Xenophon Roundtable: Xenophon was a Professional

An army marches on its stomach – Napoleon Bonaparte

While we have no real idea how much insight Xenophon possessed when he joined the invasion of Persia, the Anabasis is written by a professional with a profound appreciation of the issues of logistics (as is the Agesilaus). From beginning to end, the Anabasis is replete with not just the story of the Persian expedition, but how the Greek forces managed to maintain themselves in supply, from the time of their entry into Persia, until their retreat is complete. Xenophon understands that other professionals will be interested in this as much as in anything else that he relates. It is likely that Alexander read these logistical details with great attention. For instance, if you re-read the Anabasis from the perspective of a logistician, you will find that it serves as a nearly complete narrative of the logistics of the Persian expedition. In most instances, you are far more certain of how the Greeks remained in supply than of what happened to them in battle. If you compare it to other histories you have read, you may well find that there is, well, no comparison.

“Amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics.” – US Army dictum

Logistic considerations are a principal determinant of the route Cyrus chooses for his army as he advances into Persia to engage his brother’s army.  While he hopes to delay the detection of his advance until his army is in Babylon, his choices are limited to those that can keep his army in supply.  Logistics also constrains the route of retreat selected by the Greeks under Xenophon. What constitutes a suitable route for egress? The land must be rich enough to provide for the Greeks; whether they purchase their supplies at market or loot the land as its inhabitants flee before them.  It must be passable to the wagons and animals of the baggage train that accompany the Greek army.  As the Greeks seek to avoid war with every Satrapy they traverse, they negotiate the purchase of supplies at market, or limit their looting to their minimum needs.  Others with more specialized expertise might have more to say about this, but to this reader this policy seems like a prescient and radical departure from the custom of war for most of the past three thousand years.  For most of history, advancing armies stripped the land of food, fodder, and loot; to the occupants, the only thing that distinguished ‘friendly’ forces from their foes was the uniform of the troops wreaking destruction.  It is likely that their reputation preceded the Greeks, and that several of the Satraps conducted only token operations against the Greeks as they passed through; enough to fulfill their obligation to their king, not so much that they got a large number of their soldiers killed.  Similarly, Xenophon understood that the Greek army could not endure pitched battles with the army of every Satrapy they crossed; avoiding battle whenever possible was synonymous with avoiding destruction.  Ironically, it also seems inevitable that the Greeks paid for their supplies with the loot from Satraps that had chosen to oppose their retreat.  If all of the Satrapies had opened their markets to the Greeks, they would have run out of money long before they got back to Greek territory.

As long as there have been armies, there have been camp followers. Camp followers enable infantry to deploy with the maximum combination of fighting power and mobility. Camp followers enable infantry to patrol and to fight, and an army to move with more speed and safety that it would otherwise.  Soldiers marching into battle will carry whatever equipment they believe will increase their chances of surviving and prevailing, and as little of everything else that they can.  Given a choice between carrying the bedding, the squads cooking utensils, or their tent, and increased mobility, infantry have always chosen in favor of more mobility.  At times in history, some armies have used their own soldiers to operate and guard their camps, but this has been the exception, not the rule.  Why leave perfectly good infantry behind to run and guard the camp, when you could use them to bolster your ranks? Thus, in history, most camps have been run by camp followers, who, by virtue of their physical ability, age, ethnicity, lack of skill-at-arms and training, or gender, were less useful or completely useless for combat.

At one point, Xenophon exhorts his army to abandon everything that might slow their movement, an ancient version of modern attempts to reduce the tooth-to-tail ratio.  No success.  The Anabasis makes the vital role of camp followers clear: in spite of a potentially existential benefit to leaving them behind, the Greek army finds itself unable to continue reduce the tail by much. Modern economists would be completely unsurprised that an ancient army would benefit from this kind of specialization, matching expertise with role in a larger organization; but at the time, it was likely difficult to understand or articulate, at least until after you had worked through it and figured out how poorly it would work out. History is replete with account of battles in which troops break away from their battlefield deployments when their baggage train or encampment is threatened by enemy forces.  Amateurs attribute this concern to base greed on the part of the masses of troops; professionals understand that an army that has lost its baggage train has lost a substantial amount of its power.  The fate of an army that has lost its camp followers is not much different than the fate of camp followers who have last their army.  Xenophon understood this, and throughout the retreat deploys his army in such a way to not only insure the safety of his baggage train, but also make certain that all of the troops of his army understand this as well.  At points, his deployments and evolutions risk his army to protect his baggage train.

