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Ambiguïtés de la transgression

Ambiguities of Despotic Power in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia

Ambiguïtés du pouvoir despotique dans la Cyropédie de Xénophon
Carol Atack


Les ambiguïtés de la Cyropédie de Xénophon, à la fois portrait fictif de Cyrus l’Ancien, récit de sa conquête et présentation de son gouvernement de l’Empire, sont à l’origine d’interprétations radicalement différentes de l’œuvre. Cyrus doit-il être considéré comme un roi idéal, dont les capacités dépassent celles des autres souverains, ou comme un despote dont la prise de pouvoir repose sur la tromperie et la manipulation ? En partant des analyses modernes de la transgression, cet article s’attache à étudier la description minutieuse que fait Xénophon des frontières politiques et personnelles tout au long de l’œuvre. Il suggère que l’épisode final clef de l’œuvre, le retour de Cyrus chez lui en Perse (Cyropédie 8.5), montre que ce dernier respecte jusqu’au bout les frontières politiques et personnelles ; cela constitue un défi supplémentaire pour les lectures de l’œuvre qui se centrent sur le passage de la « république à l’Empire ».

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  • 1 Machiavelli’s republican political thought draws on the Cyropaedia in multiple ways: see Rasmussen (...)

1Xenophon’s fictionalised portrait of Cyrus the Great and his rise to rule an empire is sufficiently ambiguous that present-day interpretations of his actions and intentions diverge widely. On the one hand, Xenophon begins his work by presenting Cyrus as an ideal leader, whose capabilities exceed those of other rulers to such an extent that he is an exemplar to be studied and admired (Cyropaedia 1.1). On the other hand, Cyrus’ actions, such as his skilful take-over of the forces assembled by his uncle to defend the Medes against invasion (Cyropaedia 5.2-5), often seem far from ideals of virtuous leadership and instead demonstrate his mastery of power politics, deception and subterfuge. This ambivalence has been evident in readings since the Renaissance, when Niccolò Machiavelli drew on both aspects Xenophon’s presentation of Cyrus in his Prince and Discourses (Machiavelli 1970 and 1988).1 However, the emphasis on Xenophon as a precursor of the realpolitik associated with Machiavelli has tended to obscure his ambivalent presentation of power in the Cyropaedia, a presentation which is further illuminated by episodes in which Cyrus explores the possibility of transgressing border of different types.

  • 2 Key episodes which could be read in this framework include: Cyrus reports breaking the rules at sc (...)

2Xenophon presents the ambiguity of Cyrus’ actions through a series of episodes in which Cyrus transgresses accepted boundaries—geographical, social and ethical—as he grows in power and takes control of an empire at vast scale. Cyrus’ physical travel, his journeying to boundaries and attempts to cross them, become a thematic image for his development as a ruler. His first exercise of his power as a youth demonstrates the complexities of the setting and transgression of limits. Cyrus had been restricted to hunting captured animals in the royal park belonging to his autocratic grandfather Astyages the Mede, but had exhausted its resources, killing more animals than could be supplied to it (1.4.5-7). He asked to be allowed to hunt outside the park, but exceeded the limits of his permission by placing himself at risk in chasing a boar; while Cyrus had been granted permission for this and further expeditions, he tests the limits of that permission with his bold actions. A further expedition with his grandfather becomes a military rather than hunting expedition when an Assyrian prince encroaches on the border territory, and a battle ensues in which Cyrus tastes war and the pursuit of humans; Astyages recognises both Cyrus’ skill and daring (Cyr. 1.4.5-24). Cyrus’ road to imperial power culminates in a final journey in which he, for once, hesitates in crossing a boundary, leaving his army at the edge of his homeland Persia, still governed by his father Cambyses but formally under Cyrus’ control (Cyr. 8.5).2 Taken together these episodes suggest that Xenophon uses Cyrus to show the ambiguity involved in both desiring and wielding supreme power, rather than straightforwardly offering him as a negative exemplar of despotism or a positive one of kingship. The focus on boundaries and limits throughout this idealised portrait suggest that the concept of transgression, as developed by Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault, might prove helpful for understanding the ambiguities of Xenophon’s presentation. Foucault summarises Bataille’s model of transgression (Foucault 1977, p. 33-34):

Transgression is an action which involves the limit, that narrow zone of a line where it displays the flash of its passage, but perhaps also its entire trajectory, even its origin; it is likely that transgression has its entire space in the line it crosses.

3While Foucault’s aim, and to some extent Bataille’s too, was the exploration of the establishment of limits and their transgression as models for philosophical development, their applicability across the political and social, the personal and the intellectual might help to link some apparently disparate elements of Xenophon’s depiction of Cyrus; throughout the work, boundaries of different sorts are important sites of actions by which Cyrus’ behaviour might be judged.

4Many existing treatments of the Cyropaedia present a simplified and linear account of Cyrus’ journey, from the republican utopia of his father’s Persia (1.2, 1.6) to the regrettable despotism of the empire he establishes after conquering Babylon (7.5-8.4), the “republic to empire” narrative arc set out by Christopher Nadon in his 2001 monograph Xenophon’s Prince. Nadon, like many others, uses Machiavelli’s depiction of Xenophon’s Cyrus in his Prince and Discourses as an exemplar to prise open some of the ambiguities (Nadon 2001, p. 23):

Cyrus may well be Xenophon’s model of a perfect prince. But we must always bear in mind that Cyrus begins his career as the duly elected general of a republic. The movement of the Cyropaedia as a whole follows his ascent to the office of universal monarch, and Machiavelli’s analysis of the book reminds us that this is no less a transformation of citizens to subjects, republic to empire, freedom to despotism, virtue to corruption—in short, a movement one is hard-pressed simply to regard as progress.

