The Persians formerly and in the time of Xenophon

Translated by Walter Miller


That Cyrus’s empire1 was the greatest and most glorious of all the kingdoms in Asia—of that it may be its own witness. For it was bounded on the east by the Indian Ocean, on the north by the Black Sea, on the west by Cyprus and Egypt, and on the south by Ethiopia. And although it was of such magnitude, it was governed by the single will of Cyrus; and he honoured his subjects and cared for them as if they were his own children; and they, on their part, reverenced Cyrus as a father. Still, as soon as Cyrus was dead, his children at once fell into dissension, states and nations began to revolt, and everything began to deteriorate. And that what I say is the truth, I will prove, beginning with the Persians’ attitude toward religion.

I know, for example, that in early times the kings and their officers, in their dealings with even the worst offenders, would abide by an oath that they might have given, and be true to any pledge they might have made. For had they not had such a character for honour, and had they not been true to their reputation, not a man would have trusted them, just as not a single person any longer trusts them, now that their lack of character is notorious; and the generals of the Greeks who joined the expedition of Cyrus the Younger2 would not have had such confidence in them even on that occasion. But, as it was, trusting in the previous reputation of the Persian kings, they placed themselves in the king’s power, were led into his presence, and had their heads cut off. And many also of the barbarians who joined that expedition went to their doom, some deluded by one promise, others by another.

But at the present time they are still worse, as the following will show: if, for example, any one in the olden times risked his life for the king, or if any one reduced a state or a nation to submission to him, or effected anything else of good or glory for him, such an one received honour and preferment; now, on the other hand, if any one seems to bring some advantage to the king by evil-doing, whether as Mithradates did, by betraying his own father Ariobarzanes, or as a certain Rheomithres did, in violating his most sacred oaths and leaving his wife and children and the children of his friends behind as hostages in the power of the king of Egypt—such are the ones who now have the highest honours heaped upon them.

Witnessing such a state of morality, all the inhabitants of Asia have been turned to wickedness and wrong-doing. For, whatever the character of the rulers is, such also that of the people under them for the most part becomes. In this respect they are now even more unprincipled than before.

In money matters, too, they are more dishonest in this particular: they arrest not merely those who have committed many offences, but even those who have done no wrong, and against all justice compel them to pay fines; and so those who are supposed to be rich are kept in a state of terror no less than those who have committed many crimes, and they are no more willing than malefactors are to come into close relations with their superiors in power; in fact, they do not even venture to enlist in the royal army. Accordingly, owing to their impiety toward the gods and their iniquity toward man, any one who is engaged in war with them can, if he desire, range up and down their country without having to strike a blow. Their principles in so far, therefore, are in every respect worse now than they were in antiquity.

In the next place, as I will now show, they do not care for their physical strength as they used to do. For example, it used to be their custom neither to spit nor to blow the nose. It is obvious that they observed this custom not for the sake of saving the moisture in the body, but from the wish to harden the body by labour and perspiration. But now the custom of refraining from spitting or blowing the nose still continues, but they never give themselves the trouble to work off the moisture in some other direction. In former times it was their custom also to eat but once in the day, so that they might devote the whole day to business and hard work. Now, to be sure, the custom of eating but once a day still prevails, but they begin to eat at the hour when those who breakfast earliest begin their morning meal, and they keep on eating and drinking until the hour when those who stay up latest go to bed.

They had also the custom of not bringing pots into their banquets, evidently because they thought that if one did not drink to excess, both mind and body would be less uncertain. So even now the custom of not bringing in the pots still obtains, but they drink so much that, instead of carrying anything in, they are themselves carried out when they are no longer able to stand straight enough to walk out.

Again, this also was a native custom of theirs, neither to eat nor drink while on a march, nor yet to be seen doing any of the necessary consequences of eating or drinking. Even yet that same abstinence prevails, but they make their journeys so short that no one would be surprised at their ability to resist those calls of nature.

Again, in times past they used to go out hunting so often that the hunts afforded sufficient exercise for both men and horses. But since Artaxerxes and his court became the victims of wine, they have neither gone out themselves in the old way nor taken the others out hunting; on the contrary, if any one often went hunting with his friends out of sheer love for physical exertion, the courtiers would not hide their jealousy and would hate him as presuming to be a better man than they.

