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  • Xenophon Roundtable: The Shadow of Herodotus

    Posted by Joseph Fouche on September 17th, 2009 (All posts by )

    Cunaxa is an interesting counter-point to the three traditional pillars of Herodotus’s Histories, Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea. While those three confrontations took place in or near Attica, the cradle of democracy, Cunaxa happens in Mesopotamia, the cradle of despotism. Herodotus skillfully built a narrative of the clash of East and West, Freedom and Slavery, Democracy and Despotism out of the Persian attempts to conquer an obscure people on the fringes of the Known World. His account looms over those of his successors, even the works of the prickly Thucydides, who considered himself superior in every respect to the world traveling gossip from Halicarnassus.

    Xenophon was no exception. The Anabasis almost reads like a strange mirror version of the Histories. Instead of the Ascent of Darius, Xerxes, or Mardonius into the heart of Hellas, it’s the descent of the Greeks into the heart of Achaemenid power. The squabbling Greeks, under the less than inspired figures of Clearchus, Proxenus, and Menon, appear rather shabby compared to the heroic generation of Miltiades, Themistocles, and Pausanias. Cyrus in his foolish death and disfigured body and Artaxerxes II in his pettiness and undignified scramble to keep his throne fall far short of the power and majesty of Darius and Xerxes, so exalted that Herodotus portrayed them as living embodiments of hubris, pride that not only rivaled but threatened that of the gods themselves.

    Herodotus portrays the mighty Xerxes, in the full flower of his pride, flogging the Hellespont as punishment for destroying his first pontoon bridge from Asia into Europe. Artaxerxes II, on the other hand, barely escapes with his life and throne, blusters at the Ten Thousand, flees cravenly when the Ten Thousand post him up, and proceeds to engage in all sorts of gutter intrigue. With great insight, Xenophon convinces the leaderless Greeks that the Great King would never negotiate with them in good faith. Artaxerxes II knew he looked pathetic. If I were Artaxerxes II, I wouldn’t want my vulnerabilities broadcast to all the world either, especially when I’d been shown up by a bunch of country bumpkins from Arcadia, the armpit of Greece. I would kill every last man, woman, child, beast of burden, or slave of the Ten Thousand. Being routed is one depth of humiliation. Being routed by rednecks, however, is a depth of humiliation that Persians hadn’t faced since the Spartans reacted to a demand for earth and water by throwing the Great King’s emissaries down a well into the bowels of Mother Earth.

    Xenophon continues Herodotus’s amateur anthropology by observing the Oriental Other. However Xenophon lacks the cosmic depths of Herodotus’s cosmopolitanism. Xenophon goes up country a Greek and comes down it a Greek. The locals are primarily defined by their non-Greekness, suffering from the irreversible disease of original high barbarity. Bar bar they all say. Bar we are shifty. Bar we are treacherous. Bar we betray even the gods with our lies. Bar we are unable to rule ourselves. Bar we are slaves. Bar we are sheep. Bar we are strange. Some of the Oriental world is familiar, a terrain populated by agrarian villages bursting with provisions and ripe for plunder. Some of it lies behind an iron cage that Xenophon, trapped in his Greekness, is barred from opening.

    Everything Xenophon does is in deadly earnest. While this is largely because Xenophon’s fate and the fate of the Ten Thousand were delicately balanced on the edge of a knife blade, Xenophon doesn’t strike me as a bon vivant in any of his other works. In contrast, Herodotus is a damned hippie, cheerfully imbibing and inhaling whatever the locals would offer. Herodotus is Mr. Fun, painting the world in bright fun Deluxe Crayola colors, a literary Expressionist for all time. Xenophon is more like Thucydides, a gloomy and bitter exile justifying the vagaries of his career by pouring out apologia galore. Like Seurat, he paints the world as a summation of pinpricks, with himself cast as the most prominent prick.

    I’m more sympathetic with Herodotus, who toiled away making his living through readings before a democratic mob, than with Xenophon, who spent much of his career as a literary Vyshinsky for the totalitarian Spartans. But with his descent into Mesopotamia, the birthplace of autocracy, Xenophon demonstrates that there are differing degrees of tyranny and even the citizens of Sparta had not fallen to the depths of the Great King’s slaves, driven into battle and corvee with whips. Of course tyranny, like influenza, is catching and the Ten Thousand may have brought the virus back with them from Mesopotamia, setting the scene for the passing of vigorous Greek liberty at Chaeronea a mere 63 years later. It is not without a touch of truth that the great historian Arrian’s history of the first flowering of Oriental despotism in the free soil of Greece is called the Anabasis of Alexander.

     

    8 Responses to “Xenophon Roundtable: The Shadow of Herodotus”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      JF, bravo.

      Xenophon, unlike Herodotus, was not a tourist. So, he did not devote any time to getting to know the locals. All he cared about was getting food and fodder from them. Still, as an aristocrat from Athens, it probably would not have occurred to him to try to groove with the locals, anyway. He shows us his picture of an idyllic life, which he actually lived for a while: A Greek aristocrat, hunting and living in the country, with no pesky barbarians or even urban yahoos around. It reminds me of Arthur Wellesly, later the Duke of Wellington, going to India with his brother to extract a fortune from the place, solely to fund an elite existence at home. The Indians were not interesting in themselves, but were simply militarily weak people who had wealth that could be taken and put to better use at home.

      This insensitivity derived not only from his aristocratic character, but was also due both to necessity and to military focus. It reminds me of the episode where the elder von Moltke was on a staff ride with his officers. The sun was setting over the river Pregel, near Konigsberg, in a particularly beautiful natural display. One of the men with him pointed it out, and von Moltke, deadpan, responded, “the river presents an inconsiderable military obstacle”. Not for Moltke the romantic appreciation of nature. Rivers are for water for troops and horses, to be forded or bridged on the offensive, or to be used as barriers on the defense. There was not any “the river is pretty” button in his head. Xenophon and Moltke would have seen eye to eye.

