Cyropaedia: What Did Xenophon Write About Cyrus the Great?

The admiration for Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, inspired the Athenian soldier, statesman, and historian Xenophon to compose the Cyropaedia or “The Education of Cyrus.”

Jul 1, 2022By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology
cyropaedia and cyrus the great relief
Titlepage of the Cyropaedia depicting Cyrus, Xenophon, and Charles I, by William Marshall, 1632, via The British Museum; with relief depicting Cyrus at Pasargadae, c. 5th-4th century BCE, via Wikimedia Commons


The Cyropaedia or “The Education of Cyrus” is best described as a partly fictional or at least highly dramatized biography of Cyrus the Great. As the founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, Cyrus was feared and admired across the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean world. This work was composed by the Athenian-born Greek Xenophon, who was famed in his own right as a soldier, statesman, and historian. However, Xenophon did not intend the Cyropaedia to be a purely biographical work. Instead, it was meant to instruct its readers, primarily the Greek elites, in matters of both politics and morality. Nonetheless, the Cyropaedia still offers a fascinating look at the life of Cyrus the Great.


Cyrus the Great: Subject of the Cyropaedia

portrait cyrus the great
Cyrus the Great, by Aegidius Paulus Dumesnil, 1721-1735, via the British Museum


Cyrus the Great (c.600-530 BCE) was the founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. He created what was at that time the largest empire the world had ever seen. In doing so, he conquered the Median Empire, the Lydian Empire, and the Neo-Babylonian empire so that his territory stretched from the Indus River to the Mediterranean Sea. Cyrus the Great also created the famed Persian Immortals, an elite unit of 10,000 soldiers. Later, Cyrus the Great campaigned in Central Asia, where he fought the Massagetae, a nomadic Scythian tribe. According to the most widely accepted sources, this campaign ended in his defeat and death; although some claim that he merely returned to his capital city and died there.


Along with his conquests, Cyrus the Great is remembered for a variety of other accomplishments. He created an efficient system of governance for his empire by dividing it into satrapies, or administrative units overseen by officials known as satraps who held broad powers. An extensive road and postal system connected the vast territories of his empire. He also issued edicts that instituted a policy of religious tolerance and allowed the Jews to return from their Babylonian exile. As a result, philosophers, politicians, and generals have long admired and sought to emulate Cyrus the Great; even in modern times.


Xenophon: Author of the Cyropaedia

portrait xenophon john chapman
Xenophon, by John Chapman, 1807, via the British Museum


Xenophon (c.430-354 BCE) was an Athenian-born Greek and not a contemporary of Cyrus the Great (c.600-530 BCE). Yet, he did have intimate knowledge of Achaemenid Persia and its royal family. As a young man, Xenophon served first as a common soldier, then as the commander of a group of Greek mercenaries known as “The Ten Thousand.” These soldiers had been recruited under false pretenses and then found themselves deep in Achaemenid territory on the losing side of a civil war. After leading “The Ten Thousand” on an arduous march to safety, Xenophon joined up with a Spartan army campaigning in Asia Minor. In this capacity, he ended up fighting against his home city of Athens and was possibly banished as a result. He then moved to an estate near Olympia that was provided to him by the grateful Spartans.

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It was during his exile that Xenophon most likely composed the Cyropaedia, along with a whole host of other works. As a philosopher and historian, Xenophon was well trained. In his youth, he was a student and friend of Socrates, which may have been another reason for his exile. His training and personal experiences made him one of the greatest writers in Antiquity and his work spans multiple genres. His many talents are on full display in the Cyropaedia, a work that also spans multiple genres and defies classification.


