Article body


The modern view of the shepherd in European political thought is influenced heavily by Michel Foucault’s 1977-78 Security, Territory, Population lectures at the Collège de France and his 1979 Tanner Lecture ‘Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Critique of “Political Reason”.’ In Foucault’s view, the pastoralism metaphor does not fit into democratic thought because the shepherd is concerned with individuals in a wild, undefined space, whereas the democratic politician is concerned with the relation of the one and the many in a well-defined, civilized space (the polis).

Of course, Foucault’s oversimplification has been critiqued, particularly with respect to Plato, whose metaphysics of the one and the many offer a more complex deployment of the shepherd-as-leader metaphor.[1] Truly, all metaphors, in their very nature, both “fit” in some ways and do not fit in others. We are here interested in expanding this notion of “fitness” of the herding metaphor to democratic and non-democratic domains.

Thus, the purpose of this paper is not so much to critique Foucault as to posit a different solution to the problems of the image of the shepherd-as-leader, offered by the other famous philosopher-student of Socrates, Xenophon of Athens. We consider leadership as herding in Xenophon, in his several works, but particularly in his Cyropaedia (The Education of Cyrus), a fourth-century BCE prose work that purports to tell the life of Cyrus II (“the Great”) from his childhood education in the Persian system to his death after establishing the world’s first multinational empire. The reason for our focus on this work is simple: the self-justifying apologia that opens the Cyropaedia casts Cyrus as the most remarkable herdsman-of-humans who ever lived.[2]


Before examining Xenophon, we consider four (???) contexts for Xenophon’s view:

  1. The modern view: the lens through which we cannot but view the shepherd-as-leader metaphor.

  2. The ancient Mesopotamian view: the image of the shepherd-king in Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian texts, both literary and legal, all of which influenced the Achaemenid Persian traditions that Xenophon himself used as source material for Cyrus.

  3. The Homeric view: the phrase poimēn laōn (‘shepherd of the people’) appears often in the Homeric poems, especially the Iliad, clearly overlapping with the Mesopotamian view.

  4. The Achaemenid view: the king as ‘fitter-together,’ but respecting differences in kind.

  5. The Athenian democratic view: a departure from and complication of the Homeric view, developed, elaborated, and critiqued in the two ‘axial’ centuries when democracy, natural science, and ethical philosophy grew rapidly.

The modern view

Modern liberals, Marxists, and anarchists think that the shepherd metaphor implies a superiority in agency and intelligence over the sheep.’[3] This construction appears everywhere from political philosophy[4] to comics[5] to scholarship[6]. The modern English slang words ‘sheeple’ (shamefully passive followers)[7] and ‘fleecing’ (exploiting)[8] convey the quotidian sense of the metaphor.[9]

The Mesopotamian view

Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians do not portray sheep this way.[10] Rather, the “sheep” command an obligation from their caretakers.

Herdsmen do not typically own their herds. In order to align incentives, Babylonian herding contracts cut shepherds’ pay for each lost sheep, and entitled them to a share in the profits from milking, shearing, and newborns.[11] In Mesopotamian law, the shepherd is judged by the survival of individual animals, not merely the output of the flock. Every animal must be accounted for individually by providing its skin at the end of the contract.[12] Economic outputs, including newborns, are regulated separately from individual animals entrusted to the herdsman.[13] In a competitive Sumerian dialogue between personifications of Wheat and Sheep, Sheep glorifies wool by its association with kings, whereas Wheat mocks the shepherd’s tally-stick that counts each missing herd animal as a sign of Sheep’s vulnerability compared with indefatigable Wheat.[14] Ur-Namma calls himself a shepherd,[15] granted kingship from heaven.[16] The reformer Gudea is called ‘true shepherd’ – protector of widows and slaves, forgiver of debts.[17] Hammurabi calls himself a shepherd, chosen by the gods, who brings salvation, who protects the weak from the strong, including widows and orphans, and first names himself ‘shepherd of the oppressed and of slaves,’ implying that justice entails care for individuals (even the least economically valuable) rather than simply maximization of overall utility (which would prefer the more valuable).[18] The good shepherd is not a maximizer of the global utility function at the expense of the individual sheep.[19]