5That approach is not uncontested; Vivienne Gray’s monograph, Xenophon’s Mirror of Princes, argues against “dark” readings of the Cyropaedia which draw on the much-contested methodology of Leo Strauss and his followers (Gray 2011). Readings such as those by Joseph Reisert and Waller Newell emphasise the amorality or even immorality of Cyrus as he uses deception to secure absolute power. Reisert describes Cyrus as “a sort of moral black hole” exerting a powerful influence on his courtiers (Reisert 2009, p. 302); Newell regards Xenophon as creating a “monarchical utopia” (Newell 2013, p. 186) through Cyrus, albeit one which ends “in a depressing atmosphere of corruption” (p. 209). The dominant approach to Xenophon’s political thought in Anglophone scholarship was recently illustrated by the English subtitle of Vincent Azoulay’s newly translated 2004 monograph (Azoulay 2004b and 2018). Unlike the title of the French original edition, which emphasises Azoulay’s theoretical framework, the new title asserts the importance of “political manipulation” in Xenophon’s work.

6This paper suggests that a reading which focuses on the way in which Cyrus lingers on boundaries, and characters discuss the problems of transgressing them, opens up the ambiguity and complexity which Xenophon presents in the development of Cyrus’ empire and the assessment of the political character of that regime. Rather than the Straussian tradition which has dominated work on this text, as exemplified by Reisert and Newell, this reading draws on the traditions of French structuralist historiography, particularly the identification of ephebic figures with those in liminal positions as they undergo rites of passage offered by Pierre Vidal-Naquet in the Black Hunter (Vidal-Naquet 1968). It also aims to connect the analysis of Cyrus’ political journey to the account of sovereignty as a form of transgression developed by Georges Bataille across many works, but in response to Carl Schmitt’s definition of the sovereign as “he who decides on the exception” (Schmitt 2005, p. 5; Geroulanos 2011, p. 540-541).

Finding Ambiguity in Xenophon’s Text

  • 3 On Greek admiration for Cyrus, and his presence in drama and historical and philosophical texts, s (...)

7There are many reasons to read Xenophon’s account for complexity; one is that his fictionalised life of Cyrus departs from that contained in other sources, such as Herodotus’ histories (Herodotus 1.95-216; see Ellis 2016). The adaptability of the story of Cyrus’ rise to power, seen in the varied accounts given in Greek sources, shows that the life of a monarch in another society was a useful tool for thinking with, as well as an opportunity for the vivid description of non-Greek society.3 In Herodotus’ version, Cyrus exhibits the qualities of good kingship, for example by sparing the life of the defeated Croesus (1.86-90) but overreaches himself, crossing the limits of the acceptable, and in embarking on an unnecessary expansionist war against the fierce Massagetae, is killed in battle (Herodotus 1.214; Hau 2016, p. 182; Ellis 2016). Xenophon’s Cyrus, on the other hand, dies peacefully in old age, although his successors undo some of his work (Cyr. 8.7-8).

8Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ upbringing places him in privileged positions, both in his education in Persia (1.2) and in his visit to his grandfather Astyages’ court (1.3). These fuel concerns about Cyrus’ education, that he may be acculturated into the wrong social norms in the Median court and lose sight of his egalitarian Persian education. These are expressed by his mother Mandane (1.3.15-18):

ὅπως οὖν μὴ ἀπολῇ μαστιγούμενος, ἐπειδὰν οἴκοι ᾖς, ἂν παρὰ τούτου μαθὼν ἥκῃς ἀντὶ τοῦ βασιλικοῦ τὸ τυραννικόν, ἐν ᾧ ἐστι τὸ πλέον οἴεσθαι χρῆναι πάντων ἔχειν.

Take care that you are not beaten to within an inch of your life, when you come home, if you return with a knowledge acquired from your grandfather here of the principles not of kingship but of tyranny, one principle of which is that it is right for one to have more than all (Cyr. 1.3.18, transl. adapted from Miller 1914).

9This scene sets up Cyrus’ trajectory, but as the remainder of the work shows, it is not a straightforward journey, and the final episodes, explored below, complicate the opposition. Identifying what boundary is transgressed in Cyrus’ acquisition of power involves questions of what it means for one human to have political or absolute power over another. Xenophon’s opening question in his introduction to the Cyropaedia raises the question of how Cyrus was able to command obedience over his fellow humans (Cyr. 1.1.1-6), something which is difficult and rarely achieved.

10While there is no fully developed concept of sovereignty in ancient Greek thought, the idea that a king or founder is somehow different from other people, and that that difference authorises their ruling, persisted from older texts, even as cities such as Athens developed something akin to a model of popular sovereignty based on the rule of law (Ostwald 1986). Aristotle assesses this paradox in his account of a posited form of rule, pambasileia, or total kingship, which was difficult to incorporate within the framework of the polis:

περὶ δὲ τῆς παμβασιλείας καλουμένης (αὕτη δ’ ἐστὶ καθ’ ἣν ἄρχει πάντα κατὰ τὴν ἑαυτοῦ βούλησιν ὁ βασιλεύς) δοκεῖ [δέ] τισιν οὐδὲ κατὰ φύσιν εἶναι τὸ κύριον ἕνα πάντων εἶναι τῶν πολιτῶν, ὅπου συνέστηκεν ἐξ ὁμοίων ἡ πόλις·

But what is called pambasileia is a form of constitution in which a king governs over the whole population. Now there are some who take the view that the sovereignty of one man is not even natural in any case when a city is composed of equals (Aristotle, Politics 3.16.1287a8-12; transl. Barker and Stalley 1995).

  • 4 The most detailed account of geometric equality is Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 5.2–5; Cyrus, aimi (...)

