The Temptation of Xenophon

The Anabasis of Cyrus, Book VI. Chapter 1.

“As they were thinking about all this, they began to turn to Xenophon. The captains approached him and said that army was of this judgment, and each showed his goodwill and tried to persuade him to undertake the rule. Now in some ways Xenophon wished for this, for he believed that in this way he would obtain greater honor for himself in the eyes of his friends; his own name would be greater when he should arrive in the city; and perchance he could become the cause of some good to the army.”

Leadership often brings with it opportunity, and by nature, leaders tend to be people who have in their characters, an ample amount of ambition. Most people tend to lose their heads when such opportunities arise and permit their ego satisfaction become a driver of their decision-making process. That stupid but ambitious officers are dangerous is an oft remarked truism, variously attributed to a constellation of German generals and field marshals. Xenophon was anything but stupid. Instead he had an intuitive, statesmanlike, grasp of the larger political realities of the Greek world even as he discerned the temper of the hoplite and peltast soldiers in the army to be one of shortsighted enthusiasm for his leadership that could wane when it created difficulties or danger.

Xenophon’s response to the soldiers also demonstrated the keen calculation of self-interest along with political realism:

“Now such considerations stirred him to desire to become co-ruler with sole command. But when on the other hand, he reflected that it was unclear to every human being how the future would go, and because of this there was danger of throwing away even the reputation he had already earned, he was at a loss.”

Xenophon decided to “consult the gods” in order to end his quandry. The sacrifice ( the reading of the entrails) warned against accepting sole command. To refuse the offer of rule from the predominantly Peloponnesian soldiers, it was certainly convenient for Xenophon to do so from a position of unimpeachably pious ground:

“When it seemed clear that they would elect him if someone would put it to a vote, he stood up and said the following: ” I am pleased, men, since I am a human being, to be honored by you, and I am grateful and pray that the gods grant that I may become the cause of some good to you. However, my being chosen ruler by you, when there is a Lacedaemonian man present, does not seem to me to be advantageous to you, but on account of this you would obtain less, if you should need anything from the Lacedaemonians. And as for me,, in turn, I do not believe this to be very safe at all. For I see that the Lacedaemonians did not cease making war on my fatherland until they made the entire city agree that they were their leaders. When they agreed to this, the Lacedaemonians stopped making war right away and no longer continued to beseige the city. So if I, in spite of having seen all this, should seem – wherever I might have the power to do so – to be undermining their authority of their position, I am concerned that I would quickly be brought to moderation. As for what you have in mind, that there would be less faction when one rules rather than when many do, know well that if you choose someone else, you will not find me being factious. For I believe that whoever is at war and is factious against his ruler, this one is factious against his own safety. But if you elect me me, I would not be amazed if you should find someone being vexed at both you and me.”

Xenophon’s wisdom and oratory carried the day and Cheirisophus was elected ruler of the Ten Thousand in his place. There is much to sift through here.

Xenophon was a relatively young aristocrat who struck out for the East, for greener pastures because any ambitions were likely to be thwarted at home. Athens was a broken empire,just defeated at the hands of Sparta in classical antiquity’s equivalent to WWI. The opportunities for service abroad in the name of Athens were nonexistent. Chances for leadership within the city itself were likewise grim. Xenophon came from a notorious circle in Athens, the followers of Socrates, who were in disfavor with the ruling democrats, being suspected of “factious” inclinations and oligarchical sympathies. Two of their number, Alcibiades and Critias were reckoned as infamous traitors and usurpers. Furthermore, Socrates’ continued lack of participation in the Assembly and the private symposia held by his aristocratic students, appeared to indicate a latent political opposition to Athenian democracy itself.

The reputation that Xenophon returned to Athens with could have very serious consequences for him and this uncertainty tempers his ambition. Xenophon does not take command of the army nor does he found any city in his own name, as his critics charged he intended to do. This passage can be read as more than political advice to rough and ready soldiery; it’s an assurance to Athenian democrats that Xenophon, now a proven leader, eschews factionalism and conspiracy. That he is, unlike Alcibiades or Critias, the master of his ambition, rather than being mastered by it, a cautious and loyal man who seeks the common good. Wayne Ambler, the translator of our edition, remarks in the Historical Note section that it was “…the unsettled politics of Athens, especially for a student of Socrates, may have influenced Xenophon’s decision to accept Proxenus’ suggestion that he get to know Cyrus”.

With that hope having come to grief, Xenophon had to make his peace with Athens.

5 thoughts on “The Temptation of Xenophon”

  1. Good post. The Anabasis really calls for this kind of close analysis, particularly the speeches. Xenophon — in his own self-depiction — exemplifies many virtues. Here he is manifesting prudence, or phronesis.

  2. Well Done!

    Just as Joseph’s previous post was the dessert, yours is like the fine glass of brandy to be savored as we reflect on Xenophon and the learning moments that appear on almost every page of The Anabasis.

  3. Much thanks gents! Nice metaphor HG99!

    I think there’s a strong “polis and politics” theme running through the roundtable, perhaps a degree of consensus which Joseph Fouche epitomized/expanded on in his last post.

    As I was reading The Anabasis, I kept think how the enormity of the Peloponnesian War had to be hanging over every Greek at the time. Sparta was victorious, jealous and hegemonic but, like France in the 1920’s, a tired and spent arbiter. Athens was prostrate and defeated societies are usually angry societies with a dangerous politics. Weimar Germany. Reconstruction South. Post-Communist Russia. In the political atmosphere that must have prevailed in Athens at the end of the 4th century, Xenophon was a figure who could be ripe for scapegoating, ostracism or worse if he played his cards poorly while trying to be a young man on the make.

    Leaving Athens probably did not seem like a bad idea in terms of security at worst and a chance at glory at best. Once the problem of being able to get home alive was solved, Xenophon was stuck with “get home noblely”, which was a much trickier proposition. The Greeks held their generals accountable like no others, not even the republican Romans and the opportunities for gossips and slanderers to cause injury were many ( which Xenophon narrowly escaped). Authority was a two-edged sword that could cut that hand that wielded it. As with memoirs today, I have to think that Xenophon was weighing every word with extreme care.

  4. Nice post Zen-

    “the master of his ambition, rather than being mastered by it, a cautious and loyal man who seeks the common good” . . .

    Yes agree. I would only add that Xenophon is also one who has proven himself under pressure, shown that he can harness his fear (that is turn it to a positive end), avoid panic, and bring about a successful result.

  5. Hi Seydlitz89,

    Thank you. Agreed. Xenophon had an adaptive mindset and a “coolness under fire” or the ancient equivalent thereof. In many of the passages Xenophon outlined the options the army faced in dialogue which may have been more a literary device for the benefit of the reader in places than a close paraphrasing of a discussion.

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