Xenophon’s narrative emphasizes logistics, the mark of a true professional.  Xenophon understood that logistics considerations shape military operations. He also understood that the lower the price he paid in blood to fulfill his logistic requirements, the greater the chances were that he would see Greece again.  He understood the critical role that his camp followers played in producing the military power that he was controlling.  Aristotle tutored Alexander, and many experts believe that Alexander studied Xenophon’s work with professional interest.  Alexander’s subsequent campaign in Persia was either shaped by the same forces that Xenophon describes, or by the narrative that he read.

23 thoughts on “Xenophon Roundtable: Xenophon was a Professional”

  1. “At one point, Xenophon exhorts his army to abandon everything that might slow their movement, an ancient version of modern attempts to reduce the tooth-to-tail ratio”

    Given the prevalence of females among camp followers, this is an apt metaphor. It also explains the difficulty Xenophon had in persuading hoplites to abandon their favorites. Every soldier’s self-interest was maximized if all his comrades abandoned their paramours but he kept his own.

  2. Nice start to the roundtable. Hope the other articles are as enlightening.

    One nitpick: Xenophon probably wanted to *increase*, not *reduce* his tooth-to-tail ratio by cutting the tail…

  3. One more mystery at the heart of the Anabasis. How did Xenophon, who had military experience, but no experience of senior command, become an “instant professional” who was able to understand the logistical dimension of the march out of Mesopotamia? We do not see a reference to him drawing on the expertise of his experienced subordinates, but there must have been some of that.

  4. I’ve always loved Xenophon’s book because it is the oldest work I know of in which the writer comes across as someone I would understand because Xenophon seems to approach the world in the same way I would: rationally. Xenophon constantly talks about the problems he and his fellow Greeks face and then talks about how they solved them, not via appeals to “spirits” or to some mystical force, but as humans in the world. Those of us who grew up in the European tradition are the intellectual descendants of Xenophon and the Greeks of his era. For me, at least, his story is vivid and completely understandable. I find it sad how few other people these days can be bothered to read the Anabasis. It used to be considered a classic at the same level as “Oedipus Rex” or Plato’s dialogs. No longer.

  5. “…not via appeals to “spirits” or to some mystical force, but as humans in the world.”


    Xenophon is constantly making sacrifices to the Gods, he delays action or does not initiate action, sometimes causing himself trouble as a result, based on what the animal sacrifices show. He interprets a sneeze as a message from Zeus. He consulted the oracle before he went on the expedition. The book is saturated with this stuff.

    You are not remembering the book as it actually is.

  6. Ahsan, thanks. Of course, the extent to which Xenophon believed in his sacrifices, or merely went through the motions out of prudence, is one of many interesting questions that cannot be finally and completely answered — though you can make a case for either side based on the text. My sense is that he believed in the Gods as something to be placated and respected and that it was prudent to do what it was customary to do, to be on the safe side. Not a very novel or insightful view, but it seems to cover the facts. Others may differ. In fact, I hope others will differ, and explain why.

  7. From Paul Cartledge, The Spartans, p. 176

    “Again, when Xenophon described the Spartans as ‘craftsmen of war’ he was referring specifically to military manifestations of their religious zeal, such as animal sacrifices performed on crossing a river frontier or even the battlefield as battle was about to be joined. The Spartans were particularly keen on such military divination. If the signs (of a acrificed animal’s entrails) were not ‘right’, then even an imperatively necessary military action might be delayed, aborted or avoided altogether”

    Xenophon may personally have been pious or not, but as most of the soldiers were Peloponnesian, they would have been accustomed to following Spartan military leadership that was scrupulous on fine points of military religious ceremonials. Taking the opposite tack, as an Athenian, might have created friction among the rank and file for Xenophon that he could ill afford as a leader.