Classifying the Work

cyropaedia xenophon book
The Cyropaedia of Xenophon, by Brett Mulligan, 2017, via Haverford Digital Commentary Library


Although the narrative of the Cyropaedia is fairly straightforward, a description of the education of the ideal ruler, it has proven very difficult to classify the work. The Cyropaedia does not fit into any known surviving genre of Classical texts. It has been variously interpreted as a biography, an early novel, a manifesto on leadership, or a philosophical work. Xenophon’s motive in writing the Cyropaedia is unclear, though it appears that he intended the work to provide moral instruction to his audience. In this, its closest literary equivalent would be the Medieval genre “mirrors for princes.” These texts served as a form of textbook for rulers on aspects of good behavior and governance. They were aimed at creating images of rulers for imitation or avoidance.


As a purely historical work, the value of the Cyropaedia is questionable. Most scholars agree that Xenophon did not intend the Cyropaedia as a purely historical work. Xenophon (c.430-354 BCE) and Cyrus the Great (c.600-530 BCE) were not contemporaries, so the work was not based on firsthand knowledge. Some of what is described in the Cyropaedia likely reflected contemporary events and practices of the Achaemenid Persian court in Xenophon’s own time. There are numerous events or individuals described in the Cyropaedia that cannot be corroborated elsewhere, and some of the descriptions have been found to be inaccurate. As a result, the validity of the Cyropaedia as a source for Achaemenid Persian history has been routinely questioned.


The Education of Cyrus

mesopotamian relief depicting two servants and persian guards
Relief depicting two servants with food and drink, Achaemenid c.358-338 BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art; relief depicting a Persian guardsman, Achaemenid c.6th-5th Century BCE, via the British Museum


The Cyropaedia consists of eight chapters or books and an epilogue, which is included in book eight, that was added at a later date. Strictly speaking only, the first book deals with the education of Cyrus the Great. The other books narrate the rest of his life, and the epilogue offers a gloomy assessment of contemporary 4th century Achaemenid Persian society. In the first book, however, Xenophon informs the reader that the Cyropaedia began as a meditation on why some rulers are obeyed willingly, and others are not. He notes that while most humans do not follow their rulers, Cyrus the Great was an exception who inspired obedience in his people.


The rest of the first book describes Cyrus the Great’s lineage and the Persian educational system, at least as Xenophon understood it. Xenophon’s description of pre-imperial Persian society is considered to be unusual by many scholars. It seems to reflect the traditions of Sparta, the Greek city state, with which Xenophon was quite closely associated and whose traditions Xenophon has described in his other work, The Constitution of the Lacedemonians. The first book of the Cyropaedia also describes Cyrus the Great’s time at the court of his maternal grandfather, the Median ruler Astyages.


The Conquests of Cyrus

cylinder seals from oxus treasure
Cylinder Seals from the Oxus Treasure depicting Achaemenid kings, 5th century BCE, via the British Museum


In books two to seven, Cyrus the Great’s life as a Median vassal and his creation of the largest empire the world had ever seen are covered. In this section, the accounts of military matters are interspersed with stories apparently borrowed from eastern narrative traditions. The second book of the Cyropaedia describes Cyrus the Great’s reorganization and reform of the Persian army, which results in a finely tuned military machine. In the third book, Cyrus the Great begins his conquests. The Cyropaedia then describes how Cyrus the Great went on to conquer the Scythians (Medes) and Armenians (Lydians).  The fourth through sixth books focus on Cyrus the Great’s wars with Assyria (Babylon), which culminate in book seven with its final conquest.


The Cyropaedia and Xenophon take great pains to paint Cyrus the Great as an example of classical virtues. He is portrayed as a loyal vassal of the Medes, who acts on their behalf against the more aggressive and assertive Babylonians. However, his methods are best described as Machiavellian. He forms alliances to isolate and surround his enemies both politically and militarily. His final conquest of Babylon is accomplished by diverting a river and then entering the city stealthily during a festival. By the end of these books, Cyrus the Great has created a multinational army and conquered a vast empire.


