Being Greek

Henry Day

  • The Long March: Xenophon and the Ten Thousand by Robin Lane Fox
    Yale, 351 pp, £25.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 300 10403 0
  • The Expedition of Cyrus by Xenophon, translated by Robin Waterfield
    Oxford, 231 pp, £8.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 19 282430 9
  • Xenophon’s Retreat: Greece, Persia and the End of the Golden Age by Robin Waterfield
    Faber, 248 pp, £17.99, November 2006, ISBN 0 571 22383 4
  • The Sea! The Sea! The Shout of the Ten Thousand in the Modern Imagination by Tim Rood
    Duckworth, 272 pp, £12.99, August 2006, ISBN 0 7156 3571 9

The Anabasis, as The Expedition of Cyrus is often called, stands out among classical Greek texts for the glimpses it offers of Hellenes encountering a baffling and often dangerous alien world. A mishmash of military memoir, travelogue and biography, it’s also the most detailed description we have of Greek soldiers on campaign. The story opens with the rebellion in 401 BC of the Persian prince Cyrus against his brother Artaxerxes II, and recounts the progress of his army (which included around 13,000 hired Greek soldiers, among them Xenophon) from his headquarters in Sardis through modern Turkey and the Syrian desert to the plains of Mesopotamia. The first book culminates in Cyrus’ death at the hands of his brother in the battle of Cunaxa. The remaining six follow the ordeals of the stranded Greek survivors (‘the Ten Thousand’) as, against all odds, they fight their way back home, a trek of a thousand miles, which first takes them north to the Black Sea then west to Byzantium. (The term anabasis technically denotes only the march ‘up country’ to Cunaxa; the march ‘down’ to the sea is properly the katabasis, that along the coast the parabasis.) On the way, the Greeks encountered Syrians who regarded ‘fish as gods and did not let anyone harm them, or doves either’; Armenians who lived underground and binged on barley wine; and Mossynoecians who ‘wanted to have sex in the open with the kept women whom the Greeks had brought, because that was their custom there’. Xenophon has an eye for a snapshot.

It’s easy to be misled, however, by the apparent artlessness of his observations, conveyed in his mellifluous, paratactic prose. It’s not surprising that he was known in antiquity as ‘the Attic bee’, while Hazlitt praised the ‘clearness of style and modesty of temper’ he found in the Anabasis, a judgment that Robin Waterfield’s new translation doesn’t traduce. Xenophon’s relatively simple sentences, preference for the vivid present tense, and use of third-person narration inevitably invite comparison with that other great classical war reporter, Julius Caesar. By the mid-19th century, this clarity had entrenched both Caesar and Xenophon as standard school texts. The Anabasis didn’t always endear itself to its readers, however. W.W. Tarn applied to Xenophon one of Juvenal’s pithier put-downs (originally aimed at Hannibal): ‘He performed a march without precedent across savage mountains, his reward has been to become a text for schoolboys.’ Struggling through the Anabasis, stopping again and again to disentangle points of grammar and syntax, the beginner’s experience seemed to mimic the trials undergone by the Ten Thousand themselves.

Readers’ attitudes to the Anabasis often change as they get older. Italo Calvino recalled his schoolboy experience of reading Xenophon as one of great boredom, but later thought he had been wrong to feel this. Yet the view of Xenophon as a simple, uncomplicated author has persisted. Calvino opens his 1978 article on the Anabasis with the claim that reading it today is ‘the nearest thing to watching an old war documentary’. Comparing Xenophon with T.E. Lawrence (as others have done), he asserts that ‘in the Greek there is nothing beneath the exactness and dryness of the narration.’ Lawrence’s own view of the Anabasis was tellingly different. It was, he wrote to George Bernard Shaw, a ‘pretentiously simple’ tale, ‘cunningly full of writing tricks’.