Mesopotamian myth links the shepherd-king metaphor with pathfinding and control over life and death. Dumuzi the shepherd, fifth in the Sumerian King List, is the dead beloved in the first katabasis myth of the Orpheus type. Later in the Sumerian King List, after the Flood, appears Etana, ‘the shepherd who ascended to heaven and put all countries in order’; he is the subject of a myth about the origin of life, and in the Etana the gods’ search for a suitable king begins with them ‘looking for a shepherd.’[20] Enlil, Marduk’s predecessor, is named ‘shepherd who decides all destinies.’[21] Marduk is named shepherd of humans during his accession to supreme rule over the gods, for looking after humans’ sacred places.[22] As the star Neberu, Marduk is named shepherd even of the gods themselves, for giving them a path.[23] The fire-god Ishum is named shepherd and leader of princes for providing the light that the warrior-god Erra needs in order to see the path to his enemies.[24] Gilgamesh is a shepherd, as is his father Lugalbanda; but Gilgamesh is a ‘wild bull in the sheepfold,’[25] insofar as he steals other men’s wives, the paradigmatic heroic case of ‘mate poaching.’[26] The bad shepherd violates the sexual freedom of his followers. When the gods ask Aruru to solve the problem of Gilgamesh the bad shepherd, they ask that he should have a peer –

Enkidu. Enkidu becomes a (non-metaphorical) good shepherd, protecting the flocks, soon after the prostitute tames him. Gilgamesh names Enkidu shepherd in his lament.[27] Yahweh is shepherd of the Jewish people and rejects Israel’s human shepherds because they do not care for their sheep.[28]

The Homeric view

The Homeric poimēn laōn (‘shepherd of the people’) is homologous to the Near Eastern shepherd-king image. Anyone responsible for a group is a ‘shepherd of the people’ – field commander, city ruler, hero.[29]

The Bad Shepherd of the Army

Two ‘bad shepherd’ characteristics of (1) sexual exploitation of the ‘herd’ (i.e. human followers) by the herdsman who differs in kind from everyone else and (2) predatory animality of the herdsman, are shared by Homer’s Agamemnon and pre-Enkidu Gilgamesh.[30] In the opening of the Iliad, Agamemnon steals Achilles’ war-captive Briseis in order to demonstrate that Agamemnon, not Achilles, is truly in charge. Agamemnon presents this theft as sexual conquest[31], though nobody had previously sexualized Briseis.[32] Achilles describes Agamemnon as ‘dog-face’ (κυνῶπα) and ‘having the face of a dog’ (κυνὸς ὄμματ’ ἔχων) – an animal, like the Sumerian wild bull, but specifically a canine, the supposedly de-problematized defender of the herd against the wolf, a translation of the ‘bad shepherd’ concept into Indo-European combat metaphor.[33] The dog-face does what the marauding wolf does, such as to disqualify him from leadership: Agamemnon is a ‘people-eating king’ who ‘rules over nobody’ (δημοβόρος βασιλεὺς ἐπεὶ οὐτιδανοῖσιν ἀνάσσεις).[34]

One Over Many, Many Versus One

However, where Gilgamesh was turned toward global utility maximization (the defeat of death) as a side effect of care for his friend, Agamemnon proves himself a global utility maximizer at an extreme of opposition to care for the individual. Earlier in the Epic Cycle, Agamemnon kills his own daughter so that the army may reach Troy.[35] For Gilgamesh, the one can be saved only by also saving the many. For Agamemnon, the global utility maximizer, the many can be saved only by sacrificing the one.[36]

Achilles does not maximize the global utility. He removes his army from battle – blocking their access to remembered glory (kleos), an attenuated kind of immortality – in response to Agamemnon’s personal insult. He does not return to battle until his companion Patroclus is killed. As with Gilgamesh, the response to the death of the one beloved benefits the many as a side effect. When Achilles returns to battle in order to avenge Patroclus, Achilles’ followers enter battle with him. Achilles sees this as benefiting the group: before battle, he apologizes to them for keeping them from combat.[37] Love for the one trumps but incidentally saves the many.

