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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in