The essays in The Long March, a much needed new companion to the Anabasis, provide explanations of some of these tricks. Whether analysing the Ten Thousand as a mobile Greek polis, considering the text’s ethnographic content, or sketching its religious dimension, all these essays keep firmly in mind what one of the contributors, Christopher Tuplin, calls Xenophon’s ‘characteristic combination of selection and silence’.

A case in point is an incident that occurs in Book IV when the mercenaries under Xenophon’s command are marching through the territory of the Colchians (just inland from the Black Sea city of Trapezus). Xenophon’s description of the effects of some ‘poisonous honey’ on his men is typically graphic:

All the men who ate honeycomb became deranged, suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea, and were too weak to stand up. Those who had eaten a little behaved as though they were drunk, while those who had eaten a lot behaved like madmen, or even like people on the point of death. The ground was so thickly covered with supine men that it looked like the aftermath of a defeat, and morale plummeted.

Rhododendron flowers are thought to be the culprit – they contain a toxin that gives fresh honey narcotic properties. On the south Black Sea coast, the rhododendron flowers in late May and early June, and the route along which the mercenaries were marching would have been blocked by snow earlier in the year. That dates the episode to around the end of May 400 BC, but an analysis of the earlier books makes clear that this leaves a lacuna of some three months in Xenophon’s text. Explanations remain a matter of guesswork. Did he fail to keep a diary? Or did poor leadership on Xenophon’s part lead to the death of some of his men in the late winter snows, deaths he didn’t want to admit to? We will never know. The point, rather, is the deceptive smoothness of the narrative. Xenophon wanted to present himself as a straightforward, no-nonsense leader, a capable commander, happy to share his men’s suffering, always ready with a plan of action, never in the wrong. He certainly convinced a reviewer for the TLS in 1930, for whom he was ‘a noble character – soldier, country gentleman, philosopher, sportsman, in whom, risking a charge of smugness, we may venture to claim a resemblance to a not uncommon English type’. A little probing suggests someone different: as Robin Lane Fox, the editor of this collection of essays, sums him up, ‘evasive, apologetic, and a master of leaving unwelcome things out’.

Why did Xenophon write this way? Biographical information is scarce, and comes largely from the Anabasis itself. Born probably in the early 420s to a wealthy Athenian family, he would have been approaching thirty at the time of Cyrus’ expedition. He knew Socrates, and mentions that having been invited by his friend Proxenus to join Cyrus’ army (tempted by the offer of friendship with the powerful Cyrus), he asked the philosopher for advice. ‘Socrates,’ Xenophon writes, ‘thought that friendship with Cyrus might well be actionable in the eyes of the Athenian authorities, because Cyrus was widely believed to have wholeheartedly supported the Spartans in their military operations against the Athenians.’ Socrates’ fears were justified: the pro-Spartan Xenophon was indeed exiled by the Athenians, as he tells us towards the end of the Anabasis. The date and reasons for this punishment are disputed, but it’s plausible that his glowing self-presentation in the Anabasis was constructed with one eye on his fellow townsmen. Was he hoping to be recalled?

The stated aim of friendship with Cyrus bears on the nature of his narrative in another way. With the end of the Peloponnesian War, indigent freebooting soldiers had become a prominent and troublesome feature of the social landscape: Aeneas Tacticus, a fourth-century military theorist, tapped into latent social anxieties when he envisaged mercenaries storming a Greek city (as the Ten Thousand very nearly did to Byzantium). In ideological terms, too, the mercenary cut a less than favourable figure, being implicated in that banausic business of paid employment which the Greeks traditionally found so distasteful. For all the aristocratic antipathy to working for money in his other published works, Xenophon therefore caught some flak for his involvement with Cyrus. The orator Isocrates, a contemporary who came from the same Athenian deme, characterised Cyrus’ mercenaries in his Panegyricus of 380 BC not as ‘picked troops, but men who, owing to stress of circumstances, were unable to live in their own cities’. Although the dating of the Anabasis remains uncertain, a point after 380 seems likely: George Cawkwell, in the Lane Fox volume, argues persuasively for 370-367; Tim Rood, in his excellent introduction to Waterfield’s translation, also favours a date in the 360s. It’s probable, then, that Xenophon was aware of Isocrates’ criticisms. In response, he emphasises that not all the mercenaries followed Cyrus simply in pursuit of profit, that he himself originally became involved through ties of xenia (‘guest-friendship’) with Proxenus, and that Cyrus’ outstanding character (‘he always tried to go one better than anyone who did him either good or harm’ – a supremely Greek virtue) legitimated their association. Any suggestion that Xenophon was paid is studiously avoided.

