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Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Persian Oral History: Part One

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Synopsis: Xenophon’s Cyropaedia is a complicated work, but evidence exists that certain details are likely derived from one or more Iranian oral traditions distinct from those preserved in the works of other classical authors. Xenophon himself admits familiarity with Iranian oral traditions concerning Cyrus, and such traditions may underlie his accounts of Cyrus’ paternal lineage, his expedition to Armenia, his alliance with the Babylonian traitor Gobryas, his establishment of various political, military, and cultural institutions, and his death. On account of its length, this article will be posted in three installments.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 This article is based on the research I conducted for my recently published biography of Cyrus II “the Great,” entitled Discovering Cyrus: The Persian Conqueror Astride the Ancient World. Cyrus was the founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and any attempt at studying his life and times must consider the historical value of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. Discovering Cyrus Jacket PhotoThis is no straightforward task, for despite purporting to be a simple biography of the Persian founder, the Cyropaedia is a complex work.[1] According to some experts, the book is a pure romance that holds the distinction of being the world’s first novel. Other authorities have characterized it as a work of political philosophy – the “portraiture of a just empire” according to the Latin orator Cicero. In this capacity, the Cyropaedia represents Xenophon’s response to Plato’s Republic and the treatise on kingly power penned by another of Socrates’ pupils, Antisthenes, who also based his work, now lost, on the accomplishments of Cyrus II. In the Cyropaedia, one finds Xenophon’s views on social organization and political and military leadership. Cyrus II appears throughout the book as the ideal leader – just, sagacious, energetic, and firm. The Cyropaedia’s description of him abounds with thinly veiled references to Xenophon’s real-life role models (e.g., Socrates, Cyrus the Younger, Agesilaus, etc.), and the inescapable conclusion is that Xenophon modeled his ideal prince, at least in part, after certain charismatic historical personages that he had encountered during his lifetime.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 These considerations militate against the Cyropaedia’s value as a historical source, as do several other features, which I will now discuss. First, due to the book’s didactic aims, Xenophon appears to have suppressed any information that might explicitly call into question the integrity of its protagonist. The most notable example of this occurs in the account of how Cyrus became king of the Medes. It was a well-known fact in Xenophon’s time that Cyrus II had conquered the Medes through force of arms after leading the Persians in revolt against Astyages, the Median king whom Herodotus portrays as Cyrus’ maternal grandfather. Xenophon himself alludes to Astyages’ overthrow in his Anabasis (3.4.8–12). However, the Cyropaedia (8.5.19) makes no reference to Cyrus’ treasonous war and, instead, has him peacefully inherit the sovereignty of the Medes from Astyages’ fictional son Cyaxares.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Second, the Cyropaedia presents Cyrus as the founder ex nihilo of most noteworthy Persian imperial and royal institutions. Thus, Xenophon’s Cyrus is the first Persian king to divide his empire into satrapies, employ eunuchs to keep watch over his palace, organize a standing army of ten thousand Persian spearmen (the famous “Ten Thousand Immortals”), and form a priestly caste from the Median tribe of the Magi. Although I will return to this point later on, it will suffice to state at present that the Cyropaedia leaves little room for any other Achaemenid king to contribute to Persian imperial practices. This is problematic, given Herodotus’ testimony that Darius I, who rose to power less than a decade after Cyrus’ death, established many Persian imperial institutions. Again, the impression given is that Xenophon freely distorted the facts to advance his narrative by glorifying Cyrus.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Third, Xenophon was clearly familiar with the works of Herodotus and Ctesias, the two other main classical sources on Cyrus’ life. Both authors wrote histories of the Persian Empire before Xenophon published his Cyropaedia, and each history contains a quasi-legendary account of Cyrus’ origins and rise to power. Compared to Herodotus’ and Ctesias’ accounts, Xenophon’s narrative is relatively devoid of supernatural elements. At a glance, this quality lends the Cyropaedia a veneer of credibility. In truth, however, Xenophon had little use for the supernatural in this work and seems to have rationalized some of the obvious legendary material in the works of his predecessors. Thus, whereas Ctesias recounts a fairytale tradition (clearly modeled after the Mesopotamian legend of Sargon of Akkad) that made Cyrus the son of a highway bandit and had him rise to power by serving as Astyages’ cupbearer, Xenophon (1.3.8), who was aware of Cyrus’ royal lineage (see below), rationalizes the episode by having the young Cyrus entertain his grandfather by imitating the latter’s cupbearer. Xenophon’s version certainly seems more believable but may be no less fictitious.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Given these and other shortcomings, the temptation is to set aside the Cyropaedia altogether as a valuable source, and many scholars have done so in their analyses of Cyrus II’s life and times. Thus, in his landmark history of ancient Media, Igor Diakonoff dismisses the Cyropaedia with the following words: “What … Xenophon relates in his Cyropaedia is pure romance. In it both history and geography have nothing in common with the true events and places, apart from cases when some fact was borrowed from Herodotus or from Ctesias.”[2] Similarly, in his important monograph on Cyrus, the archaeologist Max Mallowan declares: “Let us recognize immediately that Xenophon does violence to the historical facts.”[3]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 But other scholars have refused to discount the Cyropaedia altogether. According to the eminent Assyriologist Sidney Smith, the customary criticism of the Cyropaedia as a historical source “does not inspire confidence, for it cannot be reconciled with the character of Xenophon as a gallant and intelligent gentleman, nor with the honesty of his other words. It is quite clear that in Herodotus, Xenophon, Ctesias, the quotations from Berossus, there is much that is erroneous, much that is doubtful. But these sources cannot be inconsiderately repudiated; the cause and nature of the errors need more careful attention.”[4]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 More recently, Simo Parpola has defended the Cyropaedia’s historical value by highlighting miscellaneous terms and stories, which, in his opinion, demonstrate Xenophon’s reliance upon at least one authentic Persian source.[5] My own opinion is that the Cyropaedia contains both important information that should guide our analysis of the classical sources pertaining to Cyrus, as well as genuine historical data, upon which modern historians can rely, albeit with due circumspection. To support my view, I will highlight several important passages of the Cyropaedia, which merit special attention by historians of ancient Iran.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The Preservation of Cyrus’ Memory “in Story and in Song”

