Cyrus claims to have learned justice in Persia when he was judge in a case involving two boys. In this case, a larger boy with a small coat took away a large coat from a small boy. Cyrus also claims to have learned justice from the example of his grandfather Astyages. What is Cyrus’ understanding of justice? As he builds his empire, does Cyrus live up to his own standard of justice? "
Cyrus is viewed by many to be a rather magnanimous king in that he was always on the ball on several issues and was deemed to be quite avante garde in certain social areas. His military exploits are well documented but we perhaps tend to forget what was going on in his early life when he was a judge and when he had the opportunity to impart justice on various occasions. One could argue that this served him in good stead when building his vast empire but the book is slightly loose on certain aspects of why Cyrus would take certain decisions later on in life. The book is very much involved in the philosophical implications of Cyrus as a person who also moves ahead on certain issues which were pretty much regarded as taboo at the time. His magnanimity is also quite well documented in the book but it is justice with which we are concerned here and that is perhaps the great question. Did Cyrus’ experiences as a judge and those he gained from his grandfather really affect him in his empire building at the latter stage of his life or he just did that to look good and come up with the idea that he was an impartial imposer of justice?
This is perhaps the best documented and the most famous of all the cases in which Cyrus was involved. The larger and more powerful boy took the coat of the smaller one in what may be deemed as a bullying exercise or a show of force and this situation affected Cyrus quite deeply. Naturally enough justice was imparted according to logical conclusions as the boy who took the coat was made to return it. The book argues that Cyrus was so impressed by this episode that he always retained a lifelong affinity with those who were weak and who did not have much truck in life. It is a telling observation indeed as the empire which Cyrus ran in Persia was pretty brutal by any standards although one must obviously keep in mind the social and political mores of the day. Military might was undoubtedly all important and this obviously meant that force was applied more often than not and often the results were fatal. However one can also argue that Cyrus imparted a very strong justice system which was very much advanced for its time and where every case was heard with an open mind and with an important concern for justice accordingly.
Cyrus’ empire was a vast one which stretched all over what is now modern day Iraq and Iran even including some parts of countries such as Oman and Bahrain so he needed to be quite astute and at the same time tough in his handling of everything. Naturally enough the issues which were crucially important here were that his subjects would be kept relatively quiet and that he would prosper accordingly. The book argues that the experiences which Cyrus had when he was younger served him in good stead while building his empire which was not without its problems, one has to say.
However the book also emphasises the importance which Cyrus gave to his grandfather Astayages especially in his judgements and his wise and sagacious advice. Although not everything appears quite clear in the book there are some subtle references to the power of this grandfather over Cyrus who was pretty much lord over whatever he surveyed. In fact his sense of arbitrary justice was sometimes very noticeable especially when he had to deal with his enemies were not much truck was given to what they were due although this was expected in those times. Additionally Cyrus was occasionally seen to be a brutal tyrant and despot however this was in the way he was posthumously depicted by Alexander the Great who conquered and eventually expanded his empire at Cyrus’ expense.
However the way Cyrus used to listen to certain cases and judge them with a certain amount of magnanimity does reflect his considerable education in this regard especially in matters of justice and other issues. However one also has to account for the situation which was prevalent in those days and which also showed how life could not always be the same after the subjugation of Cyrus’ empire. In fact one has to say that the empire over which Cyrus ruled was definitely one of the most enlightened even if one compares it to the Greek and Roman empires which came after it.
Justice is perhaps something which we may compare to this day and age too. In fact the book includes copious references to various incidents where Cyrus had the opportunity to profess justice and show his strength and intrinsic wisdom of judgement in at times rather difficult situations. First and foremost he was also an excellent negotiator with a lot going for him especially when he managed to conquer a wide variety of peoples. The incident with Croesus is a case in point as here instead of making an enemy, Cyrus actually made a friend so his path to power was intrinsically made easier. But this is most definitely due to his excellent negotiating skills and capacity to do things differently which made him stand out from other leaders.
The situation could not be starker and more different than that encountered with the King of Assyria who was a bloody and violent tyrant if ever there was one. Here Cyrus had to use all his political and military skills to overcome the Assyrians but this does not mean that his education was not a factor here. In fact Xenophon continues to argue that this played a crucial role in the way he conducted affairs and he was also very much in touch with everything that went on around him. Thus his decisions were truly informed ones and were taken on the basis of sound judgements and assumptions which also demonstrated his strength in tackling problems. His education was definitely an important perspective in this regard.
Conclusion: Cyrus as an educator
Another perspective which is perhaps overlooked when one discusses Cyrus the Great is his magnificent propensity to educate and to spread the powers of learning over his vast empire. This is instructive as it demonstrates that education in itself is a good tool to keep the people in check as it makes them content and also shows that they are not simply treated as dump parts of an empire which is overall rather holistic.
Xenophon’s arguments on Cyrus definitely ring true even in this day and age. Perhaps Cyrus was unfairly blighted by such historical figures as Alexander the Great, perhaps he was misunderstood but he was definitely a personage who was at the top of his game when he ruled the empire which was probably one of the largest and most extensive in his time. His influences are quite clear, a sense of fairness and true justice as well as magnanimity on every level which allowed him to be benign and full of wisdom at every turn.
Justice in Persia was definitely the better when Cyrus took over and all this could be said to link back to what occurred in his youth when he encountered the incident of the boys and the coat. Education plays an important part in every leader’s life and this is undoubtedly true in the case of Cyrus.
Xenophon trans W Ambler: The Education of Cyrus, New Jersey, Cornell University Press 2001, Print