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Why the Cyropaedia is so dull

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 This will be more of a provocation than a post. But it is a provocation that will I think be of relevance for those teaching the Cyropaedia anytime soon (a luxury I, alas, will not have). In 1993, Deborah Gera opened her fine book on the Cyropaedia with a decidedly unpromising sentence:

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0  “Considered by all too many to be one of the most tedious books to have survived classical antiquity, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia is a complex, varied work”  (D. Gera 1993 Xenophon’s Cyropaedia.  Oxford.).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Then there is the famous jibe by Gibbon—

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0  “The Cyropaedia is vague and languid: the Anabasis is circumstantial and animated. Such is the eternal difference between fiction and truth.”

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 (That’s found on 551n119, a note to volume II, chapter XXIV of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall as edited by J. B. Bury, in the Wildside Press edition of 2004—a Hellenist, I don’t know how to cite Gibbon properly.)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 As James Tatum notes, in 1761 the Cyropaedia was already becoming obscure enough that Sterne could joke on its length and irrelevance by having Tristram’s father compose his Tristrapaedia, the work that was born obsolete, as it was forever unsuccessfully playing catch-up with young Tristram himself (J. Tatum 1989:3-4, Xenophon’s Imperial Fiction, Princeton, citing Book 5, chapter 16 of Tristram Shandy).

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In short, the Cyropaedia was long considered the sort of work that even classicists would gladly trade for a lost work by one of Xenophon’s contemporaries.  (Oh, for a complete edition of the Oxyrhynchus historian . . . ) Since Tatum and Gera wrote—and indeed in some large part because of the fine work done by Tatum and Gera—the Cyropaedia has become rather more topical. But the question remains, I suppose, and will no doubt be relevant for our students.  Why has the Cyropaedia so often been considered a dull piece of work? And why are we—and why should they—be interested in it despite its putative dullness?

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 6 Why do many find the Cyropaedia dull?  It’s a long book. More importantly, I think, its protagonist—after his decidedly charming youth, which is far from dull—is so consistently successful that anyone looking for narrative drive in the Cyropaedia is bound to be disappointed.  Xenophon’s near-death experience in the Anabasis is of course a rather striking contrast, providing us with narrative bound to be more enticing. But Xenophon could have chosen to present Cyrus as a figure with more flaws, and to present his series of conquests with rather more suspense. Cyrus, though, does not make mistakes (or makes precious few of them). After his boyhood, his education (despite the title—though a comment in our garden nicely suggested that ancient titles might more normally have applied only to the outset of a book) is largely complete. He does not learn by failure. He is an exemplar meant to teach us via his successes. Perhaps Xenophon had enough of failure to show in his Hellenica and even in the Anabasis, where the community of the 10,000 is as flawed as it is successful.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Xenophon thus chose to make the Cyropaedia dull in this sense. But why did he do so? I don’t have a ready answer, but perhaps can throw out some suggestions via another question. What do we find of interest in the Cyropaedia?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 There are of course scholarly reasons to find the work of interest—its possible reliance on lost Persian sources; its role in the Greek debate about constitutions; its central role to any larger understanding of Xenophon’s worldview; its status at the head of various genres, or between various genres, etc..  But these are the sorts of things that are interesting not because of any intrinsic merits of the Cyropaedia, but because of our preexisting scholarly interests. They won’t sell the book to undergraduates (unless those undergraduates are budding classicists).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 What I find of greatest interest in the Cyropaedia is Cyrus’ ability to manipulate people to his own ends. I think this manipulative skill is something many readers would agree on, even if we disagree about his ends, and argue therefore about the connotations of “manipulation”. But of course there is tremendous debate here about the degree to which Xenophon wanted readers to view Cyrus as an unblemished ideal. I rather side with those who find Cyrus Machiavellian avant la lettre. I.e., I find Tatum’s reading of the work rather more on the mark than, say, that of Vivienne Gray 2011 (in Xenophon’s Prince.  Oxford, 2011).  This is not the place to resolve that debate, but I will stake the following claim—or perhaps confession: I find the Cyropaedia far more interesting, and indeed fascinating, when I see (or imagine?) that Cyrus is cunningly deceiving and exploiting people. The surface dullness of the Cyropaedia then becomes a Xenophontic deception, a feint on a nearly epic scale, as unwary (or less fanciful?) readers see a bland, virtuous hero where we with the eyes to see find a brilliant, unscrupulous climber, who founds a vast empire—only to have that empire fall into disgrace immediately upon his departure from the scene, revealing the limits of immoral empire building.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 I must be right about the Cyropaedia, therefore, because my reading makes it less dull.