The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning

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Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Washington, D.C.
March 9 through April 28

When Thomas Jefferson was in need of guidance he turned, as many statesmen did, to that handbook of political subtleties, Machiavelli's "The Prince." But arguably more important to the third U.S. president was a biography by the Greek historian Xenophon called "Cyropedia." In fact, he seems to have admired the book so much he owned two copies. With many an imaginative flourish, it told the story of King Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, whose realm stretched from the Mediterranean to eastern Iran and from the Black Sea to the borders of Arabia in the south.

Xenophon, who lived between 430 and 355 B.C., described how Cyrus owed his triumphs to "the sheer terror of his personality," but what made him attractive to Jefferson was not his military prowess but his enlightened approach to government....

On Saturday, the Cyrus Cylinder is embarking on a nine-month tour of the U.S., starting with the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, where it will inevitably provoke comparisons with the Bill of Rights. As British Museum Director Neil MacGregor said in a recent lecture: "It bears comparison with the American Constitution, in spite of the centuries that divide them, as an historic statement of how a disparate polity may be humanely governed."...

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