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Novel Leaders for Novel Armies: Xenophon's Focus on Willing Obedience in Context

Richard Fernando Buxton

Xenophon’s moralizing approach to leadership has often been grouped with his pervasive piety as evincing a deeply reactionary mentality (Breitenbach, Cawkwell). I will argue instead that it represents an innovative response to the increasingly professionalized conditions of warfare in the fourth century; one heavily informed by the author’s own battlefield experiences. This novel environment demanded dynamic generals capable of uniting complex armies that otherwise could easily fragment into specialized, mercenary and allied components (Parke).

Recent work has shown that a complex and systematic moral psychology informs Xenophontic leadership. Particular attention has been drawn to the central importance that the author places on the leader winning the willing obedience of his followers through successfully marketing himself as an adept champion of their interests and a visible partner in their labors (Gray 2011). Xenophon advocates this moral model not only on the battlefield but also for peacetime (Pownall, Lendon), and this combination of universal and moralizing aspects has led contemporary critics to posit a primarily Socratic influence (Dillery, Gray 1989; also Breitenbach). Earlier scholars like Wood, however, drew equal attention to the consistent coincidence between Xenophon’s paradigmatic leaders and his own self-portrait in the Anabasis. Indeed, Xenophon’s fame in antiquity as an innovative general (Plut. Ages. 9.2, Arr. Anab. 2.7.8-9) suggests that a strong experiential foundation to his leadership-model would have been attractive to both him and his audience. Moreover, although Xenophon frequently explains the success or failure of battlefield leaders in moralizing terms, he also highlights technical and strategic innovations as explanatory factors; e.g. Agesilaus’ recruitment of cavalry in Asia Minor (Xen. Hell. 3.4.15), Iphicrates’ novel use of mercenary peltasts in the Corinthian War (ibid. 4.5.13-16) and the deeper Theban left at Leuctra (ibid. 6.4.12). Xenophon in fact stresses how his model generals—including the Xenophon of the Anabasis—derive success precisely from combining willing obedience with innovative war-making, suggesting that the former may have developed in part as a strategy for exploiting the latter’s potential.

An important passage for understanding the intersection of willing obedience and military innovation is Xenophon’s idealizing portrait of Jason of Pherae as a general (Xen. Hell. 6.1.4-12). Jason claims that the cultivation of willing obedience is the key to animating his unprecedented and unstoppable army, which gives pride of place to mercenaries and specialized allied-contingents (peltasts, cavalry). As a charismatic leader in the Xenophontic mold, Jason can exact a level of discipline and training impossible for traditional citizen militias (ibid. 6.1.5). This implicitly suggests that only such figures can fully unlock the potential of a more professionalized force, not only overcoming the lack of civic ties in a heterogeneous army, but also replacing these with a stronger pride in shared military efficacy. Xenophon accordingly depicts such well-trained forces as alone able to exploit non-traditional forms of attack. Thus the same Athenian Iphicrates whose peltasts decimate a regiment of Spartan hoplites is celebrated during a later naval command for relentlessly drilling his men on the way to battle (Xen. Hell. 6.2.27-32). In a similar manner, the most lavish praise for the Spartan king Agesilaus involves his use of athletic competitions to build solidarity, loyalty and professionalism among a newly assembled army of Asian Greeks (Xen. Hell. 3.4.16-19 = Ages. 25-28; note his particular attention to contests for peltasts, archers and cavalry). The experience of these leaders closely mirrors Xenophon’s own success in unifying the diverse factions of the Ten Thousand (Ma) and reforming them into a more nimble force (e.g. the creation of a slinger-regiment to combat native analogs, Xen. An. 3.3.12-20).

Xenophon’s theory of leadership, with its consistent emphasis on the charismatic leader who inspires willing obedience, was one whose application the author extended far beyond the battlefield. Nevertheless, the new skills required by the disruptive world of fourth-century warfare deserve more attention as a critical stimulus in the development of Xenophon’s leadership-model.

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Xenophon on the Challenges of Leadership

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