A western army marches to within sixty kilometers of Baghdad. Their leader, the youngest son of a great ruler, has gathered them to oust the current regime. They face a large irregular force. A pitched battle is fought. The result is inconclusive. The rudderless army suffers greatly as it attempts to extricate itself from the conflict and find its way home. Perhaps this sounds like something we’ve recently lived through, but it’s not. It’s Xenophon’s Anabasis — the title loosely translates as The March Up Country.
This book — written around 370 B.C., almost thirty years after the events it relates — chronicles an expedition of 10,000 Greek mercenaries under the command of Cyrus against his brother the Persian King Artaxerxes II between 401 and 399 B.C. Arguably the first soldier-turned-author, Xenophon was an Athenian of noble birth, but one who had little taste for the hectic and cosmopolitan life of fifth-century Athens. He had a predilection for war and was an admirer of the Spartans, then ruling the Hellespont after the humiliating Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars.
The Anabasis opens when Xenophon’s old friend Proxenus, a Theban mercenary serving as a general in the army gathering under Cyrus, invites him to participate in the campaign. Unsure whether or not to join the march, Xenophon consults with the philosopher Socrates who advises him to ask the Oracle at Delphi for guidance. “Xenophon went and put the question to Apollo, to which of the gods he must pray and do sacrifice, so that he might best accomplish his intended journey and return in safety, with good fortune.” The oracle tells Xenophon that he should pray to Apollo, but when he reports this to Socrates, the philosopher is quick to point out that Xenophon asked the wrong question. Rather than inquiring as to whether or not he should go on the campaign or stay at home in the first place, he instead only asked whom he should pray to so that he would achieve the best result once he left.
It seems asking the wrong question in the run-up to war isn’t just a 21st-century phenomenon. And Xenophon isn’t alone among the foreign commanders in asking them. Cyrus, the youngest son of the recently deceased Darius II, was by all accounts a charismatic leader. Xenophon writes of him, “that he should triumph over his friends in the great matters of well-doing is not surprising, seeing that he was much more powerful than they, but that he should go beyond them in minute attentions, and in an eager desire to give pleasure, seems to me, I must confess, more admirable.” In short, Cyrus is the type of guy you’d like to have a beer with. He leverages that personal magnetism when convincing each member of his coalition to contribute troops to the march, tailoring his reason for fighting to whatever they wish to hear as opposed to his true aim: deposing his brother as King of Persia.
It isn’t until Cyrus’s army has marched from Greece into what is now Iraq that he finally lets them know the real purpose of the expedition. Upon receiving the news, the Greek generals under Cyrus confer among themselves, concluding that having advanced this deep into enemy territory they are committed, that Cyrus, despite this one deception, has always treated them fairly, and that they should chose to fight on his behalf. The battle is joined on September 3rd, 401 B.C., just outside of Baghdad, at a place called Cunaxa.
That fateful day opens with a series of Persian feints, in which Artaxerxes’s army attempts to pull Cyrus deeper and deeper into their territory. The strategy works and when Cyrus commits to battle it’s because he believes he’s caught an adversary who is too weak to engage him. The Greek hoplites on the army’s left flank, anchored along the banks of the Euphrates River, quickly defeat the Persians opposite them. Witnessing their success from the army’s center, Cyrus’s enthusiasm becomes irrepressible. Then he sees his brother Artaxerxes across the battlefield. Xenophon captures the moment in all its glorious, simple horror: “Unable to longer contain himself, with a cry, ‘I see the man,’ he rushed at him . . . As Cyrus delivered the blow, someone struck him with a javelin under the eye severely . . . Cyrus himself fell, and eight of his bravest companions lay on top of him.”
The son of the great king, seemingly destined for greatness himself, is slain by a javelin launched from the hand of a common soldier named Mithridates. That common soldier is richly rewarded by his king Artaxerxes — until he drunkenly boasts aloud that it was he who killed Cyrus. The same king who rewarded him now tortures him to death via scaphism, a punishment synonymous for Greek peoples with the cruelty and excess of the Persians. Artaxerxes shackles Mithridates inside a box filled with flies, wasps, and larva after coating his body with milk and honey; the soldier will slowly be eaten alive.
This story presents a hard lesson, but one absolutely central to the Anabasis: chance, not intelligence, bravery, or skill, exalts or casts down men’s fate.
Xenophon doesn’t expound on the what-ifs. Rather he shows throughout the Anabasis the fickle swing of fortune in wartime. When the Greek generals suggest that Ariaeus, Cyrus’s second-in-command, take up his claim, Ariaeus refuses, explaining that he would be illegitimate compared to Artaxerxes. The lack of a legitimate claim to the throne won’t stop another Greek who, seventy years later, will bring an army from Macedon — along with a copy of Xenophon’s Anabasis, which he will use as a guide in his conquest of Persia, a kingdom that he will wrest from Artaxerxes II’s son Darius III. But were it not for that javelin blow, perhaps there would have been no Alexander the Great. Perhaps the Greeks would have harbored less animosity toward Persia if Cyrus had been king and owed his conquest to them.
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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