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Learning from Experience: Failure and Success in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia

Matthew Sherry

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Xenophon’s Cyropaedia concludes with the abrupt decline of Cyrus the Great’s empire. I argue that this decline is the result of a series of misunderstandings of Cyrus’ well-intentioned policy of merit-based rewards. Cyrus attempts to instill virtue in his followers but, in reality, he merely instills a desire for royal favor. Cyrus’ virtue dies with him, leaving only advantage and expediency.

The Cyropaedia chronicles Cyrus’ life from his education as a child through his many conquests to his death. But the final chapter shockingly depicts the rapid decay of his empire. Scholars attribute this decline to either Cyrus’ implied inferiority as a leader (Gera 1993; Nadon 2001; Johnson 2005) or his inimitable excellence (Sage 1994). I argue instead that the decline originates in misunderstanding Cyrus’ efforts to inspire virtue. Cyrus presents himself as a positive exemplar, but imitation alone proves inadequate. Instead, Xenophon reveals that virtue must be learned through three experiences combined: heeding a wise advisor, imitating success, and learning from mistakes.

The positive example of Croesus exemplifies the success of multifaceted education. He learns self-awareness and virtue thorough such a combination. But other figures highlight the pitfalls of learning by a single method as they misinterpret Cyrus’ efforts to instill virtue. Panthea, one of Cyrus’ supporters, is an example of someone who learns too late from her mistakes. She pushes her husband Abradatas to forego his own safety in battle to honor Cyrus. Yet, by disregarding his own suffering, Abradatas distorts Cyrus’ fundamental leadership principle: “to act and be treated well” (εὖ ποιεῖν καὶ εὖ πάσχειν, 7.1.43). After Abradatas’ reckless and fatal cavalry charge, Panthea regretfully tells Cyrus, “I know that he did not consider what he would suffer (ὅ τι πείσοιτο), but what he could do to please you (τί ἄν σοι ποιήσας χαρίσαιτο, 7.3.10).” She ironically echoes Cyrus’ own policy and confirms Abradatas’ misunderstanding.

Using only a single method of instruction, Cyrus presents himself as a model of success to be imitated by his subjects, but they emulate him simply to earn favor. Although they live more virtuously while Cyrus is alive, they do so mainly to curry favor; after his death, without their leader’s good example, only a desire for favor remains. In the epilogue, Xenophon’s description of contemporary Persia explicitly distorts Cyrus’ practices. Hunting, an activity Cyrus led himself (so demonstrating his superiority as a leader), is discouraged by the new king. Where once genuine superiority inspired virtue, now the ruler’s forced superiority suppresses virtue by limiting the opportunities to display it: those who hunt now earn the king’s contempt. Favor itself proves more important than the virtues that once earned it.

Xenophon instructs his readers that the three methods fail alone but succeed together. By displaying the shortcomings of one-dimensional education, the Cyropaedia exemplifies its own style of multifaceted instruction. We, the readers, can learn by following the verbalized advice, imitating Cyrus, and avoiding the mistakes of his successors. Our true model is the text. Persia must fail so the reader may succeed.

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Greek Historiography

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