Loving Humanity, Learning, and Being Honored: The Foundations of Leadership in Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus

  Sandridge, Norman B. 2012. Loving Humanity, Learning, and Being Honored: The Foundations of Leadership in Xenophon's Education of Cyrus. Hellenic Studies Series 55. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_SandridgeN.Loving_Humanity_Learning_and_Being_Honored.2012.

Chapter 2. Curiosity, Aptitude, and Intense Awareness

As we have seen, Cyrus’ philanthrôpia and philotîmia are intimately connected. How does Cyrus’ philomatheia (love of learning) fit in? Our investigation will entail a survey of Xenophon’s treatments of learning elsewhere, especially in the Oeconomicus, Memorabilia, and Anabasis, but we will begin with the Cyropaedia. Aside from Xenophon’s summary statement on Cyrus’ three superlative traits, philomatheia first appears in 1.4. There, Xenophon describes the many reasons for Cyrus’ chattiness (polylogia):

Καὶ ἦν μὲν ἴσως πολυλογώτερος, ἅμα μὲν διὰ τὴν παιδείαν, ὅτι ἠναγκάζετο ὑπὸ τοῦ διδασκάλου καὶ διδόναι λόγον ὧν ἐποίει καὶ λαμβάνειν παρ’ ἄλλων, ὁπότε δικάζοι, ἔτι δὲ καὶ διὰ τὸ φιλομαθὴς εἶναι πολλὰ μὲν αὐτὸς ἀεὶ τοὺς παρόντας ἀνηρώτα πῶς ἔχοντα τυγχάνοι, καὶ ὅσα αὐτὸς ὑπ’ ἄλλων ἐρωτῷτο, διὰ τὸ ἀγχίνους εἶναι ταχὺ ἀπεκρίνετο, ὥστ’ ἐκ πάντων τούτων ἡ πολυλογία συνελέγετο αὐτῷ.

He was perhaps a little too chatty because of his youth, in that he was compelled by his teacher both to give an explanation of what he was doing and to receive one from others whenever he judged a case; moreover, he himself was always asking for explanations of things because he was philomathês, and as often as he himself was questioned by others, he would quickly answer because of his keen wit, such that a chatty disposition took hold of him from all these sources.


The first thing to note about Cyrus’ philomatheia is that it seems to be a natural curiosity. I say, “natural,” because Xenophon does not attribute Cyrus’ inquisitiveness to any encouragement he receives from others, nor does it seem to be influenced by particular interests. The young Cyrus is merely interested in having the causes of things explained to him. To this extent he is like Plato’s Philosopher King, who is both a philomathês and a lover of wisdom (philosophos). {45|46} This is the only instance, however, where Cyrus’ curiosity is portrayed as open-ended, without any ulterior motive or particular field.

There is precedence for curiosity in Persian kings in Herodotus, but a morbid one. Herodotus’ Cyrus places the conquered Croesus on the pyre, either as an offering to the gods or because he “desired to know if some god would save him from being burned alive” (Histories 1.86). Cyrus’ son, Cambyses, shows a similar morbid curiosity after his conquest of Egypt. Herodotus says that Cambyses “made trial of the king Psamminitus’ soul” by marching his daughter as a slave in front of him and then marching his son off to be executed (3.14). When Psamminitus shows no reaction to these atrocities but instead bursts into tears at the sight of an old friend reduced to poverty, he becomes an object of wonder to Cambyses. {46|47}

Aptitude for Learning

In fact, much of what Xenophon’s Cyrus does as a youth evinces a mental ease and quickness, guided by a high capacity for empathy. In our discussion in Chapter One on Cyrus’ ability to blend in with his contemporaries, we saw how he “quickly” came to be on familiar terms with them and “quickly” won over their fathers (1.4.1). He also “quickly” declares his intent to remain in Media when his mother asks him to decide, which might at first seem to be indicative of impulsiveness until Cyrus thoughtfully explains that it is the best opportunity to learn to ride (1.3.15). Again, Cyrus answers “quickly” when his teachers question him, a contributing factor to his chattiness (1.4.3). In a triplet of quickness, Cyrus equals and surpasses his comrades at horsemanship; then on the hunt he exhausts the supply of animals in his grandfather’s preserve (cf. ταχὺ … ταχὺ … ταχὺ, 1.4.5).

