by Xenophon (tr. H. G. Dakyns)


What do you do, as a prince of Persia, with those troublesome Greeks on your western border, who have humbled great emperors in the recent past? Well, of course, you hire them to fight your rivals. That's what Cyrus the Younger thought, anyway, and ignoring for the moment how the whole venture turned out you cannot fault his instincts there -- if Greek hoplites can humiliate larger Persian armies, taking a bunch of them to fight your brother for the throne might not be a bad idea.

Anabasis ('the march up') is the story of this campaign, delivered by the philosopher Xenophon from his own experience. Detailing some of the first Greek exposure to the Persian interior, it makes Xenophon not only a warrior-philosopher with an impressive adventure to his name, but surely a contender for the earliest travel writer. It really is quite a story. Modern readers might not appreciate Xenophon's careful description of navigation and distance as much as some later Macedonians did, but they can certainly find the appeal in the dramatic narrative of an army stranded in a foreign land.

I went into this anticipating a comparatively dry account of battles and manoeuvres that I hoped would be a little interesting. It was so much more. Detailed tactical accounts of battles, yes, but also some truly world-class speeches, witty banter, a gruelling march through a blizzard, court-martial legal drama, prophetic dreams, Oriental wonders, dancing, intrigue, selfish betrayal, selfless bravery, and genuinely emotional moments. It's a rich adventure, so much more alive with purpose than the Iliad, much more politically and psychologically acute than the Odyssey. The only obstacle I can see to it being a major motion picture would be that there's too much here to fit into 90 minutes.

A couple of general observations stand out from the adventure. First, the Greeks are formidable heavy infantry; there is basically no foe among the very many they face that is capable of surviving them in close combat. This is also their weakness: as they were originally an auxiliary force to a larger army that supplied light troops and cavalry, they have very few light or ranged troops and essentially no cavalry, so they are all but defenceless before the slings and bows of Asiatic skirmishers. One of Xenophon's early lessons as a general is that there is no point counter-charging light forces -- you cannot catch them, and it just means further to manage your retreat. Only by mustering up slingers and a small mounted force were the Greeks able to survive many of these confrontations. Secondly, the Greeks of this period are instinctively democratic: almost all major decisions are reached by a vote of the whole army (the 'marching republic'), and it is in large part Xenophon's skill as an orator to this audience that made his success. The natural ease of this arrangement, given that the Hellenes were drawn from several different city-states, is surprising, and really highlights the benefits of the common Hellenic identity.

I've seen some collections that only include Books I-IV, and I somewhat understand why -- the story of the last three books is not as narratively neat as the first four, with Xenophon struggling much more to hold the army together and rescue its fortunes from the travails of alternately hostile and friendly territories, and the uncertain politics on the edges of the Hellenic world. However, at least one of the best speeches, and some other great scenes, would be missed if these books are skipped.

Book I is the anabasis proper, the march 'up' from the seas of western Anatolia, across Syria and Arabia to Babylon, and the battle between Cyrus and Artaxerxes. It makes clear just how difficult it is to keep an ancient army together. The Greeks are initially misled into believing Cyrus is taking them into battle against a regional rival, rather than his brother the king, and this deceit lasts a surprisingly long time, including through a switch in which Cyrus claims they are fighting a different rival instead. The troops revolt over pay, they revolt because they're suspicious of Cyrus' true objective, two of the Greek leaders jump on ships to go home, and some of the remaining Greek generals come close to murdering each other in petty squabbles. Not to mention, of course, that a large army moving anywhere tends to leave a trail of destruction behind.

Despite this, the omens are not all that bad for Cyrus' march. The Greeks seem uncommonly terrifying to the various locals, there seems to be a fair amount of local support from Cyrus' allies, various choke-points are left unguarded, and Cyrus has greater hydromancy than Canute:

Cyrus proceeded to cross; and in his wake followed the rest of the armament to a man. As they forded, never a man was wetted above the chest: nor ever until this moment, said the men of Thapascus, had the river been so crossed on foot, boats had always been required; but these, at the present time, Abrocomas, in his desire to hinder Cyrus from crossing, had been at pains to burn. Thus the passage was looked upon as a thing miraculous; the river had manifestly retired before the face of Cyrus, like a courtier bowing to his future king.