The Kingship of Cyrus

cyrus tomb photo
Cyrus’ Tomb at Pasargadae, 2004, via the British Museum


The eighth and final book of the Cyropaedia continues the narrative but focuses primarily on Cyrus the Great’s kingship and his ideas on governance. As the loyal and virtuous vassal, he peacefully ascended the throne after his Median uncle died. There is no war or strife. In reality, we know that there was a war between the Persians and Medes early on in Cyrus the Great’s career. However, once the war was over, the actual transfer of power was quite smooth; largely because the Persian and Median royal families were closely related. The eighth book of the Cyropaedia also describes how Cyrus the Great organized the empire into satrapies and his peaceful death in his capital.


This section of the Cyropaedia then goes on into what some scholars refer to as an epilogue. The authorship of this section has been questioned, with some arguing that it was added by a different author at a later date. Here the rapid collapse of Cyrus the Great’s empire after his death is described along with a gloomy assessment of contemporary 4th century Achaemenid Persia. In particular, the author notes the decay of Persian morality since the days of Cyrus the Great. This theoretical inconsistency with the rest of the work, which focuses on describing Cyrus the Great as the ideal ruler, has fueled a great deal of speculation. Its purpose is unclear, but it may have been intended to showcase Cyrus the Great’s strength as a ruler.


Ancient Influence 

marble portrait alexander the great and bust caesar
Marble portrait head of Alexander the Great, Hellenistic 2nd-1st Century BCE, via the British Museum; with marble bust thought to be Julius Caesar, Hellenistic 48-31 BCE, via the British Museum


In Classical Antiquity, the Cyropaedia, and its author Xenophon, were both highly regarded. Many Classical historians and philosophers, such as Polybius and Cicero, considered it a masterpiece. Yet they also debated how to classify the work. Xenophon himself was considered more of a philosopher than a historian. As such, in Antiquity the Cyropaedia was most commonly considered to be a philosophical work. Some believed that it was composed in response to Plato’s Republic or vice versa, as there are parts of The Republic which may reference the Cyropaedia. The Roman educator and orator Quintilian placed Xenophon alongside Plato in his The Orator’s Education partly because of the Cyropaedia.


The Cyropaedia was also popular among the great military leaders of Antiquity as well. Both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar praised the work, and Scipio Aemilianus is said to have carried a copy of it with him at all times. Among the historians of Classical Antiquity, the place and influence of the Cyropaedia are more difficult to determine. Xenophon wrote other, clearly historical works, such as the Hellenica, which were modeled after the work of Thucydides and others. When compared to the Hellenica and other contemporaneous histories, it is clear that Xenophon did not intend the Cyropaedia to be another historical work.


Legacy of the Cyropaedia 

reading of voltaire salon
Reading of Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de Chine in the Salon of Madame de Geoffrin, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier, 1812, via French Ministry of Culture


As with many works from Classical Antiquity, the Cyropaedia was rediscovered by Western Europeans in the Late Medieval period. It widely influenced the “mirrors for princes” genre of Medieval literature, although it was not exactly intended to be one. Several rulers in Late Medieval Italy nonetheless adopted Cyrus the Great as a role model. Machiavelli’s The Prince makes reference to the Cyropaedia though it deals with Cyrus the Great in a more critical manner. The Cyropaedia enjoyed one of perhaps its greatest periods of popularity during The Enlightenment. At that time, it was widely read by the likes of Montaigne, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Bacon, Jonathan Swift, Bolingbroke, Shaftesbury, Edward Gibbon, and Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson is said to have kept two copies in his library, for reading and as a reference for correcting Attic Greek prose.


By the 19th century, there was a marked decline in the Cyropaedia’s popularity because of its pro-monarchial stance. In the 20th and 21st centuries, however, both Xenophon and the Cyropaedia have grown in popularity once again. Among historians, the popularity of the Cyropaedia has been the result of criticisms of Herodotus and his portrayal of Achaemenid Persia. As a result, the Cyropaedia remains a popular and widely read work despite questions about the purpose of the work and its overall reliability. There is still much that Xenophon can teach us about the education of the widely admired Cyrus the Great.

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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.