Reading Journal: Xenophon’s Anabasis

Xenophon’s Anabasis may well be the perfect novel. A skillfully-structured narrative, gripping characters, and unusually vivid imagery combine to make the story far more of a good read than many other literary texts. Then, too, the work is much more enjoyable than Xenophon’s own Hellenika. The edition I used was the Folio Society’s one, titled “The Persian Expedition”; the book is known by other titles, too: “March of the 10,000,” “and “The March Up-Country.” While my FS volume was quite short on explanatory aids, the fact that I had already read the Hellenika in the Landmark edition was most helpful.

Even without that, though, the work remains an outstanding one. From the famous cry of “θαλαττα, θαλαττα!” (the cry of the returning army upon catching its first sight of the sea after a march of thousands of kilometers through hostile enemy territory), to the frostbitten noses, ears, and feet that were amputated during the pass through the Kurdish mountains, to the hero Cyrus the younger’s fatal refusal to wear a helmet as he rode into battle with his heavily-armed troops, the entire work reads less like what one expects from a book, and more like what one would expect from a Hollywood blockbuster.

The story, of course, is based on history, though it is clear that the book was written as an apologia by its main protagonist, the author himself. In a nutshell, a “gang of roughs” (as the FS introduction calls the 10,000), were mercenary soldiers hired out of various cities in Greece by Cyrus the Younger, who wished to seize the crown from his brother Artaxerxes II. Despite being, apparently, victorious, Cyrus was slain in battle with Artaxerxes deep in Babylonia. A short truce prevailed for negotiations to take place between the Greek generals and the Persian monarch, but this ended with the massacre of the unsuspecting generals and their aids in the Persian camp. One man only escaped, running and “holding his entrails in his hands” until he gave the bad news to the Greeks. From that point on, Xenophon steadily rose to challenge after challenge until, following the departure of the more senior general weeks later, he was in command of the entire army himself. The army had to deal with logistics problems involving their baggage train, their constant need for food, their ever-present struggle against enemies from Persian cavalry forces to Kurds and other hardy folk in the mountain ranges. The soldiers had to brave the winter snows in the Turkish Alps that made men so sleepy that Xenophon had to beat them to wake them up and so prevent their freezing to death.

Throughout the story, the stature of Xenophon grows until the story becomes less the story of the 10,000 and more a story of one man, the writer himself: his motivations, his conduct, his principles, and his ideas. It makes for fascinating reading, not least because the narrative structures and characterization reminded me, on the one hand, of Moses and his frustrations with his people in Exodus, and on the other, of Bilbo Baggins and Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin’s struggles not only where you’d expect them–in enemy territory–but where you wouldn’t: upon their return home.

As things turned out, Xenophon would go on to gain the friendship of one of the kings of Sparta, while most of the 10,000 who escaped Persia would be reincorporated back into the “Greek” (i.e. Spartan) army in a move that, through removing the goodwill of Persia, which had helped to defeat Athens during the Peloponnesian War, caused the downfall of Sparta from its preeminent position within Greece.

The Anabasis, by virtue of its concern with Pan-Hellenic enterprises against Persia, looks forward to Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, a major (though admittedly second-rate) historian I must now read. In the mean time, Xenophon’s best work cries out for a responsible adaptation by Hollywood. That would be an exciting movie, and one that could be made, with little effort, into something better and more thought-provoking than your typical action flick.