by Xenophon (tr. H. G. Dakyns)

Rating: ★★★★

I don't even know how to classify this. Is it historical fiction? A treatise on government? Is it a hagiography or a satire? Does it answer Thucydides, or Plato, or Aeschylus? I've opted for 'biography' in my shelving system, but that decision comes with many asterisks. Certainly it's not striving for historical accuracy, but neither is it all conclusively fictitious -- for all we know, this is partly spun from tales told in Persia and Greece in Xenophon's time that may even be correct. What it is, anyway, is Xenophon's story of Cyrus. Not, I hasten to add, Cyrus the Younger, the leader of the ill-fated expedition covered in Xenophon's Anabasis, whom Xenophon actually met and knew; this Cyropaedia is a biography of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, who died about 100 years before Xenophon was born.

Given that it is difficult to always have a good king, there is a school of political thought that we should limit their powers, or replace the kings with assemblies of the people, as while these systems are less beneficial than a good king, they are less terrible than a bad one (and some in this school might even say that monarchy in itself is for some reason bad). The other school of thought is we should just teach princes to be good kings. This is a function of Cyropaedia -- to use an (extremely dubious) biography of Cyrus the Great as a way to illustrate the virtues of a good leader. Xenophon's Cyrus is bold yet always invites counsel, honourable yet possessed of fierce cunning, inspirationally majestic yet keenly attentive to the smallest details. He is generous with all his worldly goods, but rich beyond measure because of the friendship he inspires.

The reason this doesn't become dull despite being an eight-volume book about kingly virtue is because Xenophon knows what the hell he's doing. The story he presents is pretty entertaining because it's a story that a restless young man might actually want to read. The main character grows and gains skills, there are lots of battle scenes, there's humorous conversation over drinks. Then there are practical discussions, of logistics, of how an army should be trained, of how to march in good order, how to arrange a camp, how to divide spoils. And scattered throughout all of this are just these occasional startling gems of philosophic insight and human detail. Xenophon describes and remedies the bystander effect; Cyrus and a random guardsman dive suddenly and casually into a debate on the nature of love; Cyaraxes makes passionately clear how kindness can be ill-service. There are powerful lines lurking in here, sermons mixed with strategy.

It is, to be sure, not a real historical project, and it does not take a classicist's insight to notice that Cyrus is unlikely to have actually worshipped Zeus, or that much of the behaviour Xenophon attributes to the Persians is actually the behaviour of the Spartans. In many ways Xenophon's Cyrus is a hybrid, of the histories that Xenophon knew of the man, of the Spartan military machine that he bore arms alongside, and of Xenophon himself, as a military leader and orator with first-hand experience of the lands and peoples discussed.

Among many others, giants such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Gustavus Adolphus have counted Cyropaedia one of their favourite works. Good may be debated, but great leaders certainly. And what might each of them have thought, I wonder, of that humbling epilogue?