Xenophon – Greek Historian, Athenian General and Socratic Philosopher


Xenophon was a young Athenian aristocrat and student of Socrates. In 401 he enlisted as a junior officer in the Greek mercenary force hired the Persian prince by Cyrus the Younger in 401 B.C. to overthrow his brother who was preparing to dispute the throne with his sovereign and elder brother, Artaxerxes Mnemon.

The Greeks followed Cyrus into Babylonia. Cyrus was killed in the first battle with the Persians, and all the Greek generals were murdered at Artaxerxes’ order after the battle of Cunaxa. The Greek soldiers, numbering more than 10,000, refused to submit and elected new commanders, including Xenophon. He succeeded in leading them on a masterly retreat across 900 miles (1,450 km) of hostile territory, reaching the Black Sea and safety in 400 B.C.

He enlisted his soldiers in the service of Lacedaemon in 399, and in the same year, or very soon afterwards, Xenophon was banished from Athens, either on account of his Spartan sympathies or because of his friendship with Socrates.

A few years later, he joined the Spartan army, fought under King Agesilaus at Coroneia (394) fighting first against the Persians and then probably against Athens itself. He was rewarded with an estate at Scillus.

Following the renewal of alliance between Athens and Sparta (371), the decree of banishment against Xenophon was repealed (369), and he probably returned to Athens about 366 BC.

Xenophon’s first and most famous work was the Anabasis, often called ‘The March of the Ten Thousand’, a vivid account of the Greek retreat from Babylonia. Written in the best Attic prose style, it has remained one of the greatest military journals of all time.

His works include a life of Agesilaus; Hellenica, a history of Greece from 411 to 362 BC (the only surviving contemporary history of Greece covering that period); Memorabilia, Apologia, Oeconomicus, and Symposium, all of which are expositions of the teachings of Socrates and attempts to vindicate his old teacher and friend; Hiero, a dialogue on tyranny; Cyropaedia, a political romance; On Horsemanship; Hipparchicus, on the responsibilities and powers of a cavalry officer; Cynegeticus, on hunting; The Lacedaemonian Constitution; and The Athenian Revenues; as well as a romantic biography of Cyrus the Elder and many other works.

Although Athens rescinded its decree of exile against Xenophon about 369 B.C., he spent his last years in Corinth. He died in 355 B.C.