The Loyal Herdsman

Where the Iliad tells of shepherds on campaign, the Odyssey tells of shepherds at home. The Odyssey distinguishes good Ithacans from bad in terms of how they treat herds and their owners. Odysseus’ two non-family allies on Ithaca are herdsmen: Eumaios the swineherd[38] and Philoitios the cowherd.[39] Odysseus promises both elevation to warrior-companionship (hetaireia) for their loyalty.[40] Contrariwise, the wrongs committed by Penelope’s suitors are metonymically signified by their eating of Odysseus’ herds, a violent usurpation of flock-mastery, and illicit beef-eating is the most damning sin of Odysseus’ companions.[41]

The Achaemenid view

Achaemenid Persian inscriptions present the king as shepherd only when adopting the pastoral rhetoric of the conquered.[42] The Cyrus Cylinder, aimed at a Babylonian audience, presents Cyrus as a shepherd[43], but the Behistun inscription and royal funerary inscriptions, not specifically aimed at Babylonian reader, do not.

Fitting Together Different Kinds

The Achaemenid concept of the king does, however, encode mediation of the one and the many and a global maximization function. We consider this concept briefly because, as we argue later, it may inform Xenophon’s image of Cyrus as herdsman-leader.

The role of the Persian king is to fight for ‘truth’ (arta) against the lie, where ‘truth’ also encodes ‘fitting together.’[44] The Persian empire permits conquered peoples to retain their own distinct cultures. The work of the king is to ‘fit’ these disparate groups together. The function of Persian imperial kingship is global optimization: to bring happiness to all mankind.[45]

This concept of the one-and-the-many-manies – the King of Kings’ mastery over multiple culturally distinct regions – concords with Achaemenid royal propaganda. Where Xenophon presents Cyrus as leading diverse herds, the Behistun inscription presents Darius as conquering diverse peoples.[46] Each defeated group is presented as visually distinct. Darius is not merely the Mesopotamian king-of-many-kings; he is also the king-of-many-peoples. The language at Behistun sets Persian king against the ‘lie’ (drauga); the lie is the plurality of kingship that does not respect Darius’ imperial rule. The language of Xerxes’ ‘Daiva’ inscription legitimates the Persian king in relation to Ahuramazda and arta.[47] The lie is a plurality of kingdoms without a Persian king fitting them together. As we shall see, Xenophon blends Persian imperial cosmopolitanism with older Mesopotamian and newer Greek ideas of the shepherd-king.


The shepherd-leader disappears from Greek democratic imaginative literature after Homer.[48] It persists in Plato and Xenophon, however.[49]

The Semantics of Nomeus

Homer uses poimen for ‘shepherd’ in the phrase ‘shepherd of the people’ (poimēn laōn). In post-Homeric Greek, poimēn sometimes has specifically Homeric connotations, but can also be used to describe herdsmen in general.[50] The word nomeus for ‘shepherd’ appears only in post-Homeric Greek, and has a broader semantic range.

Homeric poimēn is related to words for guarding and pasturing in particular.[51] Later Greek nomeus is part of an extraordinarily rich semantic complex around the Proto-Indo-European root *nem-. Reflexes of this root mean something like ‘use with rational judgment’ and include terms for law, music, coinage, justice, dividing, distributing, taking, and counting.[52] The shift from a word for simple, denotative ‘pastoring’ to complex, connotative ‘using with rational judgment’ suggests a different view of shepherding, conditioned by pragmatic context.[53] The joint Pythagorean interest in ratio, Zeus Lawgiver (Nomios[54]), and the shepherd-king suggests awareness of the semantic complex.[55] Since other words for herdsman are available, the choice of nomeus in a given context implies its distinctive connotations, intended insofar as the word choice is careful and intentional. As we shall see, on the assumption that Xenophon’s word choice is intentional (for which we also have an argument), many of these senses enrich Xenophon’s usage and hint at a post-Mesopotamian concept of the shepherd-leader.

