The Cyropaedia (or Cyropedia) is a partly fictional biography of Cyrus the Great, written in the early 4th century BC by the Athenian gentleman-soldier, and student of Socrates, Xenophon of Athens. The Latinized title Cyropaedia derives from Greek Kúrou paideía (Κύρου παιδεία), meaning "The Education of Cyrus". Aspects of it would become a model for medieval writers of the genre known as mirrors for princes. In turn it was a strong influence upon the most well-known but atypical of these, Machiavelli's The Prince, which was an important influence in the rejection of medieval political thinking, and the development of modern politics. However, unlike most "mirrors of princes", and like The Prince, whether or not the Cyropaedia was really intended to describe an ideal ruler is a subject of debate.
In substance, the Cyropaedia is "a political romance, describing the education of the ideal ruler, trained to rule as a benevolent despot over his admiring and willing subjects."
Although it is "generally agreed" that Xenophon "did not intend Cyropaedia as history", it remains unclear whether this work was intended to fit into any other classical genre known before. Its validity as a source of Achaemenid history has been repeatedly questioned, and numerous descriptions of events or persons have been determined to be in error. But it is not clear that the work was intended to be used this way.
Despite such doubts, it has been argued that Xenophon's Cyropaedia offers a glimpse of the character of Cyrus the Great of Achaemenid Persia. The source gives "an artist's portrait" of Cyrus as "the Ideal Ruler and the best form of Government", a description that "could not have been painted had there not been a credible memory of such a Cyrus". Xenophon (c. 431 – 355 BC) was not a contemporary of Cyrus (c. 580 – 530 BC) and it is likely that at least some of the information about Persia was based on events that occurred at the later Achaemenid court. Xenophon had been in Persia himself, as part of the "Ten Thousand" Greek soldiers who fought on the losing side in a Persian civil war, events which he recounted in his Anabasis. It is also possible that stories of the great King were recounted (and embellished) by court society and that these are the basis of Xenophon's text.
The book opens with the author stating that the work started as a reflection about what it is that makes people willingly obey some rulers and not others. Everywhere, the author observes, humans fail to obey their rulers; the one exception is Cyrus, king of the Persians, "who reduced to obedience a vast number of men and cities and nations". There then follows a list of the king's conquests, and the author seeks to understand why his subjects obeyed him "willingly". The work narrates the king's entire life, and so only the first of the 8 books concerns the "education of Cyrus" (cyropaedia) strictly speaking. This first book is devoted to Cyrus' descent, education and his stay at the court of his maternal grandfather, the Median dynast Astyages. It has been noted by scholars that Xenophon's description of Persian education in their pre-imperial time is strikingly unusual, and appears to be based upon the traditions of Sparta, the subject of Xenophon's own work the Constitution of the Lacedemonians.
Books 2 through 7 cover Cyrus' life while still an important vassal of the Medes, on his career towards establishing the largest empire the world had known until that date. It is in this main part of the work that the character Cyrus is often shown as an example of classical virtue, but is also at the same time often seen as showing Machiavellian tendencies. In this version of events, Cyrus is a faithful vassal to the Medes, someone who initially helps them as a general to defend themselves from a much more powerful and assertive Babylonian empire, which was being ruled by the tyrannical son of a more respected king. He does this partly by carefully building up alliances with nations such as the Armenians, their neighbours whom he referred to as Chaldeans, Hyrcanians, Cadusians, Saka, and Susians. The remaining allies of Babylon included many nations of Asia Minor, as well as a corps of Egyptian infantry. For their final great field battle, Croesus of Lydia was general. Cyrus then returns with an increasingly international army to Babylon, and is able to avoid a long siege by deflecting the course of the river through it, and then sending soldiers in over the dry bed, during a festival night. That Babylon was conquered on the night of a festival by diverting the Euphrates River from its channel is also stated by Herodotus (1.191). Additionally, it may be inferred from the Biblical book of Daniel, where it is related (chapter 5) that Belshazzar was slain on the night of his famous banquet, implying some sort of surprise attack rather than a breaching of Babylon's massive walls. That the king of Babylon was slain the night the city was taken is also related in the Cyropaedia. This detail is missing in Herodotus.
Book 8 is a sketch of Cyrus' kingship and his views of monarchy. This last book of the work also describes the rapid collapse of the empire of Cyrus after he died. It has sometimes been argued to be by another later author, or alternatively to be either a sign of Xenophon's theoretical inconsistency concerning his conception of an ideal ruler, or a sign that Xenophon did not mean to describe an ideal ruler in any simple way.
Other related characters, of questionable historical truth, appear in the narrative as well. For example, the romance of Abradatas and Pantheia forms a part of the latter half of the narrative (v.1.3, vi.1.31ff, vi.4.2ff, vii.3.2ff).
