Xenophon (~444 - ~357)
Life. An Athenian, the son of Gryllus, Xenophon was born about 444
BCE. In his early life he was a pupil of Socrates; but the turning point
in his career came when he decided to serve in the Greek contingent raised by Cyrus
against Artaxerxes in 401. Xenophon himself mentions the circumstances under which he
joined this army (Anab. 3:1). Proxenus, a friend of Xenophon, was already with
Cyrus, and he invited Xenophon to come to Sardis, and promised
to introduce him to the Persian prince. He accompanied Cyrus into Upper Asia. In the
battle of Cunaxa (401 BCE.) Cyrus lost his life, his barbarian troops were dispersed, and
the Greeks were left alone on the wide plains between the Tigris and the Euphrates. It was
after the treacherous massacre of Clearchus and others of the Greek commanders by the
Persian satrap Tissaphernes that Xenophon came forward. He had held no command in the army
of Cyrus, nor had he, in fact, served as a soldier, yet he was elected one of the
generals, and took the principal part in conducting the Greeks in their memorable retreat
along the Tigris over the high table-lands of Armenia to Trapezus (Trebizond, nowadays
Trabzon) on the Black Sea. From Trapezus the troops were conducted to Chrysopolis, which
is opposite to Byzantium. The Greeks were in great distress, and some of them under
Xenophon entered the service of Seuthes, king of Thrace. As the Lacedaemonians under
Thimbrou (or Thibron) were now at war with Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus, Xenophon and his
troops were invited to join the army of Thimbron, and Xenophon led them back out of Asia
to join Thimbron (399). Xenophon, who was very poor, mad an expedition into the plain of
the Caicus with his troops before they joined Thimbrou, to plunder the house and property
of a Persian named Asidates. The Persian, with his women, children, and all his movables,
was seized, and Xenophon, by this robbery, replenished his empty pockets (Anab.
7:8, 23). He tells the story himself, and is evidently not ashamed of it.
In other ways also he showed himself the prototype of an adventurous leader of condottieri,
with no ties of country or preference of nationality. He formed a scheme for establishing
a town with the Ten Thousand on the shores of the Euxine; but it fell through. He joined
the Spartans, as has been seen, and he continued in their service even when they were at
war with Athens. Agesilaus, the Spartan, was commanding the Lacedaemonian forces in Asia
against the Persians in 396, and Xenophon was with him at least during part of the
campaign. When Agesilaus was recalled (394), Xenophon accompanied him, and he was on the
side of the Lacedaemonians in the battle which they fought at Coronea (394) against the
Athenians. As a natural consequence a decree of exile was passed against him at Athens. It
seems that he went to Sparta with Agesilaus after the battle of Coronea, and soon after he
settled at Scillus in Elis, not far from Olympia, a spot of which he has given a
description in the Anabasis. Here he was joined by his wife, Philesia, and his
children. His children were educated in Sparta.
Xenophon was now a Lacedaemonian so far as he could become one. His time during his
long residence at Scillus was employed in hunting, writing, and entertaining his friends;
and perhaps the Anabasis and part of the Hellenica were composed here.
The treatise on hunting and that on the horse were probably also written during this time,
when amusement and exercise of this kind formed part of his occupation. On the downfall of
the Spartan supremacy, at Leuctra in 371, Xenophon was at last expelled from his quite
retreat at Scillus by the Elans, after remaining there about twenty years. The sentence of
banishment from Athens was repealed on the motion of Eubulus, but it is uncertain in what
year. There is no evidence that Xenophon ever returned to Athens. He is said to have
retired to Corinth after his expulsion from Scillus, and as we know nothing more, we
assume that he died there some time around 357.
Writings. The following is a list of Xenophon's works.
- The Anabasis, a history of the expedition of the Younger Cyrus, and of the
retreat of the Greeks who formed part of his army. It is divided into seven books. As
regards the title, it will be noticed that under the name "The March Up" (ana,
i.e., inland from the coast of Cunaxa) is included also the much longer account of the
return march down to the Euxine. This work has immortalized Xenophon. It was the first
work which made the Greeks acquainted with some portions of the Persian Empire, and it
showed the weakness of that extensive monarchy. The skirmishes of the retreating Greeks
with their enemies, and the battles with some of the barbarian tribes, are not such events
as elevate the work to the character of a military history.
- The Hellenica is divided into seven books, and covers the forty-eight years
from the time when the History of Thucydides ends to the battle of Mantinea.
- The Cyropadia, in eight books, is a kind of political romance, the basis of
which is the history of the Elder Cyrus, the founder of the Persian monarchy.
- The Agesilaus is a panegyric on Agesilaus II, king of Sparta, the friend of
- The Hipparchicus is a treatise on the duties of a commander of cavalry,
containing military precepts.
- De Re Equestri is a treatise on the horse; it is not limited to horsemanship,
but also shows how to avoid being cheated in buying a horse, and how to train a horse.