Plato: Jobs of the Herdsman

Much of Plato’s Statesman is spent unpacking the herdsman-leader analogy.[56] The statesman is someone who has a skill, but not a skill of making things. Nor is he primarily someone who judges; rather, he is someone who commands. Specifically the statesman issues commands to living things, and, even more specifically, issues commands to groups of living things – that is, the statesman is a herdsman.[57] When Young Socrates claims that these groups may be further subdivided into ‘human’ and ‘not human,’ the Stranger pushes back – ‘not-human’ is not really a class – and spends much ink subdividing animals appropriately.[58]

The Stranger lists things the herdsman is: nourisher, physician, matchmaker, midwife. The word in Statesman translated ‘midwife’ (maieutikes) is the adjectival form of the word Socrates uses in the Theaetetus (maia) to describe his job as philosopher-interlocutor.[59] There it is critical to the argument that the midwife is not pregnant, and thus does not produce life, but rather helps another bring life into the world. With respect to the job of midwife, the herdsman-leader analogy falls apart insofar as the herd-members are passive. Therefore, insofar as the midwife concept holds across the analogy, the midwife-leader’s followers are active.

In the same passage, Socrates claims that midwives are also good matchmakers (promnestriai) and good at umbilical-cord-cutting (omphaletomia) – as the herdsman-leader in the Statesman is midwife, matchmaker, and physician. The triple overlap between analogies implies sufficiently semantic intersection to suggest similarity between the statesman and the Socratic philosopher: someone who helps others in their own labor of bringing new things into the world.[60]

Xenophon: Cyrus as Best Herdsman

Socrates’ other famous student, Xenophon, opens the first and last books of his Cyropaedia with the image of the shepherd-king. Any man is remarkable for being able to lead a herd of humans, but Cyrus a fortiori is doubly so for leading multiple herds of different humans. So Cyrus leads the many – even the many-of-many.

But he also learns early that maximizing the global utility – fitting each man into his slot – is not the most important job of the king. He distributes goods according to worth (axios): earned worth, not nature, proper to each individual. So Cyrus also leads the one.

This omnes et singulatim conjunction makes Cyrus everything a Mesopotamian shepherd-king claims to be. But Cyrus is also a good shepherd of the Greek sort[61], a rational agent who benefits society. So Cyrus is also an Indo-European anti-wolf: a feeder of the people.[62]


We divide our treatment of Xenophon’s Cyrus as herdsman-leader into seven brief subsections:

  1. Herdsman as controlling image of leadership

  2. The self-consciously good shepherd

  3. The rational herdsman (nomeus)

  4. The singulatim leader

  5. The Platonic herdsman

  6. The Xenophontic herdsman

  7. Fitting against justice: Xenophon against Achaemenid kingship?

Herdsman as Controlling Image of Leadership

The Cyropaedia opens with a pessimistic take on the problem of government: no political form (politeia) is stable.[63] Perhaps democracies are unstable because the demos cannot rule itself; but that is not the root cause of political instability, for autocracies fall apart too. The root cause, then, is not in the political form. Rather, the problem lies in the fact that individuals are variably good at getting people to do things.[64] In fact, while non-human animals are hard enough to command, humans are much harder, e.g. because no animals overthrow their herdsman, while humans regularly do.[65] Herd animals also (seemingly for Xenophon) willingly surrender their produce to their masters. Further, even animals that obey their herdsman do not obey strangers. But Cyrus of Persia both (a) got humans to obey him, to the point of willingly offering tribute for redistribution by Cyrus himself, and (b) got foreign humans to obey him – a double a fortiori versus inferior herdsmen of animals and humans.[66] So in order to understand ruling humans (τὸ ἄρχειν ἀνθρώπων) we must understand Cyrus.

Embedded in this prologomenal laud is Xenophon’s basic concept of herdsman-as-leader. The metaphor is fleshed out on the part of both herdsman (nomeus) and herd (agelē). The herdsman is the ruler (arkhōn) of the animals he is in charge of (epistateo).[67] The herds convey themselves[68] on whatever path the herdsmen direct. The herdsmen direct their herds on a straight path.[69] The herds graze in the fields the herdsmen lead them to. They avoid the places the herdsmen direct them away from. The herds willingly allow the herdsmen to make use of the fruits of things that come from the herds themselves.

