Saturday, May 07, 2016

Reading classics of ancient Greece and Rome II: Anabasis


Xenophon: Anabasis
The March Up Country / The Persian Expedition / The Expedition of Cyrus / The Anabasis of Cyrus / Ξενοφῶν: Ἀνάβασις. Written in Scillus (Elis, Peloponnese, governed by Sparta). Written in the 380s BC. Written in classical Greek. Divided into seven books. Originally published in the scroll format (in tomes / volumines). Read in Finnish:
Ksenofon: Kyyroksen sotaretki. Translated into Finnish by J. A. Hollo. Introduction by Edwin Linkomies. Glossary by J. A. Hollo. Series: Antiikin klassikot. 278 p. Helsinki / Porvoo: WSOY, 1960

Xenophon, born during the Peloponnesian War, continued directly from where Thucydides stopped in his great historical work Hellenica. But his most famous book is Anabasis which has been continuously read during centuries, from Alexander the Great till today's Greek classes and military academies.

The difference is marked compared with the profound and balanced accounts of Herodotus and Thucydides. Those works are magnanimous, sober, and tragic reviews of turning-points in world history.

Like Thucydides, Xenophon also writes from first hand experience, and even more so, since he was a protagonist, a general of the ten thousand Greeks on the Persian expedition.

But the essential difference is that Xenophon was a mercenary on an expedition in a foreign country to achieve fame and fortune. Not a cynical mercenary, however, if we are to trust this self-portrait of his, and I sense no reason to doubt it.

There is a fundamental ethical message here, as well, and that message is also central to the military teaching. On a mission like this is better to attack than to retreat. It is essential to keep the army united. It is more shameful to betray than to be betrayed. Never break a promise. Those whose word is their bond can achieve more by words than others can by force.

Xenophon quotes himself speaking to Seuthes who has tried to betray him and his men: "I believe that no fairer or brighter jewel can be given to a man, and most of all a prince, than the threefold grace of valour, justice, and generosity. He that possesses these is rich in the multitude of friends which surround him; rich also in the desire of others to be included in their number. While he prospers, he is surrounded by those who will rejoice with him in his joy; or if misfortune overtake him, he has no lack of sympathisers to give him help."

Anabasis is a straightforward action adventure, still one of the greatest and most exciting. I am not aware that it has ever been filmed although it has certainly been an inspiration to adventure stories, especially those of the "mission: impossible" variety. The expedition of Cyrus the Younger ends already in the first book of the seven. The rest of the story is an account of a desperate return trek in a country abruptly turned hostile, ten thousand men against a million, against overwhelming obstacles such as deserts, mountains, and snow. The famous exclamation "Thalatta! Thalatta!" ("The sea! The sea!") when the army finally catches a view of the Black Sea happens in the middle of the adventure. It gets no less desperate after that.

Reading Anabasis I was thinking about the brutalizing impact of the Peloponnesian War. Amazingly, the Golden Age of the culture of Athens coincided with the Peloponnesian War, and Xenophon was a student of Socrates. He displays great leadership in crises and patience in securing the legitimacy of his decisions. It is important that everybody is engaged. But there is a fundamental sense of futility in the endeavour. Unlike in Herodotus and Thucydides this is not about fighting for your own country and its freedom.

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