Xenophon’s account of the life of Cyrus the Great tells the story of one of the world’s most successful leaders. Cyrus, king of Persia, established one of the largest empires in the world. He was also a leader in establishing human rights when he granted individual rights and religious freedom to his people. Cyrus’s leadership on the outside seems benevolent and even somewhat selfless, putting the wellbeing of his people on the forefront. However, at its core, Cyrus’s rule is manipulative and narcissistic.
Cyrus’s tactic for a strong army was to keep them on strict diet and exercise regimens that would keep them in top shape: “Cyrus also took care that they would never come to lunch or dinner without sweating . . . for he held this to be good for pleasant eating, being healthy, and for being able to labor; and he held that these labors were good for their being more gentle to each other, because horses too, when they labor together, stand [in their stalls] more gently with each other.” Certainly with regard to facing the enemy, those who are conscious of themselves as having exercised well become more high-minded. Cyrus designed these routines of diet and exercise to keep the troops healthy and performing well. If the men kept to these routines, they would do well in battle. “He announced victory prizes also for those whole companies and whole platoons, likewise for those squads of ten and of five, that showed themselves to be most obedient to their rulers and to practice most enthusiastically what was announced.” The king acknowledged those that did well in battle and rewarded them with a meal at the king’s table with Cyrus himself. He also punished those that caused failure by disobeying, abandoning the regimen, or ignoring orders. This encouraged the troops to always be their best and follow orders. At first, this plan of diet and exercise and rewards seems like an act of benevolence on Cyrus’s part. He makes sure his people are healthy and well taken care of, even giving them his some of his own food when they have done well. He gives everyone rewards or punishments based on their performance in order to make sure they are always at their best.
However, when a reader looks deeper, Cyrus’s motives for taking care of his people are almost entirely narcissistic. Cyrus wants a large, successful army that will follow his orders almost mindlessly and win battles. And if “doing what is good” is equivalent to “doing what Cyrus wants,” the only way one can do what is good is to get inside the mind of Cyrus. “He used to invite and honor any whom he saw doing the sort of thing he wished them all to do.” This can result in the goal of entire armies being to try to imagine and embody the king’s will. In the end, entire armies obsess over their king and dedicate themselves to paying close attention to him in order to realize what he expects of them and avoid punishment. Cyrus uses people that are willing to study and follow him to bring glory to his name .Yet, was the soldiers’ obedience really willing if it was done to avoid punishment? In reality, Cyrus’s leadership was almost totalitarianism. With every hope of impressing Cyrus and being rewarded, there would always be a fear of falling short of his expectations and being punished.
Cyrus turned his rule of a bureaucratic hierarchy into a self-serving dictatorship focused on bringing glory to himself. There were still the different levels of command of a hierarchy and the many different officials of a bureaucracy, but every one of their decisions was made while trying to measure up to Cyrus’s merit system and avoid being punished.Cyrus died in 530 B.C., leaving his sons behind to run his vast empire. “When Cyrus died, however, his sons immediately fell into dissension, cities and nations immediately revolted, and everything took a turn for the worse.” Why did the First Persian Empire fall apart so quickly after Cyrus’s death? It may have been that Cyrus’s rule was revolving so much around himself that once he was gone and a real bureaucracy was left to rule, the power vacuum left by Cyrus’s death destroyed the empire. Cyrus’s habit of rewards and punishments was gone and the people no longer had any incentive to stay in peak condition or follow their leaders.
Xenophon ends his book by saying, “the present Persians and their associates have been demonstrated to be more impious regarding gods, more irreverent regarding relatives, more unjust regarding others, and more unmanly in what pertains to war than were their predecessors.”Cyrus the Great died after establishing the First Persian Empire and successfully creating a bureaucratic government to rule over it. However, hiding underneath the bureaucracy was an almost totalitarian system with a narcissistic king at the top. Cyrus manipulates his troops into following his orders with promises of reward and threats of punishment. This results in the armies being completely obsessed with Cyrus, trying to figure out what he deems worthy of reward. Perhaps if Cyrus’s rule had not been so centered around Cyrus himself, his empire would not have fallen apart after his death.