Xenophon Roundtable: The Art of Leadership

Prior to the roundtable, Dave Schuler a friend an astute blogger, asked if it mattered to me if Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus turned out to be a work of fiction? I thought for a moment and replied that if The Anabasis is a work of fiction, by Xenophon or attributed to him by some later writer, it is a very durable work of fiction because the lessons of the story have a timeless quality. One of the lessons of The Anabasis of Cyrus is on the art of leadership.

Throughout the text Xenophon gives contrasting examples of leadership in the narrative, and as with Cyrus and Clearchus, his explicit commentary. Xenophon’s conception of leadership goes beyond that of command and embraces political acumen, foresight and the moral example provided by Greek and Persian rulers ( used here in the same sense as Ambler’s translation, of anyone holding authority over others). In this conception of leadership, I think the teachings of Socrates lies heavily on Xenophon and the passages about Xenophon pressing forward to go East with Proxenus were included mainly to assert the independence of his judgment to his fellow Athenians.

How did Xenophon present the notable “rulers” in The Anabasis? A few examples:

Clearchus the Spartan
: Clearchus is presented by Xenophon as a competent and fearless commander but one lacking in wisdom, deeply flawed by a character that was given over to wrath. Xenophon, who was an admirer of Spartan military prowess, nevertheless portrays Clearchus as a martinet and something of a fool:

“Clearchus, was agreed by all those who had experience of him, to have seemed to be a man who was both war-like and war-loving to an extreme….When it is possible to be at peace without shame or harm, he chooses to make war; when it is possible for him to turn to an easygoing life, he wishes to do hard labor, so long as it be in making war….
….He was also said to be fit to rule, as far as this is possible with a character such as he had. For he was competent as any other in thinking out how his army might have provisions and in providing them; and he was competent also to impress it upon those who were with him that he, Clearchus, had to be obeyed. This he used to do by being severe. For he was stern to behold and harsh in his voice; and he always punished with severity, sometimes in anger, so that there were times when even he regretted it.
….Amid dangers, therefore, his soldiers were exceedingly willing to listen to him, and they would choose no other. For they said that his sternness….and severity seemed to be a strength against the enemy, so that it seemed to betoken safety and be severity no longer. But when they were out of danger and it was possible to go away and be ruled by others, many would leave him; for he had no charm but was always severe and fierce. The soldiers consequently were disposed toward him as boys toward a teacher.”

Xenophon’s assessment comes after Clearchus is beheaded by the Great King, having been betrayed by the treacherous Tissaphernes, to whom Clearchus stubbornly went under truce and unarmed, against all advice. Hotheaded and suspicious, he provokes a brawl with the soldiers of Menon, fear of whose intrigues causes Clearchus to trust his enemy, Tissaphernes, more than his fellow Greeks. Clearchus, despite his physical bravery and military skill lacks both the judgment and justice required of a true leader.

Cyrus: Xenophon lavishes extensive praise on Cyrus, more so than on any other figure in the book. To some extent this is an apologia for a deceased man in whose cause the Ten Thousand marched, justifying their expedition to posterity. What Xenophon stressed foremost, was not the generalship of Cyrus –perhaps understandably – but his propensity as a ruler for generosity, mercy and justice. Qualities necessary for a legitimate basileus and that contrast handsomely with those of his brother the Great King, whom Cyrus sought to depose:

“Thus did Cyrus end his life, a man who, of all the Persians born since Cyrus the Elder, was both most kingly and most worthy to rule, as agreed by all those reputed to have had direct experience of Cyrus.
….if he made a treaty with someone, if he made an agreement with someone, or if he promised something to someone – not to be false in any respect. And therefore the cities that turned to him, trusted him, and men trusted him. When Cyrus made a treaty, even if someone was an enemy, he trusted that he would not suffer anything contrary to the treaty. Accordingly, when he made war against Tissaphernes, all the cities voluntarily chose Cyrus instead of Tissaphernes, except the Milesians…
….Nor yet could anyone say that he allowed malefactors and the unjust to laugh, but punished them most unspariungly of all….Consequently, it became possible in Cyrus’ realm for both Greek and Barbarian, if he did no injustice, to travel without fear wherever he might wish, while having with him whatever suited him”

Cyrus looks particularly good next to his enemy Tissaphernes, an intriguing betrayer without honor, and the Great King, who appears both vindictive and rather cowardly in facing the Ten Thousand with vastly superior forces. What goes unremarked by Xenophon, was how colossal a failure of military-political judgment it was that led Cyrus to challenge his brother with greatly inferior forces and then, with battle engaged, to be unable to prevent his own Persians from breaking while the Ten Thousand advanced. Cyrus, who brought his Greek mercenaries to war initially under false pretenses, could not deliver as a warlord and paid the ultimate price. A ruler must be able at war before he can demonstrate his mastery in peace and Cyrus was not able, Xenophon’s praise notwithstanding.

The other rulers, Menon etc. look worse in their short descriptions than did Clearchus.

Xenophon, though he does not stoop often to openly praise himself, demonstrates the fusion of martial abilities, judgment, justice, foresight and moral example as The Anabasis unfolds. One could say that Xenophon’s leadership exemplifies a Socratic balance – and in case we missed that point, “Theopompus” (i.e. Xenophon) is compared to a philosopher in an exchange by a Greek herald of the enemy.

Of course, Xenophon is our reporter. He has the luxury of writing the history and neither Clearchus nor Tissaphernes, who ultimately came to a very bad end, are there to dispute his account. That said, fact or fiction or self-promoting “spin”, Xenophon is using the story of the Ten Thousand to present a political subtext on leadership that is at odds with that of the ruling democratic faction of his day in Athens.

Perhaps that was always his motive.

3 thoughts on “Xenophon Roundtable: The Art of Leadership”

  1. Critics of Xenophon (mostly historians) have always called him a first rate General but a second-rate historian. In this I feel they miss the point. Xenophon’s strength to me was that he was overtly, consciously very much a philosopher, and therefore infused/drenched his writings with a moral tone utterly alien to modern historians. Hence their mild disdain for him as a dispassionate “factual” recorder of events true to the record is to my mind misplaced insofar as they fail to see that he was not just recording for posterity, but “teaching/preaching” the moral as well as practical conclusions that one should draw from events–an approach to history rejected in the main by modern academics.

    Such a divergence in viewpoints as between the man and his critics seem to me to be because he was also a man of action and a political figure in his own right with personal axes to grind (both philosophical and political) with contemporary rivals and not just a fly on the wall recorder of events. This reality taints him for some and makes him suspect as to his objectivity, but all is a double-edged sword, and what may be lost somewhat in that area is more than made up for by his integrated over-arching philosophical approach to the life and times he experienced. Let modern historians nit-pick.

  2. Seeing “Anabasis” in the post so much, I had to relay the following I found funny…forgive the offtopic nature. I just started reading “The Good Soldier Švejk” by Jaroslav Hašek and in with the maps is one titled “Švejk’s Anabasis,” a graphical representation of what should have been an easy, direct trek but ended up being a rambling event-filled shamble. The irony drips from even the maps.

  3. “….a second-rate historian. In this I feel they miss the point.”

    Indeed Virgil X; I am always astounded that we essentially have a complete, extensive memoir from a prominent, intelligent historical figure (comparable perhaps to an Eisenhower or Patton of the 20th century) from 362 BC! We have an embedded reporter of sorts from a military force of 20 centuries ago speaking to us.

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