A one-liner from antiquity survives to us from Eunapius (VS 453), in which he proclaims: “Alexander the Great would never have become great if there had been no Xenophon.” Xenophon, a detailed observer of Persian administrative machinery and kingship modalities, wrote several works from which Alexander (and his biographers) could develop their own models of imperial systems. Though Xenophon’s Anabasis and the Agesilaus may have informed Alexander’s military ambitions, it was the Cyropaedia, a glorified panegyric of Cyrus the Great, which had the greatest influence on Alexander’s kingship policy. But colorful portrayals of Cyrus also exist in Near Eastern sources contemporary to his time. Contrary to the arguments of Momigliano (1975), it is clear that Xenophon and others (such as Dinon and Ctesias) were in part informed by the current discourse in the Near East in Cyrus’ age. It is my purpose in this paper to suggest that the “historical” Cyrus as viewed through Akkadian documents such as the “Cyrus Cylinder” paint a picture that mutually reinforces the Hellenic view of the first king of Persia.
Most often in secondary scholarship it is assumed that the depiction of Cyrus the Great in the pages of Xenopon’s Cyropaedia are of a fictional character, representing a Greek view of “ideal” kingship and state function (Sancisi-Weerdenburg 1990). Additionally, the similarities of Xenophon’s work to that of Arrian (a second century AD historian of Alexander) has caused some to reject a “backwards” reading of Xenophon’s influence on Alexander (McGroarty 2006). Combined with the detailed depiction of Cyrus in Herodotus’ Histories, Alexander surely had knowledge of the Anabasis, which served at the very least as an obvious military inspiration, when one considers his march east across the Tigris (Green 1970). Thus we must consider Xenophon’s Cyropaedia as a potentially influential source for Alexander’s kingship ideologies as well.
One of the main goals of the protagonist of the Cyropaedia was to “unite two cultures” (Dye 1982), which was one of the main goals of Cyrus himself. The Cyrus Cylinder, an Akkadian document discovered in 1879 in the Marduk temple at Babylon, contains distinct literary parallels to Assyrian royal inscriptions, as has long been recognized (Harmatta 1974). Perhaps more interestingly, the text of the cylinder contains several explicit references to the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Eliš. This allusion to two competing, yet co-existent, textual and cultural traditions in a document (at the very least) authorized by Cyrus, is a clear indication of the king’s goals.
At Babylon, Alexander recalled the ghost of Cyrus. He entered the city in a ceremonial fashion, given in the sources as strikingly similar to the entry into Babylon of the conqueror Cyrus (Kuhrt 1990). Alexander restored the temple Esagila (the cult center for the god Marduk), protecting the religious upkeep in the city and venerating its priesthood, just as his hero Cyrus had done hundreds of years earlier. These actions, taken together with the mass marriages at Susa and other statements of multicultural unity, indicate a heavy influence of early Persian ideology and discourse on Alexander’s self-presentation.
The evidence from the Cyrus Cylinder indicates a sophisticated collaboration of Babylonian and Assyrian literary tendencies. The literary synthesis of the “historical” Cyrus reflected the goals of the philosophic Xenophontic Cyrus, who sought to “unite two cultures” (effectively devising a conglomerate ideological effort with Assyrio-Babylonian elements and what would now be Perso-Median Babylon). Alexander (and his historians) only served to reify those traditions in his behaviors as a prototypical Mesopotamian king. The conclusion must be that Alexander had access to two traditions about Cyrus that were indeed mutually reinforcing.
- J. Dye, “In search of the philosopher king,” Archaeological News (1982), 59-70.
- J. Harmatta, “Les modèles littéraires de l’édit babylonien de Cyrus,” Acta Iranica 1 (1974), 29-44.
- A. Kuhrt. “Alexander and Babylon.” In Achaemenid History V (1990), 121-130.
- K. McGroarty, “Did Alexander the Great read Xenophon?” Hermathena (2006), 104-124.
- Momigliano, Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization, Cambridge University Press (1975).
- H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg, “The Fifth Oriental Monarchy and Hellenocentrism: Cyropaedia VIII.viii and its influence,” Achamenid History I, Leiden (1990), 117-131.