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There is no figure in Greek history more familiar to us than this famous Athenian. There are passages in his life known to every schoolboy; we possess all the books he ever wrote; we know therefore his opinions upon all the important questions of life, religion, ethics, politics, manners, education, as well as upon finance and military tactics, not to speak of social intercourse and sport. And yet his early youth and late age are hidden from us. Like the models of Greek eloquence, which begin with tame obviousness, rise into dignity, fire, pathos, and then close softly, without sounding peroration, so Xenophon comes upon us, an educated young man, looking out for something to do; we lose him in the autumn of his life, when he was driven from the fair retreat which the old man had hoped would be his final resting-place. During seven years of his early manhood we find him in the middle of all the most stirring events in the Greek world. For thirty years later (394-62 b.c.), we hear him from his retired country-seat recording contemporary history, telling the adventures of his youth, from the fascinations of the ragged Socrates to the fascinations of the magnificent Cyrus, preaching the lessons of his varied life. Then came the bitter loss of his brave son, killed in the van at Mantinea. According to good authority he only survived this blow a couple of years. But even then he appears to have found distraction from his grief by a dry tract upon the Attic revenue. Such is the general outline which we shall fill up and color from allusions throughout his varied and manifold writings.
He was a pure Athenian, evidently of aristocratic birth, and attracted, probably by his personal beauty, the attention of Socrates, who is said to have stopped him in the way, and asked him did he know where men of honor were to be found; upon his replying no, the sage said, follow me and learn. This apocryphal anecdote, at all events, records the fact that Xenophon attached himself to Socrates's teaching, and so afforded us perhaps the most remarkable instance of the great and various influence of that great teacher. We do not wonder at disciples like Plato; but here is a young man of fashion, of a practical turn, and loving adventure, who records in after years the teaching after his own fashion, and in a perfectly independent way, as the noblest of training. His youth, however, was spent in the distressful later years of the Peloponnesian War, which ended in fearful gloom and disaster for his native city. Intimate, apparently, with the great historian Thucydides, whose unfinished work he seems to have edited, and subsequently to have continued in his own "Hellenica," he must have long foreseen the collapse of the Athenian empire, and then he and many other adventurous spirits found themselves in a society faded in prosperity, with no scope for energy or enterprise. Such was the somewhat tame and vulgar Athens which succeeded to that of Pericles and Aristophanes, and which could not tolerate the spiritual boldness of Socrates. He tells us himself, in the third book of his "Anabasis," how he was tempted to leave Athens for the East by his friend Proxenus, who had made the acquaintance of the chivalrous and ambitious Cyrus, brother of the Persian king, and governor of southern Asia Minor. This prince was preparing secretly to invade Persia and dethrone his brother, and for that purpose was gathering troops and courting the favor of the Greeks. His splendid gifts were on a scale sufficient to dazzle men of small means and smaller prospects, like the youth of conquered Athens. Xenophon thought it right to consult his spiritual guide, Socrates, on the propriety of abandoning his country for hireling service. The philosopher advised him to consult the oracle at Delphi, but the young man only asked what gods he might best conciliate before his departure, and Socrates, though noting the evasion of his advice, acquiesced.
When Xenophon arrived at Sardis, Proxenus presented him to Cyrus, who invited him to accompany him on his pretended campaign to Pisidia, and then coaxed him on with the rest into his enterprise against the king Artaxerxes. On this expedition or anabasis up the country, Xenophon was only a volunteer, with no command, and under no man's orders, but accompanying the army on horseback, and enjoying the trip as a bright young man, well appointed by the prince, and full of intelligent curiosity, was sure to enjoy it. But then came the decisive day of Cunaxa, where Xenophon offered his services as an extra aide-de-camp to Cyrus, and where he witnessed the victory of his countrymen and the defeat of their cause by the rashness and death of Cyrus. In the crisis which followed he took no leading part, till the generals of the 10,000 Greeks were entrapped and murdered by Tissaphernes. Then, in the midst of the panic and despair which supervened, he tells us in graphic words how he came to be a leader of men. He, too, with the rest, was in sore distress, and could not sleep; but anon getting a snatch of rest he had a dream. It seemed to him that there was a storm, and a thunderbolt fell on his father's house and set it all in a blaze. He sprang up in terror, and, pondering the matter, decided that in part the dream was good, in that when in great danger he had seen a light from Zeus; but partly, too, he feared it, for it came from the king of heaven. But as soon as he was fully awake the first clear thought that came into his head was: "Why am I lying here? The night advances, and with the coming day the enemy will be upon us. If we fall into the king's hands we must face torture, slavery, and death, and yet here we lie, as if it were a time for rest! What am I waiting for? Is it a general to lead me? and where is he? or till I am myself of riper age to command? Older I shall never be, if to-day I surrender to mine enemies." And so he rouses the officers of his murdered friend, Proxenos, and appeals to them all to be up and stirring, to organize their defence and appoint new leaders to direct them. Before dawn he has some kind of confidence restored, and the new organization in progress. Presently the Persians send to demand the surrender of the army whose generals they had seized, and find to their astonishment that their task of subduing the Greeks must begin afresh. Meanwhile the policy of the Greek army becomes defined. They threaten to settle in Mesopotamia and build a fortified city which shall be a great danger and a torment to the king. They really desire to escape to the coast, if they can but find the way.
