Book Summary: Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great


Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership And War

by Larry Hedrick, Xenophon
St. Martin’s Griffin (April 3, 2007)

Tucker’s Rating: 8 / 10

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What’s it about?:
Larry Hendrick has done two things here: First, he has created an updated translation of the classic Xenophon history of the education of Cyrus the Great (published under many titles, but usually called the “Cyropaedia”). Second, he went one step beyond mere translating, and re-wrote the book so that it is now in first person, as from from Cyrus himself.

Tucker’s Opinion:
This was a strange book for me to read at first, but once I got into it and past my issues, I really really liked it. The problem for me was that I read Xenophon’s Cyropaedia in college, and I was expecting this to be an updated, modern translation. It’s not, not in the least. It is a complete re-write of that book, with MANY liberties taken. But here’s the thing: I think it makes the book way better. It definitely make it more readable. This is fashioned as a business book, but really, it’s more of a novel that subsequents teaches a lot of cool lessons about leadership and building an organization. I think Larry Hendrick did a great job, not of figuring out what Cyrus was really like, but using anachronism as a tool to project onto Cyrus all the qualities that a modern leader would have to have in order to achieve everything that Cyrus achieved. The fact is, you may be able to hold an empire with just violence, but you can’t build one with just violence; it has to be built by creating relationships and connections with people. Cyrus was possibly the first modern leader to understand this, and as a result he built the first truly huge empire, the Persian Empire.

I learned so much about leadership form this book; but I learned very little about Cyrus, mainly because everything about him in here is pretty much made up. I think that’s sort of the point though; the broad historical facts about Cyrus can be learned in minutes. A deep understanding of the specific tactical maneuvers and larger philosophies he use to build the Persian Empire is missing from the historical record, and this book does an excellent job imagining what they could be, without straying to far into fiction.

Notable Quotes from Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership And War (as marked by Tucker):

You cannot expect your wealth to last for a lifetime unless it’s preserved by ethical principles. Whether in industry or in politics, leaders should be building a new, more flexible order for the imperiled generations to come.

To recognize this situation is not to call for a less calculated kind of leadership: It is always the cunning, not the naive, who rise to power, and leaders must use artfulness to make any organization whatsoever work well. Yet they must never be guided by cynical and self-serving counsels. If they don’t call upon their higher selves, they will descend further into petty egotism and tyrannical behavior.

On the basis of what I learned, I began to daydream about winning a universal empire, for there was something in me that would not rest until I fulfilled a grand destiny. Thus I created an empire in my thoughts long before I began to win an empire in reality.

“Let us remember our forefathers,” I cried out, “but let us no longer exaggerate their virtues.”

Though they had never heard a Persian prince speak in such openly ambitious terms, the officers quickly warmed to my words. As they started to whisper eagerly among themselves, I paused, wanting to tell them about my own overwhelming sense of destiny, wanting to prophesy about the new world that I was now setting into motion.
I checked myself, however, feeling it unwise to announce the beginning of a campaign of unprecedented scope. In the coming months I would force myself again and again to guard against my own overeagemess. Such self-control was crucial, for many times it led to great victories when self-indulgence might have led to defeats.
The full extent of my plans would gradually be unfolded to my officers. To shock them with the whole truth at the beginning would cause too many of them to shy away. It would also lead to accusations that I was working to overthrow our present form of government, and that was the last alarm I wanted to sound.

“True, my son,” said the king, “and do you remember the other things we talked about? We discussed how wonderful it would be if a man could train himself to be both ethical and brave, and to earn all he needed for his household and himself. That kind of man, we agreed, would be appreciated by the whole world. But if a man went further still, if he had the wisdom and the skill to be the guide and governor of all men, supplying all their needs and making them all they ought to be, that would be the greatest thing of all.”

“So you’re prepared to rely on what you can’t guarantee? Then you don’t seem ready for all the problems that your army might face.”

Early on, you can expect no one to believe in your destiny as much as yourself.

“True,” answered Cambyses, “but you must never arouse hopes that you can’t fulfill. When a leader arouses false expectations too often, he loses his power to inspire—even when success is really within reach. A leader shouldn’t promise great results when he can’t know what the outcome will be. His officers may step in to paint rosy pictures, but he should reserve his own credibility for crises of supreme danger—and not waste it in the early going.”

