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In Book VIII of Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, we seem to get a commentary on what a good ruler is, as we are immediately given an idea of what a good ruler is from Chrysantas, “ I have often reflected on that a good ruler is no different from a good father. For fathers take forethought for their children so that they never lack good things” (8.1.1).   If we follow this idea, the traits of a ruler are common in men throughout the empire, and if this idea was seriously, it would diminish the power that the ruler would have. Not only would this be detrimental to the ruler, it would also be detrimental to the empire, as it would leave the people questioning the authority of the ruler.

It seems as though Xenophon realizes the implications of Chyrsantas’s idea, and had him clarify with this,  “ as for the good things we now have, by what else did we attain them more than by obeying that ruler? By this we quickly got where we needed to be in both night and day,following our ruler in close formation we were irresistible, and we left nothing half-finished of what was commanded” (8.1.3).  With this, Chrysantas essentially says that even though “a good ruler is no different from a good father,”  a good father is not necessarily a good ruler because a good ruler is naturally set above his subjects, “…just as you yourselves think it right to rule over those beneath you, let us similarly obey those whom it is seemly to obey… whereas slaves serve their master involuntarily, if in fact we think it right to be free, we need to do voluntarily what appears to be most worthwhile” (8.1.4). This speech makes it seem like submitting to rule is involuntary, and that the only choice the subjects are given is to be amenable or to be treated as slaves. Even with this speech, it seems like Cyrus needs some sort of validation from the people in order to rule, regardless of his being born with a right to rule.  Along this same line, we are told that Cyrus seems to lead his empire by example,       “ he believed that the same exercise of virtue had to be his as well, for if he were not himself such as he needed to be, he did not think it would be possible to incite others to noble and good works” (8.1.12).

However, a few sections before this, we are told that, “ Cyrus will not be able to find anyway to use us for his own good that will not be good for us as well ” couple this with the fact that we are told in Book I that, “ as to his nature, even now Cyrus is still described in word and song by the barbarians as having been most beautiful in form and most benevolent in soul, most eager to learn, and most ambitious, with the result that he endured every labor and faced every risk for the sake of being praised,” the picture that we get of Cyrus changes significantly (8.1.5, 1.2.1). Not only has Cyrus conquered most of the known world, he has managed to make the people feel indebted to him without making them hate him, couple this with the fact that he is “insatiable for money,” and the picture we get more tyrannical than democratic (8.2.20).

Taking over Babylon seems to be a turning point for Cyrus, as it seems clear at this point that Cyrus has built this empire for the sole purpose of attaining glory; not only that, but it is also the point in which we begin to see Cyrus centralize the power of the empire so much that it will crumble without him.  The scene that we see after the Babylonian king is killed seems to be when Cyrus know that he has attained glory, “ they first lay prostrate before the gods, because they had avenged themselves against the impious king; the they kissed Cyrus’ hands and feet, shedding many joyous tears and taking delight” (7.5.32).  It is obviously not a mistake that Gadatas and Gobyras prostrate themselves before the gods and then directly prostrate themselves in front of Cyrus in a similar fashion. After this we get another scene that shows the inflated kind of way that Cyrus sees himself, “ he told the Babylonians to work the land, pay the tribute and serve those to whom they each were given. He commanded the Persians who were his partners and as many of the allies as chose to remain with him to converse as masters with [the Babylonian subjects] they received. After this Cyrus was already desirous of establishing himself in the way he held to be fitting for a king” (7.5.36-37). This may not seem so bad at first glance, however when you take into account that Cyrus is merely high ranking military official rather than a king, it seems more sinister.  It also becomes clear, after the taking of Babylon, just how manipulative Cyrus really is, even to those he calls his friends, as we see illustrated in 7.5.38-48, and later “ surely his greatest way of compulsion, if someone did not heed any of these, was taking away from him what he had, and giving it to another who he thought would be able to report when needed” (8.1.20).

