Going up country

Persian warrior and Greek hoplite, 5C BCE kylix, National Museums of Scotland

Xenophon The Persian Expedition
Translated by Rex Warner, introduction by George Cawkwell
Penguin Classics 1972 (1949)

This is a fascinating record of how ten thousand Greek mercenaries invaded what is now Iraq on an ill-fated expedition, and how after various vicissitudes they made it back almost to their starting point. But this is no blockbuster thriller, nor is it a narrative of an incident in recent history; this all took place nearly two and a half millennia ago, before even Alexander the Great made his extraordinary foray from Macedonia to India. It’s told in the third person by an Athenian noble who makes himself the hero of his own story, but he’s not an entirely reliable narrator and the reader is warned that not everything he presents is the whole truth and nothing but.


Briefly, these Greek mercenaries are inveigled into supporting Cyrus, a satrap in what is modern western Turkey and brother of the King of Persia, against a minor ruler; but it soon turns out that he has designs on the throne. Cyrus, however, is portrayed as a positive character — diplomatic, just, brave — and quite possibly a better ruler than his brother Artaxerxes. After various skirmishes the Greek army (together with some of Cyrus’ native troops) makes its way through Turkey and Syria to a point northwest of Babylon in modern Iraq. Here, at Cunaxa, they are met by the might of the Persian army, perhaps some three times the size of the invaders. And it is here that disaster strikes: Cyrus, pretender to the throne, is killed in battle.

Without a raison d’être the Greek army could have just fallen apart. But these are professional soldiers, well disciplined on the whole and raised in a climate where democracy and rational thought are highly valued. They — the principal commanders and their captains — decide to march north to the Black Sea where there are Greek trading settlements and possible support. But they are travelling through hostile country and difficult terrain, with terrible cold to contend with, supplies always a problem, and of course all the support and camp followers to consider as well, not to mention treachery and dissention. And reaching the Black Sea is not the end either: a host numbering thousands arriving on your doorstep is never going to be welcome, even if you do speak the same language. (Ironically, the name Xenophon appears to mean ‘speaker of foreign languages’.)

There’s not much a review like this can add to the plentiful discussion already available online and in the literature, so I’ll content myself with making just two points. One is that there are plentiful occasions in which the leadership actually sit down and discuss plans, with rational argument about options as well as accusations and refutations to the fore before decisions are made. Despite the Greeks owing loyalty to several different states — whether the many Peloponnesian entities, Sparta or Athens, for example — they value both democracy and that justice is seen to be done.

The second point is a reminder that the current and very terrible problems in the Middle East are the latest in a long line of conflicts to trouble the region, and that meddling Westerners are no recent phenomena. The main sufferers are of course ordinary people who, by and large, want to get on with their lives and not be expendable pawns in the hands of powers greater than them. While we hear little about the ordinary inhabitants of the lands that the ten thousand march through, the same can’t be said of the hundreds of thousands affected right now or in the more recent past.

This translation by Rex Warner from 1949 is doubtless the crib I used for translating the Anabasis when I was a schoolboy. The introduction by George Cawkwell only dates from 1972, too late for me; it gives the known background to the memoir compiled by Xenophon in the 4th century BCE as well some useful criticism of the soldier’s account of events in the year or two after the expedition set off in 401 BCE.


3 thoughts on “Going up country

  1. The endurance and resilience of these professional mercenaries is amazing, but as you say these accounts leave out the lives of ordinary people who were so routinely trampled in the process. I’m not sure how reliable Xenophon is when he relates these reasonable discussions about strategy, though!
    Interesting that I read just this morning a comparison of Trump’s anti-China sabre-rattling with the Peloponnesian Wars, pointing out that Athens took on Sparta with very similar bluster and the Spartans won.

    1. Trump’s loose cannon impression emphasises he has no sense of geopolitical or historical context, let alone consideration for ordinary people other than as pawns. If he’d read Herodotus or even a child’s history of the world he would know that if you thoughtlessly rattle the bars of cages you might just loosen the bolts that hold the beast within. Heaven help us.

      I mostly enjoyed Xenophon’s narrative, even accepting that he must have put a positive spin on his own leadership. I was struck also by how much reliance was placed on sacrificial auguries, and how much they appeared to confirm the outcomes of decisions made based on them. Can you imagine if modern strategic decision were based on the forecasts of, say, bibliomancy or the Tarot cards? Hey, maybe that’s how Trump operates?!

      1. We’ve been reading in our Latin group about the way they re-did the auguries if they didn’t turn out “right”. You just did them again till you got the result you wanted. Trump doesn’t have to do that. The truth is what he wants it to be. The scary thing is that he so wildly overestimates his own ability when it comes to world affairs.

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