Credibility of the Cyropaedia’s Account of Cyrus’s Rise to Power
Modern commentators generally recognize that the Cyropaedia had as its primary intent the portrayal of an ideal king, and historical veracity was secondary to this objective. Furthermore, all knowledgeable ancient readers would have agreed with modern critics that the frequent digressions on philosophical and political topics reflected the views of Xenophon rather than necessarily the views of Cyrus. Ancient readers were also familiar with the device of an author inventing a speech to put into the mouth of his hero (or his hero’s adversary). When it came to such events as the speech of a king to his troops before a battle, the reader expected that this gave the author a chance to prove his own eloquence. Such literary conventions were well understood in the ancient world.
Recognizing this, however, there remains the question of whether the basic historical events related in the Cyropaedia provided a suitable framework for Xenophon’s philosophical and political ends, so that he could relate these events as they actually happened (at least insofar as his sources were accurate), without having to distort the sequence of events to accommodate his philosophical and political objectives. For modern historians, then, the task is to separate the basic outline of the rise of the Persian Empire given in the Cyropaedia from those portions that are clearly unhistorical, and then determine if that basic outline is credible. The consensus view is that it is not. Credibility is given instead to Herodotus’s account of the rise of the Persian Empire, while accepting that Herodotus’s tale of the birth and early upbringing of Cyrus is clearly fabulous and unhistorical.
In the Cyropaedia, Astyages, king of Media, died and was succeeded by his son Cyaxares (Cyropaedia 1.5.2), who was the maternal uncle of of Cyrus. The father of Astyages was also named Cyaxares, and so this Cyaxares is called Cyaxares II by modern writers. It was not unusual at that time, and even customary, to give a son the same name as his grandfather. The grandfather of Cyrus the Great was also named Cyrus. The father of Cyrus the Great was Cambyses I, and Cyrus gave his son, Cambyses II, the same name. Darius (I) Hystaspes had a grandson named Darius who was heir apparent but was killed before he could become king. Herodotus and Xenophon agree that Cyrus was the grandson of Astyages through Mandane, daughter of Astyages, although Herodotus makes no mention of, nor has any room for, Cyaxares II, saying instead that Astyages had no male heir (Histories 1.109).
According to both Herodotus and Xenophon, the Persians were initially subordinate to the Medes. The Cyropaedia relates that after the death of Astyages, Cyaxares II ruled over Media while Cyrus ruled over the confederate kingdom of Persia, with his capital at Anshan. Xenophon says that Astyages died before Cyrus began his campaign against Croesus the Lydian and his Babylonian and other allies, so that Cyaxares (II) was the commander of the Median forces during the campaign while Cyrus led the Persians. After the initial defeat of the Lydian and Babylonian forces, Cyaxares chose to stay in Media and enjoy the fruits of victory, while Cyrus was eager to gather strength and eventually take the Lydian and Babylonian capitals. The Median army sided with Cyrus; Cyaxares retired to Ectabana while Cyrus led the combined armies first against Lydia, capturing their capital and Croesus, and then against Babylon.
Herodotus, in contrast, says that Cyrus had led a successful rebellion against Astyages prior to the war with Croesus, and therefore was the king of both Media and Persia when the war took place, and that Cyrus had allowed Astyages to return to his court, where he lived peaceably until his death some years later. This is the scenario almost universally accepted by modern scholarship. However, a few voices, such as those of Steven Hirsch, also Steven Anderson, argue that the basic historical events of the Cyropaedia are more credible than the events described in Herodotus’s Histories. Those who favor Xenophon over Herodotus refer to following considerations:
- Herodotus incorrectly relates there was only one king of Babylon at the time that it fell to Cyrus. He calls this king Labynetus, apparently his version of Nabonidus. Xenophon, without giving the names, correctly states there were two Babylonian kings (Cyropaedia 4.6.3), a father and a son, and it was the son who was in the city when it was captured.
- Both Herotodus and Xenophon relate how the forces of Cyrus took the city by the stratagem of diverting the Euphrates River that flowed through the city, and both agree that Babylon was observing a festival on the night the city was taken. Xenophon, however, adds a detail that is not found in Herodotus: that the king reigning there was slain the night the city was taken, a statement that is corroborated by Daniel 5:31.
- Xenophon has an extensive history of Ugbaru/Gubaru (Greek Gobyras), governor of Gutium and leader of Cyrus’s forces in the capture of Babylon. Ugbaru is also known from the Cyrus Cylinder. Herodotus never mentions this name, a curious deficiency given the importance of Ugbaru in the capture of the city and prior events.
