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The U.S. Founders and Cyrus the Great of Persia

The following post was originally delivered as a public lecture at the Smithsonian Institution Freer Sackler GalleriesYoung John Quincy AdamsYoung John Quincy Adams
as “The Legacy of Cyrus the Great: Iran and Beyond” on 27 April 2013, in connection with American tour of Cyrus Cylinder, British Museum.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Look around you. Could anything be stranger than talking about ancient Persia in a city dedicated to the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome? Everywhere in Washington, D.C., stand monuments to the American founders’ reverence for ancient Greece and Rome: the Capitol Building, the White House, the Jefferson Memorial. Couldn’t we just stop there, and say that the founders loved western civilization, and then go home for the day? But look closer: it’s not all West. In fact, there is some pretty big East represented in the nation’s capital: the Washington Monument, as big an advertisement for ancient Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean as anyone could wish for.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 So let’s take a closer look at how the founders thought of West and East, and how they thought of Cyrus the Great, the mighty king in a place we today would called the Middle East. We learn a lot about ancient Greece and Rome in school, and we’re taught—incorrectly, in fact—that they formed part of this thing we call “western civilization.”  By comparison, we learn little about ancient Persia, so it seems exotic to us: we mentally place it on a map as part of the great mysterious East, a place we think must have been very different from “the West.”  We talk a lot today about an East/West divide, and we love to use the phrase, “East Meets West.”

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But I’m here to tell you today that the idea of an East-West divide is a modern one. Even the idea of something called “western civilization”—of a continuous flow of once-great civilizations from ancient Greece to us—was only invented in the early twentieth century.[1] What this means is that the U.S. founders—like many educated people in the eighteenth century, the age of Enlightenment—certainly did not believe that ancient Persia was an incomprehensible and alien civilization, a mysterious East that was closed off from the West.[2] They would have been surprised by our phrase “East Meets West,” which did not really exist in the eighteenth century; it was a term coined much later, and one that has only really taken off since World War II.[3]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 By contrast, the world of the American founders was one of what we might call cultural syncretism; they knew that the East was always in contact with the West. Their mental geography was very different from our own. To them, the defining feature of the ancient world was that it was all part of a giant Mediterranean world, a sandy, watery, mountainous world that stretched from the Straits of Gibraltar in the western Mediterranean to Persia in the east. This vast swath of water and land was home to numerous rising and falling empires, from the Egypt of the pharaohs to the watery island world of Homer’s Greece, to the mighty Roman empire itself, the largest empire the world was ever to see until Britain’s in the nineteenth century. It was the Romans who called the ancient Mediterranean mare nostrum: our sea, but of course it really belonged to everyone. To the American founders, that was the world of Cyrus the Great, not a world of East vs. West, but a world of porous political and cultural boundaries, peopled by cosmopolitan traders and mighty armies, where the only constant was change itself.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The founders knew a lot about the great Persian king Cyrus the Great, a man who had lived at the very dawn of Greece’s so-called golden age of art, history, and literature. They learned about Cyrus through the writings of the Greek historian Xenophon, who had travelled to Persia as part of the Greek army. Xenophon had not personally known Cyrus the Great, who had lived a century before. But Xenophon wrote a book about the education of Cyrus the Great, the Cyropaedia, that became a model for leaders from the ancient world forward. It was required reading for anyone who wanted to get into college in eighteenth-century America. Hopeful students had to plow through the Latin and sometimes even Greek edition of Xenophon just to get into the door of the university.[4]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I’m going to say some nice things about the Cyropaedia in a second, but first I have to say some not nice things, which are straight from the pen of poor John Quincy Adams, age 18, whose helicopter father—that would be John Adams—made him read the whole thing, cover to cover, in preparation for the life of public service he and Abigail were sure the young man was destined for.[5] Here’s a catalogue of despair from the young John Quincy, complaining to his diary on several different occasions about how awful it is, and how he hardly understands a thing of what he’s reading (probably because he was reading it in ancient Greek):

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 “Finish’d the first Book of Homer’s Iliad, which is far more entertaining than the Cyropaedia.”