11The distinctive quality of the ruler, whose capabilities and excellence cannot be compared to those of his subjects, is a feature of the ancient Greek “metaphysics of monarchy” which reserved to such persons the capacity to perform political transformations such as the foundation or synoecism of a political community (Atack 2015 and 2020, p. 179-196). In this model, the monarch is conceptualised as a person with distinctive capabilities operating in a way that is not simply a scalar transformation of the capacities of the ordinary citizen but one involving such qualitative difference that mechanisms of comparability and commensurability—such as the geometric equality of the polis that permits equitable change between citizens—cannot operate.4 That distinctiveness might be described in terms of virtue (Aristotle, Politics 3.13.1283b13-1284a17). In some versions of this model, the difference is said to be ontological—the ruler is of a different kind, for example having divine qualities, a view of kingship which the Greeks often ascribed to non-Greek peoples, especially the Persians, although the status of such kings among their communities may not reflect the Greek analysis. Others argue for an epistemological difference—the ruler possesses knowledge of different things, or a distinctive capacity for knowing, for example Plato’s philosopher kings as posited in the Republic (Plato, Republic 5.473c11-e4), and this knowledge permits good rule. Xenophon ultimately ascribes to Cyrus a status akin to that of the Aristotelian pambasileus.

12Bataille juggles the ontological basis of monarchy and its political instantiation (Geroulanos 2011, p. 541). In his 1933 essay ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism’, he sets out what happens when sovereignty resides in a person:

The simple fact of dominating one’s fellows implies the heterogeneity of the master, insofar as he is the master: to the extent that he refers to his nature, to his personal quality, as the justification of his authority, he designates his nature as something other, without being able to account for it rationally… In human terms, the ultimate imperative value presents itself in the form of royal or imperial authority in which cruel tendencies and the need, characteristic of all domination, to realize and idealize order are manifest in the highest degree (Bataille 1985, p. 145-146).

  • 5 On Xenophon’s accounts of enslavement, see Baragwanath 2012. Bataille was influenced by Alexandre (...)

13While Bataille’s essay comments on a twentieth-century phenomenon, he echoes ancient worries about what is being claimed when an individual claims power beyond the limits of reciprocal citizen power which can be accommodated within the structure of the polis, as well as its political and intellectual implications when framed in terms of Hegelian “master-slave” dialectic (Bataille 1985, p. 106). Such questions are frequently foregrounded in Xenophon’s work, as well as in the broader Greek use of enslavement analogies for both individual and collective experiences of subjection.5

  • 6 See Dodds 1959, p. 241-242; the limitations of tyrannical happiness and consequences of tyrannical (...)
  • 7 The idea that the powerful act in their own interest, for example, is also represented by Thrasyma (...)

14One view is that such an individual is freed from societal constraint and at liberty to transgress all and every boundary of morality and convention, delighting in pleasures denied to those who must conform to social constraint. An example of the model of the “happy tyrant” is Archelaus, the king of Macedon, as presented in Plato’s Gorgias by Polus, a student of rhetoric.6 Polus argues that “lots of people who act unjustly are happy” (Plato, Gorgias 470d) and explains how Archelaus, born to an enslaved woman in the royal household, came to power through a series of attacks on the legitimate heirs to the kingdom (471ad). Plato has Socrates oppose this view—arguing that the determinant of happiness is just action, not access to pleasurable experience—but the views presented by Polus were commonplace in Athenian political discussion.7

15Xenophon participates in this debate, with his presentation of Cyrus and of other monarchs. He is well aware of many of the psychological pitfalls of the concentration of power and the removal of a human from the company of other humans considered to be equals. He explores these questions in his dialogue Hiero, in which the tyrant of the title, the ruler of Syracuse, explains to the poet Simonides that his status brings neither freedom nor joy, but simply a greater share of constraints and unhappiness, and that tyrants live as if permanently at war:

οἱ δὲ τύραννοι πάντες πανταχῇ ὡς διὰ πολεμίας πορεύονται. αὐτοί τε γοῦν ὡπλισμένοι οἴονται ἀνάγκην εἶναι διάγειν καὶ ἄλλους ὁπλοφόρους ἀεὶ συμπεριάγεσθαι.

But all despots move everywhere as in an enemy’s country; at any rate they think they are bound to wear arms continually themselves, and to take an armed escort about with them at all times (Hiero 2.6-8; transl. Waterfield in Cartledge 1997).

16From Hiero’s perspective, the tyrant is always negotiating a border between safety and danger; unlike Cyrus, he does not need to travel to liminal locations to experience physical danger, but is always surrounded by it. From that point of view, Xenophon separates Cyrus as a legitimate monarch from Hiero as a tyrant, an opposition noted by Strauss and others (Strauss 2013, p. 92-102).

  • 8 On possible composition dates for the Hiero, see Dorion and Bandini 2021, p. cxliv-cxlviii, and on (...)

17Another of Hiero’s complaints, about the collapse of limits of sexual propriety for the tyrant, further illustrates the delicate interconnection between tyranny and transgression. Sexual taboos and the norms which manage them are key examples of transgression for Bataille (1993, p. 89-119; 2012, p. 164-176; Hegarty 2000, p. 108-110). For Xenophon’s tyrant, the power and status of the tyrant remove any pleasure from erotic conquest, because no one declines the advances of the powerful; “a tyrant can never be sure that he is actually liked” (Hiero 1.37), and tyrants are often killed by those in intimate relationships with them (Hiero 3.8-9). A tyrant’s sexual appetites were thought to be unconstrained by societal norms, enabling him to disregard conventions of marriage and sexuality; by showing a king to be obedient to norms often ascribed to the divine, theorists might claim legitimacy for their rule. Isocrates, in another example which may well date from a similar time as Xenophon’s work, has Nicocles the ruler of Salamis assert his voluntary subjection to such norms, and even going beyond what might be expected of an elite male in avoiding extramarital sex and the production of illegitimate children (Isocrates, Nicocles 36-38; see Atack 2020, p. 128-132).8 As the example of Archelaus of Macedon showed, such children might provoke succession disputes.