- The Cynegeticus is a treatise on hunting, and on the breading and training of
- The Respublica Lacedaemoniorum is a treatise on the Spartan states, and the
- Atheniensium on the Athenian States.
- The De Vectigalibus, a treatise on the revenues of Athens, is designed to show
how the public revenue of Athens may be improved.
- The Memorabilia of Socrates, in four books, was written by Xenophon to defend
the memory of his master against the charge of irreligion and of corrupting the Athenian
youth. Socrates is represented as holding a series of conversations, in which he develops
and inculcates his moral doctrines. It is entirely a practical work such as we might
expect from the practical nature of Xenophon, and it professes to show Socrates as he
- The Apology of Socrates is a short speech, containing the reasons which induced
Socrates to prefer death to life.
- The Symposium, or Banquet of Philosophers, delineates the character of
Socrates. The speakers are supposed to meet at the house of Callias, a rich Athenian, at
the celebration of the Great Panathenaea. Socrates and others are the speakers. It is
possible that Plato wrote his Symposium later, to some extent as a corrective.
- The Hiero is a dialogue between King Hiero and Simonides, in which the king
speaks of the dangers and difficulties incident to an exalted station, and the superior
happiness of a private man. The poet, on the other hand, enumerates the advantages which
the possession of power gives, and the means which it offers of obliging and doing
- The Oeconomicus ("The Complete Householder") is a treatise in the
form of a dialogue between Socrates and Critobulus, in which Socrates gives instruction in
the administration of a household and property.
Xenophon's Account of Socrates. Four of Xenophon's works listed above
purport to record actual conversations of Socrates, whom he had known as a young man. In
the Anabasis, Xenophon consulted on his decision to join Cyrus. Socrates, advised
him to consult the oracle of Delphi, as it was a hazardous matter for him to enter the
service of Cyrus, who was considered to be the friend of the Lacedaemonians and the enemy
of Athens. Xenophon went to Delphi, but he did not ask the god whether he should go or
not; he probably had made up his mind. He merely inquired to what gods he should sacrifice
so that he might be successful in his intended enterprise. Socrates was not satisfied with
his pupil's mode of consulting the oracle; but as he had got an answer, he told him to go.
He tells us frankly that Socrates rebuked him for this evasion, and that is all we know of
their discussion. If there had been more to tell, Xenophon would have told it, for he was
not averse to talking about himself. At this time Xenophon was under thirty, and Socrates
had passed away before his return from Asia. Several of the Socratic conversations he
records are on subjects we know Xenophon was specially interested in, and the views he
offers in them are just those he elsewhere expresses in his own name or through the mouth
of Cyrus in the Cyropadia. Accordingly, no one appeals to such works as Oeconomicus
for evidence regarding the historical Socrates. His Apology and Symposium
are similarly disregarded as sources of information on Socrates.
Since the eighteenth century, however, it has been customary to make an exception in
favor of a single work, the Memorabilia, composed by the exiled Xenophon with the
professed intention of showing that Socrates was not irreligious, and that, so far from
corrupting the young, he did them a great deal of good by his conversations. It makes
sense that the eighteenth-century should have preferred the Socrates of the Memorabilia
to that of the Platonic dialogues, for he comes nearer to their idea of what a philosopher
ought to be. In other respects it is hard to see what there is to recommend Xenophon. It
is recognized that he is far from being a trustworthy historian, and the Cyropaedia
shows his turn for philosophical romance. It is methodologically unsound to isolate the Memorabilia
from Xenophon's other Socratic writings, unless there are strong reasons to do so. Thus,
since it is impossible to get anything like a complete picture of Socrates from the Memorabilia
alone, Xenophon supporters fill their outline with Plato's account.
Nevertheless, one of the Memorabilia's chief arguments for the soundness of
Socrates' religious attitude is that he refused to busy himself with natural science and
dissuaded others from studying it. What Plato tells us of the disappointment of Socrates
with Anaxagoras, and his renunciation of physical speculations at an early age is enough
to explain Xenophon's contention. Xenophon continues, though, maintaining that Socrates
was not unversed in mathematical and astronomical subjects. Further, he know that what
Aristophanes burlesqued in the Clouds was true, since Xenophon makes Socrates
tell he Sophist Antophon, who was trying to rob him of his disciples, that he dies in fact
study the writings of the older philosophers "unrolling the treasures... which they
have written down in books and left behind them" (Mem 1:6:14). Admissions
like these are more important than the words put into Socrates' mouth denying scientific
study. It would be possible to find other admissions of this sort in Xenophon, but it is
not clear how far the Memorabilia can be regarded as independent testimony at
all. In fact, it is likely that Xenophon relied on Plato's dialogues for his information
about Socrates. Otherwise, it would be significant that he has heard of the importance of hypothesis
in Socrates' dialectic system.
Map of Xenophon's travel
- IEP - The Internet
Encyclopedia of Philosophy