This image encodes the features of the ideal herd-herdsman relationship that Xenophon will apply to Cyrus throughout the book. First, herds move themselves: the herdsman does not force them to move. Rather, the herdsman provides a goal – to seek or to avoid. Second, the herds receive nourishment insofar as they follow the herdsman who has led them to food. The primary job of the herdsman is to get them to a place where they can get what they need to live. Third, the herds willingly benefit the herdsman with the ‘fruits that come from them’ (καὶ τοῖς καρποῖς τοίνυν τοῖς γιγνομένοις ἐξ αὐτῶν). The relationship is not exploitive.[70]

As we shall see, Cyrus’ relationship with his followers exhibits all these features. Cyrus, however, does even better than the metaphor, in two ways. First, there is a critical difference between non-human herds and human herds: non-human herds never form a conspiracy against their herdsman.[71] But humans do conspire – especially whenever they feel like someone is trying to exploit them. So anyone who leads humans is a good herdsman, but even more so in proportion to the magnitude of the objection humans have to being ruled. Second, non-human herds are very difficult toward all strangers, far more than toward those who actually rule them and benefit from them. So any stranger who leads followers of any kind is a good herdsman magnified by the suspicion that all followers, even non-humans, harbor toward strangers.

The Self-Conscious Good Shepherd

The last book of the Cyropaedia puts Xenophon’s opening description of the leader-as-herdsman in Cyrus’ own mouth:

A saying of [Cyrus’] is recalled, that the acts of a good shepherd (nomeus agathos) are roughly the same (paraplesia) as the acts of a good king. He said that, just as it is right for the shepherd to make the herds happy (eudaimon) while himself benefiting from them (insofar as there is any happiness of sheep), in the same way it is right for the king to make cities and people happy while himself benefitting from them.[72]

For Xenophon, Cyrus’ affirmation of the king-herdsman analogy is sufficient explanation for Cyrus’ extraordinary care for his men.[73] These are the only two passages in the work that use the word nomeus, and both use the word multiple times, so it is clear that Xenophon intended the two to be read together: Xenophon’s opening as promise, Cyrus’ closing as fulfillment.

Xenophon’s readers may have felt Cyrus’ self-consciousness as residue of his earliest upbringing, only hinted at here. The Cyropaedia does not contain the Greek heroic legend of Cyrus’ birth and infancy.[74] In Herodotus’ account, which was familiar to Athenian readers in Xenophon’s time[75], an officer of the king of the pre-Persian empire of the Medes handed the infant Cyrus to a cowherd (boukolos), commanding him to expose the infant and let him die.[76] The herdsman secretly raised the infant, who eventually came to overthrow the Medes by liberating the Persians and establishing a new empire. Since the topic of Xenophon’s work is Cyrus’ upbringing (paideia), but the narrative begins after Cyrus’ infancy, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that readers might fill in the infancy gap with a familiar imaginary tale – one that explains the concordance of mind between Xenophon in book 1 and Cyrus himself in book 8.[77]

Cyrus’ description of the good shepherd contains a key concept that Xenophon’s description does not: eudaimon, ‘happy,’ ‘blessed.’[78] Eudaimon describes well-being in general rather than specifically availability of pasture, the benefit named in book 1, and elsewhere typically describes humans. Cyrus’ wording strengthens the king-herdsman analogy and generalizes the benefit the herd receives from its leader. The good shepherd’s herds are not only willing to follow but also made blessed by the one that uses the goods they produce.

The Rational Herdsman (Nomeus)

The phrase translated as ‘good shepherd’ (nomeus agathos) imports Greek ideas of law, tokens, coins, proportion, song (nom-) and social responsibility (agathos). The n[o/e]m- root describes things arranged proportionally into a coherent whole: laws join people via customary modes of behavior, coins join people via normalized exchange, songs harmonize sounds, distinctions make parts greater together than aggregation without distinctions. The fitting together of peoples while maintaining their distinctions is common to all Persian kings, by Achaemenid royal propaganda. But Persian propaganda does not link harmonizing with herding, as the Greek word nomeus does. Since nomeus appears only at Cyropaedia’s programmatic laudatory bookends, we think that Xenophon chose the word with care.

