the same spirit as the Apology, that is in defense of the philosopher. The Oeconomicus is a dialogue between Socrates and an Athenian, Ischomachus, on the subject of house management; it is actually comprised mostly of a reported set of discussions between Ischomachus and his (unnamed) young wife. The work is probably the best introduction into the mind of Xenophon, foregrounding as it does the topic of order, an issue central to his thought. While the Hiero does not actually feature Socrates, it is clearly a combination of a Socratic dialogue and a Herodotean meeting between a sage and a powerful king (e.g. Solon and Croesus), though interestingly the main speaker is Hieron (king of Syracuse from 478 to 467), not the sage (Simonides the poet, c.557/6-468/7); the conversation, on the subject of tyranny, is imaginary.

Xenophon's interest in practical knowledge and didactic literature is clearly evidenced by a number of smaller works. Like his contemporary Aeneas Tacticus , Xenophon composed two technical handbooks on matters of practical knowledge, On the Cavalry Commander and On Horsemanship; the On Hunting is widely regarded as not belonging to Xenophon. He also wrote a Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, what is not so much a picture of Spartan government as a valuable description of the Spartan educational system thought to have been set up by the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus (11th-8th?); it, like the Cyropaedia, contains an epilogue (actually the penultimate chapter, Xen. Cyrop.14) which suggests that Spartan society has degenerated. The Poroi or On Revenues is the probably the last thing Xenophon wrote; it attempts to persuade the Athenians to abandon hegemonic war as a way to increase state revenue and adopt instead programs aimed at improving the existing resources of the city-a proposal and conceptual framework virtually without parallel in all antiquity.


The Constitution of the Athenians by the so-called 'Old-Oligarch', long thought to be by Xenophon, is widely believed to be not by him. See G. Bowersock's introduction in the last Loeb volume of Xenophon, Xenophon VII Scripta Minora (Cambridge 1968).

Most of the major works of Xenophon are available in Penguin Books translations; especially worth noting are the excellent introductions to Xenophon and his work by George Cawkwell in The Persian Expedition (Harmondsworth 1972) and A History of My Times (Harmondsworth 1979). The Cyropaedia is available from the Everyman Library, The Education of Cyrus (London 1992) with excellent notes by Richard Stoneman. Other works that are helpful:

    Anderson, J.K., Xenophon (London 1974) Cartledge, Paul, Agesilaus and the Crisis of Sparta (London 1987) Fornara, Charles, The Nature of History in Greece and Rome (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1983) Gray, Vivienne, The Character of Xenophon's Hellenica (Baltimore 1989) Harding, Phillip, From the end of the Peloponnesian War to the Battle of Ipsus, Translated Documents of Greece & Rome 2 (Cambridge 1985) Henry, W.P., Greek Historical Writing (Chicago 1967) Higgins, W.E., Xenophon the Athenian (Albany 1977) Krentz, Peter, Hellenika I-II.3.10 (Warminster 1989)
John Dillery
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