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.