Cyrus’ philomatheia involves not only a general desire to learn, but a desire to learn specific honorific subjects (horsemanship, hunting, warfare, ethics, {50|51} politics). Additionally, it involves a certain aptitude or inclination to observe, process, and emulate those around him, which presupposes a high capacity for empathy if not sympathy, that is, a high emotional intelligence. This is not to say that Cyrus’ observations are always correctly processed; for example, he assumes that the wine-pourer, Sacas, is poisoning Astyages and his friends because they become intoxicated from the wine he serves (1.3.10).

Xenophon seems to be drawing his formulation of Cyrus’ philomatheia not only from fourth-century Greek conceptions of it (especially Socrates, as Xenophon understood him), but also from his understanding of the Persian education. By being “most loving of learning” (philomathestatos), Cyrus becomes “best in his class,” just like his descendent Cyrus the Younger. Finally, since Xenophon claims that Cyrus was celebrated in Persian lore as philomathestatos (1.2.1), he may be drawing from a tradition (preserved in some form by Ctesias) of a legendary figure and man of the people, who worked his way into the highest political positions by his aptitude for learning (e.g. quickly imitating and mastering various roles along a cursus honorum). This tradition may explain why Xenophon says that Cyrus is “celebrated” in song as a most exceptional learner.

Paying Attention

One term for describing Cyrus’ mental activity is so closely related to philomatheia as to be synonymous with it. As we noted above, Cyrus the Younger was philomathestatos at learning the arts of war. He was also “most attentive” in practicing them (meletêrotatos). Similarly, our Cyrus is described as being philomathês about the affairs of war; he is eager to know all about them. This behavior suggests a certain “awareness” or “attentiveness” to all the questions that need to be answered. The trait that typically describes someone with this awareness in Xenophon is epimeleia. As philomatheia is the disposition to investigate, we might think of epimeleia is the exercise of that disposition on particular subjects. It is to the curious mind what work is to the vigorous body: just as loving to be honored entails a love of labor (1.2.1), so the love of learning seems to entail “loving to pay attention.” Socrates says in the Memorabilia that the general and estate manager both need to be attentive and lovers of toil in their affairs (cf. καὶ ἐπιμελεῖς καὶ φιλοπόνους

After stressing the importance of paying attention, Cambyses proceeds to explain to Cyrus, in laborious detail, what such a degree of attention would consist of. Like Isocrates to the studious Demonicus, he says that Cyrus must be a learner of many things: {52|53}

How you must draw up the army for battle; or how to lead it during the day or night, or along narrow roads or wide, or hilly paths or plains; or how to make camp; or how to set up night watches or day watches; or how to attack the enemy or retreat from them; or how to lead past a hostile city; or how to attack a wall or retreat from it; or how to cross glens or rivers; or how to protect the cavalry, or the spearmen or the bowmen; and if in fact the enemy should suddenly appear before you as you are leading the flanks, you must plan out how you must make your stand; and if the enemy should appear from somewhere else other than head-on as you are leading the phalanx, you must plan out how you should turn against them; or how you might best discover the plans of the enemy; or how the enemy might least come to know yours.

Cyropaedia 1.6.42–43

Cambyses acknowledges that Cyrus already knows that these questions are important; the key is to ask them throughout the campaign:

But why should I tell you all these things? For whatever I myself know, you have often heard, and you have not been ignorant or neglected anyone who seemed to know any of these things. So I think you must apply these questions to the circumstances, however each of them seems advantageous to you.