Again, it is still the custom for the boys to be educated at court; but instruction and practice in horsemanship have died out, because there are no occasions on which they may give an exhibition and win distinction for skill. And while anciently the boys used there to hear cases at law justly decided and so to learn justice, as they believed—that also has been entirely reversed; for now they see all too clearly that whichever party gives the larger bribe wins the case. The boys of that time used also to learn the properties of the products of the earth, so as to avail themselves of the useful ones and keep away from those that were harmful. But now it looks as if they learned them only in order to do as much harm as possible; at any rate, there is no place where more people die or lose their lives from poisons than there.

Furthermore, they are much more effeminate now than they were in Cyrus’s day.3 For at that time they still adhered to the old discipline and the old abstinence that they received from the Persians, but adopted the Median garb and Median luxury; now, on the contrary, they are allowing the rigour of the Persians to die out, while they keep up the effeminacy of the Medes.

I should like to explain their effeminacy more in detail. In the first place, they are not satisfied with only having their couches upholstered with down, but they actually set the posts of their beds upon carpets, so that the floor may offer no resistance, but that the carpets may yield. Again, whatever sorts of bread and pastry for the table had been discovered before, none of all those have fallen into disuse, but they keep on always inventing something new besides; and it is the same way with meats; for in both branches of cookery they actually have artists to invent new dishes.

Again, in winter they are not satisfied with having clothing on their heads and bodies and legs, but they must have also sleeves thickly lined to the very tips of their fingers, and gloves besides. In summer, on the other hand, they are not satisfied with the shade afforded by the trees and rocks, but amid these they have people stand by them to provide artificial shade.

They take great pride also in having as many cups as possible; but they are not ashamed if it transpire that they came by them by dishonest means, for dishonesty and sordid love of gain have greatly increased among them.

Furthermore, it was of old a national custom not to be seen going anywhere on foot; and that was for no other purpose than to make themselves as knightly as possible. But now they have more coverings upon their horses than upon their beds, for they do not care so much for knighthood as for a soft seat. And so is it not to be expected that in military prowess they should be wholly inferior to what they used to be? In times past it was their national custom that those who held lands should furnish cavalrymen from their possessions and that these, in case of war, should also take the field, while those who performed outpost duty in defence of the country received pay for their services. But now the rulers make knights out of their porters, bakers, cooks, cup-bearers, bath-room attendants, butlers, waiters, chamberlains who assist them in retiring at night and in rising in the morning, and beauty-doctors who pencil their eyes and rouge their cheeks for them and otherwise beautify them; these are the sort that they make into knights to serve for pay for them. From such recruits, therefore, a host is obtained, but they are of no use in war; and that is clear from actual occurrences: for enemies may range up and down their land with less hindrance than friends. For Cyrus had abolished skirmishing at a distance, had armed both horses and men with breastplates, had put a javelin into each man’s hand, and had introduced the method of fighting hand to hand. But now they neither skirmish at a distance any longer, nor yet do they fight in a hand-to-hand engagement. The infantry still have their wicker shields and bills and sabres, just as those had who set the battle in array in the times of Cyrus; but not even they are willing to come into a hand-to-hand conflict.

Neither do they employ the scythed chariot any longer for the purpose for which Cyrus had it made. For he advanced the charioteers to honour and made them objects of admiration and so had men who were ready to hurl themselves against even a heavy-armed line. The officers of the present day, however, do not so much as know the men in the chariots, and they think that untrained drivers will be just as serviceable to them as trained charioteers. Such untrained men do indeed charge, but before they penetrate the enemy’s lines some of them are unintentionally thrown out, some of them jump out on purpose, and so the teams without drivers often create more havoc on their own side than on the enemy’s. However, inasmuch as even they understand what sort of material for war they have, they abandon the effort; and no one ever goes to war any more without the help of Greek mercenaries, be it when they are at war with one another or when the Greeks make war upon them; but even against Greeks they recognize that they can conduct their wars only with the assistance of Greeks.

I think now that I have accomplished the task that I set before myself. For I maintain that I have proved that the Persians of the present day and those living in their dependencies are less reverent toward the gods, less dutiful to their relatives, less upright in their dealings with all men, and less brave in war than they were of old. But if any one should entertain an opinion contrary to my own, let him examine their deeds and he will find that these testify to the truth of my statements.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.8.1–27


1 The empire of Cyrus the Great (Cyrus II of Persia), the founder of the Achaemenid Empire.

2 Brother of Artaxerxes II, King of the Achaemenid Empire, whom he unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow.

3 In the time of Cyrus the Great.


9 July 2023 – 2 August 2023