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 “Finished the 4th. Book of the Cyropaedia; I shall have no more to do with this author while I remain here, and am heartily glad of it.”

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 “I have got through in four mornings, the preface to the Cyropaedia, but it is a crabbed piece of business. The Stile of this author is said to be Beautiful: a person who understands as little of it as I do, cannot discover the graces, that fine language, communicates to Ideas. I can only perceive a very great simplicity; which it would not be proper for an author at this day to adopt.”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 “I finish’d the first book of the Cyropaedia; to admire the beauties of this book I must be much more acquainted with the Language, it is written in, than I am at present. The Events related in what I have gone through, are in themselves small, and not very interesting.”[6]

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 A happier prospect opens up when we look at the older generation of people who loved to read about the exploits of Cyrus the Great: these were the founding fathers themselves. The libraries of many of the major founding fathers of the U.S.—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin—contain copies of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. These of course are not the original versions of Xenophon, but modern editions of this ancient text, either in the original ancient Greek with a facing Latin translation, or entirely translated into a modern language: that’s how relevant this book was for the eighteenth century. These books are monuments to the extraordinary energy of the American founders in surrounding themselves with the political monuments of the ancient world.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Let’s just consider for a moment the edition one of the editions of the Cyropaedia owned by John Adams—I say one of the editions because like a lot of his contemporaries he owned several versions of many different ancient authors.[7] This version of the Cyropaedia, published in London, dates from 1613, over a century before John Adams was born. It was the first edition of the Cyropaedia published in England.[8] In other words, Adams’s edition of the Cyropaedia was already nearly as far in time from the age of John Adams as John Adams is from our own time.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Thomas Jefferson was no less energetic in getting his hands on the Cyropaedia. In 1787, he wrote a letter to his Italian friend Philip Mazzei, asking him to secure a modern Italian translation of the book.[9] Let’s think about 1787, and why that year is significant. Jefferson was in Paris, but everybody else was soon going to be assembling in Philadelphia to begin revising the Articles of Confederation into a document that became the United States Constitution. So it’s no exaggeration to say that the exploits of Cyrus the Great of Persia were on the minds of the American founders.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 So what did they want from Cyrus? Why was he interesting and politically useful to them? Contrary to what has been recently suggested, they were not interested at all in Cyrus as a bastion of religious tolerance and the first promoter of human rights: these are our own modern preoccupations. The founders were interested in toleration and human rights, of course, but they did not use Cyrus the Great or Xenophon’s biography of Cyrus the Great as the exempla of these ideas. They did not know about the Cyrus cylinder at all, since it wasn’t unearthed until 1879, a hundred years after the American Revolution.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 So what did they appreciate about Cyrus? What they really liked about Cyrus was that he could be imagined as the ideal ruler, trained to rule as a benevolent despot over his admiring and willing subjects. This might seem shocking to us today, since we think of the founders as the people who sent kings packing, most famously in the Declaration of Independence, the ultimate Dear John letter to the King of England George III, which enumerated precisely 28 reasons why he was such an awful king.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 But we need also to remember that the founders had come of age in a world of kings and princes and emperors, and they were intensely interested in the idea of political power and how it should be exercised in its legislative, judicial and executive versions. The king that they knew best was George III, who had ascended the throne at the tender age of 22, just when many of the founders were themselves also young men: all these people grew up together, with an ocean separating them but the ideals of the greatness and rightness of monarchical rule uniting them for the formative years of their lives. Everyone also knew that much of rest of the relevant world was governed by kings as well.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 So the education of a wise and great king, a king who could rule subjects and lead armies to victory, was of immense concern to the founders. They carried this concern over into the American Revolution, when they dispensed with kings but still needed to worry about the extent and limits of executive power. The American president as imagined in 1787 retained many monarchical elements: the American presidency can be thought of as a non-hereditary king, retaining the British king’s powers as commander in chief, the power to pardon, and the power to bestow honors. Here, in the new American president, was a person who needed all the wisdom of a king, and so where better to look in search of kingly wisdom than to a genre of literature we call the “mirror for princes,” since for centuries these books had instructed princes and kings in how to rule well and wisely. In the American revolutionary era, the Cyropaedia became a mirror for presidents.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 So perhaps now we can begin to see why the example of Cyrus the Great that was presented in the Cyropaedia remained highly relevant to the American founders, whether we are in the pre-Declaration of Independence world of kings, or the post-Constitution world of American presidents.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Let’s read a little bit together from Xenophon’s great life of Cyrus, the Cyropaedia. I’ve condensed it into three main lessons, the ones that the founders may have found most relevant for their world.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 1.) Lesson 1, how do you rule over your fellow men and women? Here is the answer provided by Cyrus the Great: “Man is by nature fitted to govern all creatures, except his fellow-man. But when we came to realise the character of Cyrus the Persian, we were led to a change of mind: here is a man, we said, who won for himself obedience from thousands of his fellows, from cities and tribes innumerable: we must ask ourselves whether the government of men is after all an impossible or even a difficult task, provided one set about it in the right way.”