      “… there are differing degrees of tyranny and even the citizens of Sparta had not fallen to the depths of the Great King’s slaves, driven into battle and corvee with whips.” Yes. Greece was a land of freedom — for the minority of free people in any city. Even Sparta was a land of freedom — for its adult male citizens. And armies composed of Greeks had to be persuaded and led, not flailed into battle. This was a small increment of freedom, by our standards. But it is a lot better than nothing. And it seems that it did add to the power and effectiveness of the armies composed of that type of soldier.

    2. Leifmeister Says:

      “I’m more sympathetic with Herodotus, who toiled away making his living through readings before a democratic mob, than with Xenophon, who spent much of his career as a literary Vyshinsky for the totalitarian Spartans. But with his descent into Mesopotamia, the birthplace of autocracy, Xenophon demonstrates that there are differing degrees of tyranny and even the citizens of Sparta had not fallen to the depths of the Great King’s slaves, driven into battle and corvee with whips. Of course tyranny, like influenza, is catching and the Ten Thousand may have brought the virus back with them from Mesopotamia, setting the scene for the passing of vigorous Greek liberty at Chaeronea a mere 63 years later. It is not without a touch of truth that the great historian Arrian’s history of the first flowering of Oriental despotism in the free soil of Greece is called the Anabasis of Alexander.”

      A few thoughts:

      1). The Spartans were by no conceivable definition totalitarian, or even really authoritarian. Moreover, it was they, and not the Athenians, who were most admired in Greece by the Greeks (in Plato’s “Meno”, Socrates calls the Spartans the wisest of the Greeks).

      2). Tyranny was rife in Greece before, during and after the Classical period. For example, part of the reason that the Athenians fight at Marathon is that a former tyrant of Athens, Hippias (of the Pisistratids), accompanied the Persian force in anticipation of his reinstatement. Nor were the Pisistratids unpopular. Indeed, Miltiades urged Callimachus to an immediate attack at Marathon precisely because he feared that adherents of the former tyrant would induce the city to submit. (Persian Wars, VI.109) Who had first driven Hippias the tyrant from Athens and restored the city’s freedom? The Spartans.

      3). Many Greek states, notably Thebes, actively courted Persia as a friend and ally. What happened to Themistocles, the great Athenian statesman and general? He emigrated to Persia, where he ended his days as the satrap of Magnesia. Which of Xerxes’ advisors urged him to avoid a frontal attack at Thermopylae? Demaratus the Spartan. Large numbers of Greeks also served in the Persian fleet and army. Both Sparta and Athens actively sought Persian support against each other in the Peloponnesian War.

      4). The notion that the Persian army fought only under the lash is just plain silly. No state of the period had the coercive apparatus necessary for such a feat.

      5). Tyranny is not Oriental, nor is it an influenza. Sadly, it is all too human.

    3. officeronin Says:

      Xenophon’s deadly seriousness, his excessive apologetics, his tendency to cast himself as a victim, and, most of all, his inability to get beyond his parochial worldview (“The locals are primarily defined by their non-Greekness, suffering from the irreversible disease of original high barbarity.”) remind me of reading Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”. When I read that text, I also had various collections of early speeches with which to compare his apologia, but I have not read any support materials for the study of Xenophon. In any case, these traits are hardly the sole province of military men!

      Xenophon’s writings were meant to resonate with his audience, and the “bar bar” may be more an indication of what the audience expected or wanted to hear than of Xenophon’s experience. In other words, I suspect that Xenophon tells us a great deal more about his Greek audience than he does the Oriental other. Ashamedly, I lack the time or immediate availability of scholarly materials to back up that suspicion. I’d like to ask if others have insight on the question, “Is Xenophon playing straight with his perceptions?”

    4. Mrs. Lex Says:

      “Is Xenophon playing straight with his perceptions?”

      The short answer has to be: No.

      The longer answer is to what extent and in what ways does he craft the narrative so that it conveys a message, rather than being a literal or complete recounting?

      The whole issue of Xenophon’s piety falls into this category, for example.

      In my post I tried to show that Xenophon was using literary devices to make his story have a structure, that would help convey one or more messages. What those messages are is a question for one or more further posts.

    5. Lexington Green Says:

      Ha. That was me. Logged in as Mrs. Lex and didn’t notice.

    6. Dr. Weevil Says:

      Since both have been mentioned on this thread, I can’t resist mentioning that Meno, Socrates’ interlocutor in Plato’s Meno, was apparently the same man as Menon, the co-leader of the mercenary expedition. (Meno is just the Latinized spelling of the Greek name Menon.) I don’t know what the evidence for identifying the two is, but I do know that (some? most? all? I’m too lazy to check) scholars have identified them.

    7. zenpundit Says:

      Excellent post – the use of Herodotus as a foil was a great theme.

      The Father of History (or Mr. Fun, the damned hippie) probably did not come with the same baggage as did Xenophon. The latter was from Athens, a thoroughly defeated former great power and ,oreover, like his mentor Socrates, Xenophon would not have been beloved by the leaders of Athens’ democrats who toppled the Thirty Tyrants. As a result, Xenophon’s own personal fortunes rested in part on the political light in which his actions appeared back home to Athenians and Spartans alike. That leaves less room for carefree ruminating on the exotic peculairities of barbarian customs.

    8. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      Like Seurat, he paints the world as a summation of pinpricks, with himself cast as the most prominent prick.

      Don’t know how true that is, but that is a brilliantly written line. I had to laugh out loud on reading that.