Xenophon’s Ascent

The title of the book under consideration is, in English translation, The Anabasis of Cyrus. The title has two key words, a noun “anabasis” and a proper name “Cyrus”.

The identity of Cyrus is unambiguous. We know Cyrus was the younger brother of the King of Persia (really an emperor of many kingdoms). Cyrus was the satrap of Lydia and Phrygia, but he aspired to seize the throne of his brother the King for himself. Cyrus raised an army, led it against the King, and died in battle at Cunaxa, in 401 BC.

The other key word in the title is “Anabasis”, which is transliterated, but not translated, from the Greek. The translator tells us this about the word:

This noun has the root meaning of “a going up,” and it is used to indicate such ordinary ascents as the mounting of a horse or a way of going up a hill. In the sense of a march upcountry, it is used first by Xenophon, only in this work, and only in [certain passages] … It is used three times in Plato’s Republic to indicate the ascent from the cave. The related verb anabaino is used of an “ascent” from the coast to the interior by Herodotus … and by Plato … as well as by Xenophon. I generally translated the verb as “to ascend” and its opposite as “to descend”.

Book I contains the tale of the assembly of the army, and its “march upcountry”, from coastal Ionia, where the Greek mercenary portion of the host came ashore into Asia, and its march into the interior, upcountry from Sardis, Cyrus’s capital, until the two armies meet at the battle of Cunaxa. At the battle, the Persian King’s army in part was defeated, on the section of the battlefield where it faced the Greek mercenaries. The Greek mercenaries “won” their part of the battle of Cunaxa. But elsewhere on the battlefield, due in part to the rashness of Cyrus, and his resulting death, the King’s army defeated the rest of Cyrus’s army. At that point, the Greeks, despite tactical success, were marooned in the middle of a hostile country.

Thus we are faced with a bit of a puzzle from the outset.

The Anabasis of Cyrus is composed of seven “books”. Yet, the literal “anabasis of Cyrus” ends at the end of Book I. His anabasis was terminated abruptly by his death at Cunaxa.

If that is so, what about the rest of the book? It can’t be about Cyrus, or his anabasis, since he is dead. But it can still be about some other anabasis, or someone else’s anabasis, an ascent for some or all of the Greek survivors.

Book II consists of the period of hostile truce between the Greek army and the Persians. The Persians demand that the Greeks lay down their weapons, but the Greek wisely refuse, and encamp near the Persians, in a show of strength.

(As an aside, I wonder if the refusal of a Greek army, composed mostly of Peloponnesians (Spartans) to hand over their arms to a Persian King, even in the face of apparently hopeless odds, would have been understood by Xenophon’s readers as an echo of the Spartan response of “come and take them” to a similar demand before the battle of Thermopylae.)

Book II It ends with the treacherous murder of the Greek commanders who were parleying with the Persians, supposedly under a truce.

At the beginning of the Book III the author tells us that when word reached the Greek troops that their commanders had been killed they were dispirited, and believed that they would never escape. They thought about their homes and families, whom they thought they would never see again. At this point, Xenophon, the author, introduces Xenophon, the character in the history, his own younger self: “In the army there was a certain Xenophon, an Athenian, who followed along even though he was neither a general nor a captain nor a soldier … .” This is an important point. Xenophon will prove to have the competence of a military professional, but he is not one at the time he assumes command. He “followed along” — he was a non-combatant camp-follower.

Xenophon tells us in a flashback that he had decided to march with army at the suggestion of a friend, and in defiance of the advice of Socrates. He had met up with the army at Sardis, “when they were about to set out on their upward journey” – I presume the word here in Greek is anabasis. He also tells us that he had been misled, and that he and many others would not have marched against the King if they had know that was Cyrus’ plan, but “the majority nonetheless followed along out of shame both before each other and before Cyrus. Xenophon too was one of these.” So, he is not only a follower, but an unwilling and shame-faced follower.

Xenophon then flashes forward and tells us that he has a dream, which he finds ambiguous. Lacking clear guidance from a supernatural source, he examines himself, asking “why am I lying here”? And he realizes that if someone does not take command he and the rest of the army will die. “After this, Xenophon stood up … .” I looked at the Greek text, and Xenophon “standing up” does not seem to be the same word as anabaino, so it is not a direct cognate of anabasis. Nonetheless, at the beginning of Book III, after the end of the ascent of Cyrus in Book I, and a period of stasis while the two armies are having a sort of Mexican standoff (Mesopotamian standoff?) in Book II, an anabasis-within-the-Anabasis begins.

