Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
Xenophon of Athens (430-c.354 BCE) was a contemporary of Plato and a fellow student of Socrates. He is known for his writings, especially his Anabasis, Memorobilia and his Apology (the latter two dealing with Socrates and, besides Plato’s writings, the basis for what we know of Socrates) though ancient sources claim that he wrote more than forty books which were very popular (including an important treatise on horses). His Anabasis has been widely read and admired for centuries. So precise are Xenophon’s descriptions of terrain and battle that the Anabasis was used by Alexander the Great as a field guide for his own conquest of Persia.
According to Diogenes Laertius (writing c. 200 CE),
Xenophon, the son of Gryllus, a citizen of Athens, was of the borough of Erchia; and he was a man of great modesty, and as handsome as can be imagined. They say that Socrates met him in a narrow lane, and put his stick across it and prevented him from passing by, asking him where all kinds of necessary things were sold. And when he had answered him, he asked him again where men where made good and virtuous. And as he did not know, he said, "Follow me, then, and learn." And from this time forth, Xenophon became a follower of Socrates. And he was the first person who took down conversations as they occurred, and published them among men, calling them Memorabilia. He was also the first man who wrote a history of philosophers.
It is reported that, when a student, Xenophon asked Socrates’ advice on whether he should join the army of Cyrus the Younger and Socrates sent him to ask the question of the Oracle at Delphi. Instead of asking the direct question, however, Xenophon merely asked which of the gods were best prayed to for the desired end of a successful journey and safe return. The Oracle answered him with the names of the gods, Xenophon prayed and sacrificed accordingly, and, when he returned to Athens and told Socrates what he had done, the latter scolded him for laziness. This story adds to the portrait of the man as recorded in other ancient accounts of Xenophon. All seem to agree that he was a unique combination of the man of action and the man of letters who chose practicality over abstract philosophy. While it is reported that he tried to emulate Socrates throughout his life, he seemed to have done so in his own unique way. Interestingly, this is in keeping with all of Socrates' students, each of whom set up schools and lived lives sometimes radically different from each other while claiming that each was carrying on Socrates' `true' message.
Xenophon wrote extensively on domestic issues in his Economics and defined the duties of a wife therein (the overseer of the home and children) and marriage as a “partnership ordained by the gods.” He is best known, however, as a soldier and the author of Anabasis ('The Expedition' or 'The March Up Country'), his narrative of the Persian Expedition under Cyrus the Younger against Cyrus' brother Artaxerxes II of Persia in 401 BCE. Cyrus' goal was to overthrow his brother and take the throne. Xenophon served as a mercenary in Cyrus’ army and, although they achieved victory at the Battle of Cunaxa, Cyrus was killed and they were left stranded in enemy territory. The Spartan General Clearchus and the Athenian Proxenus (who had invited Xenophon on the expedition) were betrayed and murdered by the Persians under Tissaphernes who had brokered a truce with them and Xenophon found himself one of the newly elected leaders of the ten thousand man mercenary army. Xenophon, with fellow-general Chirisophus, helped lead his men through hostile country, fighting their way back home to Greece against the Persians, the Armenians, the Chalybians, Medes, and many others.They endured nearly incessant battle on their way home, lack of provisions, snow storms, and the constant threat of betrayal by the local guides they were forced to trust. This heroic journey through hostile territory has inspired countless similar works through the years and, in the 20th century CE, the plot for films such as The Warriors (1979 CE) and many science fiction and speculative fiction novels.
After his return to Greece with his ten thousand, Xenophon and his men joined the forces of the Spartan General Thibron and he wound up fighting against his own city-state of Athens, for the Spartan king, at the Battle of Coronea. For this crime against his home state, he was banished from Athens and lived on property provided by the Spartans near Olympia. It was here that he composed the Anabasis and his works on Socrates. It has been speculated that his strong support for Socrates in his Apology and his tender depiction of his former teacher in the Memorobilia were more a cause for his banishment from Athens than his mercenary work for Sparta. His son, Gryllus, died for Athens fighting in the Battle of Mantinea and, accordingly, Xenophon’s banishment was revoked and he died in c.354 BCE of unknown causes, either in Athens or at Corinth.
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- Thomas Mautner. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2005.
- Walter Kaufmann. Philosophic Classics. Prentice Hall College Div, 1996.
- Xenophon (translated by Robin Waterfield). The Expedition of Cyrus. Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.
- Xenophon. The March Up Country. University of Michigan Press, 1958.
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