You are here

Piety in Xenophon’s Theory of Leadership

Michael Flower

In his autobiography, The Life of Henry Brulard, Stendhal (whose real name was Marie-Henri Beyle) informs us: “My moral life has been instinctively spent paying close attention to five or six main ideas, and attempting to see the truth about them.”  The same might be said of Xenophon, and one of Xenophon’s “main ideas” was to isolate and articulate the qualities of the ideal leader. Xenophon’s “theory” of leadership has, of course, been the subject of considerable scrutiny, most recently and most thoroughly by Vivienne Gray. She and others (Hutchinson, Due, Azoulay, Tamiolaki) have isolated the principal criteria for effective leadership in Xenophon’s corpus. His ideal leader secures consent to his leadership, deals decisively with insubordination, treats his followers as friends, and works for their mutual success as a group with shared interests. One essential aspect, however, is missing from this list and, in our secular age, has escaped the attention of most modern scholars. That missing item is Xenophon’s emphasis on the leader’s piety and on his ability to maintain a proper relationship with the gods. He principally does this by securing their advice and goodwill through sacrifice, divination, and the avoidance of impious actions.

The importance of piety as a primary characteristic of the ideal leader is actually not very difficult to demonstrate. It recurs throughout Xenophon’s corpus and always receives special emphasis. Yet the implications of how we should assess leaders who seemingly lack piety are not so obvious. Cyrus the Younger is often taken by modern scholars to be a later day version of Cyrus the Great. Yet he lacks certain of namesake’s virtues, such as self-control, humanity, and, most noteworthy of all, piety (Flower). The centrality of piety in the list of a leader’s virtues is made explicit at the end of the Agesilaus, where Xenophon summarizes the king’s virtues in order that they may be easier for the reader to remember. He begins with specific examples of Agesilaus’ piety and notes (11.2): “He never stopped repeating that he believed the gods took no less pleasure in pious deeds than in unblemished sacrificial offerings.”  Xenophon’s emphasis on Agesilaus’ piety as a central virtue is in keeping with his overall theological view of the reciprocal relationship between gods and mortals.

This reciprocal relationship is made especially manifest in the rites of divination, and in several of his works Xenophon states explicitly that the gods give signs specifically to “those whom they favor.”  In the Cyropaedia (1.6.2; 1.6.46) Cyrus’ father says to the young prince that he had him instructed in the art of divination in order that he should not be dependent on seers and so that he should always be able to seek advice from the gods, since they know all things. In the Anabasis, Xenophon has constructed his own role as the exemplary type of the wise, resourceful, pious, honest, and selfless leader, who constantly refers important decisions to divination. Finally, turning to, Socrates, who is in many ways the perfect leader, Xenophon opens his Memorablia (1.1.6-9) with a demonstration that Socrates’ religious attitudes, including his use of divination, were both traditional and strongly held.

The surprising result of this discussion is that it was not so much the priest or seer who acted as the mediator between divine and human knowledge in the Greek world, or at least in Xenophon’s conception of it, but the leader who knew how to make the gods’ advice profitable both for himself and his followers. A leader who lacks proper respect for the gods, quite apart from incurring divine punishment, is also one who is hardly likely to respect his followers. And thus, as I argue, piety was a litmus test for success in Xenophon’s theory of leadership.

Session/Panel Title

Xenophon on the Challenges of Leadership

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy