(Gr. Kúrou paideía, The educa­tion of Cyrus), a partly fictional biography of Cyrus the Great (559-29 b.c.e.), founder of the Achaemenid empire.


CYROPAEDIA (Gr. Kúrou paideía, The educa­tion of Cyrus), a partly fictional biography of Cyrus the Great (559-29 b.c.e.), founder of the Achaemenid empire. It is the longest work written by the Athenian gentleman, soldier, and writer Xenophon (b. ca. 430­-25 b.c.e., d. after 356), who served in the expedition of Cyrus the Younger against his brother Artaxerxes II (405-359 b.c.e.) in 401. The title is strictly applicable only to the first of the eight books into which the work is divided. In that book Cyrus’ descent, the Persian educational system, and his stay at the court of his maternal grandfather, the Median king Astyages, are sketched.

Six of the remaining books are devoted to Cyrus’ conquests and his organization of the empire while still technically a vassal of the Median king. In book 2 Cyrus’ reorganization of his army is described, in book 3 the conquest of Armenia and Scythia, and in books 4­-6 the wars against Assyria. These accounts of military matters are enlivened by stories apparently borrowed from eastern narrative traditions, for example, the story of Gobryas and his feud with the Assyrian king (4.6.2-7) and the famous romance of Panthea and Abradatas (4.6.11, 5.1.1-18, 6.1.31-50, 6.4.2-11, 7.3.2-­15). In book 7 the final battle against “Assyria” (7.1), the capture of Sardis (7.2-4.14), and the conquest of Babylon through a diversion of the Euphrates (7.5.7­--17) are related.

Book 8 contains accounts of Cyrus’ kingship and his ideas on monarchy (8.1-2) a ceremonial procession and sacrifices at Babylon (8.3-4), his return to Persia after succeeding his Median uncle on the throne sup­posedly without strife (8.5.17-20), the establishment of satrapies (8.6), and his death (8.7). All manuscripts and modern editions of the text conclude with an epilogue containing a gloomy assessment of contemporary (i.e., 4th-century) Persia and the decay of mo­rality since the days of Cyrus (8.8). Although most modern students agree on the date of this epilogue, opinions on who wrote it vary; Steven Hirsch has recently summarized the discussion and has argued (against Delebecque, pp. 405-08, and Breitenbach, cols. 1741-42) that the last chapter is probably not by Xenophon himself. Bodil Due (pp. 16-22), however, considers it part of the original structure of the text, rather than a postscript by another author or an after­thought by Xenophon himself.

Although doubts were already raised in antiquity about the historical validity of Xenophon’s portrait of Cyrus (cf. Cicero, Epistulae ad Quintum Fratrem 1.1.23), the Cyropaedia has been widely read by sol­diers, politicians, and teachers, as well as by the educated general public (cf. Münscher). Alexander the Great, Scipio Africanus, Augustus Caesar, Niccolò Machiavelli, Roger Ascham (tutor to Elisabeth I of England), and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet were all fa­miliar with it. Because of Xenophon’s portrayal of Cyrus as a benevolent monarch, ruling through persua­sion, rather than by force, the work has contributed to the reputation of the founder of the Persian empire as a righteous and tolerant king. It has thus indirectly helped to create the traditional picture of Achaemenid Persia as a healthy and vigorous state in its initial period and as rapidly decaying into tyranny in the second half of the 5th century b.c.e. It is paradoxical that, despite disbelief in its historical reliability, the Cyropaedia has profoundly affected modern histori­ography on the Achaemenid empire.

It is generally agreed that Xenophon did not intend Cyropaedia as history (cf. tr. Bizos, p. vi). From that point on opinions again diverge. The work has been considered a historical novel, a romantic history, a didactic treatise, and an educational novel. It is in fact impossible to ascribe the Cyropaedia to a specific Greek literary genre; it may have been unique of its kind. Xenophon was possibly following or drawing upon an earlier treatise by the 4th-century author Antisthenes on the life of Cyrus.