As we have seen, “he endured every labor and faced every risk for the sake of being praised,” this is really cemented when Cyrus “ centralized his administrative affairs” (1.2.1, 8.1.15).  This seems to be a strategic move on Cyrus’s part, in order that his empire be so centered around him that it would crumble without him.   We see Cyrus both giving the laws and, in a way, enforcing them, “ Cyrus would not find leisure to listen to such people for a long time. When he did hear them he would postpone his judgement for a long time” (8.1.18).  Not only does it seem that Cyrus is judge, jury, and executioner, it also seems that he has groomed the people around him to accept this in the same way that he groomed them to be virtuous, “ he provided leisure both for himself and for his circle, and he began to take charge of having his partners be as they should” (8.1.16).  All of this grooming works out  perfectly for him, as he “ no had more leisure than someone responsible for but a single house or a single ship” (8.1.15). After this episode, we see that Cyrus becomes hyper aware of respect and piety within his empire; it is unclear whether this is piety towards the gods or piety towards Cyrus disguised as piety towards the god, “ the other Persians, therefore, first imitated him in this, believing both that they themselves would be more happy if they served the gods just as did he who was both happiest and their ruler, and they held that in doing this they would please Cyrus” (8.1.24).

The most telling part about the rule of Cyrus comes when he is on his deathbed, talking to his sons. This speech is essentially Cyrus praising himself for all of the things he has done, “ as time went forward, I thought that I recognized my power to be always on the increase, so that I did not ever perceive even my old age to be weaker than my youth and I do not know that I do not know that undertook or desired anything that I did not obtain…and my fatherland, which before lived privately, I leave now as foremost in honor in Asia. Of what I acquired, I know of nothing that I did not preserve” (8.7.6-7).  If we look at Cyrus as a model leader, this is not strange, but given how centered around him that his administration was, it is hard to look at this as anything other than the last great move of a leader. Not only does he use his last words to praise himself, he also uses them to tell his sons that moderation is the force that will keep the empire together. While this seems like a typical teaching moment between father and sons, they way Cyrus speaks tells us that it probably isn’t meant that way, “ I myself was educated like this by my fatherland and yours, to defer to my elders, not only yo older brothers, but also to other citizens, whether walking, sitting down, or speaking. And as for you, sons, I educated you like this from the beginning, to honor those who are older and to be honored ahead of those who are younger” (8.7.10).  This is a nice speech until you think about the fact that Cyrus’s sons were likely not educated in the Persian way, nor were they raised in the same austere way as Cyrus was. Taking this into account, this speech means something like “you’ll never be as great as your father.”

In the end, it seems as though Cyrus was a good ruler, if we can call him a ruler is a little arguable given that he made himself ruler before his time. However, it is clear that he put Persia on the map and there is no doubt that he was basking in glory by the time of his death. It is not clear whether he meant for the empire to continue after him, though with certain actions it seems that he did not.

One Response to “There is no empire without me”

  1. khoneycutt says:


    I think Chrysantas’ comment is absolutely key. The comparison between ruler and father is well worth fleshing out.

    Near the beginning of the Politics, Aristotle says that some people believe that there is no difference among a father ruling over his sons, a king ruling over his subjects, and a master ruling over his slaves. But this is a mistake, he says. There are in fact key differences among those three forms of rule.

    It seems that all three are blurred in Cyrus’ rule, especially after the conquest of Babylon. I think it is a fantastic point to note that Gadatas and Gobyras prostrate themselves to Cyrus after they prostrate themselves to the gods. Cyrus has become more than a father, more than a king, perhaps even more than a master.

    Your question at the end about whether Cyrus was a “good ruler” is worth further reflection, especially in light of Xenophon’s claim that Cyrus illustrated that not only is it not impossible to maintain a large territory, it isn’t even difficult. And yet it disintegrates upon his death–so did he actually succeed? And, as you imply, did he intend this “failure” such that his own glory was the greater?