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Some thoughts on finance and supply in the Cyropaedia

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Question: Why is Xenophon so vague about how his Persian army is supported, particularly in the early books?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0   Xenophon was a practical soldier whose works give us our richest view of Classical Greek land warfare. Although often euphemistic, he describes such small uglinesses as rawhide shoes freezing to their wearers’ flesh (Anabasis 4.5.14), and the naked dead on a battlefield (Hellenica 3.2.5: good clothes were valuable, as witness the bickering over how many clothes the besieged could bring with them when a town surrendered). One of the uglinesses which Cyropaedia brushes over is the details of how its new professional army was supplied between Cyrus’ reforms and the conquest of Assyria and Lydia.  After all, the challenge of creating a well-drilled army had always been who would support the men while they fought and trained.  Without a steady supply of food, fodder, water, ammunition, transport, clothing, and many other things any army would break apart.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0   Before I continue, I do have one request.  I ask that you look at this essay in its original meaning of “attempt,” or a conversation over coffee at a conference.  These are some first thoughts based on two quick readings of Cyropaedia and the modern works I have to hand, but I hope they will lead to something more developed.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0   Xenophon’s vagueness on this subject is especially puzzling, given the Spartan parallels. Sparta is clearly among the models for Xenophon’s fictional Persians. The Spartan system depended on giving a small part of society the right to large amounts of land and serf labour, so that they could devote themselves to war, hunting, and physical training. Xenophon’s account of the conspiracy of Cinadon, and his casual allusions in the Hellenica to divisions inside Laconian society, show that he noticed this, although his Constitution of the Lacedaemonians is focused on the Peers. There was a story that when Sparta’s allies complained of the difficulty of supporting a Spartan army, Agesilaus replied that their soldiers were amateurs while his men were professionals (Plutarch Agesilaus 26.3-5, Plutarch Lysander 24). Until the fourth century, the Spartiates had a great advantage over the militias of other Greek cities, but a decline in Spartiate numbers and growing military skill in other parts of Greece had made this less decisive in Xenophon’s day.  Similarly, Xenophon also remarks on the good organization of Spartan transport in the Constitution of the Lacedaemonians (11.2 and following), although there too he is vague about finance.  He presents a similar organized baggage train in the Cyropaedia.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0   Xenophon tells us some things about how his Cyrean Persian army is supplied.  At 2.1.9 Cyrus observes that the infantry of the Median and Assyrian coalitions both fight as skirmishers, and asks Cyaxares for body armour, cleavers, and targets to arm his commoners. He further asks, and gets, attendants (huperetas) from Cyaraxes who provide each soldier with what they need so they can focus on training (2.1.21). Xenophon observes that Cyrus’ men wanted to be effective, because it is hard for men being maintained for a task to admit that they are no good at it. We later see Cyrus encourage the Armenians to sell food to his army (2.4.32), watch his allies collect loot (4.3.1), and ravage Assyria (5.3.1) until he can extort an agreement to not harm each other’s farms and farmers from the Assyrian king (5.4.24). This is rather little compare to the Hellenica and Anabasis, where he makes it clear that most armies spent more time and energy collecting money, food, and saleable loot than fighting enemy soldiers. Just as importantly, he doesn’t answer how to support an army while it was training and being organized or waiting inside friendly territory. He also comments on all the things that an ideal army would bring with it, but again is vague about where the money will come from (Cyropaedia 6.2.25-35). Only with the fall of Babylon and organization of the empire in books 7 and 8 do we get a clear picture of a regular system of revenue. In short, the Cyropaedia is at once detailed and vague about how Cyrus’ men are supplied.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0   Paul Christesen (Christesen, P. 2006) suggests that Spartiate readers were supposed to understand Cyrus’ military reform as one they themselves could emulate, by becoming cavalry and letting other classes serve as hoplites. In this case, the resources to support such an army could be presumed to exist. The Spartans did manage to arm helots somehow, although I’m not aware of any study of the fiscal details. The difficulty here is that Sparta was notoriously cash-poor, particularly in the aftermath of the loss of Messene. Would those helots and pereoikoi who didn’t become soldiers have contributed a tax in kind? This would have been a real difficulty with his proposal, and it is surprising that he does not address it.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3   One possibility is that Xenophon felt that such sordid details didn’t belong in his perfect army “long ago and far away.” If Cyrus was the perfect and most just leader, he could not be shown doing the ugly things which were often required to collect food and money. This would make the Cyropaedia resemble medieval romances, which also avoided sordid details about who cooked their knights’ bread and picked their knights’ lice (a tendency mocked by Cervantes but accepted by many other renaissance soldiers). Cyropaedia is often euphemistic: there are few references to slavery, and Cyrus nobly refuses to rape his female captives. But it also contains the striking amoralist advice of 1.6 (see Danzig, G. 2007), advice on how to manage a market (6.2.38-39), and clear statements that a large army cannot be fed in winter (6.1.14) and that Cyrus was as active and excellent in finding places to forage as he was in every other military art (6.1.24, 6.2.26).  Xenophon is definitely interested in logistics in the Cyropaedia, although perhaps not in finance.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0   Another possibility is that Xenophon’s archaic setting was the problem. Perhaps he was unsure how sixth-century Persians “should” be supplied, or felt that the correct way was too different from Greek methods. Could he really have ignored the Persian half of Cyrus the Younger’s army, so that he didn’t know where it got its bread and blankets? However, Cyrus the Younger at least had a market in his camp, and the Ten Thousand never had difficulty explaining what they needed to the various peoples they encountered.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0   Finally, perhaps Xenophon really felt that having an army equipped by a generous benefactor then supplied indefinitely by living off the land was plausible. He had seen medium-sized armies live off the land several times in his career, although his picture of the Spartan army in Asia in Hellenica is wishful. However, this still leaves unexplained where the money for arms, tents, and transport came from, and how reinforcements and men in training were supplied in friendly territory. Nor does it explain whether such a system could scale to the huge armies of Cyropaedia (although his descriptions of huge numbers of troops moving have similar problems). For all of his military detail, Xenophon leaves many questions about his setting unanswered.