  • 9 Newell 2013, p. 186-209 takes this aspect of Cyrus’ character as evidence for Xenophon’s prefigura (...)
  • 10 On Artabazus and Araspas as Cyrus’ Median friends, to be contrasted with his more restrained Persi (...)
  • 11 The story of Abradatas and Pantheia has been treated as a romantic sub-plot, but it is central to (...)

18The foregrounding of the erotic in the assessment of despotism perhaps explains one aspect of Xenophon’s depiction of Cyrus, his extreme sexual restraint and sublimation of eros.9 Other characters demonstrate strong, even transgressive desires: Artabazus the Persian noble for Cyrus (1.4.27-8), and Araspas, Cyrus’ friend, for Pantheia, the Asian queen Cyrus asks him to guard (5.1).10 In the case of the former, Cyrus exploits Artabazus’ pederastic desire and continuing loyalty; in the case of the latter, Cyrus’ wish to protect himself from desire (5.1.8-17) rebounds when Araspas’ inability to exercise self-control leads him to attempt to assault Pantheia (6.1.31-4).11 Cyrus’ final encounter with Pantheia as she mourns her husband (7.3) is a concentrated assessment of the ambiguity of Cyrus’ power worked out in the impossibility of friendship (Atack 2020, p. 140-141). While Pantheia expresses her grief and opens the possibility that Cyrus has manipulated her, she accepts some responsibility for her own actions in encouraging her husband to support their captor (7.3.10). Cyrus’ recognition of Pantheia’s excellence and moral agency, and his supportive but futile response (7.3.12), render the episode ambiguous rather than a decisive depiction of despotic amorality.

19Xenophon’s other model of monarchy is the minimalist and austere version associated with Sparta’s kings and demonstrated through a lack of extravagant display; his prime example is Agesilaus II of Sparta, subject of an encomium as well as an important figure in the Hellenica. Agesilaus offers a model of kingship so restrained and low-key that it is hard to recognise him as a king. Xenophon shows the Ionian Greeks failing to recognise Agesilaus as a powerful figure, compared with the less exalted but showier presence of the Spartan naval leader Lysander:

ἅτε γιγνώσκοντες πάντες τὸν Λύσανδρον, προσέκειντο αὐτῷ ἀξιοῦντες διαπράττεσθαι αὐτὸν παρ᾽ Ἀγησιλάου ὧν ἐδέοντο· καὶ διὰ ταῦτα ἀεὶ παμπλήθης ὄχλος θεραπεύων αὐτὸν ἠκολούθει, ὥστε ὁ μὲν Ἀγησίλαος ἰδιώτης ἐφαίνετο, ὁ δὲ Λύσανδρος βασιλεύς.

Since Lysander was so generally known, he was being constantly approached by people asking him to help them get what they wanted from Agesilaus, and as a result there was always a great crowd of courtiers around Lysander wherever he went, so that it looked as though Agesilaus was an ordinary individual and Lysander was the king (Hellenica 3.4.7; transl. Warner 1966).

20The austere minimalist performance of the Spartan king is simultaneously exemplary and unsuccessful; if not a failure, it requires a complex response from those more used to maximalist displays of power and wealth. The line between being a private citizen and a king is in appearance at least easy to cross, but perhaps the presence of a crowd (ὄχλος) around Lysander hints at his failure to maintain truly royal distance, and the misperception of the crowd is as significant as the performances of the general and the king, ultimately underlining the seclusion of the king.

21The question of whether monarchical rule was the same as other kinds of leadership, whether all forms of leadership are on the same continuum or monarchical or despotic power is something else entirely, was a core problem of fourth-century Greek political and ethical thought. Plato asserts their similarity in his Statesman:

φανερὸν ὡς ἐπιστήμη μία περὶ πάντ᾽ ἐστὶ ταῦτα· ταύτην δὲ εἴτε βασιλικὴν εἴτε πολιτικὴν εἴτε οἰκονομικήν τις ὀνομάζει, μηδὲν αὐτῷ διαφερώμεθα.

it’s clear that there is one kind of expert knowledge concerned with all these things; whether someone gives this the name of expertise in kingship, or statesmanship, or household management, let’s not disagree with him (Plato, Statesman 259c1-4; transl. modified from Rowe 1995).

22Aristotle in reply opens the Politics with arguments against the claim that the difference between forms of knowledge about ruling is simply the number of those ruled:

ὅσοι μὲν οὖν οἴονται πολιτικὸν καὶ βασιλικὸν καὶ οἰκονομικὸν καὶ δεσποτικὸν εἶναι τὸν αὐτὸν οὐ καλῶς λέγουσιν (πλήθει γὰρ καὶ ὀλιγότητι νομίζουσι διαφέρειν ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ εἴδει τούτων ἕκαστον, οἷον ἂν μὲν ὀλίγων, δεσπότην, ἂν δὲ πλειόνων, οἰκονόμον, ἂν δ᾽ ἔτι πλειόνων, πολιτικὸν ἢ βασιλικόν, ὡς οὐδὲν διαφέρουσαν μεγάλην οἰκίαν ἢ μικρὰν πόλιν·

It is a mistake to believe that the statesman is the same as the monarch of a kingdom, or the manager of a household, or the master of a number of slaves. Those who hold this view consider that each one of these differs from the others not with a difference of kind, but according to the number, large or small, of those with whom he deals (Aristotle, Politics 1.1.1252a7-10; transl. Barker and Stalley 1995).

