The Xenophon Roundtable is coming to it’s conclusion. While we may see a few more “final” posts this week, for the most part, we have had our say. This was the third roundtable hosted by Chicago Boyz and the discussion was different in character from the first two because The Anabasis of Cyrus is of a different nature than On War or Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. The first two books dealt with military theory but The Anabasis was not written by a professor of strategic studies or of military history, which Frans Osinga and even Carl von Clausewitz were. By contrast, Xenophon was an Athenian aristocrat at odds with democratic times, a brave soldier of fortune and foremost, a student of Socrates.
Xenophon the Socratic soldier and admirer of Sparta would never have written a book like On War because the character of war would have been of less interest to him than the character of men who waged it. Or at least the character of the Greeks who waged war and that of the leaders of the barbarian armies, Cyrus, Tissaphernes and Artaxerxes (ordinary, individual, barbarians are of no consequence to Xenophon except insofar as they are instrumental in carrying out the designs of their leaders). And their character at war and in peace were inseparable and constant, though having different effects, as Xenophon explained in his passages on Clearchus and his captains and his paean to Cyrus the Younger. It has been remarked in this roundtable by Joseph Fouche that Xenophon was thoroughly Greek in his attitude toward the barbarians which Joseph Fouche called a “mirror image” to the attitude of Herodotus toward the Others of the East. I agree, to an extent. The countervailing example though is Cyrus, on whom Xenophon lavished praise with so heavy a hand that it must have struck Athenian eyes as bordering on sycophancy toward a would-be basileus. Few Greek writers, other than Herodotus, were ever so generous with their pen to a barbarian.
The Anabasis of Cyrus is a broad book that contains many levels of understanding; we might even say deceptively broad because the literary style of a war memoir gives it a simpler impression than it actually contains. One can find lessons on leadership, human nature, psychology and always and above all, politics in Xenophon’s march upcountry. Writing in the ancient world was not done for profit as it is today (though “books” circulated or were “published” then far more widely than most moderns realize) but to acquire intangible benefits of influence, a reputation of a sort that the later Romans called “auctoritas”, or to have put in a final word for posterity. Xenophon is never an objective observer and The Anabasis is not a record of the deeds of the Ten Thousand, but instead is Xenophon’s advocacy for The Ten Thousand and most of all, for himself.
Finally, I must put in a word for the translator, Dr. Wayne Ambler, who has mostly been absent from this discussion. I am not a competent judge of linguistics nor is ancient Greece my historical specialty, but I thoroughly enjoyed his edition of The Anabasis of Cyrus. For me, Xenophon was “present” on the pages as I read it. One could see a determined, sweating, short of breath Xenophon dismounting and marching on foot in heavy bronze armor to shame those in the ranks who were complaining about the measures Xenophon was taking for the good of the army. This Xenophon lives and strives. He is not a distant, marble, statue of antiquity, inaccessible to the modern reader.
Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus continues to be read after 2400 years, I suspect, because the narrative of struggling to overcome terrible odds – and succeeding – appeals to our better nature. It is a construct of hope that our daring and our intelligence are enough to see us through any tight corner, given sufficient courage and inexorable drive.
We should all, at some point in our lives, march upcountry.