  8. Xenophon was not a professional in the modern sense. Rather, he was an educated, upper-class Athenian who lived in a time of constant warfare. Like all young Athenian free men, part of his education was in military affairs. He simply chose to pursue a military life above and beyond that which was necessary for a man of his station. He did this in pursuit of personal honor and excellence, which Xenophon argued (in the “Hiero”, for example, 7:1-3) were the highest of human qualities.

    The Ten Thousand was a force of mercenaries, and as such they would have been acutely aware of the maxim that an army marches on its stomach. To that end, there is nothing remarkable about the fact that Xenophon did what any marginally competent soldier of the time would have done: kept the army fed. He could not have done otherwise.

    The more remarkable things about the Ten Thousand were their self-imposed discipline (in part, the product of an explicit oath devised by Xenophon) and their tactical flexibility, which flies in the face of the Hansonian model of Greek soldiers as bronze-clad morons.

  9. “He could not have done otherwise.”

    Yes he could have: He could have failed, in any number of ways, to successfully keep his army fed.

    He succeeded at the logistical task. It is not obvious at all that “any” commander would have or could have done the same, particularly where he did not have the power, the taxing authority, the stored grain or the other advantages of a state.

    Plus, of course, the title of the post of course does not mean “professional” in the modern sense, but only in the sense of the axiom that professionals talk about logistics and amateurs talk about strategy, which the post made clear.

  10. “….“professional” in the modern sense, …”

    I suppose he was what we’d call a “pro”. He joined a mercenary group and I think we can assume he’d fight and share in the booty. As mentioned in above comment, he was well schooled in warcraft. Professional soldier, I’d say.

  11. First, a response to Lexington Green: Xenophon could not have failed to feed the army, as so pressing were the logistical limitations of the day that the very conduct of war itself was subordinate to the rhythms of the agricultural calendar. A Greek commander would have no more lost sight of the need for food supplies than a NASCAR driver would forget to re-fuel during a race. Ironically, probably the most outstanding example of an ancient army starving to death of its own accord (as opposed to enemy action) was Alexander’s advance through Gedrosia in 325 BC.

    Second, to Tyouth: While I do not subscribe to Huntingdon’s rather modern notion of professionalism, the mere fact that someone joined a military outfit does not make them a professional soldier. A profession implies a vocation underscored by formal education and a self-awareness of a collective, professional status among its practitioners. In contrast to Huntingdon, I have no problem if that educational structure is embedded within the social order (such as in medieval Europe or Japan). However, I’m not sure that Xenophon falls into that category. He was a wealthy and educated Athenian, anxious to demonstrate both honor (“time”) and excellence (“arete”). In his own words (III.1.4-6), he states that he joined the Ten Thousand because, “Proxenus, an old friend of his” offered to introduce Xenophon to Cyrus.

    Of course, Xenophon did spend many years soldiering after the Anabasis, and he was a prolific military writer. He also understood the great value of trained soldiers (see, for example, the comic drill scene in “The Education of Cyrus” II.2.6-9) and of trained officers (as in “The Spartan Constitution”). So, while it may seem like splitting hairs to reject Xenophon as a true professional, we must so that the significance of later military history, such as the “military revolution” of early modern Europe, can be fully understood in context.

  12. You must know the book. Yet you still miss the point. Xenophon had to march the army from a starting point he did not choose, starting in civilized but hostile territory, across unknown (to him) barbaric and backward hostile territory. None of the points you raise are relevant. He had to lead an escape by his army under these conditions with none of the advantages of his enemies, or even of his predecessor in command, Cyrus. He managed to keep them fed under these circumstances. That is an achievement.

  13. Professionalism is a relative term. In archaic Greek societies, nobles served as the military professionals. If their tactical prowess consisted of little more than lining up a mob of liquored-up peasants armed with pointy sticks, that’s what will pass for military professionalism until something better comes up.