Cyrus follows Cambyses’ advice throughout his campaign. Xenophon portrays him as continually restless in monitoring his army: “he himself in fact did not occupy one place but he rode around, now here, now there, looking out and paying attention to see if the army needed anything.” [
14] Even in his youth, Cyrus shows this inquisitiveness and wakefulness. As soon as Cyrus learns of the encroachment that the Assyrians have made on Medan territory, he dons his armor and joins his grandfather, to his astonishment (1.4.18). Once Cyrus takes a survey of the situation, he poses a series of questions and then advocates making a charge upon the enemy, at first against Astyages’ better judgment (note again Cyrus’ “kingly” daring). He eventually prevails upon his grandfather who again marvels at Cyrus’ “sensibility and wakefulness” (cf. καὶ ἐφρόνει καὶ ἐγρηγόρει, Later among his Persian contemporaries the young Cyrus wins a reputation for outstanding diligence toward his lessons (1.5.1). The payoff of attentiveness is more than mental: on the eve of their first battle with the Assyrians, Cyrus inspires his men with the assurance that he has been “observing” their valor since childhood (1.5.7). {53|54}

Xenophon features epimeleia in the Oeconomicus , giving it as prominent a role in the art of farming as he does in generalship and kingship. The estate manager, Ischomachus says, increases his estate by being attentive and not lax (11.12.6). Estate managers fail at producing grain, wine, and fruit because they “do not care” to go through the steps necessary to produce them (20.4.2, 4.4, 4.6). Successful generals, too, differ from unsuccessful ones not in intelligence but in attentiveness (20.6.4). For estate managers and for leaders in general, oversight is {54|55} crucial to instilling a love of labor and a love of honor in the followers (12.19.4). Ischomachus quotes the Persian king that “the master’s eye” is key to the accomplishment of any noble works (12.20.6, cf. 21.5). Cyrus the Younger, he says, pays attention to farming and warfare as the noblest of pursuits. [18] He, too, travels around his country and oversees as much of it as possible and what he cannot see himself he learns about through reports (4.8). The consistent refrain of the Oeconomicus is that the knowledge required to lead depends more on attentiveness than intelligence or ingenuity. Ischomachus insists that the art of farming is “most easy to learn” (15.4.5). Socrates, too, says that both geometry and astronomy are easy to acquire, insofar as they are of practical importance for travel, telling time, or setting night-watches. [19] Attentiveness can even add to someone’s natural allotment of courage. [20] For Cyrus’ father, Cambyses, attentiveness is the foundation of wisdom (recall that pleasure in learning is the foundation of philosophy for Socrates). When he tells Cyrus that the best path to seeming to be wise is actually being wise, he explains, “it is more characteristic of the wiser man to be attentive to what is needed than to be neglectful” (1.6.23).

One final aspect of awareness that we should note is Cyrus’ awareness of himself. There are at least three instances where we can see this introspection at work. In Book Five, Cyrus has a lengthy dialogue on the power of love (erôs) with Araspas, who has been put in charge of the Susan noblewoman, Pantheia. Araspas urges Cyrus to behold her beauty, arguing that since love is a matter of free will, Cyrus will be immune to it. Cyrus declines, arguing on the contrary that he knows that erôs has the power to make him vulnerable to Pantheia’s beauty (5.1.8). Unconvinced, Araspas ignores the risk and attends Pantheia until he is smitten with her common kindness to him. Erôs leads Araspas to force himself on Pantheia and almost costs him his life, but for Cyrus’ gentleness and understanding. His folly serves as a pointed contrast to Cyrus’ prudent self-awareness.

