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The Persian Expedition (Anabasis, ca. 370-360 BCE)

Xenophon
Translated by Rex Warner

London: Penguin Books, 1972; Pp. 375

Review © 2002 Branislav L. Slantchev

Hardly anyone has not heard of the story of the Ten Thousands Greeks stranded in hostile Persia after Cyrus' abortive attempt to overthrow his brother Artaxerxes II. In the Spring of 401 B.C., Sparta rules Greece having defeated the Athenian Empire in the Peloponnesian War. Among its most important friends is Cyrus, who now becomes the benefactor of several thousand Greek hoplites on mercenary pay, whom he takes on a long march deep into Persia. However, his grandiose plans are thwarted when he is defeated in the Battle at Cunaxa near Babylon in September of that year. The Ten Thousand, deprived of their leaders, face imminent defeat at the hands of the King. It is then that Xenophon the Athenian proposes a daring escape expedition. The army elects its new leaders and braves fearsome tribes, the pursuing horsemen of the King, a devastating winter, and impassable terrain to make its way out of the land, a horrifying and engrossing ordeal that has captivated the imagination of many a Greek imperialist (for it was thought to display the rot in the state of Persia) and schoolboy (for it was undeniably a stunning adventure). However overstated, Xenophon's participation was important if only for the record (even if of dubious validity) he wrote of that expedition.

The first part of Anabasis is taken with Cyrus' march from Sardis to Cunaxa. Along the way, the Greeks mutiny when they discover that they have been misled by the Persian, who had ostensibly hired them from a brief punitive expedition. Their spirits are however uplifted with promise of booty, so they decide to stick it out, much to their later regret. At Cunaxa, Cyrus is killed and although the Greeks score some temporary success, it becomes obvious that they are in desperate straits. The King's messenger arrives demanding their submission, but as another Athenian rightly observes, "So long as we keep our arms we fancy that we can make good use of our courage; but if we surrender our arms we shall lose our lives as well." (p. 105) After a truce with Tissaphrenes, the Greeks begin their withdrawal, as though they are "in a friendly country," escorted by the Persians in mutual suspicion.

The suspicions quickly come to roost for neither side is able to commit to upholding its side of the bargain. Indeed, the King did have a stake in destroying these Greeks "so as to make the other Greeks afraid of marching" against him (p. 117), and some soldiers urged a preemptive strike, which itself was cause of alarm to the Persians. The dynamics of mutual alarm, as Schelling would later call this, worked inexorably toward conflict. Solemn pronouncements to the contrary notwithstanding, the situation could not be alleviated by words alone, and, as frequently happens, people "become frightened of each other and then, in their anxiety to strike first before anything is done to them, have done irreparable harm to those who neither intended nor even wanted to do them any harm at all" (p.123). It is worth noting that even when both sides are well aware of this danger, the incentives are such that such knowledge is not sufficient to forestall disaster.

And disaster happens even though Tissaphrenes tells Clearchus that "if you were to contemplate doing me an injury, you would be simultaneously plotting against your own interests" (p. 125). When Clearchus takes the Greek generals to plead his case against slander openly, a confusion occurs, and in what is doubtless a miscarriage of justice, five of the generals are beheaded.

The rest of the book tells of the Ten Thousand trying to find their way out of Persia. Leaderless, they elect (as good democrats) their new leaders, one of whom is the young Xenophon, who is taken to delivering stirring speeches and assigning to himself much of the credit for the Greeks' subsequent success. Perhaps his most important speech is the one that laid bare the foundations of Alexander's later conquests as it expounded the superiority of Greek culture and spirit over the decadent Persians, portraying the latter as inhabiting a decaying empire that was ripe for the taking by enterprizing Greeks: "it is right and reasonable for us to make it our first endeavour to reach our own folk in Greece and to demonstrate to the Greeks that their poverty is of their own choosing, since they might see people who have a wretched life in their own countries grow rich by coming out here" (p. 153).

The long march begins with Tissaphrenes in hot pursuit, the Greeks suffering from slings and arrows. The army makes it out to Kurdistan, where they fight the fierce Carduchi for every pass and every high hill, all the way through the mountains up to the river Centrites, which they cross into Armenia. Then the winter descends on them with all its cold and unforgiving fury. Soldiers freeze to death, go hungry and exhausted, oblivious to lurking dangers from natives and the deaf to the exhortations of their superiors. Even their guide runs off into the night, leaving his own son captive despite the Greeks expressly taking him hostage to prevent his father's escape. When hope is almost gone, the Greeks finally catch sight of "The sea! The sea!" (p. 211).

The march through "friendly territory" is still quite exacting. The army is assisted here and there by frightened colonists, "both because they are afraid of us and because they want to get rid of us" (p. 223). The Greeks engage in plundering expeditions, plan to found a piratical colony, assist the local Mossynoeci get rid of a rival group, split into three, almost to the ruin of all, when the Arcadians decide to go off for additional plundering on their own, and then reunite only to run into trouble with the Spartan governor of Byzantium when they reach the Bosphorus. They make a deal with the Thracian king Seuthes and help him conquer some lands but in the end are cheated of their pay, having lost their usefulness once their mission is accomplished. Before leaving the army to Thibron the Spartan for his war against Tissaphrenes, Xenophon remonstrates successfully with Seuthes about that pay.

Some of the most astounding moments in Anabasis have to do with how the Greeks behave. They are civilized enough to organize a vote for their commanders, yet superstitious enough to fall to their knees when someone sneezes, and to refuse to sally forth even though it is militarily prudent while the omens tell them otherwise. The army, as any demos, is fickle, unpredictable, and dangerous, even to its own benefactors. It is easy to sway with rhetoric (the Spartans even initially contemplate putting Xenophon to death on suspicion of him being a demagogue), it is easy to entice with the promises of pay and plunder, and it is difficult to reason with, especially when the lure of riches is nearby, as the stoning of the ambassadors from Cerasus demonstrates.

Yet other things are also quite interesting. Xenophon describes many battles, but not much in the way of tactics. Still, he justifies putting his own troops in a position from which it would be impossible to escape once the battle begins: "I should like the enemy to think it easy going in every direction for him to retreat; but we ought to learn from the very position in which we are placed that there is no safety for us except in victory" (pp. 286-7), a shrewd way to give up initiative and leave the enemy the choice of fighting to the death or escaping. He also frequently appels to reputation, as in his talk to Seuthes, where he argues that reneging on the promise to pay would be detrimental to the king's future because it would ruin his reputation (although he also buttresses the argument with the threat that the king would have to fight six thousand disgruntled Greeks in addition to his subjects who are only kept at bay by the fear of the mercenaries).

As an adventure, Anabasis is exciting, although one wishes to hear more about the tribes that the Greeks meet on their way. As it is, they are no more than shadowy people who take to the mountains, defend their homes, harass the Greeks, or attempt to bribe them. But they are all treated gloriously as barbarians despite the predations of the "civilized" Hellenes.

December 12, 2002


@book{xenophon-anabasis,
    title     = {The Persian Expedition},
    author    = {Xenophon},
    year      = 1972,
    publisher = {Penguin Books},
    address   = {London},
    isbn      = {0-14-044007-0 (pbk.)},
    note      = {Tr. by Rex Warner}
}