Etymology does not sufficiently establish meaning, of course. Usage comes closer, with etymological aid. And in the Cyropaedia Cyrus does in fact do what the nom-named shepherd should.

Respecting Customs

Xenophon praises Persian education for its excellent nomoi[79], which Cyrus respects. One of the first leadership principles he learns is that the lawful (nomimon) is just (dikaion) and the unlawful (anomimon) is violent.[80] Judging ‘with’ or ‘on the side of’ nomos (σὺν τῷ νόμῳ) is the responsibility of a leader. The same verbal link between justice (dikè) and the n[o/e]m- root is established verbally: among the Persians, equality is considered (nomizetai) justice[81], and Cambyses charges Cyrus equally with defending Persian land and nomoi.[82] As a form of education, nomoi are primarily about leading and following.[83] Nomoi turn citizens toward justice[84] as the nomeus ‘straightens’ (εὐθύνωσιν) the herd toward pasture.[85]

Cyrus’ view of nomos is strong: he refutes an officer’s claim that every nomos must carve physical reality (physis) at antecedent joints, or else nobody would follow it[86], by claiming that absolute subordination of nomos to physis is a kind of slavery, the greatest evil.[87] The good leader is not only nomeus, but also nomos: a good leader (ton agathon arkhonta) is something more than written law because the leader is a ‘nomos that sees’ (βλέποντα νόμον) humans and rewards or punishes them accordingly.[88] The leader is nomos personified ad litteram, plus a living thing’s ability to alter reality.

Cyrus’ view of nomos is not chauvinist, in accord with Achaemenid royal propaganda. For example, he allows the conquered Cadusians to select a leader according to their own nomos[89], a military decision that contrasts with Cyrus’ Lydian enemy Croesus’ reluctance to allow his Egyptian allies to select their own nomos of battle.[90] The nomeus agathos, king-of-many-herds, treats each military ‘herd’ distinctly according to their nomoi.

Establishing Customs

To n[o/e]m- is both to recognize and to alter, where the alteration does not run rough-shod over the thing recognized. Nomoi are both established and customary. Cyrus follows but also founds customs. He invents the Persian cavalry, where military organization is a kind of nomos, as in the cases of the Cadusians and the Egyptians.[91] He proposes arranging (nemomen) the enemies who flee so that the cavalry can strike them.[92] He establishes the satrapal system, which (Xenophon notes) persists until Xenophon’s day.[93] In order to block factionalization, he establishes ‘as if a nomos’ (ὥσπερ νόμον) that in all competitions all contestants must agree upon judges in advance.[94]

Harmonizing the Herd

As Greek nomos is also song, so also Cyrus learns that military creativity is like musical composition.[95] Sufficient drilling turns soldiers into dancers (khorous).[96] Cyrus arranges that Armenians and Chaldeans can both retain their respective lands and subsistence modes.[97]

The Singulatim Leader

The ‘rational shepherd’ (nomeus) relates one and many by distinction and arrangement and proportionality. But the good shepherd separately (e.g. in the Babylonian legal sense) cares for the individual no less than the group. Cyrus orchestrates well, but he addresses individuals no less. He makes a point of rewarding his men for their individual (ἑαυτοῖς ἕκαστοι) accomplishments.[98] He maintains court attendance by distributing (nemein) nothing to those who are absent.[99] He distinguishes people who accomplish nothing from people who accomplish nothing and also take from others.[100]

The Platonic Herdsman

Cyrus is three of the four things Plato’s Statesman lists as jobs of the herdsman: nourisher[101], physician[102], and matchmaker[103], but not midwife. Because these are presumably things actual herdsmen do, the overlap does not imply any shared Socratic influence on Plato and Xenophon with respect to the concept of the herdsman.[104] But it further specifies the sense in which Xenophon’s Cyrus is a herdsman with respect to the set of activities that must have been generally understood as proper to a herdsman in order for Plato to deploy them as axioms (rather than theorems demonstranda) of the Statesman argument.[105]

