Ancient and modern

What the next prime minister could learn from Cyrus the Great

15 June 2019

9:00 AM

15 June 2019

9:00 AM

As Tory hopefuls bid to become prime minister, they might like to reflect on Cyrus the Great (r. 557-530 bc), who created the first Persian empire, stretching from the Mediterranean to Pakistan. The soldier-essayist Xenophon (d. 354 bc) spent eight books explaining why he was the model Supreme Leader. The Romans were wildly enthusiastic about it, as were Milton, Gibbon and Machiavelli.

Cyrus’s secret was that he was able to command willing obedience from a vast range of peoples, cities and tribes. It was all down, said Xenophon, to his character: ‘The most humane of men, most devoted to learning and most ambitious for honour. The result was that he would put in any effort, however painful, and face any danger, for the sake of esteem.’


Xenophon’s story of his reign is one long illustration of those characteristics in action: his humanity made him kind, magnanimous, thoughtful, generous, courteous, game for a laugh with his men; his love of learning taught him restraint, moderation, willingness to listen, gratitude, justice and how to teach; and his determination to win acclaim, whatever the cost, meant that he offered an example to inspire others — going the second mile, keener for other people’s good than his own, shouldering the same burdens as others, and so on. His death, however, ushered in civil strife, and things went from bad to worse, ‘since for the most part subjects become like their rulers’.

And that was the point. Cyrus was the king and for him to have his way, all he actually had to do was to give orders. What made him so special was that his personal virtues ensured that his men wanted to obey him. Mutual trust was at the heart of it: they felt the same sense of duty and obligation to him as his behaviour clearly demonstrated that he felt for them.

Unless the new PM generates the trust, respect and desire for cooperation that Cyrus generated in his subjects, then his or her policies, however intoxicating, will not get very far. Xenophon’s check-list of the required characteristics provide an admirable starting point. We might even begin to look up to our leaders. That has not happened for a very long time.

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