Beyond the dangers of love, Cyrus worries about his propensity for greed. He admits to Croesus, “I myself cannot overcome this thing which the gods have put into the souls of humans and which renders us all impoverished in the same way, but I too am insatiate of wealth just like others” (8.2.20). He explains that the only way he overcomes his greed is by not hoarding his wealth but rather giving it to his friends, thereby winning safety (asphaleia) and a good reputation {55|56} (eukleia). Cyrus contrasts with Croesus, who had made war on him despite being warned by the Delphic oracle to “know thyself,” (i.e. to know his limitations as a general) (7.2.20). After his defeat, Croesus admits that he had been spoiled by wealth, bribes, and the flattery of those who claimed he would become the greatest of men by making war on Cyrus. Ultimately Croesus realizes that he did not know himself (7.2.23).

This presentation of self-knowledge is, we might say, both Socratean and anti-Herodotean. In the Memorabilia Socrates emphasizes the importance and means of acquiring self-knowledge (and of avoiding self-delusion), also citing the Delphic Oracle (4.2.24–30, 3.7.9). Herodotus’ Cyrus is initially aware of his own mortality when he sees Croesus, a proud king like himself, about to be burnt on the pyre. Nevertheless his success eventually leads him to think of himself as “something more than human” and invincible in war (Histories 1.86, 1.204). This delusion of grandeur directly contributes to his downfall: he attempts to extend the Persian Empire to the Massagetae and is soundly defeated, his head soaked in blood.


Here we conclude what we have thus far discovered about Cyrus’ three superlative traits of character. Philanthrôpia, loosely translated as a “love of humanity,” is more precisely a fondness for others, for mingling with them, taking pleasure in their company, and being concerned with their well-being. It may involve showing signs of encouragement or sympathy in good fortune or bad, gestures of attentive care to the sick or wounded, gentleness, affection, match-making, and gift-giving and benefaction, often on a grand and civilizing scale, such that it may be appropriate to call it “divine.” Cyrus’ philotîmia is in part a love of being honored by the community at large, but Xenophon often portrays it as a desire for popularity or approval from those in Cyrus’ close company, e.g. his father, his grandfather, his uncle, his Medan and Persian contemporaries. This desire for popularity, however, may involve acts of daring and risk-taking (especially in hunting, warfare, and personal expenditure) beyond what others deem safe and thus marks Cyrus as a character of lofty ambition (megalopsychia) and worthy of royal sovereignty. Cyrus’ philomatheia is a desire and aptitude to master subjects that bring honor, and seems to entail an abiding attentiveness (epimeleia), especially in the form of self-awareness.

As we noted in the introduction, there are five different contexts within which we may understand Cyrus’ character traits, namely, the Greek literary tradition, Greek historiographers of Persia, Xenophon’s other writings, the writings of other fourth-century Athenians, and Persian history, insofar as we can recover it from inscriptions and artifacts or infer it from an oral tradition embedded in Xenophon but different from what Herodotus and Ctesias report. It is one thing to say that these contexts exist and to believe that they all play a critical role in Xenophon’s depiction of Cyrus. It is much more difficult, however, to say exactly how and to what extent they do play this role, and we have tried to proceed with due caution in explaining the various sources for Xenophon’s characterization of Cyrus.

Having examined the form and meaning of Cyrus’ three superlative traits of soul, we will now assess their fundamentality to other traits in Xenophon’s Theory of Leadership. {57|}


[ back ] 1. Cyrus’ comrade Chrysantas (who is in many ways a Cyrus-in-the-making) shares a pleasure in learning to ride (4.3.15).

[ back ] 2. Due 1989:181–182. Cf. Briant 1996:19–20 on the likelihood that these innovations were made by Cyrus.

[ back ] 3. Cf. Cyrus the Younger’s less philosophically-minded trial of Orontas (Anabasis 1.6.4–11).

[ back ] 4. Cf. πάνυ ἐπεθύμει, Tatum 1989:138 sees the Tigranes episode as part of Cyrus’ staging of his mercy for the Armenians and his interest in Tigranes’ speech as “mainly a literary curiosity.” This is, I believe, an attempt to ascribe a level of manipulation and intentionality to Cyrus that Xenophon gives little indication of.