It was the king's policy to let them depart, but so harass them by the way as to produce disorder and rout, which meant absolute destruction. It was in conducting this retreat, as a joint general with the Spartan Cheirisophos, that Xenophon showed all his resource. There were no great pitched battles; no room for strategy or large combinations; but ample scope for resource in the details of tactics for meeting new and sudden difficulties, for maintaining order among an army of men that only acknowledged leaders for their ability. At first, in the plains, as they journeyed northward, the danger was from the Persian cavalry, for their own contingent had deserted to the enemy. This difficulty, which well-nigh ruined the 10,000, as it ruined Crassus in his retreat at Carrhae, he met by organizing a corps of Rhodian slingers and archers, whose range was longer than that of the Persians, and who thus kept the cavalry in check. When the plains were passed, and the mountains reached, there arose the new difficulties of forcing passes, of repelling wild mountaineers from positions commanding the road, of providing food, and avoiding false routes. The narrative of the surmounting of all these obstacles with tact and temper is the main subject of the famous "Anabasis." Still graver dangers awaited Xenophon when the retreating army had at last hailed the welcome sea--the Black Sea--and with returning safety returned jealousies, insubordinations, and the great problem what to do with this great army when it arrived at Greek cities. Xenophon had always dreamt of forming on the border of Hellenedom a new city state, which should honor him as its founder. The wilder spirits thought it simpler to loot some rich city like Byzantium, which was saved with difficulty from their lawlessness. The Spartan governors, who now ruled throughout the Greek world, saw the danger, and were determined to delay and worry the dangerous horde until it dissipated; and they succeeded so well that presently the 6,000 that remained were glad to be led by Xenophon to take service under the Spartan commander Thibron in Asia Minor (399 b.c.). But Xenophon was not given any independent command. He appears to have acted on the staff of the successive Spartan commanders till with King Agesilaus he attained personal influence, and probably planned the new expedition of that king to conquer Persia, which was only balked by a diversion wrought by Persian gold in Greece. With Agesilaus Xenophon returned therefore to Greece, and was present at the great shock of the rival infantries, the Theban and the Spartan, at Coronea (394 b.c.). But either his presence in the Spartan army, or his former action against the King of Persia, whom shifting politics were now bringing over to the Athenian side, caused him to be sentenced to banishment at Athens, and so made his return to his native city impossible. He went, therefore, with his royal patron to Sparta, and sojourned there for some time, even sending for his sons, now growing boys, from Miletus, and submitting them, at Agesilaus's advice, to the famous Spartan education. They grew up fine and warlike young men, so that the death of one of them, Gryllus, in a cavalry skirmish just before the great battle of Mantinea (362 b.c.) caused universal regret. But long before this catastrophe the Spartans gave Xenophon possession of an estate at Skillus, near the famous Olympia, which combined the pleasures of seclusion and of field sports with those of varied society when the stream of visitors assembled for the Olympic games (every four years). He himself tells us that he and his family, in company with their neighbors, had excellent sport of all kinds. He was not only a careful farmer, but so keen at hunting hares that he declares a man at this delightful pursuit "will forget that he ever cared for anything else." He had also built a shrine to his patroness, the goddess Artemis, and the solemn sacrifices at her shrine were the occasion of feasts, whose solemnity only enhanced their enjoyments. As Mr. Dakyns writes: "The lovely scenery of the place, to this day lovely; the delicious atmosphere; the rare combination of mountain, wood, and stream; the opportunity for sport; the horses and the dogs; the household, the farmstead, and their varying occupations; the neighboring country gentlemen, and the local politics; the recurring festival at Olympia with its stream of visitors; the pleasures of hospitable entertainment; the constant sacrifices before the cedar image of Artemis in her temple--these things, and above all the serene satisfaction of successful literary labors, combined to form an enviable sum total of sober happiness during many years." There can be no doubt that this was the first great period of his literary activity, though he may have edited, in early youth, his predecessor Thucydides, and composed the first two books of his historical continuation entitled "Hellenica." In his retreat at Skillus he composed a series of "Dialogues," in what is termed the Socratic vein; "Memorials" of his great master, a tract on household "Economy," another on a "Symposium," or feast, one called "Hiero," or on the Greek tyrant, and an account of the "Laconian Polity," which he had so long admired and known. The tract on "Hunting" also speaks the experience at Skillus. The tract "On the Athenian State," preserved among his writings, is not from his hand, but the work of an earlier writer.