“But that,” said Cambyses, “can result in the obedience of compulsion. There’s a shorter way to a higher goal— the goal of voluntary obedience. People are quick to obey the person who’s wiser than themselves. A sick man will beg a doctor to guide him back to health, and a whole ship’s company will listen to an experienced captain. Likewise, travelers cherish the guide who knows the safest way. But if people think that obedience will lead them to disaster, then nothing—not punishments, not persuasion, not even bribes—will get them to come along. For no sane man can be lured to his own destruction.”
I remarked that the best way to secure obedience is to be both wiser and better informed than those we rule.
“To be sure,” said the king. “If you wish to be thought a good estate manager, or a good horseman, or a good physician, or a good flute player without really being one, just imagine all the tricks you have to invent just to keep up appearances. You might succeed at first, but in the end you’re going to be exposed as an impostor.”

“Yes,” I said, “and in the long run, we mortals need the help of the gods to stay on the path of wisdom.”

“Surely, my son. Divine favor is the ultimate foundation of human success, but the gods often throw a person back on his own resources. Therefore you must plan for every possible turn of events.”
“And we have to convince our people that they’re going to be as safe in the future as they are today.”

My father then started to discuss what he called the virtue of emulation. “Leaders must always set the highest standard. In a summer campaign, leaders must always endure their share of the sun and the heat and, in winter, the cold and the frost. In all labors, leaders must prove tireless if they want to enjoy the trust of their followers.”

“Yes,” I said, “a leader must always be more steadfast in adversity than those he leads.”

“Just so,” said Cambyses, “and be sure of this: The exceptional leader and the private soldier may be alike in body, but their afflictions aren’t the same. The suffering of the leader is always lightened by his glory. As much as possible, you must let others share in your glory, so that they never lose heart.”

“You know what I mean,” said the king. “I’ve trained you to be as honest as any man who ever lived, but if virtue serves to guide our actions with our friends and allies, every sort of trick can be used against our enemies. That’s why you were taught never to hunt a lion or a bear without some special advantage. Didn’t that kind of lesson teach you cunning and deceit?”

“But there’s one particular teaching,” Cambyses added, “that I must impress on you again, for it’s the greatest of them all. Remember the lessons of history. Remember how often whole peoples have allowed themselves to be persuaded to go to war by ‘wise’ men—and then been utterly destroyed by the very enemy they agreed to attack! Remember how many statesmen have helped raise new leadership to power—and then been overthrown by their own proteges! Remember how often leaders have chosen to treat their friends like slaves—and then perished in the revolutions caused by their idiotic methods! How many powerful men have craved to dominate the world—and by overreaching have lost everything they once possessed!”

“Yes, so we must always be on guard against miscalculation. Foresight isn’t humanity’s forte: We lack the vision to detect the best course,” concluded my father. “But the gods, my son, know everything that the future will bring. If we mortals win their favor, they will send signs to tell us what we ought to do—and what we ought to leave undone.”

I deeply believe that leaders, whatever their profession, are wrong to allow distinctions of rank to flourish within their organizations. Living together on equal terms helps people develop deeper bonds and creates a common conscience. Those who live together are far less likely to desert one another in a crisis; those who live apart are far more likely to pursue their narrow self-interest.

After a time I turned the subject to serious matters. “Gentlemen,” I said to my officers, “let’s talk about discipline within our army, and let’s consider our danger from no-account leaders. Unfortunately, such rogues sometimes find more followers than good leaders. Promising everyone a good time with plenty of instant rewards, these scoundrels can exert much more influence than virtuous men, who end up alone on steep, rocky paths.”
My words took effect at once. Looking out over the many faces in the great tent, I added, “Misleaders are slow to work hard but quick to act on greed. They convince their men that dishonest behavior leads to great wealth. Let’s banish these misleaders from among us, and when we do, we shouldn’t fill their places from our Persian peerage alone. As our journey continues, we’re going to be joined by many races of men. Just as we choose our horses from the best stocks, not limiting ourselves to our national breed, we should choose the best men to join us in the work of command, regardless of their country or color.”
A general hum of agreement greeted my advice. “Remember too,” I added, “that getting rid of scoundrels ends the danger of contamination for the rest of the army. Men are drawn closer to virtue when they see the dishonor that falls on misleaders.”