- Xenophon states that Cyrus was the son of a Persian king (1.2.1). As an important part of Herodotus’s tale of the upbringing of Cyrus, he states that although Cyrus’s mother Mandane was the daughter of Astyages, Astyages gave Mandane in marriage to someone not of “suitable rank” so that any son born to Mandane could not claim a royal heritage (1.107). In this important matter the Cyrus Cylinder agrees with Xenophon against Herodotus. In the Cylinder, Cyrus states that he is “son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, of a family (which) always (exercised) kingship”.
- The Harran Stele is a document from the court of Nabonidus that gives events in his various regnal years. In the entry for his year 14 or 15, corresponding to 542-540 BC, Nabonidus speaks of his enemies as the kings of Egypt, the Medes, and the Arabs. The Cyropaedia presents the king of Media as the senior partner and Cyrus as king of Persia as the junior or lesser partner until after the conquest of Babylon. This fits with Nabonidus mentioning the king of Media as his enemy, without mentioning his subordinate, whom the Cyropaedia supplies as Cyrus, king of Persia. According to Herodotus and the current consensus, there was no independent Median kingdom at this time, Cyrus having conquered the Medes many years previously. C. J. Gadd, following the consensus view, stated that the Harran Stele provides an example of the title “king of the Medes” being applied to Cyrus, without his being named. But in all other cuneiform inscriptions from the time of Cyrus, every reference to him before the capture of Babylon designates him as either “King of Anshan” or “King of Persia,” never “king of the Medes”. The relevant texts are The Verse Account of Nabonidus, The Cyrus Cylinder, and the Nabonidus Chronicle. If these texts are read without a priori assumptions, the natural understanding would be that the king of the Medes mentioned in the Harran Stele is not Cyrus, king of Persia.
Thus in several matters of historical detail in which it is possible to check the validity of their contrasting accounts, the Cyropaedia gives a more credible narrative than does the Histories of Herodotus. This, of course, does not mean that the many aspects of the Cyropaedia such as the speeches of Cyrus, the details of Persian policy regarding the upbringing of children, or the philosophical and political excursuses should be accepted as things that actually transpired in the life of Cyrus. It does imply, however, that the basic framework of historical events related regarding the rise of the Persian Empire given in the Cyropaedia has much to recommend it, as compared to the consensus view that favors Herodotus.
In classical antiquity, the Cyropaedia was considered the masterpiece of a very widely respected and studied author. Polybius, Cicero, Tacitus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Quintilian, Aulus Gellius and Longinus "ranked him among the best philosophers and historians". Classical authors believed that Xenophon composed it in response to the Republic of Plato, or vice versa, and Plato's Laws seems to allude to the Cyropaedia. Amongst classical leaders, Scipio Aemilianus is said to have carried a copy with him at all times, and it was also a favourite of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.
The Cyropaedia was rediscovered in Western Europe during the late medieval period as a practical treatise on political virtue and social organization. It became an important influence upon the late medieval and Renaissance genre known as "mirrors of princes", which attempted to give examples of behavior in order to educate young future rulers. Giovanni Pontano, Bartolomeo Sacchi, Leon Battista Alberti and Baldassare Castiglione all treated Cyrus as an example of virtue.
The work continued to be widely read and respected in the early modern period and during the Enlightenment. Machiavelli's The Prince, which represented a turning point towards modern political thinking, uses the mirror genre as a model, is particularly heavily influenced by the Cyropaedia, and represented a more sophisticated reading of Xenophon, apparently more critical of the idealistic approach on the surface of Xenophon's depiction, while also reading Xenophon to be giving other more important messages about Cyrus's use of deceit, and the danger of such men to republics. Christopher Nadon, currently considered the foremost authority on Xenophon, describes Machiavelli as "Xenophon's best-known and most devoted reader". According to Leo Strauss, Machiavelli refers to Xenophon more than the better known authors Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero put together. Gilbert (1938, p. 236) wrote: "The Cyrus of Xenophon was a hero to many a literary man of the sixteenth century, but for Machiavelli he lived".
Among early modern writers after Machiavelli, Montaigne, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Bacon, Jonathan Swift, Bolingbroke, Shaftesbury, Edward Gibbon, and Benjamin Franklin "all concurred with the classical view" of Xenophon's merits as a philosopher and historian. John Milton called his works divine, and the equal of Plato. Edmund Spenser in his preface to The Faerie Queene said that "Xenophon's Cyropaedia is to be preferred to Plato.[n 1] Among military leaders, Gustavus Adolphus and James Wolfe were influenced by this work.
