Xenophon gave specific reasons for some of his works but for others he did not.
Xenophon (about 431 BC to 354 BC) produced a very wide range of work during his lifetime: historical, biographical, philosophical, instructional. He never stated a primary purpose for all his works and we can deduce that some of what he wrote was aimed at specific audiences.
For some of his works, he states a purpose (see below). For others we can sometimes deduce his intent with a certain degree of confidence, but with other texts we cannot be sure.
The historical works Anabasis and Hellenika, are the most problematic for, as John Marincola states in The Cambridge Companion to Xenophon,
Xenophon does not give us much help in interpreting these works. No
major ancient historian is more reticent about the nature and purpose
of his history...
As Xenophon read the works of some of those who came before him, he would certainly would have expected (and intended) that what he wrote would be copied and read by others. From the way that Xenophon returns to certain themes (such as leadership) in different works, we can deduce that he was perhaps partly motivated by what interested him and what he saw as important.
WORKS WHERE XENOPHON STATES A REASON
In Agesilaos, (King Agesilaos II of Sparta, ruled c. 398 – c. 360 BC), Xenophon begins with:
I know how difficult it is to write an appreciation of Agesilaus that
shall be worthy of his virtue and glory. Nevertheless the attempt must
be made. For it would not be seemly that so good a man, just because
of his perfection, should receive no tributes of praise, however
This laudatory account of Agesilaos is in contrast to some parts of Hellenika (see below) where Agesilaos is at times criticized.
In the Socratic dialogue Symposium, Xenophon, through a narrator, says:
To my mind it is worth while to relate not only the serious acts of
great and good men but also what they do in their lighter moods. I
should like to narrate an experience of mine that gives me this
Apology and Memorabilia
The Socratic dialogues Apology and Memorabilia are both defences of Socrates but are aimed at different audiences. In Apology, his intent was to make explicit something about Socrates' defence which he felt other writers hadn't:
It seems to me fitting to hand down to memory, furthermore, how
Socrates, on being indicted, deliberated on his defence and on his
end. It is true that others have written about this, and that all of
them have reproduced the loftiness of his words,—a fact which proves
that his utterance really was of the character intimated;—but they
have not shown clearly that he had now come to the conclusion that for
him death was more to be desired than life; and hence his lofty
utterance appears rather ill-considered.
Thus, Apology is aimed at an audience which is already 'sympathetic' to Socrates. In contrast,
The audience Xenophon imagines for the Memorabilia , on the other
hand, presumably includes readers still open to the attacks against
Socrates; otherwise Xenophon would not spend so much time summarizing
and refuting such arguments.
Constitution of the Lacedaimonians
Xenophon's pro-Spartan sympathies frequently show through in his writing (see Hellenika, for example), though he is not entirely uncritical. In this treatise on the Spartan constitution, Xenophon started with:
It occurred to me one day that Sparta, though among the most thinly
populated of states, was evidently the most powerful and most
celebrated city in Greece; and I fell to wondering how this could have
happened. But when I considered the institutions of the Spartans, I
wondered no longer.
Xenophon, like many Greek writers, was concerned with good government and leadership. In Constitution, he praises Spartan institutions and aims to show how Sparta became a great power, but he also criticizes Spartans for not following their laws in his own time. Thus, he seems to be pointing to Sparta's decline, even before the catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC
WORKS WHERE XENOPHON DOES NOT CLEARLY STATE A REASON
(see also the section below on Anabasis) This multi-genre text is Xenophon's longest work and focuses on Cyrus the Great (although much of it is fiction) but it was intended neither as a history nor a biography but rather as a thesis on the training of a ruler. Cyropaedia is
the most enigmatic with regards to the author’s intentions....Xenophon
sets out to narrate certain noteworthy incidents and exceptional deeds
(military and political) from the life of Cyrus the Great.... What he found most admirable and
underlines already in the prologue of this work is the fact that Cyrus
managed to rule a great empire with the willing obedience of his
followers. The Cyropaedia is thus presented as having serious claims
to contribute to the political discourse of Xenophon’s time. It is no
wonder that in antiquity it was considered a response to Plato’s
Why did Xenophon choose a Persian, Cyrus? Melina Tamiolaki, in The Cambridge Companion to Xenophon argues that:
At least two reasons can be advanced to explain this choice: firstly,
Xenophon was interested in paradigms of successful empires; obviously
he could not find such paradigms in Greece, which experienced
consecutive failures of empires. Secondly, he must have been impressed
by specific features on which the propaganda about Cyrus insisted,
mainly his qualities as a benevolent despot and his success in gaining
the willing obedience of his followers. Greek leaders ostensibly
lacked these qualities, for the simple reason that the regime of
monarchy that by definition enables and fosters them, was absent in
Greece. Xenophon wished to underline these qualities, but without
implying a suggestion about constitutional change in Greece.
Hellenika is a continuation of Thucydides' work on the Peloponnesian War and then beyond. His style reveals that he had clearly read both Herodotus and Thucydides. He begins Hellenika with "And after those things, not many days later...". David Thomas, in his introduction to The Landmark Xenophon's Hellenika, observes:
Xenophon begins this way, expecting the reader to recognize that he is
picking up roughly where Thucydides left off....Xenophon...is in some
sense claiming to be a historian who can be compared to Thucydides.
Thucydides states why he wrote his work. It was because he thought
"it would be a great war, and more worthy of relation than any other
that had preceded it"
Xenophon may have felt the same way, particularly as he simply continues from where Thucydides left off. What else might have given him reason to write Hellenika we don't know with any certainty but Thomas suggests that Xenophon wished to put his own 'slant' on events, which might account for the differences between Xenophon's Hellenika and the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia (unknown author).
This is similarly problematic in terms of motive. Perhaps he felt that the march of 10,000 Greeks through the heart of the mighty Persian empire was too good a story not to tell, but there is almost certainly more to it than that. In Anabasis, the theme of Leaders and Followers is evident, as it was in Cyropaedia, and Xenophon's desire to make known his thoughts on what he personally saw as something very important may well have been an important (but not only) reason for writing both Anabasis and Cyropaedia.
Hipparchicus, On Horsemanship and Hunting with Dogs
Hipparchicus, On Horsemanship and Hunting with Dogs can all be considered technical treatise. They are instructional, but that does not appear to be the only reason that Xenophon wrote them. Hipparchicus, for example, sees Xenophon once again dealing with leadership, while Hunting with Dogs
is a definite outlier in Xenophon’s corpus of smaller works and a
difficult text. It is made up of three distinct parts: an elaborate,
mythological preface; an extensive attack upon the sophists at the
end; in between, a fairly straightforward practical section concerning
Source: John Dillery (Chapter 10), in The Cambridge Companion to Xenophon