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In what may be called the introduction to the Cyropaedia (1.2.1), Xenophon declares how the Asiatics of his day celebrated Cyrus’ life “in story and in song.” This brief declaration drives home an important point and frames the manner in which one should analyze many classical references to Cyrus, including some that Xenophon provides. For the most part, Greek information about Cyrus ultimately derived from Iranian oral literature. In contrast to the Greeks, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and other Near Eastern peoples, the ancient Iranians never developed a robust tradition of written history. They preserved their history largely by word of mouth, through tales recounted by professional bards and minstrels. Thus, as is predictable from Xenophon’s anecdote, the accounts of Cyrus’ life given by Herodotus and Ctesias are replete with folklore motifs. This is because the professional storytellers who spawned these accounts tended to model “historical” narratives after popular legendary tales, which, in many cases, evolved from primitive nature myths. Hence, Strabo (15.3.18) relates that the Persians “use as teachers … their wisest men, who also interweave their teachings with the mythical element, thus reducing that element to a useful purpose, and rehearse both with song and without song the deeds both of the gods and of the noblest men.”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 It should come as no surprise, then, that the tales of Cyrus’ origins and rise to power bear an uncanny resemblance to certain legends preserved in the Zoroastrian scriptures and Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the Iranian national epic of the tenth century ce, as well as to the Babylonian folk account of the second millennium bce ruler Sargon of Akkad, whom the Mesopotamians regarded as their “ideal king.”[6] These resemblances in all likelihood reflect more than mere poetic license on the part of the professional storytellers. Recent studies have demonstrated how ancient Persian rulers hired professional storytellers to influence the historical understanding of their subjects.[7] The proliferation of eulogistic quasi-legendary accounts of Cyrus’ life throughout the Achaemenid period thus attests to the great significance that the Persian founder’s successors attached to preserving his memory. That Herodotus, Ctesias, and Xenophon all had access to such accounts, which portrayed Cyrus as an epic hero, demonstrates that the descendants of Darius I made no effort to stamp out Cyrus’ memory. This detail is noteworthy, given the tendency of certain scholars to interpret Darius’ rise to power as an uprising against Cyrus’ house.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 At another level, inasmuch as the core features of the so-called “Cyrus sagas” likely date back to the conqueror’s own lifetime, one gets a sense of how Cyrus wished to be remembered. This may be done by comparing the Cyrus sagas, on the one hand, to the legends on which they were based, on the other. One such legend is the story of Kavi Husravah, the archetypal “just king” in the Iranian epics. Among other things, the epics praise Kavi Husravah for vanquishing the oppressive Turanian king Frangrasyan, the great enemy of the Iranian nation. As noted by several scholars, Achaemenid storytellers likely modeled the stories of Cyrus’ rise to power partly on the legend of this hero, with Cyrus playing the part of Kavi Husravah, and the Median king Astyages playing the part of Frangrasyan.[8] Now, in all known iterations of the Husravah legend, the hero slays Frangrasyan and his kin. Specifically, in the Shahnameh, Husravah (New Persian Kay Khosrow) lures Frangrasyan (New Persian Afrasiyab) out of hiding in the recesses of a subterranean stronghold by torturing to death his brother, whose cries Frangrasyan cannot ignore. Not only do the Cyrus sagas unanimously agree that Cyrus spared Astyages’ life, but in Ctesias’ quasi-legendary account (Epitome of Photius § 1), Cyrus lures the vanquished Median king out of hiding within the vaults of his palace by threatening to torture, rather than actually harming, his relatives.[9] This “softening” of a well-known legendary motif accords with Cyrus’ reputation as a relatively merciful conqueror, mindful to avoid gratuitous bloodshed. Nevertheless, if one were to interpret Ctesias’ account without knowledge of the underlying Iranian legend, then one might erroneously draw the opposite conclusion – that Cyrus was remembered for acting cruelly by threatening Astyages’ family.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Of course, the mixing of historical and legendary narratives makes the historian’s task that much more difficult in analyzing the classical references to Cyrus, due to the risk of giving undue attention to a detail lifted from the epics. The Cyrus sagas certainly contain historical information, but one must sift through a good amount of legendary material to find it.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Cambyses I the “King of the Persians”