With the sudden rise of the Theban power, and consequent depression of Sparta, he and other settlers around Skillus were driven out by the Eleans, and he lost his country-seat, with all its agreeable diversions. But probably the ageing man did not feel the transference of his home to Corinth so keenly as an English gentleman would. He was a thorough Greek, and therefore intensely attached to city life, Elis, his adopted country, being the only state which consisted of a country gentry.
In the next place, a daily thoroughfare such as the Isthmus, must have been far more suitable for the collecting of historical evidence than Skillus, where the crowd came by only once in four years. And then his grown-up sons could find something more serious to do than hunting deer, boars, and hares in the glades of Elis. He may have known, too, that his chances of restoration to Athens were improving, and that he would do well to be within easy reach of friends in that city. Indeed we find that the rescinding of exile soon followed, and so he was able to send his two sons to do cavalry duty for Athens (and Sparta) against the Thebans. It is, indeed, likely that the young men were enrolled as Spartan volunteers. He himself must have kept very close to his literary work; for in these closing years of his life he brought out or re-edited the "Anabasis;" he discussed "Cavalry Tactics," he kept writing up contemporary history to the year 362 b.c., when the star of Thebes set with the death of Epaminondas; he completed his long and perhaps tedious historical novel, the "Education of Cyrus" (the elder), and lastly composed a curious and fanciful tract on the "Revenues of Athens." There is no evidence that he ever changed his residence back to his native city, but that he often went there when no obstacle remained, from the neighboring Corinth, is most probable. An open sailing boat could carry him, with a fair wind, in a few hours.
Though a very old man, he was, however, still active with his pen when we lose him. His promising remaining son disappears with him from the scene; we hear of no descendants. The only offspring he has left us are his immortal works. The names of these have already been given, with the exception of the speech put into Socrates's mouth as his Defence, the tract on "The Horse," appendant to his "Cavalry Tactics," and his "Panegyric on Agesilaus." It remains to estimate their general features. Without controversy, he excelled all his great contemporaries in breadth of culture and experience, and in the variety of his interests. Philosophy, politics, war, husbandry, sport, travel, are all represented in his works. And upon all he has written with a clearness and a grace which earned for him the title of the "Attic Bee." But this breadth implies (as usual) a certain lack of depth, as is particularly obvious in his case, owing to the almost necessary comparison with his two mighty rivals--Thucydides, in history, Plato, in philosophy. It may, indeed, be considered hard luck for him that he stood between two such men, for they have necessarily damaged his reputation by comparison. Xenophon's portrait of Socrates is quite independent, and probably historically truer than that of Plato; but the sage lives for us in Plato, not in Xenophon. The Retreat of the Ten Thousand, and the wars of Epaminondas were far more brilliant than the operations of the Peloponnesian War. Yet, to the scholar, a raid in Thucydides is more than a campaign in Xenophon. For neither is his style so pure as that of either of his rivals, nor is his enthusiasm the same. We feel him always a polished man of the world--never the rugged patriot, never the rapt seer. He seems, too, to lack impartiality. He lavishes praise upon Agesilaus, a second-rate man, while he is curt and ill-tempered concerning Epaminondas, the real genius of the age. It is more than likely that he has colored his own part in the famous "Retreat," in glowing colors. His hereditary instincts lead him to approve of autocrats as against republics, Spartan discipline as against Attic freedom. Yet in himself he has shown a striking example how the latter could appreciate and embrace the former. As the simplest specimen of pure Attic prose he will ever be paramount in schools, neglected in universities--the recreation rather than the occupation of mature scholars. He is a great worthy, a man of renown; "nevertheless, he did not attain unto the first three"--the two masters of his own day, and the colossal Demosthenes.