Other fragments of external evidence strengthen the idea of a defensive Xenophon. The Byzantine lexicographer Stephanus quotes briefly from another Anabasis, this one written by Sophaenetus, one of the Ten Thousand’s generals. Stephanus’ quotations tell us little about Sophaenetus’ account, but it’s possible that this other Anabasis was the ultimate source of an epitome written by the first-century BC Sicilian historian Diodorus, in which Xenophon’s role in the retreat from Cunaxa to the sea is not mentioned. Did Xenophon write in reaction to Sophaenetus, in an attempt to set the record straight? More suggestive is Xenophon’s own reference to Cyrus’ expedition in his work on contemporary Greek history, the Hellenica: the story has been written, he tells us, ‘by Themistogenes of Syracuse’. Why does he refer to this obscure writer instead of his own work? Is ‘Themistogenes’ a pseudonym? Plutarch thought so, believing that Xenophon used it as a way of making his rosy account of his own actions more palatable.

The long speeches which Calvino found so tedious have been seen by others as signs of persecution mania. When the troops reach Cotyora on the Black Sea coast, Xenophon suddenly has to defend himself against the charge that he wants to lead the men back east to the river Phasis (in modern Georgia). Later, he has to tackle accusations from the Spartans that he is a demagogue; from the soldiers that he has taken bribes from Seuthes, a Thracian warlord, while allowing them to go unpaid; and from Seuthes himself and the inhabitants of the town of Sinope about the mercenaries’ pillaging. At one point, a soldier complains to Xenophon that he had beaten him ‘when we were dying of cold and the snow lay very deep on the ground’. The reference is to the Ten Thousand’s march through Armenia in Book IV:

The soldiers who were suffering from snow-blindness were finding it hard to keep up, as were those whose toes had rotted off from the freezing cold. Wearing a protective covering of something dark-coloured over the eyes as one marched stopped a man from losing his sight, and keeping one’s feet constantly in motion, never still, and taking one’s footwear off at night helped prevent frostbite; but whenever men slept with their shoes on, the straps sank into their flesh and their shoes froze onto their feet, especially because those whose old shoes had worn out were wearing no more than pieces of leather made from the hides of recently skinned oxen.

Here again is Xenophon the unflinching reporter, reminding us of the reason his narrative achieved such popularity in the wake of the First World War. The episode also makes clear Xenophon’s authorial selectivity: only in Book V does he mention his violent treatment of this soldier, whom he caught trying to bury a wounded comrade alive. When the soldier retorts that the man died anyway, Xenophon lashes back: ‘We’re all going to die, but does that mean we have to be buried alive?’ That Xenophon emerges on top in this exchange should not surprise us. The displacement of information which underpins it, however, makes one wonder what else the heroic commander omitted.

Attempts in The Long March to read Xenophon against the smoothness of his grain are a product of their own time. The 18th-century historian John Gillies admired the Anabasis’ combination of ‘such descriptive beauty, with such profound knowledge of war and of human nature, and … such inimitable eloquence, as never were reunited in the work of any one man’, but we are more inclined to prise apart the chinks in a text, fascinated as much by what it doesn’t say as what it does. It’s an approach that suits some of the essays in The Long March better than others. Christopher Tuplin, for example, using the Anabasis to glean information about the Persian Empire, wants to hear more about Persian roads: not everyone will share his enthusiasm – it was Xenophon’s repeated measurements of distance that so terrorised generations of schoolchildren (‘crusted with parasangs’, as Louis MacNeice described the Anabasis).