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Of the three main classical sources on Cyrus – Herodotus, Ctesias, and Xenophon – the first and the third accurately relate that Cyrus was the son of Cambyses I. Ctesias makes Cyrus the son of a Mardian highway bandit named Atradates. The Mardians were a rugged tribe of mountain-dwellers, and by making Cyrus of Mardian descent, Ctesias (or more accurately, the oral tradition preserved by Ctesias) seems to have borrowed another motif from the legend of Sargon of Akkad, who was reputedly raised by a predatory hill tribe. As between Herodotus and Xenophon, Herodotus (1.107) denies Cyrus’ father royal standing. He simply declares that Cambyses was a man of mild habits and good family. In so doing, Herodotus betrays the Median bias of his source, for the Medes exercised hegemony over the Persians before Cyrus defeated Astyages. On the other hand, Cyrus’ own inscriptions make clear that Cambyses I ruled in some capacity (presumably, as a vassal of the Medes). Specifically, the inscriptions that Cyrus commissioned in Babylonia present the Persian conqueror as the son of Cambyses, the “King of Anshan.” The inscriptions of the Babylonian king Nabonidus occasionally apply the same title to Cyrus II.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 “Anshan” was the age-old Elamite and Babylonian name for the southwestern Iranian region settled by the Persian tribes, and the fact that Cyrus presented himself as the hereditary ruler of Anshan in certain inscriptions, whereas Darius I avoided the term in favor of Old Persian Parsa, or Persia, has invited all sorts of speculation about Cyrus’ ancestry. Specifically, several prominent scholars have recently constructed elaborate arguments that, while Darius was a true Persian, Cyrus belonged to the pre-Iranian nation of the Elamites.[10] In my opinion, these arguments are not particularly strong, although they have inspired much thoughtful discussion on the importance of Elamite cultural influence in early Persian history. Not only do the arguments rest on numerous assumptions, but they neglect that the inscriptions describing Cyrus and his forebears as rulers of Anshan were all composed in non-Iranian languages, either Akkadian or Elamite, most likely before the Persians had developed a script of their own. This detail deserves attention, for Elamite and, especially, Babylonian scribes had a penchant for geographical archaisms and habitually followed their own literary conventions and terminology. Oft-overlooked by the scholars advocating an Elamite ancestry for Cyrus is that the relevant inscriptions contain other geographical archaisms that militate against the existence of special ethnic connotations associated with the title “King of Anshan.” For example, the most emphatic statement of Cyrus’ Anshanite titulary occurs in the Akkadian inscriptions of Cyrus and Nabonidus, which texts refer to Media and the Medes by the terms “Gutium” and “Umman Manda” (literally, the “Hordes From Who Knows Where”), respectively.[11] These were traditional Babylonian appellations for the northern Zagros and its inhabitants that Darius I also avoided in his inscriptions. Because Darius had no particular affection for the Medes, the appropriate (and cautious) conclusion is that during the nearly two decades spanning the relevant inscriptions of Cyrus and Darius, the Achaemenids insisted that their scribes abandon outdated terminology in mentioning the two main nations of their empire. The more sensational theory that Cyrus was an Elamite presses the textual evidence unduly. The title “King of Anshan” can, therefore, be properly interpreted as synonymous with “King of Persia,” or a part thereof, and in fact, an inscription of Nabonidus refers to Cyrus II as the “King of Parsu (i.e., Persia),” while the earlier annals of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal apply the title “King of Parsumash (i.e., Persia)” to another Cyrus – most likely Cyrus I (the father of Cambyses I), who also appears as a “King of Anshan” in the Babylonian inscriptions of Cyrus II. All three rulers were Persian kings.[12]

