(ca. 430 b, c,-354 b. c.)
A noted Greek historian, social commentator, soldier, and adventurer who visited and wrote about Mesopotamia and its peoples in some detail in his book the Anabasis (or March Up-Country). Xenophon (ZEN-uh-phon) was born into a wealthy Athenian family shortly after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (431404 B. C.), a devastating conflict in which most of the Greek city-states sided with one or the other of the two leading combatants, Athens and Sparta. His entire childhood and young adulthood took place during troubled times in which his city and fellow citizens suffered serious physical and emotional trauma as well as a major loss of prestige after the Athenians lost the war. Thus, it is not surprising that as he grew up, Xenophon became disillusioned with Athens. He was even more upset when, five years later, his friend, the eccentric philosopher Socrates, was prosecuted in court on trumped-up charges that he had corrupted the city’s youth with his ideas and was then summarily executed. Xenophon was angry and bitter over what he saw as a miscarriage of justice and later vigorously defended Socrates in a treatise titled Memorabilia (Memories of Socrates).
Extremely bitter over Socrates’ death and disgruntled with Athenian politics, Xenophon was also one of many Greek youths in that era who had known nothing but war. When the Peloponnesian conflict ended, thousands of young men who had been trained to fight were in need of some new outlet to channel their energies. Therefore, many became mercenaries, or soldiers for hire. This is how Xenophon joined a force of some ten thousand Greek troops who, in 401 b. c., signed on to fight for a Persian prince named Cyrus the Younger. This young aristocrat desired to usurp the throne of his older brother, Ar-taxerxes II, the reigning king. To this end, Cyrus gathered as many native Persian troops as he could and filled out the rest of his army with Greeks and other mercenaries. Cyrus led these forces from Sardis in western Asia Minor overland to Cunaxa, about 50 miles (80km) from Babylon in what is now Iraq.
There, Artaxerxes, who had by now learned of the rebellion, was waiting with a larger army. In the major battle that followed, Cyrus was killed and Xenophon and his fellow Greeks now found themselves stranded in a foreign land and completely surrounded by hostile forces. Artaxerxes’ officers invited the Greek commander, Clearchos, to peace talks, but this was a sinister ploy, as Clearchos and most of the officers who accompanied him were slaughtered the moment they entered the Persian negotiation tent. (A few were killed later.) Outraged at such treachery, the Greek soldiers immediately chose new leaders, including Xenophon. Most agreed that there was nothing else to do but retreat and fight their way out of Persia or at least die trying. When the army was assembled, someone asked Xenophon to give
Xenophon and the Ten Thousand (a Greek force that supported Cyrus the Younger of Persia) reach the Black Sea after their long overland trek. Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
A speech to raise everyone’s spirits. “You see,” he told his comrades at the time,
That the enemy dared not make war upon us until they had seized our leaders. ... When they took our commanders, they thought we would be destroyed by anarchy and disorder. ...
So the enemy will find themselves mightily mistaken. For this day they will see ten thousand Clearchoses instead of one. (Anabasis 3.2)
With this defiant attitude, the band of Greeks set out on an incredible overland trek of more than 1,000 miles (1,609km). They weathered daunting hardships, including fending off assaults by Persian troops and fierce hill tribesmen and trudging through deep mountain snows. Eventually, most of the “Ten Thousand,” as they became known to Greeks everywhere, made it back to their homes.
However, Xenophon opted to stay in Asia a while longer, probably because he loathed the idea of returning to Athens and what he saw as a fickle, ethically challenged government. Instead, he joined a Spartan army that at the time was campaigning against Persian forces in Anatolia. Later, a spartan king who had befriended Xenophon helped him acquire an attractive country estate near Olympia in southwestern Greece. There, Xenophon settled down and for more than two decades devoted himself to tending his lands and writing books. These included the Anabasis, still considered to be one of the greatest adventure stories ever penned; the Hellenica (History of Greece); the Oeconomicus (Estate Manager); the
Symposium (After-Dinner Drinking Party), in which his old mentor Socrates plays a key role; and some brief military treatises, among them The Art of Horsemanship.
Unfortunately for Xenophon, his tranquil life on his estate came to an abrupt end in 371 b. c. In that year Sparta was defeated by another major Greek city-state, Thebes; and many Spartans and Spartan sympathizers lost their lands, including Xenophon. He returned to Athens, but for reasons unknown did not stay long there. Not long after moving to nearby Corinth, he died in about 354 b. c.
In retrospect, Xenophon’s personal participation in some conflicts, and nonparticipation in others, strongly affected the quality of his writing. When describing events he did not take part in, for instance in most of his Hellenica, he was a mediocre historian who often injected his personal moral judgments and left out important historical events. In contrast, when he witnessed battles firsthand, Xenophon was a far better reporter and produced a more reliable and moving account. The prime example is his Anabasis, which remains one of the most important and enlightening documents ever written about ancient Mesopotamia.
See Also: Anabasis; Greeks; historical accounts. And for other quotes about Mesopotamia by Xenophon, see Armenia; Battle of Cunaxa; chariots; clothing; Cyrus the Younger; Cyrus II