The account of the battle itself is so amazing it's hard to trust. Xenophon reports that the 12,000 or so Greeks, accompanied by 100,000 or so other troops under Cyrus, faced over 900,000 opponents. Despite this massive numerical disadvantage, and being caught comparatively unprepared in an advance, and the fact that Cyrus actually lost the battle by dying in personal combat against Artaxerxes and his retainers, the Greeks claim to have done perfectly fine on the field, suffering only a single casualty in the battle, and dominating their quarter of the battlefield even when practically surrounded by cavalry and charged by scything chariots. As Xenophon would have it, they had no idea anything had gone wrong until they returned to camp that evening and found it ransacked.

Book II is pretty hilarious. The next morning the Greeks are a bit miffed that Cyrus hasn't come by to talk to them, but quite happily start gearing up to continue winning this fight. Someone does eventually come tell them that Cyrus is dead and everyone's retreating, which they agree is a bit of an issue, but they think they can still install some other Persian on the throne if he's willing. Meanwhile, and more importantly, how will they have breakfast with their camp ruined?

The soldiers furnished themselves with food (and drink) as best they might—falling back on the baggage animals, and cutting up oxen and asses. There was no lack of firewood; they need only step forward a few paces from the line where the battle was fought, and they would find arrows to hand in abundance, which the Hellenes had forced the deserters from the king to throw away. There were arrows and wicker shields also, and the huge wooden shields of the Egyptians. There were many targets also, and empty wagons left to be carried off. Here was a store which they were not slow to make use of to cook their meat and serve their meals that day.

Artaxerxes sends a herald to ask the Greeks to kindly surrender, since technically they, y'know, lost. They respond that "Conquerors do not, as a rule, give up their arms" and Artaxerxes can come and take them if he thinks he's won. While the heralds report this rather insane response to the king, the Greeks, getting word that their Persian allies are definitely withdrawing, are still deciding whether they should attack Artaxerxes. Because 9:1 odds was a cakewalk, so they may as well try 90:1. They decide against this purely on the basis that the Tigris is now between them and the king, and it would be a hassle to get boats to cross it. You know, it did seem a bit silly in Book I that Cyrus was expending so much effort getting this comparatively small body of Greek hoplites to the battlefield, but now they're here you can sort of see why.

Anyway, they decide to head home, linking up with some allies who can guide them. They are not headed back directly the way they came, but taking a different and longer route, because Cyrus' army had exhausted the land behind them, and with their camp sacked they had no provisions. They have by this point sufficiently alarmed Artaxerxes that he agrees to provision and escort them home, sending a Greek from his court called Tissaphernes with his own small army as their escort. Things progress reasonably for a while, but there's a lot of suspicion between the Greeks and their guards. The Greek leader, Clearchus, attempts to talk this over with Tissaphernes, but is deceived, and Tissaphernes captures several of the Greek leaders sent to discuss the tensions, killing many Greeks and sending their generals off to be executed by Artaxerxes.

Book III changes the narration. Up until this point, everything has been described as a general account of the campaign such as any of the survivors might have produced. There have been a couple of quiet references to Xenophon the Athenian playing a minor role in some discussions. Now, however, Xenophon fully takes the stage, with an introduction explaining how he ended up in the host and then the prophetic dream that brought him awake in the night after the betrayal.

As soon as he was fully awake, the first clear thought which came into his head was, Why am I lying here? The night advances; with the day, it is like enough, the enemy will be upon us. If we are to fall into the hands of the king, what is left us but to face the most horrible of sights, and to suffer the most fearful pains, and then to die, insulted, an ignominious death? To defend ourselves—to ward off that fate—not a hand stirs: no one is preparing, none cares; but here we lie, as though it were time to rest and take our ease. I too! what am I waiting for? a general to undertake the work? and from what city? am I waiting till I am older myself and of riper age? older I shall never be, if to-day I betray myself to my enemies.

Xenophon goes on to kick the camp into shape, making a series of really stirring speeches. The Greeks then continue their march on a war footing, skirmishing with Tissaphernes' army in a series of dramatic encounters, until they finally manage to break free of them into the territory of the Kurds.

Book IV recalls the trouble the Greeks faced in fighting the Kurds as they marched through their mountainous home region. There's a sense of frustration here: the Greeks bore the Kurds no ill-will, and even shared a common enemy with them in the Persian king, but they were subject to continuing running battles through the passes nonetheless, because there seemed to be no real possibility of parley. Pushing through, not without losses, the Greeks reach a river they intended to cross, but find it dangerously deep, and the opposite bank held by Persian mercenaries. Meanwhile, the Kurds are mustering in the mountains behind them -- a classic rock and hard place situation. However, Xenophon has a prophetic (and punning) dream that they will soon be able to straddle the river. No sooner are they cheered up by this than two young Greeks report the discovery of a secret ford. This discovery leads to a brilliant battle involving all three armies at the two crossings, in which Xenophon in particular comes off extremely well tactically. Goodbye Kurdistan.