The Xenophontic Herdsman

Outside of the Cyropaedia the most extensive treatment of the herdsman as leader metaphor occurs in chapter two of the first book of the Memorabilia, a four-book prose work that begins as an apology for Socrates – that he did not in fact introduce false divinities or corrupt young men who would later on tyrannize Athens – and morphs into a series of moral reflections through the protagonist Socrates himself. In Memorabilia 1.2 Xenophon argues that far from being a mentor to the likes of Critias and Charicles, members of the notorious “Thirty Tyrants,” Socrates actually undercut their whole operation by the pointed introduction of the herdsman metaphor. As Xenophon relates it, the Thirty were putting to death many upstanding citizens of Athens and encouraging others to a life of crime. A more Machiavellian writer might have cast this behavior as politics as usual from time immemorial, an eternal struggle for dominance by powerful men. But Socrates frames the situation as one of failed herdsmanship: “It seems strange enough to me that a herdsman who lets his cattle decrease and go to the bad should not admit that he is a poor cowherd; but stranger still that a statesman when he causes the citizens to decrease and go to the bad, should feel no shame nor think himself a poor statesman.”

Socrates is using here what would be termed now by cognitive linguists as a “conceptual” metaphor, in the sense that it is a metaphor both to think with and to live with – or, in this case, to govern with.[106] We might think it would be sufficient criticism to accuse the Thirty of killing and corrupting the other prominent citizens of the community; but the herdsman metaphor makes the criticism even sharper because it stresses the inherent responsibility that the herdsman has to increase the size of the flock and to make the herd “happy” (as we see in the Cyropaedia). The criticism is so stinging that the Thirty then ban Socrates from speaking. When he asks precisely what they might mean by this, they explain how the herdsman metaphor is one that people “think with.” Indeed, it is part of a set of metaphors for technai (skills, crafts) that are used to think about abstract virtues and thus criticize those who lack them:

Critias: “You will have to avoid your favorite topic, – the cobblers, builders and metal workers; for it is already worn to rags by you in my opinion.”

Socrates: “Then must I keep off the subjects of which these supply illustrations [literally “I must refrain from the things that follow from these”], Justice, Holiness, and so forth?

Charicles: “Indeed yes, and cowherds too: else you may find the cattle decrease”

Mem. 1.2.37

Thus Xenophon has attempted to prove to his audience that Socrates in no way nurtured tyrants in Athens but rather risked his life to criticize them in the harshest terms. It should be emphasized, finally, in this section that the “herd” in this metaphor is not the hoi polloi of Athens (and thus not figured as a class of agentless animals) but rather the other leading citizens of Athens, as Xenophon says, “not the most inferior of the citizens” (ou hoi cheiristoi tōn pollōn). The herd is thus not, in our English sense, “sheep.”

Here we survey a few examples of herdsman-like activities, exemplified by Xenophon’s Cyrus, that good leaders perform elsewhere in Xenophon.

Directing the Herd Where to Go, What to Avoid

The Xenophontic good shepherd ‘straightens’ (εὐθύνωσιν) his sheep toward pasture.[107] Socrates ‘turns away’ his companions from pretentiousness (ἀλαζονείας ἀποτρέπων) by placing them on a ‘path toward good repute’[108] and ‘turns humans toward virtue’ (προτρέψασθαι μὲν ἀνθρώπους ἐπ᾽ ἀρετὴν)[109] as nomoi ‘turn [citizens] toward justice’ (ἐς δικαιοσύνην προτρέπονται)[110]. Heracles receives advice from female-personified Virtue and Vice while pondering which path to turn toward (ποτέραν τῶν ὁδῶν τράπηται).[111]

Using the Herd, Making the Herd Useful

The Xenophontic good shepherd ‘makes use of’ (χρῆσθαι) his herd, with their consent.[112] It is no devaluation of a herd to consider it a ‘possession’ (ktema), for friends are ‘best of possessions’ (πάντων κτημάτων κράτιστον)[113] and are to be be ‘acquired’ (φίλους ἀγαθοὺς κτήσασθαι).[114] The artisan (tekhnites) produces something useful (khresimon),[115] and friends make themselves useful (ἀφ᾽ ἑαυτοῦ χρήσιμον).[116]