    Chances are that many of the commanders of the Ten Thousand were like Xenophon and Proxenus, upper class or even noblity. What was the primary educational focus of the noble classes at that time and in many societies up to the First World War?


    Since he grew up among men of the upper classes, the vast majority of which were veterans of the ongoing Peloponnesian War, Xenophon probably gathered a great deal of practical information about war from conversing with his elders. War was undoubtedly as important a part of education as learning philosophy. Socrates himself was a distinguished veteran of battles like Delium and may have provided practical military instruction to his pupils that the more otherworldly Plato left out of his dialogues. Whatever military education Xenophon received was probably just as much education as any upper class Greek outside of Sparta received.

  14. ” If their tactical prowess consisted of little more than lining up a mob of liquored-up peasants armed with pointy sticks, that’s what will pass for military professionalism until something better comes up. “

    The peasant with pointy stick theory was also a good barometer for social revolution for most of history as well.

  15. Military history is hard for many reasons. The victors often author a narrative that serves their political purposes, and casts their actions in the best possible light. Histories of controversial wars, for example Vietnam, are suffused with the political bias of the authors. Early, plausible explanations and narratives have the habit of solidifying and becoming the basis for most of the subsequent histories. Revisionist history is all the rage for a variety of political reasons, but revisions of the ‘givens’ of some narratives are absolutely necessary to deeper understanding of some historical events. But perhaps the most difficult problem of military history is the problem of hindsight bias. Knowledge of the outcome is insidious. It can prevent both the writer and the reader from understanding how incomplete the information is that battlefield commanders must use to make decisions. The outcome also removes all uncertainty about the consequences of decisions. Fantasy counter-factual reasoning is essential to learning as much as can be learned from any event, but to reap the most learning, the student has to have a reasonable sense of how incomplete the information was, and how uncertain battlefield commanders are of the consequences of their actions.

    Lexington Green points out how badly Alexander blew this at one point in time. Armies that are struggling with logistics slow down to a far greater degree than they implode or dissolve. As provisions become scarce, desertion increases.

    The exercise here is simple one. Imagine that we have teleported you to Armenia. You don’t speak the language. It’s winter. No maps. Firelight only after dark. Almost all of your intel comes from locals of uncertain loyalty, most of whom have never traveled more than 18 kilometers from where they were born. Most roads are closer to what we would call trails. Estimates of distances, direction, and the size of villages and towns are frequently wildly inaccurate. You have to lead 10,000 souls through the mountains, paying sufficient attention to force security that the locals don’t pick you apart. There is no doubt that you will lose casualties to the cold, desertion, and even starvation; the only question is: how many? Absent enemy action, the survival or your army as a coherent force is very much in doubt, and emerging from the mountains relatively intact is highly unlikely. Put on your sandals, hump your pack up and down the mountains as long as the light lasts, and lay down wherever you happen to be when the sun sets. This is the circumstance that Xenophon describes in Armenia. Think Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, but 2000 years earlier and through the mountains, without maps or roads. Troops that have marched across Asia minor are sitting down to die. This is an army that came quite close to starving to death or dissolving, but did not. Food and firewood are life. Xenophon succeeded in finding enough of both to preserve his army.

    Competence at logistics is difficult, which is why professionals obsess about it. Even supposedly competent militaries struggle to maintain their competence, especially peacetime militaries. The US does this better than anyone else, ever. For example, the Brits discovered significant logistic deficiencies in the Falklands, the Gulf War, and the Invasion of Iraq in 2003. In each instance, they lacked the ability to supply the force they wanted to field.

  16. On Professionalism: No doubt, it’s a moving target, and definitions must vary with the time and place. Just watch an early modernist go up against someone who does modern European history, and you’ll know how ugly the debate can get.

