91. The Anabasis (The Persian expedition) by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

Plot:  Cyrus, the younger brother of Persian King Aratxerxes, recruits a large army of Greek hoplites (heavy infantry) and peltasts (light infantry) to help him take the crown. When battle is eventually joined, Cyrus’ forces are hugely outnumbered, yet they manage to win the battle. This means little as Cyrus is killed in the fighting. The bulk of the Greek generals are then captured and killed due to the treachery of the Persian Tissaphernes, and the remaining 10,000 Greek soldiers must make their way home through hostile territory, led in large part by a young Athenian called Xenophon. They cross deserts, mountains and rivers, face snowstorms and suffer hunger and frostbite, and must fight against the natives of each area they march through for supplies.

Written in seven ‘books’, each consisting of very short chapters, this was an easy and quick read. I could imagine how this would lend itself to readers beginning to learn Ancient Greek. My version was an old edition of a Penguin Classic translated by Rex Warner and printed in 1952 (pre-ISBN)

My thoughts:   Told in third person, this “Boy’s Own adventure” is a far cry from Plato’s Socratic dialogues, and its immediacy dealing with one historic event from the report of a significant player in the drama distinguishes it from previous histories by Herodotus and Thucydides. The author even makes use of flashback and flash forward to fill out more of his personal story.

Although the narrative is admittedly told from the Greek perspective, the unwillingness of the Persians to stay on the battlefield when they had vastly superior numbers is still surprising.

There is a  lot of strategy described in the tale,  which reputedly was taken by Alexander the Great as required reading when he was in the field. It ends before Xenophon gets home as the army is given to two Spartan generals who intend to attack Tissaphernes.

Some points of note:

  • No actions involving the army are taken without consulting sacrificial entrails – it must help with morale to have the promise of success fulfilled. Xenophon also claims to have put many decisions to the vote and acted on the result – not typical of ancient generals surely? If we believe Xenophon, he makes some early strategic mistakes but learns from them and takes immediate action to remedy and improve their position. He does not glorify himself but presents himself as an honest and honourable man.
  • The Persians archers and slingshot firers were being whipped by their commanders as they fired on the Greeks – surely a different and ultimately less successful way of motivating soldiers.
  • The Mossynoici (a tribe most unlike the Greeks in many ways) had jars of pickled dolphin slices amongst their supplies – urk!!

Favourite lines/passages:  Not a lot of standout literary quality but the following lines did ring

“Whoever says or does something brave and gallant now is making himself remembered among the people whom he would want to remember him.”      Xenophon, Book VI, Ch.5, page 237.

Personal rating:  Lost its way a little in the last chapter, almost as if there was more to tell which is now missing, or Xenophon simply ran out of interest after starting a new thread. Still a refreshing change from philosophy. A 5 from me.

Next :  Much against my inclination, I will push on with Plato and tackle yet another Socratic dialogue, Meno.

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