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 2.) Lesson 2: the best leaders work even harder than the people they lead. Here is Cyrus the Great, talking to his father: “[Some people believe that] the ruler should differ from his subjects by the splendour of his banquets, the wealth of gold in his coffers, the length and depth of his slumbers, and his freedom from trouble and pain. But my views are different: I hold that the ruler should be marked out from other men, not by taking life easily, but by his forethought and his wisdom and his eagerness for work.”

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 3.) Lesson 3: All power is fragile, even when you are Cyrus the Great. Here is Xenophon, speaking of Cyrus: “Of all the powers in Asia, the kingdom of Cyrus showed itself to be the greatest and most glorious. On the east it was bounded by the Red Sea, on the north by the Euxine, on the west by Cyprus and Egypt, and on the south by Ethiopia. And yet the whole of this enormous empire was governed by the mind and will of a single man, Cyrus: his subjects he cared for and cherished as a father might care for his children, and they who came beneath his rule reverenced him like a father.  But no sooner was he dead than his sons were at strife, cities and nations revolted, and all things began to decay.”

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 These were some of the lessons that the founders of the U.S. drew from Cyrus the Great. They are very eighteenth century, but we might all agree that they are as applicable to 1776 and 1787 as they are to us today.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [1] On the rise of western civilization, see Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002; pb 2004); Gilbert Allardyce, “The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course,” American Historical Review 87, no. 3 (June 1982):  695-725.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [2] Elsewhere I have discussed the American founders’ interest in another “eastern” civilization–ancient Carthage–and its importance in American constitutional thought: see Caroline Winterer, “Model Empire, Lost City: Ancient Carthage and the Science of Politics in Revolutionary America,” William and Mary Quarterly 67, 1 (Jan. 2010): 3-30.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [3] Google Ngram, s.v. “East Meets West.”

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 [4] Edwin C.  Broome, “A Historical and Critical Discussion of College Admission Requirements.”  Columbia University Contributions to Philosophy, Psychology and Education 11 (1903):  175-323.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 [6] All quotations from: Diary of John Quincy Adams, The Adams Papers Digital Edition, ed. C. James Taylor. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008. Canonic URL: http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/ADMS-03-01-02-0007-0014-0002.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 [7] On the classical reading of the founders, see Meyer Reinhold, Meyer, The Classick Pages:  Classical Reading of Eighteenth-Century Americans (University Park, PA:  American Philological Association, 1975).

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 [8] Xenophontos Kyrou paideias biblia e. = Xenophontis De Cyri institutione libri octoXenophontos Kyrou paideias biblia e. = Xenophontis De Cyri institutione libri octo (Etonae: Excusum in Collegio Regali.,1613). John Adams Library at the Boston Public Library.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 [9] Thomas Jefferson to Philip Mazzei, 16 February 1787. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, ed. Barbara B. Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008. Canonic URL: http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/TSJN-01-11-02-0163