Having stood up, Xenophon makes a speech to the a group of officers, and convinces them that they need to march out without any further negotiations. He then makes a different speech to the assembled, surviving, officers of the army. Xenophon succeeds in being acclaimed the commander of the army. In chapter 2 of Book III, he speaks to the entire army and begins to exercise command. This has been a steep ascent indeed, from non-combatant and non-soldier to commander of the army, in a single bound. But assuming command and exercising it are two different things.

At the beginning of Book III, the army is on the plains of Mesopotamia, level ground, flatland; and Xenophon is literally lying on the ground, asleep. Both of Xenophon and the army begin an ascent. Xenophon begins an ascent to the leadership of the army and the exercise of command. The army begins an ascent into the hilly country to the north. The rest of Books III and IV recount the adventures of the army on its march, fighting both the elements and the terrain, as well as the people whose land they are invading and passing through. This is in many ways the heart of the book, and contains much of the action and excitement – but perhaps perversely, I will leave that aside for now.

During this period, the army and its officers are united by a common danger and a common purpose. They fight with skill and energy and cleverness, and Xenophon shows remarkable ability as well as insight into the necessity of leading by example. Clausewitz tells us that a seasoned army composed of soldiers that have been in battle together and know each other and trust their officers has a uniquely formidable power. The army Xenophon commanded was forged into such an army on its march northward.

The end of Book IV is the famous passage where the army, having come through terrible hardship and danger, reaches a mountain, and from the mountain, they can see the waters of the Black Sea. The first soldiers to reach the mountain raise a shout. Xenophon is near the rear of the marching column, and at first thinks they are under attack. But they are shouting “The sea! The sea!” The author tells us: “When all arrived at the summit, here, of course, they began to embrace one another, both generals and captains as well, with tears flowing.” The Greeks make offerings, raise a cairn (which, remarkably, is still there!) and they have athletic games.

It may perhaps be unclear to the reader why merely sighting the sea elicits such enthusiasm. The Greeks in that day and age ruled the seas. Wherever there was salt water, there would be ships, and the ships would be manned by Greeks. So, to the army, the sight of the sea means they will soon be in touch with their countrymen and fellow Greeks. Whatever hazards that may present, they are of a different order from being surrounded in a hostile barbarian land.

So, the ascent, the anabasis, of the army has culminated when it “arrived at the summit”. The army had ascended not just topographically, but morally and professionally. Despite exhaustion and hunger and losses of men, the fighting power of the army, its character as an army, had peaked. Until that point the vision of reaching safety and reaching home had provided a shared goal. The unity and cohesion and moral strength of the army had also peaked, with the mutual embraces of comradeship. For all the material hardships they endured, the march up and out of Mesopotamia, the anabasis from Cunaxa to the summit of Mount Eches, were the days of glory for the army.

The anabasis of the army had ended on the mountain summit. Its route thereafter would be downhill, topographically, and morally, and in terms of unity and a shared vision.

But we have three books to go. Is half the book an ascent, the second half a descent? Yes, in part. But the whole book is called the anabasis, the ascent. It is not called the ascent and descent. But is there any further ascent? That is more ambiguous, but I have some ideas.

(I have about a week to get them typed up.)

5 thoughts on “Xenophon’s Ascent”

  1. “Xenophon begins an ascent to the leadership of the army and the exercise of command.”

    Nice characterization.

    Thirty was considered no great age for military experience by the Greeks, by which they probably meant in terms of “military command” since fighting as a common hoplite in a phalanx would not have left ample room for individual discretion on the battlefield. That is most likely what composed the majority of Xenophon’s military service up until that point.

    Yet, “wise beyond years” comes to mind. What was the tutelage of Socrates but training in adaptive thinking? To rise so high, Xenophon must have had effected a remarkable reserve of self-possession in the eyes of his peers.

  2. I intend to speculate about the influence of Socrates.

    Also, recall Clausewitz said that great commanders often do not have military experience. I hope to revisit that discussion, too, with Xenophon as the case study. God willing, I will have post entitled “Xenophon Through the Lens of Clausewitz”.

  3. “ascent” means, or strongly infers, “rising up” and that, juxtaposed, is “up-rising”. Xenophon may have some more subtle point in mind but I think Occam’s razor may be applied here with some validity with respect to the title.

    After Cyrus’s troops were co-opted into the larger Persian force the only remnant of the “uprising” were the 10,000. Following the Greek force up to its dissolution can be seen, especially from the Greek point of view, as the final act of the ill-fated power grab.

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