The virtues of Cyrus — in his time and ours
Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus was a favorite of kings and princes for generations. We need its wisdom for our Republic today.
The first Persian emperor Cyrus the Great was venerated by the Greeks of antiquity who fought against his successors, by the Israelite prophets whose people he freed from captivity in Babylon, by the future conqueror of his empire, Alexander, and by generations of medieval kings and princes in Europe.
That’s thanks to one particular Greek: Xenophon of Athens, born around 430 BC, a century after Cyrus died. Xenophon was a military general, philosopher, and friend of Socrates. He famously led an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries on behalf of Cyrus the Younger, the subject of his Anabasis. But lesser known is his part-fictional biography of Cyrus the Great, “The Education of Cyrus” or Cyropaedia.
Xenophon tells the story of the young Cyrus’s education “in the laws of the Persians,” emphasizing the common good, moderation, and civic virtue – as well as his development into a military leader, persuasive statesman, and founder of the Persian Empire as Cyrus the Great.
The work would later be imitated by hundreds of other “mirrors for princes” (specula principum) — a form of advice literature for young princes.
For nearly two millennia, the Cyropaedia was standard reading for kings and princes across Europe and the Mediterranean. It was a favorite of Alexander the Great — who would conquer the Achaemenid empire — and after him, Julius Caesar. It was also a favorite of Niccolò Machiavelli, whose more cynical The Prince ironically displaced the idealistic Cyropaedia from political philosophy in the 16th century.
The 20th century philosopher Leo Strauss was inclined to believe Machiavelli was a “teacher of evil,” and the word “Machiavellian” is a derogatory term today, connoting dishonesty, the idea that the ends justify the means, and the suspension of virtue in pursuit of power. Cyrus was not above trickery or deception against his enemies, but the idealism presented by Xenophon stands in stark contrast to the cynicism of Machiavelli. Not incidentally, Strauss stood up for Xenophon as a first-class philosopher when many found his idealism to be cliche.
Cyrus deeply embodied the classical Platonic virtues: Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. And Xenophon sees this as the key fact of his ascent to the most powerful station of any ruler in history up to that point. It represents the traditional view of virtue and power that was dominant for all of the history of the West — until Machiavelli.
The Virtue of Moderation (or Temperance)
Cyrus was the son of the King of Persia, Cambyses I, and grandson of the King of the Medes through his mother. At 12, Cyrus had gone with his mother to spend time at the court of his grandfather in Media. The two kingdoms were a study in contrasts. Cyrus had never seen his father take a sip of wine; Persian royals wore simple clothing and ate simple foods. But the Medes were obsessed with leisure and luxury. Xenophon wrote that Persian boys learned justice the way Greek boys learned reading and writing–that’s how important moderation, self-restraint, and the common good were to Persian society.
Cyrus never forgot the dialectic of indulgence versus moderation. A striking example of his character is given during the war with the Assyrians. Cyrus’ forces capture Panthea, “the most beautiful woman in Asia,” but Cyrus refuses to go see her, fearing that her beauty would cause him to neglect his duties. Neither does he steal her for himself from her husband, Abradatas the King of Susa, but protects her. In return, Panthea tells her husband of Cyrus’ “piety, moderation, and pity toward herself”–and Abradatas allies with Cyrus out of deep gratitude. Cyrus’ moderation not only kept him focused to achieve his goal, it also protected Panthea’s honor and gained him an important ally.
Competence and Justice
At the same time that Persian education focused on moderation and justice, Cyrus’ education was also designed to build the competence required for successful leadership in the ancient world.
When Cyrus and his father march toward Persia’s border, the King counsels his son that in order to win in battle, he will have to be “a plotter, a dissembler, wily, a cheat, a thief.” Cyrus is somewhat shocked by the apparent suggestion to act against Persian morals. But his father reveals that all the hunting he learned as a child: shooting a bow, throwing spears, stalking boars and deer, and battling lions and bears – all of it was training for eventual war. Only when they were older and could reason, did they learn that their childhood games had the most serious application.