23Xenophon’s earlier account gives a more extreme picture of kingship, in showing that the king does take on some qualities which seem distinct from those of ordinary people. This in turn involves further forms of transgression, taking the ruler into the realm of the all-powerful and distinct pambasileus, beyond the limits of ordinary human excellence. Exerting his power over a wide distance and both controlling other people and providing an exemplar of correct behaviour for them to imitate, such a king becomes an embodiment of law, surpassing the capabilities of the written law of the city, as Cyrus believes himself to do:

τοὺς δὲ παρέχοντας ἑαυτοὺς ἐνόμισε μάλιστ᾽ ἂν ἐπὶ τὰ καλὰ καὶ ἀγαθὰ ἐπαίρειν, ἐπείπερ ἄρχων ἦν αὐτῶν, εἰ αὐτὸς ἑαυτὸν ἐπιδεικνύειν πειρῷτο τοῖς ἀρχομένοις πάντων μάλιστα κεκοσμημένον τῇ ἀρετῇ.
αἰσθάνεσθαι μὲν γὰρ ἐδόκει καὶ διὰ τοὺς γραφομένους νόμους βελτίους γιγνομένους ἀνθρώπους· τὸν δὲ ἀγαθὸν ἄρχοντα βλέποντα νόμον ἀνθρώποις ἐνόμισεν, ὅτι καὶ τάττειν ἱκανός ἐστι καὶ ὁρᾶν τὸν ἀτακτοῦντα καὶ κολάζειν.

But in those who did present themselves he believed that he could in no way more effectively inspire a desire for the beautiful and the good than by endeavouring, as their sovereign, to set before his subjects a perfect model of virtue in his own person.
For he thought he perceived that men become better through the written laws, while the good ruler he regarded as a law with eyes for men, because he is able not only to establish order but also to see and punish the disorderly (Xenophon, Cyr. 8.1.21-2; transl. Miller 1914).

24This is perhaps Xenophon’s strongest statement of monarchical difference, pointing towards something like a Schmittian conception of sovereignty, in which the sovereign is distinguished by their capacity to reconfigure limits. In Bataille’s terminology Cyrus is capable of both establishing the boundary between the permitted and the transgressive, and identifying those who cross it; he introduces a heterogeneous element into a previously homogeneous society, in the sense that he is distinct from the society over which he rules (Bataille 1985, p. 145-146). Yet Xenophon’s readers might recollect other examples of kingship—such as Oedipus—who appeared first to know and to set boundaries, but then to transgress them (Kristeva 1982, p. 83-84; Marchak 1990).

25In his depiction of Cyrus, Xenophon sets the example of despotic power against an idealised form of kingship, and shows how the same figure can encompass both forms of rule, and in the process of doing so transgress and reconfigure the existing order, in contrast with his Persian father who remains within and subject to the law (1.3.18). Episodes in which Cyrus transgresses limits, or more often prevaricates on the boundary of transgression, set out these ambiguities for the reader to assess; Cyrus’ introduction of the customs and practices of other societies into the Persian framework of his group of friends and courtiers might also be seen as a form of transgression in Bataille’s model (Marchak 1990, p. 354). Xenophon’s careful depiction of the setting of boundaries, and episodes where they are crossed, or where characters carefully avoid crossing them, reveal a subtle exploration of the ambiguities of power, rather than a straightforward equation between the transgression of limits and the gaining of power. Likewise, the inclusion of different elements in the new society Cyrus creates is analysed in detail.

Performative Kingship and Ambiguities of Power

26That monarchical power includes the capacity to reorganise and reorder the physical and social spaces of the polis provides a further complication in the relationship between despotic power and transgression. If a ruler determines the structure of space and the placing of boundaries, can any act by that ruler which crosses the boundaries be deemed transgressive? Historical accounts show many actions by leaders which involve the re-ordering of civic space, or performances which re-enact such re-orderings.

27As noted above, the capacity to re-order space is generally reserved to legitimate monarchs, but tyrants and despots undertake similar actions, through their performance of religious ritual, and through undertaking building and other infrastructural projects. Transformational change of institutions and the instantiation of cosmic order at microcosmic level are seen in political reforms. Historical tyrants were associated with such developments; the Athenian Peisistratids’ cultural reforms of the sixth century BCE were seen as something as a golden age (Zatta 2009). They also have performative echoes in rituals such as processions; the arrangement of these is described as diakosmêsis or its associated verb, which implies a process of arrangement which brings alignment with cosmic or divine order (Schofield 2019). Thucydides points to this in his account of the Athenian Tyrannicides, in which a member of the family was attacked at a key civic festival:

καὶ ὡς ἐπῆλθεν ἡ ἑορτή, Ἱππίας μὲν ἔξω ἐν τῷ Κεραμεικῷ καλουμένῳ μετὰ τῶν δορυφόρων διεκόσμει ὡς ἕκαστα ἐχρῆν τῆς πομπῆς προϊέναι,

At last the festival arrived; and Hippias with his bodyguard was outside the city in the Ceramicus, arranging (διεκόσμει) how the different parts of the procession were to proceed (Thucydides 6.57.1; transl. Crawley 1903).

28The liminal location of the process of ordering, just outside Athens’ city gates, is significant, and there is also a sense that despotic figures are vulnerable at festivals where the usual boundaries may be suspended, even while they take responsibility for the ritual reconstruction of those boundaries in the ordering of the procession.

