Anabasis, by Xenophon

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Anabasis is a classic story of an army’s retreat from disaster, told by the man who was thrust into the role of saving it. Anabasis means “march inland from the coast,” which is a paradoxical title for a book that is mostly about a march to the coast from inland. But the author, Xenophon, an Athenian, had a taste for irony, borrowed from his teacher, the great philosopher Socrates.

Xenophon at first played a minor role in an army of 10,000 mercenaries who marched inland from the Mediterranean in the service of a rebel Persian prince, Cyrus, in 401 B.C. Cyrus meant to wrest the throne from his royal brother. His men defeated the king’s army at a battle in Iraq (Cunaxa), but Cyrus himself fell in the fighting. Shortly afterwards the leading Greek officers were treacherously murdered in a parley with the enemy. The army now turned to Xenophon. He played the key role in leading hardened Greek soldiers of fortune on a march to the sea through northern Iraq and eastern Turkey. This was rugged, foreign, and hostile country, and the Greeks had to fight their way through against both men and the elements.

The emotional highlight of the book comes when the men suddenly catch sight of the Black Sea from a mountain in eastern Turkey. “Thalatta! Thalatta!” they cry in excitement: “The sea! The sea!” Desert and mountains now behind them, the Greeks were in their element, the sea that, as Socrates put it, they lived around like frogs around a pond.

Anabasis is an adventure story. Its vivid narrative is told in simple, graphic prose that is a delight to read. But it is also a parable of leadership, both on the part of Xenophon and his followers. The Greek soldiers have the political skill of citizens in a Greek city-state; they are free and independent but capable of joining together for a common cause. All that is needed is proper guidance, which Xenophon provides. It is an advertisement not only for the author but also for the wisdom imparted by Socrates.

Finally, Anabasis is a claim for the superiority of Greek (read: Western) organization and determination against Persian (read: Oriental or, as the Greeks put it: barbarian) treachery and weakness. As recent years show, this claim cannot simply be asserted but must be proven, if proven it can be. So among its other virtues, the book is a challenge.