One way of dealing with this problem is actually to follow Xenophon’s route oneself. The first such attempt was made in 1818 by John Macdonald Kinneir, of the East India Company. The resulting Journey through Asia Minor, Armenia and Koordistan, though its details are now disputed, has inspired an army of topographers, of whom Robin Waterfield is the most recent. Xenophon’s Retreat includes much useful background material (details of hoplite warfare, a potted history of fifth-century Graeco-Persian relations, Xenophon’s story after the Anabasis), but really comes alive when framing the army’s experiences on the march in modern-day terms. The near constant traffic jams on the Belen Pass, for instance, through which Cyrus’ men left Turkey, indicate that this is still the best route through the mountains, while the abundant game encountered by the mercenaries in northern Syria has diminished only in the last hundred years: T.E. Lawrence was able to shoot ducks from his balcony at Aleppo’s Baron Hotel. Waterfield’s on-the-ground approach also gives some substance to his logistical calculations. He estimates that between Sardis and Cunaxa the army averaged 30 km a day – not bad for at least 50,000 men, women, children, slaves and tradesmen, 3000 horses and 1500 carts, moving through mountains and desert in high summer. The task of feeding such a force (it required around 62,500 kg of food a day) must have been staggering.

These numbers offer one means of understanding Xenophon’s interest in the relations between Greeks and barbaroi: hostility impeded not just the army’s progress but its access to essential supplies. However, Xenophon also uses such encounters to reflect on national identity. As they approach the Black Sea, the Greeks enter the territory of the Macronians, who, ‘with their wicker shields, spears and hair tunics’, were lined up along a river the mercenaries were trying to cross. John Ma, in one of the most imaginative essays in the Lane Fox collection, writes about the moment when one of the peltasts – light-armed infantry – ‘who said he had been a slave in Athens, approached Xenophon and said that he recognised the language the men were speaking. “I think,” he said, “that this is my native land. If you have no objection, I’d like to speak to them.”’ A ‘landscape of physical and human obstacle’ soon turned into ‘an arresting story of encounter and communication’, as the Macronian negotiates safe passage for the Greeks: teams of locals and mercenaries are soon building a bridge over the river. But what really interests Ma is the man’s uncertainty about his patris. ‘The absence of name and of final resolution are emblematic of the Macronian peltast’s fate: on the move, he finds no identity, even when he returns home.’

The episode can be viewed more positively: the Greeks manage to bridge the gap with the Macronians, just as over the last two hundred years, readers have bridged the gap between themselves and the Ten Thousand. Tolstoy, for instance, read the Anabasis in 1870, having just completed War and Peace, and twenty years later still remembered ‘the very great impression’ it had left on him. More recently, Ray Smith and Bing West’s The March Up, an account of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, declared itself ‘inspired by the classic story of the Anabasis’ (while topographers have speculated that Cunaxa may lie on the site of Baghdad airport). Transposed to gangland New York, Xenophon’s story embedded itself in popular consciousness through Walter Hill’s 1979 punk movie, The Warriors.

One incident in particular captures readers’ imaginations: the shout of ‘Thalatta! Thalatta!’ (‘The sea! The sea!’) uttered by the Greeks as they catch sight of the Black Sea from Mount Theches (eagerly identified by Waterfield – ‘the greatest historical thrill of my life’ – as the modern Deveboynu Tepe). On 4 June 1940, during the Dunkirk evacuation, the Times ran an editorial headed ‘Anabasis’, which declared: ‘British soldiers look on blue water as did the Greek army of Xenophon, whose cry qalatta! qalatta! was the climax of the Anabasis, and marked the successful completion of the most famous march in the ancient world.’ Louis MacNeice’s radio play The March of the Ten Thousand, broadcast by the BBC in April 1941, played on the same nationalistic currents. The Greek words have also prompted affectionate imitation. In Flashman at the Charge, George MacDonald Fraser’s hero, catching sight of the Aral Sea, mutters: ‘Thalassa or thalatta, the former or the latter?’ – punning on the difference between Ionic and Attic Greek dialect (though the rhyme works only if the words are pronounced in an English, not a Greek accent). In Finnegans Wake, Joyce coins the fantastic phrase ‘polyfizzyboisterous seas’, a play on the Homeric tag poluphloisbos thalassa (‘loud-resounding sea’), but it’s Xenophon who’s on his mind at the start of Ulysses when, looking out over Dublin Bay, Buck Mulligan whispers: ‘The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother.’

