Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review (#32 of 2014) Anabasis by Xenophon

Aka The Persian Expedition, Xenophon's account of how Cyrus the Younger led an army partly composed of Greek mercenaries is one of the most important surviving literary works of ancient days (4th century B.C.). It gives us an overview of the civilizations that existed in Asia Minor and their conflicts as the Greeks rose to prominence. Philip of Macedon was supposedly inspired by Xenophon's work to ponder leading expeditions against the Persians-- something Alexander the Great did with great success.

I was inspired to read it after reading this book and C.S.Lewis' autobiography. It (free) has reportedly been used to teach ancient Greek for centuries because of its simple form. I was amazed how straight-forward and non-prosaic (in English) the book was; I have to trust the modern English translation (Rex Warner edition), but I found it a very straightforward war story. There are good leadership lessons from the book as Xenophon comes across as the ideal democratically-elected ruler.

One interesting aspect about the structure is that Xenophon will give the narrative, then fill in the background later. He gives a biography and eulogy of the generals after they die, explains how he got caught up in the conflict in Book 3, etc.


Xenophon was a Greek invited by a friend to come meet Cyrus the Younger and fight for him. After consulting Socrates and the Oracle at Delphi, Xenophon signs on. One of my favorite parts was Book 3. The Greeks ("the 10,000") had signed up to be paid mercenaries of Cyrus the Younger, who was marching to seize the Persian throne from his brother Artaxerxes II. Cyrus was much admired by many Greeks in Asia Minor. His army swore oaths to Cyrus and to the gods on how they would conduct themselves--not pillaging but purchasing what they needed with their wages. The Spartan king had also signed up, hoping to gain support for Sparta in its own struggle with Athens. When they reach Babylon, Cyrus is tragically, perhaps mistakenly, killed in battle and now his Greek army is essentially stranded in a foreign land surrounded by Persians who want revenge and natives who want whatever. This harkens back to Homer's The Odyssey.

The Greeks want to get out as safely as they can, and accept promises of Tissaphernes, a Persian satrap. Tissaphernes betrays them and kills several of their generals, including the Spartan king. Despondancy sets in as they are beseiged.

Xenophon can't sleep one night because he recognizes that the army is now in confusion and had better set to reorganizing itself lest it be destroyed at any moment. He calls together remaining officers and implores action. The Greek army then elects new leaders (go Greek democracy!) and Xenophon overcomes objections of others to become one of the leaders.

He rallies the troops with the argument that they, unlike their enemies, have kept their oaths to the gods, and thus can expect the gods' favor in their quest. Better to fight and die nobly, and maybe they can make it home and tell their homeland of the riches to be had in this foreign land. Then, the Hollywood moment: 

"The words were scarcely spoken when someone sneezed, and with one impulse the soldiers bowed in worship; and Xenophon proceeded: "I propose, sirs, since, even as we spoke of safety, an omen from Zeus the Saviour has appeared, we vow a vow to sacrifice to the Saviour thank-offerings for safe deliverance, wheresoever first we reach a friendly country; and let us couple with that vow another of individual assent, that we will offer to the rest of the gods 'according to our ability.' Let all those who are in favour of this proposal hold up their hands." They all held up their hands, and there and then they vowed a vow and chanted the battle hymn."

When the next attack comes, Xenophon leads a defensive action that goes badly and is later criticized by the other commanders. Xenophon shows humility and leadership by admitting his mistakes, explaining his action, and suggesting ways to better reorganize the army to better utilize its strengths against its enemies' superiority. I found this remarkable:

"If any one has any better plan, we need not adopt mine; but if not...for the rest, we can but make experiment of this arrangement, and alter it with deliberation, as from time to time any improvement suggests itself. If any one has a better plan to propose, let him do so."
The 10,000 have to march northward through Kurdistan and Armenia (helpful to remember these societies have been there since ancient days) to the Greek-inhabited colonies along the Black Sea, fighting enemies and nature the entire way.After finally reaching refuge at Trapezus (modern day Trabzon), the Greeks enjoy a rest and even hold sporting events.  Then, the army has to march West along the coast-- still encountering hostile kingdoms and tribes-- to Byzantium.

Xenophon faces down opposition along the way. Some soldiers demand he be punished for being too harsh, for having beaten them. He gives a defense of his actions, in some cases he kept soldiers moving about to avoid frostbite or freezing to death. In another case, he struck a man for trying to bury a Greek soldier alive because he did not want to carry him--something Xenophon and his army found dishonorable.

Xenophon is offered supreme command of the army, but turns it down after taking time to sacrifice and consult the gods. He shows great humility, and never undertakes a major decision without first sacrificing to Zeus. He has omens that make him want to relinquish command, and the army breaks up for a time. After meeting with some near-disastrous trials, the army votes never again to break up. During a near-riot in Byzantium, the army offers again to make Xenophon a commander and he shrewdly seems to consent in order to get the troops into their formations, after which he brings them back to their senses and shows them the consequences their actions are likely to bring.

After reaching the Bosphorous, Seuthes the Thracian offers to pay Xenophon and his army to fight for him, urging him not to leave the army for home which was his intention. When the pay doesn't materialize, Xenophon is blamed and has to defend himself to the army once again. In the end, Seuthes pays up. In the end, the army joins with the Spartans to continue the fight against Tissaphernes. Xenophon ends up mostly poor, having little to show for having lead a grand army other than their respect and admiration.


Hopefully anyone who as actually authored an account of war has read this book first. Hopefully this is required reading in our military academies. I recommend utilizing the various free online resources to understand the geography and historical context. If you are a guy who wants to read a classic book that isn't hard, pick this one up.

Having vacationed in Amasra in 2012, I have a scene in my mind now of Greek triremes moving past, and an army moving along the cliffs. 
 
One note: There are at least three mentions of pederasty common in Greek culture in this book-- the army men often quarrel for handsome young boys. I was familiar with this disturbing aspect of Greek culture from reading other books on ancient Greece, but it always strikes one as odd in reading it matter-of-factly as in this work. While some argue it's not the same as paedophilia, it's hard not to read it that way.


Five stars.

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