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Returning to the Cyropaedia, no Greek historian before Xenophon (1.2.1) is known to have described Cambyses as a “King of Persia.” True, the works of some of these authors are no longer extant, such that we cannot be certain what they said about Cyrus’ paternal lineage. Nevertheless, insofar as we know today, no classical account demonstrably independent of Xenophon evinces knowledge of Cambyses’ royal descent. One may reasonably infer from this that Xenophon obtained his information about Cambyses from an authentic Persian source with accurate knowledge of Achaemenid family history. One wonders what other information in the Cyropaedia may have derived from this source.


18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 [1] For helpful recent analyses of the Cyropaedia, see, e.g., Gera (1993); Sandridge (2012).

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 [2] Diakonoff (1985), 142.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 [3] Mallowan (1985), 417.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [7] Bivar (2000); Kreyenbroek (2008), 9; Shayegan (2012). I have discussed the issue at length in my book; see Zarghamee (2013), 535–542.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [8] See Zarghamee (2013), 538–539, 671, with references to other sources.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [9] It is true that in Ctesias’ narrative (Epitome of Photius § 1), shortly after receiving recognition as the legitimate king of Media, Cyrus executes one of Astyages’ kinsmen named Spitamas for uttering a falsehood. However, in Achaemenid royal ideology, insubordination to the monarch was termed “lying,” and to the extent that the tale of Spitamas’ death contains any truth, it may reflect the memory of Cyrus putting to death a powerful Median noble who refused to acknowledge his overlordship.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [10] See, e.g., Potts (2005); Kuhrt (2007), 48, 54. In addition to overemphasizing the appearance of Anshanite titulary in Elamite and Babylonian texts, these scholars overlook that the names of Cyrus (Old Persian Kurush) and Cambyses (Old Persian Kambujiya) bear an uncanny resemblance to those of the eastern Iranian tribes of the Kurus and Kambojas, who are mentioned in Indian literature.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 [11] See Herzfeld (1968), 30; Vogelsang (1992), 184; Zarghamee (2013),476–477.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 [12] Some scholars dispute whether the Cyrus whom Ashurbanipal claims as the King of Parsumash in an inscription dated to approximately 640 bce could have been the grandfather of Cyrus II, who was born around 600–585 bce on the basis that Ashurbanipal’s Cyrus would have lived too far in the past; see, e.g., Briant (2002), 18; Brosius (2006), 6. However, several of the later Achaemenids, specifically Artaxerxes I and Artaxerxes II, had lengthy reigns of forty years and forty-six years, respectively, such that this chronological objection carries little weight.

Source: http://www.cyropaedia.org/2013/12/01/xenophons-cyropaedia-and-persian-oral-history-part-one/