The Anabasis has often been understood as a panhellenic tract, projecting a sense of common Greek identity as the basis for a full-scale invasion of the Persian Empire. In antiquity, Arrian and Polybius saw Xenophon as a precursor of Alexander the Great. Xenophon himself has Cyrus assure the Greeks: ‘I would choose freedom over all my wealth, even if I was far better off than I am now.’ The traditional Greek explanation for their victory in the Persian Wars (490-479 BC) is here placed in the mouth of a Persian prince. Elsewhere, Xenophon paints an orientalising picture of the luxurious and soft Persians, while praising the excellence of the Greeks in speeches at once morale-boosting and cajoling. Herodotus had optimistically written of ‘the kinship of all Greeks in blood and speech … and the likeness of our way of life’, and Xenophon takes up the theme. It’s significant, however, that these speeches become more frequent in the Anabasis’ final books just as, hitting the home straight, the lust for plunder takes over, discipline disintegrates and internal animosities between different Greek factions (Spartans, Athenians and Black Sea inhabitants) come to the fore. Hellenic unity, and the efficacy of the democratic ethic, slowly seem less assured. This tension connects the Anabasis with Xenophon’s other works and their fascination with the difficulty of both creating and maintaining taxis or order. As Ischomachus proclaims in the Oeconomicus, ‘nothing is as useful or as good for human beings as order.’ The Anabasis presents the flip side of this view. It is, as Rood puts it, ‘a powerfully analytical work – and a slightly ironic and pessimistic one. It is a neglected text for the study of anti-democratic discourse.’

Rood reads the Anabasis as an escape story that undermines itself, ‘a celebration of Greek achievement that becomes an analysis of Greek weakness’. It’s a double movement that mirrors the experience of the Greeks who had survived the Peloponnesian War. But this self-subverting tendency has been lurking beneath the apparent confidence of Xenophon’s text right from the start: the Anabasis is a story about the impossibility of return – a commentary on the Odyssean nostos-myth. Cyrus’ attempted return to Persia ends in disaster; the Greeks encounter a relentless series of barriers, both human and geographical, on their way to the coast; as they struggle to Byzantium, the same obstacles, in variously reconfigured forms, have to be hurdled. The narrative concludes in the spring of 399 with the Spartan general Thibron taking command of the remnants of the Ten Thousand for a campaign against Tissaphernes, the Persian satrap whose rivalry with Cyrus had been the proximate cause of the prince’s rebellion. The Greeks never in fact make it home; they just begin again.

Xenophon was not only writing a personal apologia. He was talking to his contemporaries about the whole business of being Greek. But his tantalisingly self-circling tale also prompts reflections on the deceptive satisfactions of narrative itself: the Modernist credentials of the Anabasis are surprisingly strong. Condemned to tramp ever onwards, robbing the locals and mutilating the corpses of their enemies as part of a deliberate strategy of terror, the Ten Thousand embody a disturbingly rough-and-ready brand of bravery, far removed from that of the Boy’s Own adventure in which they have sometimes been cast. As Zbigniew Herbert, who had been a member of the Polish resistance during the Second World War, pictured them,

festering with sleeplessness they went through savage countries
uncertain fords mountain passes in snow and salty plateaux
cutting their road in the living body of peoples
luckily they didn’t lie they were defending civilisation

In his presentation of a brutal ethic of survival, in his privileging of endurance and uncertainty over fulfilment and closure, Xenophon sounds a provocative note amid today’s grand stories of civilisation and its defence.