The brutal punishment delivered to Mithridates was no more severe than what awaited the Greek generals who are lured to a meeting with Artaxerxes to discuss the terms under which their army might return peaceably home—all were detained, tried, and then decapitated. The army of ten thousand, now without its generals, elects new commanders. Among them is Xenophon. Thus disastrous events of the battle and their direr and direr consequences result in his own elevation, the other side of fortune’s coin. Harassed at first by the Persians and then the many tribes whose lands they cross—the Carduchians, the Taochians, the Paphlagonians—the army fights for more than a year until at last the cry is given, “The sea, the sea!” and Xenophon and his companions are able to send to Greece for ships to ferry them home.
It is common nowadays to see Homer’s great surviving epic works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, as the foundational texts of war literature, as telling the ur-stories of life on the battlefield and the difficulties of return. What makes the Anabasis unique is that it challenges this model and offers a third idea about war, one not bound by binary notions of going to or coming from. The Anabasis is an early example of a directionless war. Yes, Xenophon and his companions are attempting to return to Greece from Persia, but they are also conquering along the way and questioning at times if they wish to return at all. The army debates whether or not to lend their services to various conquering rulers, whether to settle colonies, and wonders all along if they will even be allowed to re-enter Greece after having fought for a Persian usurper. This uncertainty, of course, is also inextricably linked to the inscrutable role chance plays in human affairs. And much as the Second World War figures culturally as an American Iliad, I would argue that the Anabasis serves as a powerful lens for thinking about our current wars, which we are fighting for many, many reasons except perhaps the most crucial one: ending them.
And what of Xenophon himself, the Athenian admirer of Sparta who was seduced by war? By the end of the Anabasis the army he led is on the verge of finishing its journey home when his troops turn on him because of a dispute over their pay. After the Spartan general Thimbron arrives in their camp, offering them a hefty sum to support a campaign he has planned, they choose to march under his banner. Having fallen from favor, Xenophon returns to Greece without his army of the ten thousand, which he has tried so desperately to bring back home. His former comrades’ new destination is Persia, the place they just came from. So they turn their backs on the sea and resume their war.
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Elliot Ackerman is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Dark at the Crossing and Green on Blue.