As a child, passionate about history lessons, I was always attracted by philosophers who were also soldiers. There were quite a few in ancient times, and this Spartan hero is perhaps the archetype!
“Xenophon was a Greek philosopher, soldier, historian, memoirist, and the author of numerous practical treatises on subjects ranging from horsemanship to taxation. While best known in the contemporary philosophical world as the author of a series of sketches of Socrates in conversation, known by their Latin title Memorabilia, Xenophon also wrote a Symposium and an Apology which present a set of vivid and intriguing portraits of Socrates and display some sharp contrasts to the better known portraits in the works of Xenophon’s contemporary, Plato. Xenophon’s influence in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and in Early Modern intellectual circles was considerable; he was a pioneer in several literary genres including the first-person military memoir (Anabasis) , the biographical novel (Education of Cyrus), and the continued history (Hellenica). The range of his areas of expertise and the glancing charm of his down-to-earth writing style continue to fascinate and repay our study. For one example of his work in moral philosophy, he emphasized the importance of self-control, which comprises one of the cardinal virtues of Greek popular morality. This is highlighted by Xenophon in many ways. Socrates is often said by Xenophon to have exemplified it in the very highest degree. Cyrus displays it when he is invited to look upon the most beautiful woman in Asia, who happens to be his prisoner of war. He firmly declines this temptation; but his general Araspas stares at her endlessly, falls in lust, insults her honor, and ignites a chain of events described by Xenophon that ends in her suicide over her husband’s corpse…
Xenophon was born during the early years of the Peloponnesian War, in the outlying deme of Athens called Erchia. Located in the fertile plain known as “Mesogeia” (literally “middle earth”) and overlooked by the beautiful mountains Hymettus and Penteli, Erchia was about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the bustling center of Athens–about a three hour walk or one hour brisk horseback ride. His father Gryllus owned and supervised an estate whose income derived chiefly from farming. Thus, Xenophon will have grown up surrounded by a combination of small hold-farming and urban influences. Coming of an age in turbulent political times, Xenophon is thought to have been in Athens and personally present at the return of Alcibiades (408), the trial of the Generals, and the overthrow of the 30 Tyrants, all signal events in the rough history of Athenian civic life.
Little else is known about Xenophon’s earliest years. From his later writings it can be safely inferred that he received a good basic education and military training as befitted a young member of the Equestrian class, that he was able to ride and hunt extensively, and that in his formative years he observed the careful work needed to keep a modest farm maintained and productive.
In 401. B.C.E at the age of 29, Xenophon was invited by his friend Proxenus to join him on a mercenary military venture to Persia, ostensibly to protect the territory of a minor satrap who was under threat. In fact, though this was not known to Xenophon or Proxenus, the campaign was rather more ambitious than that: it was a game of thrones, nothing less than an assault on the claim of the Persian king Artaxerxes II, by his brother Cyrus the Younger. The unfolding of this journey into foreign territory, with its adventures and mortal hazards, was a formative event in Xenophon’s life. In the very first engagement, Cyrus was himself killed. In a peace parley that followed, the generals of the expeditionary force were executed by treachery, leaving the army stranded, leaderless and surrounded by hostile peoples whose languages they did not speak, and winter was coming. Xenophon eventually assumed leadership of this stranded and confused army, and led them to safety – as many as survived. The book which Xenophon later wrote about their harrowing travels ‘up country’, Anabasis, is a hair-raising and brutally graphic soldier’s journal, of which more will be said later.
Upon his return to Greece, Xenophon continued his mercenary work under a Spartan general named Agesilaus. He even went fighting, with Agesilaus’ “10,000” soldiers who returned from the battle of Coroneia in Persia, against a combined Athenian and Theban force. Athens issued a decree of exile against Xenophon as a result. . Even though it is possible that his banishment was revoked in later years, Xenophon never returned to Athens.
In gratitude for his service in this decisive Lacedaimonian victory, the Spartans gave Xenophon an estate in Elis, about 2 miles from Olympia – a region of the Peloponnese which was known for its unparalleled beauty and richness. Here in Elis over the next 23 years, Xenophon would live a life of semi-retirement and quiet rural pursuits. Here also he would write the bulk of his works, raise a family, and keep a distanced and reflective historical eye on the political fortunes of Athens. Nothing is known of his wife beyond her name: Philesia. He had two sons, Gryllus and Diodorus. The Former was killed in the battle of Mantinea in 362 B.C., and Xenophon received many carefully written eulogies, a testament to his prominence in his own time.
When his adoptive city of Sparta was defeated in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C., Elians drove Xenophon from his rural retreat and confiscated it. Xenophon then moved to “flowery Corinth” where he ended his days.”
(From the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy)
About Anabasis, Xenophon’s masterpiece
Image: Busto di Senofonte in marmo bianco, biblioteca di Alessandria d’Egitto, http://www.flickr.com/photos/dandiffendale/2341340203/sizes/o/in/photostream/
Author: Dan Diffendale