Beyond the Boundaries of Fantasia: An ancient imagining of the future of leadership

He Will Rock You

Cyrus the Great and "Global Leadership" in the Ancient World

ἦγε δὲ αὐτὸν ἐπὶ πάντας ἀνθρώπους ἃ καὶ πρότερον Ἀλέξανδρον καὶ πάλαι Κῦρον, ἔρως ἀπαρηγόρητος ἀρχῆς καὶ περιμανὴς ἐπιθυμία τοῦ πρῶτον εἶναι καὶ μέγιστον.

What drove him [Julius Caesar] against all humankind, and what also drove Alexander before and Cyrus long ago, was an insatiable love of ruling and a furious desire to be first and best (Plutarch, Life of Antony 6.3).

This quotation, which is taken from Plutarch's Life of Antony (see "I Know What Boys Like"), reveals several important aspects of ancient leadership. For starters, it reveals that by the time of Plutarch's writing in the late first and early second centuries CE, three figures were seen as special for their interest in creating an empire: Julius Caesar of Rome (100-44 BCE; see "Born to Run"), Alexander of Macedonian Greece (356-323 BCE; see "Spirits in the Material World"), and Cyrus II of Persia (600-530 BCE). The latter two had already been dubbed "the Great", though Caesar missed this title because his main rival, Pompeius "Magnus", had already assumed it. Like the later Roman emperors, Autustus (see "Money Talks" and "Spirits in the Material World") and Trajan (see "Getting to Know You" and "Spirits in the Material World"), these three figures stood at the top, or near the top, of vast empires comprised of many nations that could, at least in theory, trade with one another on a less restricted and more fluid basis and participate in cultural exchange (or appropriation or dominance, depending on how you look at it). Such figures were called "great" not only because of the scope of their military conquests but for the prospect that such conquests were thought to offer for a better, more prosperous world order, in line with the cosmic world order. Such a state, it was hoped, might lead to greater harmony between more civilized nations and those deemed less so (on the perceived virtues of Alexander the Great see the Second Kingship Oration of Dio of Prusa in "Getting to Know You"). Others would manage empires like the ones Caesar, Alexander, and Cyrus helped to create, but it was their vision and their drive (so it was thought) that brought empire into existence in the first place. Thus, in all of these ways, figures like Caesar, Alexander, and Cyrus might be seen as the best ancient examples of what we would think of today as "global leaders."

We might ask, then, what drove these leaders to build empires? To which Plutarch has a ready answer. He says that it was a love (eros) of rule or empire (arche). Plutarch describes this love as aparegoretos, which though we have translated as "insatiable," literally means "that which you are unable to talk someone out of". In other words, Plutarch sees these figures as loving the idea of rule/empire so much that there is nothing you might say to them to change their focus; no other common "loves" will do: not money, not pleasure, not culture, not wisdom--just ruling, which we should take here not as a simple desire to boss people around but rather to build and command large (global) organizations. Plutarch says that these three leaders were also driven by a deep desire (epithumia) to be "first" (protos) and "greatest" (megistos), which naturally would bring them into deadly rivalry with any of their peers. Recall the threat that Agamemnon perceived from Achilles:

"Yet here is a man who wishes to be above all others, who wishes to hold power over all, and to be lord of all, and give them their orders, yet I think one will not obey him" (Iliad 1.287-289).

To some extent being the "greatest" may be the most important qualification for the job of ancient leader.

What the motives of the historical Cyrus were we will probably never know. What we know about him at all comes highly filtered from a number of ancient and often contradictory sources. (For an excellent attempt to uncover the historical Cyrus, check out Reza Zarghamee's Discovering Cyrus.) In the Hebrew Bible Cyrus is a "messiah" for liberating the Jews from Babylon and for allowing them to build their Temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus appears often in Greek writers as anything from a tragic hero (in Book One of the Histories of Herodotus) to a rags-to-riches king (in Ctesias' Persica) to the work that we will now consider for this module, Xenophon's Education of Cyrus, written around 365 BCE and thought, at least in the ancient world, to be the response to another idealized notion of a leader by Xenophon's contemporary Plato of Athens: the Philosopher King. Here we find a Cyrus that may be driven in the ways that Plutarch imagines; but, then again, he may not. Xenophon focuses on three motives: Cyrus' love of humanity (philanthropia), his love of learning, and his love of being honored (which may have some resemblance to the love of being "first" and "greatest").

In the course of his life, according to Xenophon, Cyrus faces many of the problems of leadership that we uncovered in Agamemnon's leadership in Iliad One, but, amazingly, he seems to overcome each and every one of them! How exactly he does this and how virtuously he does this are matters of ongoing debate. The focus of this module, then, will be to help you think about the notion of "global leadership" first in an ancient context and ultimately in the future of our world.Here are six important names you will need to be familiar with, to make sense of the story: Cambyses (Cyrus' father and king of Persia, which is subject to Media), Astyages (Cyrus' material grandfather and king of Media), Mandane (Cyrus' mother), Cyaxares (Cyrus' uncle and son of Astyages), Sacas (a wine-pourer and initial rival of Cyrus at the court of Astyages), Artabazus (a yet unnamed Medan man who falls in love with Cyrus and wishes to give him a kiss when he departs Media in Education of Cyrus 1.5).

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