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Ancient Persian Ruler Influenced Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Democracy

By Lea Terhune | Staff Writer | 13 March 2013
An open book on display (Smithsonian/John Tsantes)

This copy of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, an account of the life of Cyrus the Great, belonged to Thomas Jefferson, who studied it carefully.

Washington — The discovery of the Cyrus Cylinder was a hundred years in the future when Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the United States adopted the progressive ideas of the ancient Persian ruler Cyrus the Great. They knew of Cyrus through classical Greek writers and Biblical accounts.

A copy of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia that belonged to Thomas Jefferson is on display with artifacts on loan from the British Museum in the exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington. The exhibition also will tour Houston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The Cyropaedia is a partly fictional portrayal of the life and deeds of Cyrus the Great (c. 580–530 B.C.), who founded the Achaemenid Empire, which continued for nearly 200 years. He created an efficient bureaucracy to oversee disparate cultures within his vast empire and governed with tolerance that evoked admiration in the ancient world. The book was written a century after Cyrus died. It was not meant to be a factual history, but it captured ideas that characterized his rule.

Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, said before the exhibition’s opening that Jefferson possessed two editions of the Cyropaedia. The one on display, usually kept at the Library of Congress, dates from 1767. It features Greek and Latin parallel texts on facing pages.

“What’s extraordinary is that he scratched out one line,” said Raby. “The particular passage that was crossed out is a problematic passage in the manuscript … it is quite clear that Jefferson himself must have been collating line by line between his earlier edition and this later edition.”

The bold black line over the dubious Greek passage may be seen in the exhibition. Raby said that it shows the degree of attention Jefferson paid to this book.

A quote from Jefferson, taken from a letter to his grandson Francis Wayles Eppes, is featured on the gallery wall above the Cyropaedia: “… I would advise you to undertake a regular course of History and Poetry in both languages. In Greek, go first thro’ the Cyropaedia, and then read Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon’s Hellenus and Anabasis …” Benjamin Franklin also read the classics and was familiar with Xenophon’s work.

British Museum Director Neil MacGregor noted that Jefferson’s Cyropedia is the Glasgow edition. Jefferson had a close intellectual connection to the Scottish Enlightenment, thanks to his tutelage as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary by William Small, a Scotsman from Aberdeen. Scottish intellectuals referred to the accounts of Cyrus in their efforts to sort out the “pressing question of church and state.”

The tolerance shown by Cyrus toward diverse religions and cultures was a historical first. British Museum exhibition curator John Curtis said, “The Cyrus Cylinder and associated objects represent a new beginning for the Ancient Near East.” The idea of freedom of religion appealed to the founders of the United States, which was originally colonized, in part, by Europeans escaping religious persecution.

One revelation of the Cyrus Cylinder exhibition, according to MacGregor, is “the importance of Cyrus to those who wrote the Constitution of the United States.” He added, “The story of Persia — Iran — is part of the story of modern United States.”

He said that although 18th-century Europeans read and commented on the tenets of religious freedom and tolerance set down by Cyrus, only the United States’ founders enshrined them in law.