Whether or not the Cyropaedia is of use as a source for Persian history is still being debated. Classical scholars point out that a number of the so-called “facts” included in it are in error. For example, the Median empire is said to have been led by a weak king and to have come to a peaceful end when Cyrus married the daughter of Cyaxares (8.5.28; cf. Breitenbach, col. 1709), yet a son of Astyages named Cyaxares, who succeeded his father as king of Media, is otherwise unknown. According to Babylonian sources (Nabonidus Chronicle I, pp. 24-32; inscription on the Cyrus cylinder, v. 13; see cyrus iv) and to Herodotus (1.127, 1.130), Cyrus overthrew the last king of the Medes, Astyages, in battle; Herodotus mentioned (1.76, 1.79-80) two battles between Cyrus and Croesus, whereas in the Cyropaedia only one, resulting in the conquest of Lydia, was reported (7.1, 7.2,2). The name of Cyrus’ second son, known from an inscription (DB I 30-31; Kent, Old Persian, pp. 117, 119) and from Herodotus (3.30) as Bardiya (Gr. Smerdis) was given by Xenophon as Tanaoxares (8.7.5; cf. Ctesias’ Tanyoxarkes, Jacoby, Fragmente no. 688 fr. 9.8); Xenophon’s list of satrapies (8.6.7) has very few similarities with Herodotus’ de­scription (3.89-97) or the lists of countries provided in the Old Persian inscriptions (DB I 12-17; DPe 5-18; DNa 15-30; XPh 13-28; Kent, Old Persian, pp. 117, 119, 136, 137-38, 151). Egypt was conquered not by Cyrus (pace Cyropaedia 8.6.20) but by his son and successor, Cambyses (529-22 b.c.e.), in 525. Many of the Persian names in the Cyropaedia are otherwise known only from the 4th century, if at all, or are even obvious fabrications by Xenophon (e.g., Alkeunas, Aglaitadas; for a discussion of the authenticity of such names, cf. Breitenbach, cols. 1712-14). Contrary to Herodotus’ report that Cyrus died in battle (1.214; cf. Ctesias, Jacoby, Fragmente no. 688 fr. 9.7), Xenophon described his dying at home, apparently of old age (8.7.1-28). This list of historical “errors” is scarcely counterbalanced by Xenophon’s better information on the identity of Cyrus’ father (in agreement with the Cyrus cylinder), the Persian king Cambyses (cf. Herodotus, 1.107: an ordinary Persian; Ctesias, apud Nicolaus Damascenus, Jacoby, Fragmente no. 90 fr. 66.3: a man of low birth married to a goatherd and driven by poverty to robbery). Furthermore, Xenophon, who had been a pupil of Socrates in his youth, drew a portrait of Cyrus that includes a number of typical Socratic features (cf. the portrait of Socrates presented in the guise of the tutor to the Armenian prince; 3.1.38-­39).

All these factors have led classical scholars of the Cyropaedia to judge it as a work of fiction, with scarcely any historical content. As depicted in the text (1.2.2-16), the Persian educational system appears to have had traits in common with that of Sparta, possibly reflecting Xenophon’s sojourn in that city after his banishment from Athens in 394 and his general admi­ration for the Spartan state. Christopher Tuplin has argued that even generally available contemporary Greek knowledge about Persia did not find its way into the book. Iranists, on the other hand, have pointed to similarities between the Cyropaedia and the Šāh-nāma of Ferdowsī and to the little that is known of Iranian oral traditions in antiquity. Arthur Christensen noted (pp. 122-35; cf. Pizzagalli p. 41), for instance, that Cyrus’ death scene as Xenophon presented it is very similar to deathbed scenes and final speeches in the Šāh-nāma; Wolfgang Knauth has compared Cyrus’ behavior, attitudes, and discourses in the Cyropaedia to instances from the Šāh-nāma and to passages in Old Persian royal inscriptions, primarily DNb (Kent, Old Persian, pp. 138-40), and has concluded that the Cyropaedia should be regarded as reflecting a Persian “mirror for princes.” Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how far these monarchical virtues are exclusively Persian. Some of them are found in royal texts from all over the world. Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg has found parallels between Cyrus’ speech on his deathbed and inscription DNb and has also attempted to eluci­date possible mechanisms of transmission (1985). S. K. Eddy has discussed parallels between Xenophon’s description of the procession of Cyrus (8.3.1-19) and some of the Persepolis reliefs, notably those on the Apadana.