Persian youth were taught morals: “to tell the truth, not to deceive, not to steal, and not to take advantage, and to punish whoever acts contrary to this.” King Cambyses gives Cyrus a final lesson in Persian justice before he departs on his military campaign at the head of 1,000 skilled warriors and 30,000 troops.
Cyrus was especially concerned about being loved by his soldiers and subjects and thought he would gain their love by doing good for them. His father reminds him that this is nearly impossible to do all the time – instead he should show his concern for their wellbeing and set an example for them by shouldering the largest burden of civic duties.
“If it is summer, the ruler must be evident in being greedy for a greater share of the heat; and if it is winter, of the cold; and if it is a time of toils, of labors, for all these things contribute to being loved by one’s subjects.”
As the King encouraged him, “honor makes labors a bit lighter for the ruler, as does the very knowing that his acts do not go unnoticed.” Cyrus set an example of competence combined with a sense of justice, and his soldiers emulated him.
Persian youth both built competence to outsmart the animals they hunted and learned justice to treat their friends well — because eventually they might be forced to deceive some men while maintaining alliances with others. Competence by itself is necessary, but a moral framework is also required to direct those skills toward good ends.
Making Virtue Desirable
When Cyrus went at age 12 to live at the court of his grandfather Astyages, King of Media Cyrus, his mother feared that he would not learn Persian justice given that Astygages was a tyrant. Cyrus ultimately stayed there for four years, riding horses and hunting, but the foundation of virtue he learned at home in Persia guided him as he developed into a fierce warrior. Before he returned home, he took the beautiful gifts his grandfather has lavished on him and distributed them among his loyal Median friends
Cyrus was known for his generous rewards for loyalty and good work. In fact, meritocracy (arguably an early natural aristocracy) was the engine of his expansion of the Persian state from a stagnant aristocracy to a booming empire. On his vast military campaign, he offered commoner soldiers the opportunity to become aristocratic warriors if they fought bravely with the same weapons and rewarded all his men with the spoils of war. By embodying Cyrus’ virtues, any man could rise to a higher station.
As he later tells Croesus the King of Lydia:
“By enriching and benefiting human beings, I acquire goodwill and friendship, and from these I harvest safety and glory. These neither spoil nor harm us by overabundance, but glory, to the extent there is more of it, becomes that much greater, more noble, and lighter to bear, and it frequently makes lighter even those who bear it.”
This strategy dramatically changed Persian society, but it also made virtue popular and drove his men to seek success because when Cyrus won a battle, everyone shared in his victory. And in the aftermath of victory, those who could competently govern as satraps were rewarded, and virtue was demanded of each of them.
In The Prince, the Persian ideals of moderation, the public good, and virtue all become relative: according to Machiavelli, “a prince who wishes to retain his power must learn not to be good, and to use, or not to use, that ability according to necessity.” Machiavelli considered Cyrus a model of “continence, courtesy, human kindness, and generosity” and listed him among Moses, Romulus, and Theseus as an outstanding man who became a prince through virtue (virtù) rather than fortune. Yet Machiavelli wrote The Prince explicitly to subvert the standard of virtuous rule modeled in The Education of Cyrus, which he considered the classic mirror of princes. The Prince is considered the beginning of modern political philosophy not in spite of this cynicism but because of it.
Discerning Friends and Rivals
In Book III, when Cyrus had passed through Media, he came to Armenia, whose King had neglected paying tribute to the Medians after being defeated. Cyrus quickly captured the territory and put the King on trial. The Armenian King showed himself to be an undisciplined and unjust ruler, but his son, Tigranes, who had grown up with Cyrus, came to his defense and reasoned with Cyrus.
Although he could have killed the entire royal family, Cyrus demonstrates his sense of justice and moderation by sparing the lives of the King and his family. Instead he seeks to turn the Armenian King into “a better friend than before.” The Armenian provides him with infantry and treasure, and Cyrus in turn goes to battle with the Armenians against the Chaldeans. Cyrus pacifies the whole region and even negotiates a trade treaty between the nations.
