In the history of Rome there is a story which tells how King Tarquin desired, once upon a time, to conquer the town of Gabii. As he was unable to overcome it by fair fighting, he determined to have recourse to treachery, and in order to carry out his purpose, sent his son to the city.
The son knocked at the city gate, and when from within they asked who was there, he said that he was the son of Tarquin, but that he came as a friend, not an enemy, for his father had ill-treated him shamefully, and he wished now to revenge himself by helping the Gabians to defend their city.
The townsmen let him in, and after having seen him, time after time, fighting bravely in their ranks, they gave him their full confidence, and finally chose him to be their general-in-chief. So far he had succeeded, but he did not know what was the next thing to be done, and therefore sent a trusted slave to ask his father's advice. The king took the slave into his garden, where there was a bed of poppies in full bloom, and walking up and down beside the bed, he struck off the heads of the tallest poppies, one by one. Then he said to the slave, "Go back and tell my son what you have seen."
The slave did not know how this could be an answer to the question that had been asked, but when he had carefully described to his master what he had seen, the son understood very well what it meant. One after another, he impeached in turn all the chief men of the city upon some frivolous pretext or other, and he did it so cleverly that their fellow-townsmen believed them to be traitors, and condemned them either to death or banishment. When the city had been deprived of all its best men, it was easy enough for him to give it up into the hands of his father.
In like manner Tissaphernes thought that by the removal of their officers, the Hellenes would be left helpless, and would no longer have the heart to fight for their lives and their freedom. But it fell out otherwise, for the officers who bad been betrayed by Tissaphernes were succeeded by others still more able. Above all, Xenophon the Athenian, a man hitherto almost unnoticed in the crowd, came forward, and by his inspiring presence, his sound judgment, and his unfailing courage, gained the confidence of his comrades, and brought them at last through all their difficulties to a place of safety.
Xenophon was at this time in the full prime of life, being about forty years old. He had been born and brought up at Athens, and in his youth astonished every one by his remarkable beauty, which was of such a kind that it seemed to indicate rare qualities of heart and mind. The wise Socrates met him one day by chance, and was so much attracted by his appearance that he invited him to join the company of his friends. Socrates had a great number of friends, both young and old, with whom he used every day to discuss all manner of questions, in order that he might inspire them with a love of everything that was true and noble and good. Xenophon became one of his favourite pupils, and the teaching of Socrates fell on fruitful soil; the beautiful and gifted youth grew up to be a wise and pious man.
It is said that some years afterwards, when Xenophon was about thirty years of age, Socrates had once the opportunity of saving him from a great danger. In a war between the Athenians and Boeotians, Xenophon was serving his country as a cavalry soldier, Socrates was on foot. The Athenians were beaten at Delium, and obliged to flee. In the bustle and confusion, Xenophon fell wounded from his horse, and must either have been trodden to death by his countrymen, or else killed by the enemy, had not Socrates perceived his danger, and rushed to help him, carrying him in his strong arms until he was far away from the place of battle.
Another of the friends of Xenophon was Proxenus the Boeotian, who was ten years younger than himself. From a very early age it had been the ambition of Proxenus to gain for himself a high place as leader of the people, and with this end in view he had placed himself under the instruction of the famous orator, Gorgias. But his fate led him in another direction.
At the time that Cyrus was preparing for his expedition against Artaxerxes, Proxenus happened to be staying at Sardis. He soon became an honoured friend and guest of Cyrus, and was asked by the prince to raise a company of Hellenes for his service, as had already been done by many of his countrymen. This commission he agreed to accept. For the position of general Proxenus was in many respects well fitted, but his nature was so amiable that he lacked the power of being severe, and he was quite unable to maintain discipline amongst unruly soldiers. He considered it sufficient if the superior officer praised those who did their duty, and simply withheld his praise from those who shirked it. And so it came to pass, that he had more fear of being irksome to his men than they had of incurring his displeasure, and that he took more pains to avoid annoying them than they took to do their duty. The good soldiers were devoted to him, but the bad ones did not scruple to be inattentive to his orders, because they knew that he was easy-going. Proxenus was in fact the exact opposite of the stern Clearchus.
Fired with affection and enthusiasm for Cyrus, Proxenus wrote to Xenophon, pressing him to come at once to Sardis, and join the prince. He said that he would introduce him to Cyrus, and that Xenophon would never repent of accepting the invitation, and he added that he himself loved Cyrus even more than he loved his home.
Whenever Xenophon was in doubt about any decision, he was accustomed to ask the advice of Socrates, and did so on this occasion. Socrates doubted whether it would be well for Xenophon to do as his friend wished, for some years before, in the time of the Peloponnesian war between the Athenians and the Spartans, Cyrus had taken the part of the Spartans against the Athenians, and had helped them with large sums of money. He thought therefore that the Athenians might take it ill if Xenophon were to ally himself with their former enemy. It would be best, he said, to go to the oracle at Delphi, and ask counsel of the god.
Accordingly Xenophon repaired to Delphi, but he had already made up his mind, and worded his question thus:—"To which of the gods must I pray and offer sacrifices, in order that I may prosper in the journey which I have in view, and return home in safety?"
The oracle named the gods. But when Xenophon returned, and told what he had done, Socrates said, "That was not the right way to put the question. Since however you have so asked, and so been answered, depart, and do the bidding of the oracle."
Xenophon was well received at Sardis, and accompanied Cyrus on his march. Yet, up to the day of the massacre of the Hellenes by Tissaphernes, he had taken no active part in the expedition. He served neither as general, nor as captain, nor as private soldier, but was present merely as the friend of Proxenus and Cyrus.
Nevertheless he took the deepest interest in everything that befell the army, whether for good or ill.