The work was also frequently taken as a model for correct prose style in classical Attic Greek, mastery of which was part of the cultivation of learning and refinement among gentlemen in eighteenth century Europe and America. For example, Thomas Jefferson had two personal copies of the book in his library, possibly for this reason. In modern times, its reputation has declined, together with the study of the classics; it has been described as "surely one of the most tedious books to have survived from the ancient world," a view countered by others, such as Potter, who found it "written in the most captivating, simple and elegant style imaginable."
In the nineteenth century, Xenophon and the Cyropaedia began to be seen as inferior to comparable classical authors and works, and not deserving of the older reputation. This was at least partly because works such as the Cyropaedia discuss historical subjects but disagree with the consensus view of the rise of the Persian Empire as described in Herodotus. But see the discussion above where more recent research has shown that, in several areas that can be checked by independent means, the Cyropaedia gives a more accurate version of events in the early Persian Empire than does the Histories of Herodotus. Hirsch concludes, “As a result, the Cyropaedia contains a greater quantity of valuable information about Persian history, culture and institutions than is generally recognized, and even where one is inclined to doubt the historicity of a given event, it should be conceded that Xenophon may have preserved an authentic Greek or barbarian tradition—however false or distorted—about Persian history.”
- The original reads: "For this cause is Xenophon preferred before Plato, for that the one, in the exquisite depth of his judgement, formed a Commune welth, such as it should be; but the other in the person of Cyrus, and the Persians, fashioned a government, such as might best be: So much more profitable and gratious is doctrine by example, then by rule."
- Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Heleen (1993), "Cyropaedia", Encyclopaedia Iranica 6.5, Costa Mesa: Mazda
- Xenophon (1914), Miller, Walter, ed., Cyropaedia: The Education of Cyrus, London: William Heinemann Ltd.
- Nadon, Christopher (2001), Xenophon's Prince: Republic and Empire in the Cyropaedia, Berkeley: UC Press, ISBN 0-520-22404-3
- Mallowan, Max (1985), "Cyrus the Great", in Ilya Gershevitch, William Bayne Fisher, J. A. Boyle, The Cambridge History of Iran 2, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-20091-1 p. 417.
- Smith, William (1867), "Abradatas", in Smith, William, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology 1, p. 3
- Steve W. Hirsch, The Friendship of the Barbarians: Xenophon and the Persian Empire (Hanover NH: University Press of New England, 1985.
- Steven W. Hirsch, “1000 Iranian Nights: History and Fiction in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia”, in The Greek Historians: Literature and History: Papers Presented to A. E. Raubitschek (Saratoga, CA: ANMA Libra, 1985), pp. 65-85.
- Steven D. Anderson, Darius the Mede: A Reappraisal (Grand Rapids: Amazon/CreateSpace, 2014).
- Steven D. Anderson, Darius the Mede: A Reappraisal (original PhD thesis)
- James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 316.
- Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts pp. 562-63.
- Paul-Alain Beaulieu, The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon 556-539 B.C. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996). p. 32.
- C. J. Gadd, “The Harran Inscriptions of Nabonidus,” Anatolian Studies VIII (1958), p. 77.
- Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 312-15.
- Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 315-16.
- Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 305-7.
- Nadon (2001, p. 4)
- Nadon (2001, p. 3)
- Diogenes Laertius (3.34)
- Cawkwell, George (1972), The Persian Expedition (introduction), Penguin Classics
- Nadon (2001, p. 6)
- Nadon (2001, p. 13)
- Gilbert, Allan (1938), Machiavelli's Prince and Its Forerunners, Duke University Press p.12
- Nadon (2001, pp. 6–7)
- Nadon (2001, pp. 13–25)
- Strauss, Leo (1958), Thoughts on Machiavelli, University of Chicago Press p.291
- Rezakhani, Khodadad (2013). "Cyrus: the Tale of a Cylinder". Iran Opinion, May 2013. 
- John Potter, Archaeologia Graeca, or The Antiquities of Greece, Vol. II, p. 101 
- Hirsch, “1001 Iranian Nights” pp. 83-4.
- Xenophon (2012), Cyrus' Paradise: The World's First Online Collaborative Commentary to an Ancient Text, Washington
- Xenophon (1997), Miller, Walter, trans., ed., Cyropaedia, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-674-99057-9, ISBN 0-674-99057-9 (books 1-5) and ISBN 978-0-674-99058-6, ISBN 0-674-99058-7 (books 5-8)
- Xenophon (2001), Ambler, Wayne, trans., ed., The Education of Cyrus, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-8750-1
- Xenophon (1914), Dakyns, Henry Graham, trans., Stawell, F. M., ed., Cyropaedia: The Education of Cyrus, London: Macmillan [Project Gutenberg]
- Xenophon (1914), Miller, Walter, ed., Cyropaedia: The Education of Cyrus, London and Cambridge, MA: William Heinemann Ltd. and Harvard University Press [Perseus/Tufts University]