ca. 428-354 B.C.
The ancient Greek writer Xenophon is known for his works on history, philosophy*, politics, and military matters. In ancient times, he was admired as a philosopher and a military leader. Modern scholars, however, value him primarily for the insights his writings provide into the values and attitudes of upper-class Greek society.
Born into a wealthy family in Athens, Xenophon reached adulthood during the later stages of the Peloponnesian War. As a young man, he met the philosopher Socrates, whose ideas and political beliefs greatly influenced him. After Sparta’s victory over Athens in the Peloponnesian War, Xenophon supported the ruling tyrants, or absolute rulers, who came to power. He later opposed the forces that restored democracy to Athens in 404-403 B.C.
In 401 B.C. Xenophon traveled to Asia to join an army of Greek mercenaries* called the Ten Thousand. This army had been established by the Persian prince Cyrus in an attempt to seize power from his brother, King Artaxerxes. Cyrus was defeated, but Xenophon emerged as a leader of the Ten Thousand. He later recorded his experiences in his book titled the Anabasis. In this work, Xenophon gives an account of Cyrus’s death, describing the many qualities that had made the Persian leader a valiant prince—his generosity to those who served him, his skill in battle and in the hunt, and his stern execution of public justice: He was most unsparing in exacting punishment, and one could often see along the highways men whom he had deprived of their feet and hands and eyes. So that in Cyrus’s province both Greek and barbarian, provided they did no wrong, could journey without fear whenever they wished.
* philosophy study of ideas, including science
* mercenary soldier, usually a foreigner, who fights for payment rather than out of loyalty to a nation
Instead of returning to Athens, Xenophon traveled to Asia Minor, where he served as a mercenary for the Spartans in their war against the Persian Empire. He became a close friend of the Spartan king Agesilaus and returned to Greece with him in 394 B.C. That same year, he fought with the Spartans against Thebes and several other Greek city-states*, including Athens, in the Corinthian War.
Because he had fought on the Spartan side against Athens, Xenophon was exiled by the Athenians. Unable to return to his home, he settled on a country estate near Olympia, a gift from his friend Agesilaus. He lived there until the Spartans were defeated by Thebes in 371 B.C. Forced to leave his estate, he moved to Corinth, where he remained until his death in 354 B.C.
Xenophon wrote extensively during his years in Olympia and Corinth, and all of his known works have survived. As a philosopher, he was not an original thinker like Plato, who was his contemporary. Xenophon is best known for his historical works, including the Anabasis and the Hellenica, which is a history of Greece from 411 B.C. to 362 B.C. The Hellenica begins where the historian Thucydides ended his work. Modern scholars consider Xenophon’s historical writings to be incomplete and somewhat inaccurate. Instead of offering a full, unbiased account of events, the works reflect Xenophon’s own prejudices and feelings about people and places.
Among Xenophon’s other writings are works on soldiering and horsemanship. Close companions to his histories, they emphasize the importance of such personal qualities as discipline and leadership, as well as the virtues of a military life. His work titled On Horsemanship is still considered a valuable resource by modern horse trainers. Another well-known work, Oeconomicus, is a manual of household management.
Xenophon wrote in a clear and direct style. His works underscore his belief in the conservative values of his time, such as order, discipline, regularity, strong leadership, and morality. They present readers with a picture of what Xenophon regarded as the virtuous life. (See also Literature, Greek.)
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory