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Like many historians who work with Xenophon, I get very frustrated with the way that his calm, manner-of-fact style can hide evasions of the truth. I don’t think he is more unreliable than most old soldiers (and he does not make any great claims for his own reliability), but he is such a good writer that he often lulls readers into trusting him when they should not. But sometimes, like in a passage which I recently rediscovered, he hints at what he is trying to do.

At the beginning of the Cyropaedia, Xenophon describes Persian institutions for raising young men at some ill-defined time. In their teens and early twenties they spend their time guarding the city, practicing with the bow and javelin, and hunting, and then they graduate to a stage of life where they are expected to engage in more difficult kinds of fighting:

But if soldiering is called for, those who have been educated in this way go soldiering armed not with the bow or even the javelins (palta), but with what is called kit for hand-to-hand combat: body armour (thorax) about the breast, a wicker shield (gerron) in the left hand, just like the Persians are drawn holding, and a machaira or kopis in the right.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1.2.13 (tr. Manning, my Greek is very rusty)

Just like the Persians are drawn (γράφονται) holding? Xenophon is appealing to vase paintings for support! This is remarkable, because the crescent-shaped shields and curved swords which barbarians often wield in Attic art are characteristic of the Aegean. They were popular with nations like the Athenians and Thracians and Lydians, not (as far as we know) amongst the Medes or Persians. Moreover, by Xenophon’s day easterners in South Greek art are hard to identify with specific ethnic groups: their clothing and weapons seem to be a mix of Thracian, Scythian, and Anatolian fashions. So what is he doing when he compares the weapons of Cyrus’ Persians to the weapons of generic orientals?

Most scholars attribute the picture of Cyrus’ Persia in the Cyropaedia to a mixture of the Persia 150 years later which Xenophon saw during his life as a military adventurer, the Sparta where he made his second homeland, and perhaps his philosophical dreams of what good and bad societies might look like. He is very vague about other sources which he might have used, and he does not have room for change after Cyrus except in the form of decline. Elsewhere in his corpus he mentions stories by other Greeks who had travelled east, and perhaps he got some details from them; he probably also drew on oral traditions from Iran and the wider Near East. But this passage makes me wonder if he was also relying on popular ideas about the Persians which he could expect his less-widely-travelled readers to be familiar with. Equipping the Persians in the Cyropaedia like the barbarians in Attic art might have been a way of ensuring that his readers could envision the equipment he was talking about, for the same reasons that cartoonists use stereotypes and tropes today. If Paul Christesen is right and the Cyropaedia was a proposal for military reform at Sparta, then the people whom he wished to reach had rarely travelled outside of the Peloponnese. Xenophon’s goal was to teach some important military lessons, not write an antiquarian treatise on the difference between the weapons of “Persians” in western Anatolia in one period and the weapons of Persians in Persis in another period.

Xenophon is frustrating as a source of historical facts, but passing those on was not necessarily his main goal.

Further Reading:

  • Christesen, P. 2006. “Xenophon’s ‘Cyropaedia’ and Military Reform at Sparta.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 126:47-65 https://philpapers.org/rec/CHRXCA
  • Heleen Sancisci-Weerdenburg, “Cyropeadia,” Encyclopaedia Iranica http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/cyropaedia-gr
  • Tuplin, Christopher J. (1990) “Persian Decor in the Cyropaedia: Some Observations.” In Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg and Henrik J. Willem Drijvers, Achaemenid History: Proceedings of the 1987 Groningen Achaemenid History Workshop V: The Roots of the European Tradition, Leiden: 17-30.