29Xenophon shows Cyrus both setting up the protocols and practices which separated monarchs from their subjects, and participating in the key civic festival at which such boundaries and limits were suspended or reduced. Cyrus determines that he will present himself as a king, after the end of his conquests, by distancing himself from his subjects and appearing in a distinctive way when he does make himself visible to them:

ἐκ δὲ τούτου ἐπιθυμῶν ἔδοξεν αὐτῷ ὁ Κῦρος ἤδη κατασκευάσασθαι καὶ αὐτὸς ὡς βασιλεῖ ἡγεῖτο πρέπειν,τοῦτο σὺν τῇ τῶν φίλων γνώμῃ ποιῆσαι, ὡς ὅτι ἥκιστα ἂν ἐπιφθόνως σπάνιός τε καὶ σεμνὸς φανείη.

After this Cyrus was already desirous of establishing himself in the way he held to be fitting for a king. He decided to do this with the concurring judgement of his friends, so that he could appear seldom and with dignity, while provoking as little envy as possible (Cyr. 7.5.37; transl. Miller 1914).

30Cyrus’ changed status and new role are strongly and explicitly marked in his changed self-presentation; Xenophon treats monarchy as a personal quality which is instantiated in a conscious and chosen performance, yet also represents something innately true about the character of the monarch (Atack 2018b). Cyrus demonstrates the new form of power he has gained in several ways. He reduces his visibility and accessibility, and changes his appearance for the rare special occasions on which he appears in public. His appearances are restricted to large-scale ritual processions, which like the Athenian Panathenaea organised by the Peisistratids, perform a religious function and re-enact diakosmēsis. As we have already noted, processions provide a critical moment which lay out the claims of a ruler to the possession of transformative power and to contact with the divine.

  • 12 Azoulay 2004a. See also Llewellyn-Jones 2015 and 2020 on the costume and self-presentation of Acha (...)

31Xenophon’s representation of Cyrus’ procession performs other narrative functions as well. It marks the conclusion of the major strand of the narrative, the rise of Cyrus to imperial power. It also provides an opportunity for Xenophon to describe Persian material culture and cult practice to his Greek readers, an orientalising account, although one which draws on historical realities of costume and practice.12 Cyrus’ clothing and stance mark out his special royal status and enhance his physical appearance; as he rides by on his chariot, the Persians prostrate themselves (Cyr. 8.3.13-14), although Xenophon hints that this response was itself an organised performance. Cyrus himself ‘seemed to appear great and good’ (μέγαν τε καὶ καλόν), a pair of adjectives which appear together frequently in contemporary discussions of virtue (Atack 2018b, p. 114-115, 22 n. 37).

32It would be easy to conclude from Xenophon’s praise for Agesilaus and his minimalist performance of kingship that his description of Cyrus’ royal display was intended as straightforward criticism and evidence of a transition to despotism. But the religious and ceremonial structures, as well as language associated with excellence, suggest that the possibility of despotism is mixed with the possibility of good and orderly rule; it is also possible that Xenophon evaluates these differently in the different contexts of Sparta and Persia. Xenophon presents Cyrus on an occasion which sets aside the usual seclusion of the monarch, and examines the encounter between ruler and ruled in terms of the shared relationship with the divine. In this way, Cyrus’ apparent transgression of limits develops a function which legitimises his action and self-presentation; there is no unambiguous condemnation of his action.

The Limits of Despotism: Cyrus’ Return to Persia

33One of the final episodes of Xenophon’s account explores Cyrus’ journeys on a larger scale, as he makes a royal progress around his new empire, forged from multiple independent kingdoms which he has gained through conquest and will gain from inheritance (Cyr. 8.5). His defeat of Babylon marks the conclusion of his military campaign, but his rule over his home community of Persia is problematic. Persia, still the home of and nominally ruled by Cyrus’ father Cambyses, is both under Cyrus’ control and separate from it. When Cyrus plans to visit his boyhood home, the ambiguities of his power are crystallised in a final encounter with his father (Cyr. 8.5.21-7). As Cyrus’ early lessons in rule were imparted by his father (Cyr. 1.6), this conversation contains echoes of that earlier one; as Tatum notes, this episode is structurally important in mirroring their conversation early in Cyrus’ career (Tatum 1989, p. 76-80). That might suggest that the opening and closing episodes, while framing the narrative, also present an opposition between constitutional monarchy and despotism (Gera 1993, p. 290). But again, Xenophon presents Cyrus’ movements as part of a process of ordering, and shows him setting aside some of the trappings of his kingship so as not to cross this significant border transgressively.

34Xenophon describes Cyrus’ royal travelling arrangements in detail, especially the arrangement of his temporary encampment, which is “well-ordered” (εὐτάκτως, 8.5.2):

εὐθὺς δὲ τοῦτο ἐνόμιζε Κῦρος, πρὸς ἕω βλέπουσαν ἵστασθαι τὴν σκηνήν: ἔπειτα ἔταξε πρῶτον μὲν πόσον δεῖ ἀπολιπόντας σκηνοῦν τοὺς δορυφόρους τῆς βασιλικῆς σκηνῆς· ἔπειτα σιτοποιοῖς μὲν χώραν ἀπέδειξε τὴν δεξιάν, ὀψοποιοῖς δὲ τὴν ἀριστεράν, ἵπποις δὲ τὴν δεξιάν, ὑποζυγίοις δὲ τοῖς ἄλλοις τὴν ἀριστεράν· καὶ τἆλλα δὲ διετέτακτο ὥστε εἰδέναι ἕκαστον τὴν ἑαυτοῦ χώραν καὶ μέτρῳ καὶ τόπῳ.

At the very beginning Cyrus made this rule, that his tent should be pitched facing the east; and then he determined, first, how far from the royal pavilion the spearmen of his guard should have their tent; next he assigned a place on the right for the bakers, on the left for the cooks, on the right for the horses, and on the left for the rest of the pack-animals And everything else was so organized that everyone knew his own place in camp—both its size and its location (Cyr. 8.5.3; transl. Miller 1914).