For a while mostly free of foes as they move through Armenia, the Greeks are faced instead with challenging winter snows and icy gales. A sacrifice to Boreas abates the north wind, but they still lose many men, baggage animals and slaves to the cold. The host does not always act in unity -- there are a few episodes here where the men first to arrive somewhere get the best lot, and others suffer and even die behind them.

Forging through against the elements, they find new peoples, of varied kinds, each offering a different response to this foreign host descending upon them. Villages are routinely plundered, the question is whether the Greeks also burn the houses behind them, and whether the local population will harry them with raiders and fighting forces at their heels. See the wisdom of the governor of Gymnias, who offered to guide the approaching host through the territory of his enemies. And finally -- "The sea! the sea!" -- sight of home, and not soon after they indeed reach friendly soil.

Book V covers the wait by the sea. The general Cheirisophus (who has been coequal with Xenophon in responsibility for the host) is sent off by sea to recruit ships to transport the host. Xenophon meanwhile stays behind with the main body, organising their pillaging raids, their own gradual accumulation of ships from the locals, and generally stopping everything from falling to pieces. As they desolate the softer targets, they start to have to campaign against more determined foes.

And then the thing everyone feared: Cheirisophus does not return, so, sending some of the sick, young and old off on the ships, the Greeks must continue their march home on foot, once again forging their way through hostile territory along the Euxine coast. Reaching another friendly territory, they this time manage to extort vessels from their hosts. While doing so, however, Xenophon has the bright idea that having such a powerful army gathered by the Euxine, this would be the perfect opportunity to seize and colonise a city somewhere. In a series of rumours, this gets morphed into the idea that he's resolved on this scheme, causing unrest in the army. Xenophon defuses this through another brilliant speech, which leads to a series of court-martials to redress wrongs and purge the army of malcontents.

Book VI begins with dancing, occasioned by the arrival of some ambassadors asking the Greeks to please stop raiding their territory, but probably more to do with the impending arrival of the ships. Now sailing, the army is rejoined by Cheirisophus, who comes empty-handed aside from some promises about pay. Xenophon is pressed to accept sole generalship of the army (says Xenophon), but turns it down due to poor omens (and, implicitly, because he suspects he'll be blamed for not making the soldiers rich if he takes it). This goes to shit within a week, with Cheirisophus unable to stop the soldiers demanding supplies from a Hellenic city (putting their previously friendly hosts on a war footing) and fracturing the army into multiple divisions acting each under their own command, which goes predictably poorly as they march through Thrace.

Cheirisophus dying of a fever (or possibly the drugs he took for it), the regrouped soldiers put Xenophon back in charge along with Neon, Cheirisophus' troublesome second. Persistently bad omens prevent them from moving for some time, with the men growing hungry and desperate. Neon leads a raid out despite the omens, and it is ill-fated, with some 500 men killed by Thracians. Xenophon takes care of the rescue, and soon there are favourable omens for a march, in which they bloody the Thracians and get a hold on the local country. There is, to conclude, some more legal drama surrounding an unsavoury character who previously deserted the host.

Book VII sees the army lifted across to Byzantium with more promises of pay, only to turn on the city when, instead of paying them, their hosts attempt to quickly kick them out without provisions. Xenophon soon finds himself accidentally in possession of a Greek city, something particularly sensitive given internal Hellenic politics at the time. His attempt to defuse the situation and return it to its proper owners costs him generalship of the army, but he manages to wrangle his way back into Byzantium, quitting the army to seek his own way home.

The fragmenting army, however, was playing havoc with the local balance of power, and Xenophon is sent back to deal with it -- his initial instructions actually being to cross them back into Asia, but instead he ends up leading them to a Thracian prince who wants to employ them. There's a charming scene where Xenophon attends a party without realising he is meant to bring a gift, and has to do some quick thinking.

Things go well for a while, but the Thracian prince Seuthes (like, it seems, everyone who wants to employ this army) is not able to come up with the promised pay. As the intermediary between the soldiers and Seuthes, Xenophon is blamed for this and shunned by Seuthes. He eventually, by convincing speeches, manages to salvage his name and gain some of the pay they were promised, but he himself has very little, and even had to sell his horse. The army is recruited into a campaign in Asia Minor, and the story ends with Xenophon capturing a Persian notable and his riches, thereby rescuing his fortunes.