[ back ] 5. Cyropaedia 4.5.24, 6.2.24, 6.2.39, 6.3.36, 6.4.19, 7.5.7, 7.5.37. Cf. Jason and Hypsipyle’s gentleness in assemblies in the Argonautica (1.657–701, 3.171–175). Contrast their behavior with Agamemnon’s ungentle disregard for the opinions of the Achaeans and Chryses (Iliad 1.22–32).

[ back ] 6. Cyropaedia 7.2.29. Cyrus does the same with the Hyrcanian king (4.5.23–25). Cf. Briant 1996:33 for the political advantages of this practice in Near Eastern culture.

[ back ] 7. Herodotus has a similar picture of the Persian educational system (Histories 1.136). Plutarch reports that the Magi also instructed young Persians (Life of Artaxerxes 3.3). Cf. Sancisi-Weerdenburg 1987:39.

[ back ] 8. Memorabila 1.1.11–15. The contrast between Xenophon’s and Plato’s portrayal of Socrates vis-à-vis topics of interest was thought in the ancient world to be evidence of a tension between the two thinkers (Aulus Gellius Attic Nights 14.3.5).

[ back ] 9. Ctesias F8d*1–7. On Cyrus as a “king from humble beginnings,” adapted from the Sargon myth, see Drews 1974.

[ back ] 10. In Herodotus Artembares is the father of the upper-class Medan boy who was whipped by Cyrus (Histories 1.114–116). In Ctesias Artembares is Astyages’ cupbearer and may have been his eunuch since there is a Near Eastern tradition of conflating the two roles. In Xenophon Sacas seems to play the double role of Astyages’ wine-pourer and harem guard (Cyropaedia 1.3.11). Llewellyn-Jones 2002:24 suggests that the Greek oinoxoos and eunouxos may have been interchangeable.

[ back ] 11. Gera 1993:156–157 plausibly suggests that Xenophon, with his version of Cyrus becoming “his own” Sacas may be “explaining” how Ctesias could come to tell of Cyrus as the actual cupbearer to Astyages.

[ back ] 12. Cyropaedia 1.6.9–12. Cf. Cyrus carrying out some of these instructions (6.1.23–24) and Socrates’ similar litany of challenges facing the cavalry commander (Memorabilia 3.3).

[ back ] 13. Agamemnon’s inattentive sleep is emphatic in this context because Zeus is portrayed as pondering and wakeful (2.1–4). Agamemnon redeems himself somewhat on the eve of the Doloneia when he is portrayed as wakeful while others are asleep (10.1–4).

[ back ] 14. Cf. ἐφεώρα τε καὶ ἐπεμελεῖτο,; cf. 6.1.24.

[ back ] 15. Cf. μνημονικῶς 5.3.46–47, ὀνομαστὶ,

[ back ] 16. Cyropaedia 8.1.22. Cf. Cyrus the Younger’s attention to justice (Anabasis 1.9.13).

[ back ] 17. Cf. τῇ θεραπείᾳ καὶ τῇ ἐπιμελείᾳ τῶν φίλων, Cf. Cyrus the Younger (Anabasis 1.9.24).

[ back ] 18. Oeconomicus 4.4.6. Xenophon gives some indication that Persian youths were taught farming or at least “the powers of the products of the earth that were useful and harmful” (8.8.14).

[ back ] 19. Cf. τοῦτο ῥᾴδιον εἶναι μαθεῖν, Memorabilia; ταῦτα δὲ ῥᾴδια εἶναι μαθεῖν, Socrates shows a general confidence that, though ignorant, a motivated person may seek out others with the knowledge that is required (3.4.4).

[ back ] 20. Memorabilia 3.9.1–2. Isocrates’ Evagoras shares many features of attentiveness in Xenophon (Evagoras 41–44).

[ back ] 21. See Sandridge 2007.

[ back ] 22. To the extent that Cyrus’ great leadership lies in his ability to establish new institutions he resembles the wise Lycurgus in the Constitution of the Lacedaemonians (1.2).