35This account evokes other descriptions of ordering in Xenophon’s work, particularly the household ordering in which Ischomachus compares the ordering of an army, a merchant ship, a chorus, and a household (Oeconomicus 8.11-23). Here, Xenophon’s discussion of Cyrus’ ordering activities on his royal progress can be connected to his arguments that leadership is a single skill exercised over related domains, so that the management of household, army and nation are related through location on the same continuum (Memorabilia 4.2.11), and perhaps moderate any claim to absolute power. Cyrus as sovereign is engaged in a constant process of establishing good order, setting limits on others’ action and asserting his distinctive role as the provider of order and limit. But this assimilation of forms of rule obscures the boundary between kingship and other forms of ruling; Cyrus enjoys good order (τὴν εὐθημοσύνην, 8.5.7) both at home and in his camp, but believes that there are even more benefits from good order on campaign, because it maximises the likelihood of grasping opportunity, the key skill with which he had earlier surpassed his uncle Cyaxares:

πολὺ δ᾽ ἔτι κάλλιον ἐνόμιζε τὴν τῶν στρατιωτικῶν φύλων εὐθημοσύνην εἶναι, ὅσῳ τε ὀξύτεροι οἱ καιροὶ τῶν εἰς τὰ πολεμικὰ χρήσεων καὶ μείζω τὰ σφάλματα τὰ ἀπὸ τῶν ὑστεριζόντων ἐν αὐτοῖς·

But he believed that orderliness in all the departments of an army was a much better thing, inasmuch as the chances of a successful stroke in war come and go more quickly and the losses occasioned by those who are behindhand in military matters are more serious (Cyr. 8.5.7; transl. Miller 1914).

36Although there is no explicit claim here that the benefits of organisation are incommensurably distinct in the larger body, the ability to take advantage of opportunity (kairos) is another skill which Xenophon attributes only to successful leaders; it is possible to read the Cyropaedia as the story of Cyrus’ increasing grasp of the kairos (Atack 2018a; Trédé-Boulmer 2015, p. 48). Previously, however, when describing Cyrus’ permanent court established at Babylon, the location of his final conquest, Xenophon has described it as ‘very different’ (πολὺ διαφερόντως) from other households. The extreme scale of the royal court permits a great degree of specialisation among its large staff, particularly in the kitchens, and this means that food from Cyrus’ table is much superior to provisions in more ordinary households (Cyr. 8.2.5-6).

37In the case of the royal court, the difference between it and an ordinary household is greater than simply one of scale, because that increased scale permits a high level of specialisation in its workforce. Enabling specialisation turns out to be another way in which the ruler can demonstrate and exercise difference from the population.

38With Cyrus’ role in structuring and ordering re-established by the description of his journey around the lands he controls, Xenophon describes what happens when his absolute power encounters a limit, as he reaches the border of his homeland of Persia, still governed by his father Cambyses (Carlier 1978, p. 158). This encounter continues the theme of Cyrus’ exploration of limits and boundaries evident from the start of the work, when the young Cyrus pushed his grandfather to be permitted to hunt outside the royal park, and over-stepped boundaries of his permission and possibly of self-restraint in doing so. At that point, Xenophon placed Cyrus on a political boundary which served as a metaphorical boundary between childhood and adulthood, dependency and power. Here Cyrus returns to the border of his father’s land, and the question of submission to familial authority is raised again. By preceding this scene with the comparison of the ordered household and camp, and emphasising the ease with which Cyrus’ entourage could move through his empire, Xenophon raises the question of whether Cyrus, with his distinctive status, can be incorporated back into the familial and civic structures of Persia. But, just as Kristeva emphasises the importance of considering the later episodes of Oedipus’ life in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, another encounter with a king on a boundary and a reconsideration of relationship with divine or unwritten law (Kristeva 1982, p. 95-99), Xenophon here shows Cyrus working to accommodate the unwritten laws which he has already demonstrated he is disinclined to transgress, in reaching an accommodation with his father and the Persian politeia.

39Cyrus must set aside the large retinue whose ease of movement and unity has just been emphasised, in order to enter Persia. After he does this, Cambyses addresses both his son and the Persian elders (8.5.22) and restates his own status as king of Persia and father of Cyrus, holder of both monarchical and familial authority. He then instructs the Persians in managing their relationship with Cyrus and the new power he has created; this is not a private meeting but emphatically takes place “in public,” eis to meson (8.5.22). His speech contains a warning for the elders and for Cyrus, that the relationship is one which depends on mutuality, and that Cyrus must restrain his ambition and his use of power when dealing with Persia and its people:

ἢν μὲν οὖν καὶ τὸ λοιπὸν οὕτω γιγνώσκητε, πολλῶν καὶ ἀγαθῶν αἴτιοι ἀλλήλοις ἔσεσθε· εἰ δὲ ἢ σύ, ὦ Κῦρε, ἐπαρθεὶς ταῖς παρούσαις τύχαις ἐπιχειρήσεις καὶ Περσῶν ἄρχειν ἐπὶ πλεονεξίᾳ ὥσπερ τῶν ἄλλων, ἢ ὑμεῖς, ὦ πολῖται, φθονήσαντες τούτῳ τῆς δυνάμεως καταλύειν πειράσεσθε τοῦτον τῆς ἀρχῆς, εὖ ἴστε ὅτι ἐμποδὼν ἀλλήλοις πολλῶν καὶ ἀγαθῶν ἔσεσθε.

If, therefore, you continue to be of the same mind also in the future, you will be the cause of much good to each other. But, Cyrus, if you on your part become puffed up by your present successes and attempt to govern the Persians as you do those other nations, with a view to self-aggrandizement, or if you, fellow-citizens, become jealous of his power and attempt to depose him from his sovereignty, be sure that you will hinder one another from receiving much good (Cyr. 8.5.24, transl. Miller 1914).

