Thursday, July 23, 2015

"Xenophon, Come out and Play-yay!"

Continuing my explorations of ancient Greek history, I finally tackled a book I've wanted to read since college - Xenophon's Anabasis, also known as The Persian Expedition or The March of the Ten Thousand. It's one of the best true-life military adventure tales ever told.


Xenophon was an Athenian, but he had oligarchical views and more closely identified with Sparta. Indeed, he was later exiled from Athens and the Spartans gave him a home. After his soldiering career he settled in to write books. The Anabasis is his most famous, but he also continued Thucydides' truncated History of the Peolopponesian War in a book called Hellenica, wrote several books about the teachings of Socrates (Xenophon was a student of his as a  young man). He also wrote treatises on economy, horseback riding, and other things of interest to his contemporaries.

But the Anabasis is the only one not likely to bore a modern reader to tears. Here's a (very) brief summary:

Xenophon and ten thousand other Greeks, under the command of a Spartan general called Clearchus, agree to fight as mercenaries for Cyrus, a sibling of the King of Persia, who wanted to take the throne from his big brother. The Greeks get there and start fighting for Cyrus, but he dies. The Greeks are now deep in enemy territory, surrounded by enemies on all sides, they're a thousand miles from home, and, worse, the men haven't been paid. Xenophon gives his eyewitness account of not only battles, but more important subjects like finding supplies and food for the army, figuring out how to pay the men, and so on. There are lots of twists and turns, political intrigue, and exciting action sequences. In the end, the Ten Thousand get paid and Xenophon, at least, gets home, but the entire enterprise was ultimately disappointing to those involved, and to many in Greece, they were seen as failures. Nevertheless, it's a tale in which not only Xenophon, but many of his fellow officers, show great bravery and resourcefulness. When you've got 10,000 mercenaries in tow, even something simple like crossing a river is difficult. When your army is mostly made up of heavily armed and armored infantry (that is, hoplites), how do you create a brigade of slingers and archers on the fly? When the Persian warlord who offers to help out and pay you for your trouble refuses, in the end, to come up with the promised payment, what do you do?

None of these problems have easy solutions, but over time Xenophon emerges as the leader. Even then, the quarrelsome Greeks don't make it easy for him. Worse, when they finally reach some Spartan-controlled cities in Asia Minor, the Spartans themselves fear their power and effectively disown them.

Sometimes war isn't about winning anything - it's just about trying to get back home in one piece with a few extra drachmas in your pocket. If this story sounds familiar, it's actually the basis for the 1979 Walter Hill movie The Warriors, where the action is transferred to New York and the Greeks and Persians become street gangs. Watch it and my smart-ass title for this blog entry will make sense.

At any rate, if, as a reader of modern adventure fiction, Xenophon is surely the most accessible ancient Greek writer. If you're into military history, there are few odysseys more exciting.

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