Allow me to pause and emphasize this general rule: Success always calls for greater generosity—though most people, lost in the darkness of their own egos, treat it as an occasion for greater greed.

After my sudden pang of envy, I quickly reminded myself that collecting booty was not an end in itself, but only a means for building my empire. Riches would be of little use to us now—except as a means of winning new friends. For a long time we Persians would be continually on the move, and the more possessions we collected, the slower our movements would be. My desire was to be the most benignly powerful man alive—not the richest.

Let my readers note that there’s no great need of long speeches at critical moments. Brevity is the soul of command. I’d used fewer than a hundred words to rescue my plans from a direct assault by my uncle. Too much talking suggests desperation on the part of the leader. Speak shortly, decisively, and to the point—and couch your desires in such natural logic that no can raise objections. Then move on.

The lesson is clear: You can gain huge benefits by creating debts of gratitude.

Remember this lesson well: Whenever you can, act as a liberator. Freedom, dignity, and wealth [safety]—these three together constitute the great happiness of humanity. If you bequeath all three to your people, their love for you will never die.

“You can never be loyal to a prince who condemns himself by the deeds of his own hand,” I said.

He also noticed that my noblemen only asked questions that were pleasant to answer and never made jokes to belittle their comrades. As Gobryas rose to return home, he said, “I’m beginning to understand, Prince Cyrus, how superior you and your men are. You may not possess as many treasures as other warriors, but you’re worth far more to the gods. Most of us are always trying to increase our wealth, but you and your officers seem far more concerned with perfecting your souls.”

As a matter of honor, I never allowed myself to consider that my allies were expendable. A true leader of any sort must surround each and every subordinate with a cordon of safety. It is never enough to overcome the enemy. If we fail to protect our own people at the same time, we cannot in good conscience continue to exercise power.

“It’s not one’s origins that make the man,” I put in.

“If you ponder our situation,” I said, “I think you’ll discover that the danger to our proud traditions is far from over. The great temptation of conquerors is to forsake the heroic life that won them the fruits of victory and gradually slide into a life of laziness and luxury. We have to be on constant guard against this temptation. We have to keep a close watch on each other, so that we don’t degenerate into greedy parasites whose first care is to serve ourselves, rather than the masses of people who now depend on us for their safety.”

“It’s not enough to have been courageous once,” I reminded them. “No man can maintain his courage unless he cultivates it. Just as the body grows weak through laziness, the powers of the spirit—valor, readiness, temperance, and intelligence—may diminish and die. Founding an empire is a glorious achievement, but keeping it safe is even more important. To seize it may be the outcome of daring alone, but to hold it is impossible without self-restraint and forethought. Let’s work harder now than ever before! Friends, we have so much to lose if we do not! Our very success means that we have to guard against envious people who long to see us, poor again.”

My words were springing out of me as from some deep fountain within. “We should all be grateful that our dreams have come true, but we should also realize that our enjoyment of these good things is rooted in the pains that we endured to gain them. If some god were to prepare a table for us with the food we love most, and just one more touch was needed to make our happiness complete, we would have to ask for an overwhelming sense of hunger. We would have to be ravenous for the most delicious foods and parched for the finest wines.”

Most of all I vowed that my followers would learn more from my own example than from any legal code or set of regulations. As important to the people as written laws may be, the leader serves as a living law. He not only acts as a competent guide but also functions as a wise judge, detecting and punishing those who fail to serve the people with justice and honesty.

There is a deep—and usually frustrated—desire in the heart of everyone to act with benevolence rather than selfishness, and one fine instance of generosity can inspire dozens more. I experienced over and again how my own temperance made others more temperate. When they perceived moderation and self-control in the actions of their leader, my subjects were eager to curb their own antisocial instincts.

I made my people understand the crucial difference between modesty and self-control. The modest person, I told them, will do nothing blameworthy in the light of day, but a true paragon of self-control—which we all should strive to be—avoids unworthy actions even in the deepest secrecy of his private life.