40While Cyrus has established absolute power across his empire, Cambyses asserts that it must be limited within Persia. Whenever he enters Persia, Cyrus must accept a largely ceremonial role, and not exercise the heterogeneous power he does elsewhere; but the Persians too must respect the balanced order of what seems to be a mixed constitution (Nadon 2001, p. 115). Cambyses’ speech sets out a series of boundaries which Cyrus might choose to transgress, including the traditional norms of filial respect. But Cyrus chooses to accept the limitations placed on his rule of Persia by Cambyses, and the Persians in turn accept that continuing rule, both making oaths that they will do so (8.5.27). Cyrus further seeks his parents’ permission to marry the daughter of Cyaxares (8.5.28), continuing his keen observance of sexual propriety. While the preceding chapters suggested that Cyrus had developed an unconstrained rule, as he reconstructed the social and political order of his new empire and the royal household which controlled it, this episode marks the Persian border as a limit to his authority. Cyrus’ clear disinclination to enter Persia with his army suggests that Xenophon wants to emphasise that however much ambition and greed Cyrus displayed, he also observed limits—a similar limit to that transgressed by Julius Caesar, in crossing the Rubicon with his army.


41Xenophon uses episodes in the life of Cyrus in which he either transgresses physical or behavioural boundaries to explore the ambiguities of despotic power, as part of his broader enquiry into the qualities which made Cyrus a successful ruler. In some of these episodes, Cyrus clearly crosses a defined physical limit, disobeying his elders and commanders; in others, he tests a boundary. His behaviour at these moments is often the subject of discussion, analysed by other powerful royal figures including his grandfather, uncle and father. While the ability to reconfigure social structures and their limits is a characteristic of monarchical power, Cyrus’ ability to show restraint when faced with some limits of personal behaviour, particularly those concerned with sexual ethics, suggests that Xenophon does not regard his journey as a straightforward transition from political virtue to despotic depravity; his final meeting with his father and acceptance of the special status of Persia shows limits to Cyrus’ transgression. Cyrus’ introduction of elements of despotic power into his empire transgresses limits acceptable to Greek polis norms, and enables him to rule better; but in transgressing some norms he pays careful respect to others, unlike the stereotype of the unrestrained tyrant.

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1 Machiavelli’s republican political thought draws on the Cyropaedia in multiple ways: see Rasmussen 2009. On the early modern reception of Xenophon, see Humble 2017.

2 Key episodes which could be read in this framework include: Cyrus reports breaking the rules at school in Persia (1.3); Cyrus learns to disregard Persian justice among the Medes (1.3); Cyrus travels to the borders to hunt (1.4); Cyrus learns the uses of deception, in a lesson from his father Cambyses, king of Persia (1.6); Cyrus campaigns on the borders (book 3); Cyrus disputes the limits of his authority with his uncle Cyaxares the Mede (5.5); Cyrus presents himself as a king (7.5, 8.1-3); Cyrus returns to Persia as its overlord, but Cambyses asserts limits to his authority (8.5).

3 On Greek admiration for Cyrus, and his presence in drama and historical and philosophical texts, see Gera 1993, p. 6-9; of particular significance are histories by Herodotus (1.95-216) and Ctesias (FGrH 90 F66), and philosophical works by Antisthenes (Diogenes Laertius 6.16; Atack 2020, p. 94-97).

4 The most detailed account of geometric equality is Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 5.2–5; Cyrus, aiming to motivate his troops, establishes reward schemes with geometric distributions of booty to troops (Cyr. 2.2.17-22); see Lévy 2006 and Demont 2006.

5 On Xenophon’s accounts of enslavement, see Baragwanath 2012. Bataille was influenced by Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind; Kojève later drew on Xenophon’s Hiero when discussing Hegel in the context of ancient tyranny (Kojève 2013, p. 142-143).

6 See Dodds 1959, p. 241-242; the limitations of tyrannical happiness and consequences of tyrannical transgression are explored in Plato’s myths of the afterlife in the Gorgias (523a-527a) and Republic (10.614b-621d).

7 The idea that the powerful act in their own interest, for example, is also represented by Thrasymachus (Rep. 1.336b-354c), while Thucydides’ ‘Melian Dialogue’ depicts Athenians using similar arguments against the islanders they defeated in 416 BCE (5.84-114). Some commentators, such as Tatum and Newell, position the Cyropaedia within this tradition (Tatum 1989; Newell 2013, p. 186-227).

8 On possible composition dates for the Hiero, see Dorion and Bandini 2021, p. cxliv-cxlviii, and on its relationship with Isocrates’ Nicocles and other works, see Dorion and Bandini 2021, p. clvii-clxx and 136-145.

9 Newell 2013, p. 186-209 takes this aspect of Cyrus’ character as evidence for Xenophon’s prefiguration of Machiavellian virtue; see also Tatum 1989, p. 166-168; Nadon 2001, p. 152-160; Rasmussen 2009, p. 45.

10 On Artabazus and Araspas as Cyrus’ Median friends, to be contrasted with his more restrained Persian friends, see Due 1989, p. 62-68.

11 The story of Abradatas and Pantheia has been treated as a romantic sub-plot, but it is central to Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ personal virtue, and to demonstrating its ambiguities and entanglement with his power; see Tatum 1989, p. 163-180; Gera 1993, p. 221-245; Mueller-Goldingen 1995, p. 204-211.

12 Azoulay 2004a. See also Llewellyn-Jones 2015 and 2020 on the costume and self-presentation of Achaemenid kings.

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Carol Atack

Newnham College, University of Cambridge

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