The Guard-Dog

The sheepdog is protector and caretaker (φύλαξ καὶ ἐπιμελητής) of the sheep, and as phylax deserves more reward than the sheep do.[117] Guard-humans are more likely to turn against their master than guard-dogs[118], so people will seek a good human phylax when they find one, just as shepherds put their flocks under the protection of a sheepdog that is known to be good.[119]

Caring, Toiling for the Herd

Cyrus exceeds others in care (epimeleia) for his friends[120] and praises the Persians for preferring toils (ponous) as commanders (hegemonas) of pleasant life.[121] Flocks provide wealth only when cared for and toiled over.[122] This kind of ‘overseeing care’ is a great burden for Cyrus[123] and for any leader, perhaps enough to make leadership itself unattractive[124] – but nothing good or beautiful comes without care and effort.[125]

Growing the Herd

The Cyropaedia is about how Cyrus grew up and grew his empire. The herdsman (nomeus) whose flock shrinks is a bad herdsman.[126]

Fitting Against Justice: Xenophon Against Achaemenid Kingship?

The herdsman-as-leader image that opens the Cyropaedia presents one herdsman in relation to a herd. In this instance of a one-and-many image, the one is the leader and the many are thoroughly collectivized. The herd remains a monolith. But Cyrus’ special excess of excellence relates the leader, not only to one herd, but to many herds. This sort of relationship is not observed among non-human herds, according to Xenophon, much less among humans; but it is observed in Cyrus’ empire.[127]

The notion of ‘king-of-many-peoples’ is known from Mesopotamian royal propaganda, including Achaemenid. The Assyrians called their ruler ‘king of kings’ (šar šarrāni). The Achaemenids go one step farther and specifically link meta-kingship with cultural diversity.[128] Later Persian royal ideology, possibly implied by Achaemenid inscriptions,[129] presents the king as one who ‘fits’ (arta) different peoples together. Xenophon concretizes this concept in the opening image of the herdsman who leads multiple herds – a ‘shepherdification’ of an Achaemenid royal idea of union that respects differences that Persians do not themselves link with herding.[130]

After blending notions of herding and empire, Xenophon critiques the idea of global utility maximization – a temptation of the rational herdsman – with a parable about Cyrus’ youth. As a young man, as part of the usual Persian noble youth education in administering justice, Cyrus was asked to judge the following case.[131] There was a large man with a small coat and a small man with a large coat. The large man forceable swapped coats with the small man. When asked to judge the case, Cyrus at first called the action just. The major premise of his ethical syllogism is the maximization of utility across both parties: ‘it is better for both that each should have the coat that fits him’ (βέλτιον εἶναι ἀμφοτέροις τὸν ἁρμόττοντα ἑκάτερον χιτῶνα ἔχειν). Note that the word translated as ‘fits’ (ἁρμόττοντα) comes from the same root as Old Persian arta. But Cyrus’ teacher beats him for making this judgment. The teacher’s major premise is that justice is not about ‘fitting’: ‘whenever the relevant distinction is a matter of fitting (harmotton), the sort of thing you did is right; but whenever one must distinguish which person the coat belongs to, one must instead consider which act of possession is just (dikaia).[132] For Xenophon’s Cyrus, something – whatever justice (dike) is – is more important than ‘fitting.’ Cyrus’ excellence as shepherd-of-many-peoples is less important than his respect for individual ownership.


The metaphor of leadership as herding is central to ancient Greek culture and to the Near Eastern cultures that would later influence Greece. The metaphor is also highly complex and analogous to (but not synonymous with) other metaphors, as well as fundamentally counterintuitive to our modern application of it. One of the best ways to appreciate this metaphor is through the figure of Cyrus, who sits, as it were, on the center of a wheel whose spokes radiate to different cultures and different works of philosophical and historical literature about leadership. Xenophon portrays Cyrus as an ideal leader by drawing on both Mesopotamian and Greek metaphors of shepherd-leadership. From the former he derives the rejection of the dichotomy of the one and the many. From the latter he derives proportionality, harmonization, and the central importance of the agency of the sheep. In Xenophon’s portrayal, Cyrus not only plays the part of the herdsman-leader but does so self-consciously. Xenophon’s Cyrus’ awareness of the herdsman metaphor is both constitutive and demonstrative of his ability to lead diverse groups straight toward happiness.