Early in my career, when I had no wealth to share, I did all I could to show my affection for my commanders and my soldiers. I worked in their behalf and rejoiced in their good fortune, and I sympathized with them when they were sad. But when I became rich, I realized that no kindness between man and man comes more naturally than sharing food and drink, especially food and drink of the ambrosial excellence that I could now provide.

Convinced that it’s impossible to feel hatred toward those who treat us with love, I never lost an opportunity to reward my warriors, even if I remained uncertain of their loyalty. My new wealth meant that I could surpass all others in the grandeur of my gifts.

My generosity toward all who provided me with crucial information set countless people straining with eyes and ears to learn any news that might help to preserve the realm. For my part, I would listen to anyone who claimed that he had vital intelligence to convey.

One day at a dinner in Babylon, Croesus criticized me for being so openhanded, claiming that I would soon reduce myself to poverty.
I replied, “How much wealth do you think I could have amassed already, if I hadn’t shared the spoils of my empire with my friends?”
Croesus named an enormous sum.
I said, “Croesus, I’m going to use Hestifer here to put your theory to the test.”
Turning to Hestifer, I said, “Go around to my richest friends and tell them I need money for a great enterprise. Have each of them write down the amount he can give me. Then seal their letters and, when you get back, come to me with Croesus and, in my presence, hand the letters over to him.”
On the next day, Croesus lost all the color in his face when he totaled up the amount that my friends had pledged. Gasping, he exclaimed, “This sum is so much larger than anyone could ever keep for himself!”
“You see, Croesus,” I pointed out, “I do possess almost an infinite amount of wealth. Going against common sense, you’ve advised me to harvest and hide it—and be envied and hated because of it, and hire mercenaries to keep an everlasting watch over it. But I’ve decided to make my friends rich, and they’ve become living treasuries for me, and they’re better at guarding their gold than any watchmen could ever be.”
“And that is exactly why,” the downcast Croesus said, “you’ve won half the world and I’ve won no more than permission to sit at your table.” He shook his head.

I had something else to say. “Croesus, the lower gods have implanted something unworthy in our souls— something that makes all of us beggars at heart. From time to time almost everyone thinks he’d like to seize all the world’s riches. Even I can hear the call of that terrible greed, but I know enough to avoid the deadly curse that greed brings with it. Now tell me, what do most rich men do with their excess wealth?”
“Most rich men,” Croesus got out with difficulty, running his hand over his bald head, “bury gold in the earth, and some of it never gets unburied.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “and what foolishness that is! Now what else do most rich men do with their money?” “Most men count it and total it up,” Croesus said, “and they set guards over it.”
“So doesn’t their gold cause them a world of trouble?” “Surely,” he said. “Some of them invest more time in their money than in their own children.”
“Yet however rich they may be,” I observed, “they can’t eat more than they have room for in their stomachs—they’d burst wide open if they did! As for all their golden garments—they’d be crushed to death if they tried to wear them all at once! Their extra wealth means nothing but extra grief. For my part, I try to be faithful to the gods, and I reach out my hands toward them in supplication. When I have more than I need, I give the excess to my friends. In helping my friends, I win their love—or something quite close to it—and in return I receive gratitude, fame, and even life itself. So my earthly glory grows, and the grander it becomes, the lighter it is to bear.”

“So you finally realize, Croesus,” I said, “that the truly contented man is not the possessor of vast riches. The crown of happiness goes to the person who has the skill to gain money fairly, use it honorably, and not mistake gold for a god of power and light.”

In my experience, men who respond to good fortune with modesty and kindness are harder to find than those who face adversity with courage. For in the very nature of things, success tends to create pride and blindness in the hearts of men, while suffering teaches them to be patient and strong.

“Cyrus,” said my father in an overpowering voice, “if your heart and the hearts of your men remain pure, you’ll prove a great blessing to the world, as well as a source of great happiness to each other. But if you, my son, are conquered by conceit and attempt to rule by your own strong hand, you’ll destroy not only yourself but entire nations.”

“You must never imagine that such loyal hearts spring up like grass in the field. No, every leader must actively raise up his followers, and you must win their hearts by the kindness that springs from love.”