Xenophon, “On the Cavalry Commander”

With thanks to Jonathan Culp

Xenophon, “On the Cavalry Commander”

On the surface, this is an exceedingly practical text. Xenophon tells us to make sure the horses in service don’t have bad legs, that the men can mount their horses, etc. There is a catch: in Memorabilia III.3, Socrates has an interlocutor who is an elected cavalry commander. Xenophon declares that he knows the presented conversation happened. This is not a claim he makes about many of his chapters. Socrates gives much of the exact same advice written in the first book of On the Cavalry Commander to the interlocutor, who comes off as extremely ignorant. As it stands, I’m developing an argument that Socrates’ practical advice in III.3 is actually about nobility and the soul. I suspect there is less truly about horses in both writings and a lot more about philosophy and human nature, some kind of direct hint about how Socrates educated Xenophon directly.

However, there is an enormous difference between Xenophon in On the Cavalry Commander and Socrates in Memorabilia III.3 that is revealed by the opening. Socrates never mentions gods or piety in giving the commander advice. He focuses on provision, training, motivation and obedience for horses and men alike. But Xenophon opens his treatise such:

The first duty is to sacrifice to the gods and pray them to grant you the thoughts, words and deeds likely to render your command most pleasing to the gods and to bring yourself, your friends and your city the fullest measure of affection and glory and advantage (Cavalry Commander 1.1).

Xenophon is not shy about repeatedly mentioning the service the commander owes to the gods. Is Xenophon more pious than Socrates? Hardly – the morality of this passage is extremely questionable. In return for giving the gods control over your thoughts, you get affection, glory and advantage. This is an attempt to bribe the gods. The “thoughts, words and deeds” that matter the most bring success, not justice or living within one’s means (contrast with: Mem. I.1.19). It is worth noting that Xenophon talks about the gods so much in his little treatise that he apologizes for it later (Cav. 9.8).

The full significance of piety in the treatise requires one to see competing claims about divinity. Xenophon is abundantly clear about the cavalry commander’s perspective. The other opinion comes about a roundabout way, as the figure of Socrates is hinted at. Xenophon’s practical advice is never just that. To take perhaps the most important example: it is sensible advice that one who wants a horse’s feet to be stronger will have it stand on large stones outside of the stable (they didn’t have horseshoes), making that horse as a matter of habit get used to the hardness (I.16). Xenophon gives a hint that this advice is central to the plan of his work, as he tells the reader that if he tries this, he will “believe in the rest of my rules.”

This passage reminds of Socrates’ hardened bare feet, one aspect of his disdain for wealth and his own continence (cf. Mem I.2.5). It only reminds, as we can only speculate. Much later in the treatise, Xenophon discusses how a thoroughly superior cavalry unit would come about, one that would make one’s opponents look like amateurs. The cavalry that will almost literally fly in difficult situations and over rough terrain – Xenophon says they will be like “birds to beasts,” the “sound from the lame” – that cavalry is trained and has hardened feet (Cav. 8.2-3). He goes further, saying that equestrian exercises are no work at all, for they are the activities where man comes closest to flight (8.6). If one is still not convinced of the value of cavalry, there is this: through war, states get happiness from the gods; no other competition among men is like it (8.7).

Our speculation is beginning to see the outline of a pattern. Men compete not just to be better than other men. They are trying to make claims over other men, trying to show that what other men could not do they can do. In other words: man is the species that is emphatically not content with being man. (One can argue that the text most Greeks know is Homer. A figure like Achilles cannot simply be ignored when reading Plato and Xenophon.) Xenophon is quietly pushing the idea that a superior warrior is near godlike while overtly pushing a more conventional piety. Not to make a bad pun, but to stay grounded, we have to try not to think about a lot of training making someone look like they can fly. We’re going to have to wonder why someone with rather tough soles would choose to stay in the city. The answer, I think, lies in an allusion near the end of the treatise. The gods, who know all things, give warnings through a variety of means; a commander must do his best to take them seriously (9.9). Socrates had the same warnings (Mem I.1.3). To a degree, to want the power of a god is to deny oneself direct access to divine knowledge. Why would someone truly godlike compete?


  1. “In other words: man is the species that is emphatically not content with being man.” I think this comes up in Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato as well, where the situation seems more dire: man is the being who, if he does not at least attempt to transcend mere humanity, loses what humanity he possesses and becomes a beast. We suffer, or benefit, from species “slippage”. The gods, by contrast, could care less: they allow themselves to be bribed because their position is secure.

    Where else do we see Socrates and horses put together? I can’t remember, but it seems like that happens in Plato as well.

    Good post–I think you’ve got a solid point about the connection between works. BTW, I just sent you an email with some sources you may or may not know about. Let me know if they help.

  2. You’re onto something very interesting here. Before I read your post I re-read Mem III.3 and spotted what i think are some themes that are similar with Pericles’ funeral oration – safety vs glory, and the relation of one’s physical body to the body politic. At any rate, the quotes you’ve pulled out on horsemanship being like flying or like “birds to beasts” puts one in mind of eros and the relation of eros to the activities of the city, which is surely a Periclean theme (at least in Thucydides, if not in Xenophon). Mem I.2.47 might be relevant here. Like the commenter above I was reminded of Plato, but all I could recall were some brief allusions in the Gorgias in the Polus section, though 515dff. might be of use. The more I think about it, the more curious I am about the flying/winged metaphor and how it relates (if it does relate) to your interpretation of Xenophon’s teaching on piety. In short, I like what you’re doing.

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