    On Logistics: Xenophon was not dropped onto the dark side of the moon. Instead, he was dropped into one of the richest, fertile and most populous empires on the planet. The Greeks had settled large swathes of the Persian empire, and the Euxine grain trade was integral to the Greek economy. As Athens dominated the Euxine trade, so as an Athenian Xenophon would not have been totally ignorant of the logistical possibilities. Likewise, trade flows within the empire provided the necessary resources for a (relatively) small body of soldiers to feed themselves. A combination of pillage (richer along the trade routes) and market purchases fed the army (for example, VI.1.1)

    Just take a gander at Xenophon’s route. From Cunaxa, he moves north along the Tigris (a major artery of trade). Xenophon left the Tigris approximately 100 miles south of Trapezus, a major terminus for the Euxine grain trade. He then followed the caravan routes north, along the banks of the Arsissa (Lake Van), keeping to the various tributaries of the Tigris and Euphrates. Nor was Armenia some barren waste; on the contrary, Xenophon describes it as “the large and prosperous province of which Orontas was ruler”. (III.5.17)

    The only really barren and dangerous area along the march was the land of the Carduchians. The wealth of the Carduchians was less from agriculture or manufacturing, and more from the tribute they extorted from the the satraps(III.5.16). Accordingly, in order to secure provisions in this region the Greeks had to seize Carduchian villages where the purchased and/or extorted foodstuffs were stored (see, for example, IV.3.1-2 and IV.4.14-15). After passing through the mountains held by the Carduchians, Xenophon was back in fertile country, and soon reached the rich shores of the Black Sea. Of course, he did have to sack a few strongholds along the way in order to provide plunder and supplement rations (V.4.26-28).

    In an age before regular supply services, when all but the greatest armies had to plunder or purchase their provisions locally, why should we celebrate Xenophon for remembering to plunder and purchase provisions locally? (“Dog Bites Man!”) Especially when he was leading an army of experienced soldiers (used to the practice) through one of the richest empires on earth? It betrays our presentist mindset to do so. Virtually every ancient army, and every ancient soldier, knew that the procurement of local foodstuffs was the central fact of warfare. Every other consideration was secondary.

    That said, I do not wish in any way to denigrate Xenophon’s achievement. After all, as the Spanish general the Marquis of La Hinjosa trenchantly observed to a friend in 1615, “Feeding eight thousand men for two months is no joke.” I just think that the historical value of Xenophon’s logistical achievements is not to be understood in modern “tooth to tail” ratios, but in the manner in which it was woven into the very fabric of ancient warfare. It’s no accident that “Warfare and Agriculture in Ancient Greece” is the most academically respectable book by the Victor Davis Hanson.

  17. A profession implies a vocation underscored by formal education and a self-awareness of a collective, professional status among its practitioners.

    Leifmeister, I (and others commentors above, I believe) take issue with the “formal education” required in your definition of a “professional”. Practice, innate ability, and especially competence in practice are more central to the requirements of the definition. One might say “generally, professionals receive a formal education” but it’s hardly a disqualifier if they have not.

  18. It’s interesting though to see what pains Xenophon does go to to tell us that he’s not a leader, captain, or soldier. This seems an obfuscation.

    It goes beyond the readers’ credulity to take him at his implied word that (in the situation that he consciously placed himself in) he would not be prepared and not take up arms with his associates and friends, when the time came. Perhaps he means he is not in essence a soldier, but please, he’s a soldier.

  19. Well, he had military experience, but he was not there in the capacity of a soldier. Further, he is probably telling the plain truth when he says he has not been an officer or a commander before.

  20. “but he was not there in the capacity of a soldier. ”

    Lex, it may not be worth arguing about except for X’s rather adamant description of himself.

    Are we to suppose that X bonded with his friend Proxenus, the other Greeks, and Cyrus; and entertained this dangerous undertaking without a sword at his side and and his armor in his kit? Being a “comrade in arms” (rather than a soldier) is a distinction without a difference.

    Something else is going on here. Perhaps he’s writing for the record, couching his terms to persuade an (Athenian?) audience that he was more an innocent; that circumstance compelled him to act in certain ways that he hadn’t earlier intended. “Ways” of a soldier of fortune, “ways” of an irregular member of Cyrus’ or Proxenus’ staffs?

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