Cyrus the Younger (c. 423-401 BCE) was the powerful and ambitious son of King Darius II (r. 423-404 BCE) of Persia. Despite Cyrus’ youth, King Darius II entrusted him with governing the regions of Lydia, Cappadocia and Phrygia in 408 or 407 BCE. Once appointed, Cyrus helped the Peloponnesians win the Peloponnesian War against Athens (ended 404 BCE), and he later raised an army in 401 BCE for an unsuccessful rebellion against his brother, King Artaxerxes II (r. 404-358 BCE). Cyrus was killed in the resulting battle against his brother at Cunaxa, Babylonia, and two historians (Xenophon and Ctesias) were present to record the event from the viewpoints of both sides of the conflict.
Cyrus seems to have been the type of person who was either loved or hated and accounts about him by his contemporary peers reflect that divide. Ctesias, a Greek man who hailed from the Anatolian city of Cnidus, was a doctor for Artaxerxes II, as well as a historian of Persia and India. He unflatteringly described Cyrus the Younger as a disloyal and treasonous villain. On the other side of the spectrum, the historian and philosopher Xenophon, who served as a mercenary in Cyrus’ army, glowingly portrayed the rebel prince as a just and generous man who would do anything for his friends.
It is in Xenophon’s list of Cyrus’ noble qualities that we discover one of the late prince’s intriguing habits. Cyrus the Younger was reportedly an incessant gift-giver. While many of his gifts were the usual presents of money, gilded weaponry or fine clothing, Cyrus’ closest friends could expect to receive less-commonplace gifts arriving on their doorstep. Apparently, if Cyrus had a particularly delightful meal, he had an interesting habit of sending out leftovers from his table to close friends, and a personal letter or message from the prince often accompanied such deliveries. According to Xenophon, you never knew what the prince might randomly send—an already-opened bottle of fine wine, a half-eaten portion of goose, and even a chunk from a loaf of bread were listed by Xenophon as being sent by Cyrus the Younger to various friends. The letters accompanying the delivered morsels reportedly read something like, “Cyrus enjoyed this, and he would like you to have a taste of it too” or “Cyrus has not come across a nicer wine than this for a long time, so he has sent it to you with the request that you drink it up today along with your best friends” (Xenophon, Anabasis Kyrou, Book I, chapter 9). Xenophon, unfortunately, did not mention if the recipients of these royal table-scraps found the gifts entertaining or condescending.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Esther Denouncing Haman, painted by Ernest Normand (1857–1923), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Anabasis Kyrou (The Expedition/Upcountry March of Cyrus) by Xenophon and translated by Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.