It seems certain that Xenophon did not use documen­tary sources in composing the Cyropaedia. The knowl­edge that he acquired during his service with Cyrus the Younger is apparent at several points, often indicated by phrases like éti kaì nûn (even to this day) . . . . During the campaign Xenophon may well have be­come acquainted with popular oral traditions about Cyrus the Elder (cf. Cyropaedia 1.2.1: “Even to this day the barbarians tell in story and song that Cyrus was . . . ”). Because of the nature of oral sources, details tend to be confused or to have become mis­placed. If Xenophon did tap a Persian oral tradition for the narrative framework of his treatise on the qualities of good leadership, it must certainly have been crowded with anachronisms. The Cyropaedia can thus in no way be considered to provide reliable information on 6th-century Persia. The frequent citation of apparently exact numbers for armies and the like should be regarded as a literary device to inspire confidence to the reader. Even for late 5th- and 4th-century Persian history the work can be used only with caution; this stricture is equally applicable to the epilogue of book 8, in which vilifying rhetoric is almost inextricably entangled with a few genuine facts (Sancisi­-Weerdenburg, 1987).



Any current edition of the Cyropaedia may be consulted; that edited and trans­lated by M. Bizos and E. Delebecque as Cyropédie, 3 vols., Paris, 1971-78, has been used here. H. R. Breitenbach, Xenophon von Athen, Stuttgart, 1966 (the most detailed comments on the Cyropaedia).

A. E. Christensen, Les gestes des rois dans les tradi­tions de l’Iran antique, Paris, 1936. E. Delebecque, Essai sur la vie de Xénophon, Paris, 1957.

B. Due, The Cyropaedia. Xenophon’s Aims and Methods, Aarhus, 1989.

S. K. Eddy, The King Is Dead. Studies in the Near Eastern Resistance to Hellenism, 334-­331 B.C., Lincoln, Neb., 1961.

S. W. Hirsch, The Friendship of the Barbarians. Xenophon and the Persian Empire, Hanover, N.H., 1985.

W. Knauth, Das altiranische Fürstenideal von Xenophon bis Ferdousi, Wiesbaden, 1975.

K. Münscher, Xenophon in der griechisch-römischen Literatur, Leipzig, 1920.

A. M. Pizzagalli, “L’epica iranica e gli scrittori greci,” in Atene e Roma, 3rd série, 9/1, 1942, pp. 33­-43.

H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, “The Death of Cyrus. Xenophon’s Cyropaedia as a source for Iranian his­tory,” in Festschrift Mary Boyce, Acta Iranica 25, Leiden, 1985, pp. 459-72.

Idem, “The Fifth Oriental Monarchy and Hellenocentrism,” H. Sancisi-­Weerdenburg and A. Kuhrt, eds., Achaemenid His­tory II. The Greek Sources, Leiden, 1987, pp. 117­-31.

Idem, “Cyrus in Italy. From Dante to Machiavelli. Some Explorations of the Reception of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia,” in H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg and J. W. Drijvers, eds., Achaemenid History V. The Roots of the European Tradition, Leiden, 1990, pp. 31-52.

J. Tatum, Xenophon’s Imperial Fiction, Princeton, N.J., 1989.

C. Tuplin, “Persian Decor in Cyropaedia. Some Observations,” in H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg and J. W. Drijvers, eds., Achaemenid History V. The Roots of the European Tradition, Leiden, 1990, pp. 17-30.

(Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg)

Originally Published: December 15, 1993

Last Updated: November 10, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. VI, Fasc. 5, pp. 512-514