This discernment would later help Cyrus build his empire. He exercised prudence to know when to crush an enemy, and when an ally could be made a closer friend.
The Victory of Cynicism
Xenophon’s traditional view of Cyrus — that virtue and power went together, is the exact opposite of Machiavelli’s modern cynicism. But it didn’t conquer everyone or everything.
Leo Strauss wrote, “The United States of America may be said to be the only country in the world which was founded in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles… that the good end justifies every means.” Thomas Jefferson, the father of religious freedom in the United States  owned two copies of the Cyropaedia, and advised his grandchildren to read it.
In the century before, it was a major subject of tutelage in the court of Louis XIV — “The Sun King.”
It may strike some as odd that the work would be popular with a republican like Jefferson and an absolute monarch like Louis. Some scholars have used the oxymoronic phrase “republican monarchism” to describe Xenophon’s philosophy, in which kings and citizens alike were encouraged to have civic virtue and patriotism — and that power and virtue went together.
For centuries, human societies understood this philosophy. And while it’s true that unchecked power is a corrupting force , it doesn’t follow that it’s pointless to encourage virtue by leaders, and to inculcate it in burgeoning leaders.
That this philosophy is basically extinct from modern education and politics in America — and that Machiavelli’s half of the dialectic is winning — is a national tragedy. The default assumption of all leadership is crookedness, and instead of fighting it with traditional virtues and ideas, different constituencies hope that the right amount of crookedness will benefit them. In the short term, one constituency or another may be right — crookedness and cowardice by our leaders will benefit them.
But the spirit of our Republic in the US is still one of virtue. It is what Americans at every level of wealth and prominence crave — to see virtuous leadership modeled by those that would ask their support, whether in business, politics, and even our families and households.
That spirit can still win in the dialectic battle with raw, virtueless power, but only if we fight for it. The good news is that we have nothing to lose by pushing cynicism aside and showing younger generations how it’s done — and maybe reading Xenophon to our children as they begin to make sense of the world and their place in it.
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 Cyrus and Religious Freedom
After his most famous conquest — Babylon — Cyrus issued a proclamation recorded on the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, an artifact stored at the British Museum in London. Cyrus describes his conquest of Babylon, and the restoration of various religious practices to the city. At the same time, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible, he freed the Judeans and helped them return to Judea after 70 years in captivity.
It was during the reign of Cyrus that the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem began, the ruins of which are the most sacred place for Jews in the world. The Book of Ezra opens:
1 And in the first year of Cyrus, the king of Persia, at the completion of the word of the Lord from the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord aroused the Spirit of Cyrus, the king of Persia, and he issued a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also in writing, saying:
2 "So said Cyrus, the king of Persia, 'All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of the heavens delivered to me, and He commanded me to build Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judea.
3 Who is among you of all His people, may his God be with him, and he may ascend to Jerusalem, which is in Judea, and let him build the House of the Lord, God of Israel; He is the God Who is in Jerusalem.
4 And whoever remains from all the places where he sojourns, the people of his place shall help him with silver and with gold and with possessions and with cattle, with the donation to the House of God, which is in Jerusalem.'
 The Final Chapter
Scholars are still debating the meaning of Xenophon’s text, particularly the final chapter. Cyrus builds the Persian empire through extreme focus and hard work only for it to collapse after his death in the final chapter of the book.
This has led some scholars to deny that Xenophon wrote the last chapter, while others who think he did, see it as Xenophon’s way of making the reader think harder about the whole story. Perhaps it’s Xenophon’s critique of politics as a whole. Perhaps Cyrus neglected the philosophical life by pursuing a life in politics. Or perhaps Cyrus ultimately undermined virtue by rewarding it with material goods. Whichever interpretation you come to, the final chapter stands as a reminder of the instability of regimes and a warning to acquire virtue and build competence before a time of need.
Modern interpretations aside, Xenophon’s portrait of Cyrus and what he represented is one part of a rich cultural heritage for Persia — and should be a font of pride for Persian people.