Xenophon Roundtable: The Army Reaches Level Ground

Xenophon’s account, written many years after the events recounted, is not a bare retelling of facts. We cannot know how much of the tale is embellished, and how much is literal. The general outlines are likely to be true. Precise details, such as the precise language of the speeches, must have been rendered, at best “more or less” as Xenophon recalled. So, we can read the book as a record of actual events, with some caveats for the passage of time and biases of the author.

However, it is also the case that there is a symbolic element in the book, in which Xenophon is using the narrative to illuminate some “big picture” issues. To do that, he uses some artistic devices, woven into the narrative. One of these, which I mentioned in my previous post is the mixing of the literal and metaphorical “ascent” and “descent” of the army, and of Xenophon himself.

This theme becomes more muted after the army reaches the summit of Mt. Eches, at the end of book 4. From that point, the army descends to level ground, and begins to decay as an army and as a quasi-political community. We see in the beginning of Book V, ch. 1, that the discipline and hardihood that carried the army to the sea begins to break down. The first thing they do is gather together to “deliberate about the rest of their journey”. As always with this army, the soldiers themselves must be consulted and agree to any major course of action. The soldiers resist the necessity of marching and carrying heavy loads. The first person to speak, says “I for my part, men, am by now tired of this packing up, walking, running, bearing heavy arms, marching in order, standing guard, and fighting. I now desire to cease from these labors, since we have the sea, to sail the rest of the way stretched out like Odysseus, and to arrive in Greece.” In other words, everything that makes this group of armed men an army, and makes them individually soldiers, is too onerous to keep on doing. In effect, this is a motion to the meeting to dissolve the army and turn it into a group of tourists. The army, like any democratic community presented with a seemingly easy, costless and pleasant course acclaims this proposal.

Of course, the selection of Odysseus as an example tells us how poor an idea this is – Odysseus’s warriors all died, and only he reached Ithaca. The apparent safety of “having the sea” is largely illusory, as the remaining three books show. Once there is any easing of the danger, the impulse of people who have struggled hard and reached any point where the risks or hardship or demands are reduced, is to slack off entirely. This is true of armies, democratic communities, and even of teams of people in the workplace.

Xenophon speaks to the army cleverly, in response. He spends most of his time talking about how they will move by sea, but ends by saying that while they should try to arrange for travel by sea, they must also make prudent provision for travel by land. Repairing the roads is, no doubt, hard, dirty work. This proposal is accepted, but it is greeted with more than grumbling.

You get the sense that Xenophon knew perfectly well that adequate shipping was not going to be available, and he talked about those measures first to placate the crowd. But Xenophon’s standing in the army is still high at this point, and the army accepts his proposal, including the unpopular but necessary preparations to march out by land. As it happens, the various measures to obtain shipping do indeed fail, and because the army is no longer moving, it begins to eat out all the sustenance to be obtained in the area. As a result, they need to go farther and farther afield, to plunder the locals for provisions.

The army, at the beginning of Book V had established contact with the Trapezuntians, who are Greek colonists on the coast of the Pontus – i.e. the Black Sea. This “contact” with a remote outpost of Greece, however, is not the end of the army’s problems. The Trapezuntians manage to turn the army against their local enemies, the Drilae. This shows that the needs of the army can only be satisfied in exchange for something of value, and the only thing the army has to trade is its fighting power.

In Chapter 2, the army fails, because it is foraging in disunited groups, fails to capture the town of the Drilae, and ends up being defeated badly, nearly disastrously. The army burns the town, and barely manages to steal some provisions. It is not an exemplary performance. Further the army only gets away by fleeing. After this battle, the army is “fearful of the descent to Trapezus, for it is steep and narrow”. Again, the descent symbolism is matched by a decline in the army’s professional and moral character.

In Chapter 3, some ships arrive, and “onto the ships were put the sick, those over forty years of age, children, women, and such of the baggage as necessity did not require them to keep with them. … The others began marching.” The army reachess the Greek city of Cerasus. If “Greece” is “home” for the army, it has now reached at least the outermost edge of “home”. At this point, having sent off everyone not a soldier, “there was a review under arms and a counting of the troops, and there were eight thousand six hundred. These had survived from about ten thousand.” The army also “divided the money that had arisen from the sale of the captives.” The generals also took a share as a tithe for Apollo and Artemis.

This episode ends the “march out” of Persia. Now the march would continue into and among Greeks, or at least Greek colonists. The march would occur on more or less level ground along the seacoast.

At this point, Xenophon gives us a “flash forward” to his life once he has settled down in Greece. It is a sort of idyllic life of a rural Greek gentleman. So, he seems to be telling us, whatever happens in the rest of the book, and whatever happens to the army, at least I, Xenophon, will make it “home” go Greece, with the wealth and esteem needed to enjoy being there. Xenophon ends Ch. 3 on this note. It is marks the end of one phase of the army’s life, the march in and out of Persia, and the return “home”. It marks the beginning of a new phase. Up to this point, it had been “a Greek army among barbarians”, and from this point it becomes, mostly, “a Greek army among Greeks” or “a Greek army employed by Greeks” or “a Greek army in search of a purpose or an employer”.

The new phase does not get off to an auspicious start. The first thing that happens in ch. 4 is the army suffers its first unambiguous defeat.

Xenophon shows himself to be a leader for all occasions, as usual. He makes a speech to the beaten army, and uses the defeat to teach the army some “lessons learned”. He tells them that those who were “heedless of staying in order with us” have paid the penalty and will be disinclined to do so again. In other words, disunity and ill-discipline have led to defeat, and everyone can see that. He also notes that it is important that the army be seen by its supposed friends as well as its enemies to be “better than they are” and that “they will not be fighting the same sort of men now as when they fought those that were in disorder”. In other words, the army must preserve its reputation, and this defeat must be seen – by the army itself and its enemies – as an exception. So, the army prepares itself, makes its offerings to the gods, and tries again. The enemy fights hard, but “the Greeks would not yield and kept advancing all together, the barbarians began to run away.” The army regains its unity, defeats the enemy completely, and captures and plunders their town. Xenophon has prevented the army from unraveling, and regained its reputation and self-respect, as well as necessary provisions.

Some of the lessons from this part of the book are pretty clear. First, any community is going to be more cohesive, united, brave, tough — if it is facing a serious threat – real or imagined or even one whipped up by politicians or others. Once the pressure is off, the desire of all the persons in the community to seek an easier path becomes very difficult to keep in check, even if ongoing dangers still exist. Keeping the army, or any group, together, under these circumstances, is harder, and requires a more subtle (and even dishonest) form of leadership than leadership in the face of unambiguous mortal danger. Second, no community (that is not annihilated) ever reaches a final “goal”. There is always a next deal of the cards. There is going to be some letdown when any real-world end-point is reached. Everything falls short of what is hoped for, and disappointment and disillusionment are the necessary corollaries of any success, let alone any failure. Keeping things going after this deflation requires leadership, and setting new goals, perhaps smaller, simpler ones, is necessary. Third, defeat which is not total and decisive, can lead to dissolution, if leadership is lacking, but it can also be used by a good commander / coach / boss / teacher as a way to energize and motivate a better performance in the next go-around.

Finally, for now, I will return to the ascent / descent metaphor. We see in the rest of the book that the army’s professional and moral descent will follow a jagged downward pattern in the remaining three Books. However, under the more ambiguous and in some ways more challenging conditions of command, where there is no desperate struggle to keep the army united, where the goals are less compelling and obvious, where material factors like getting paid, and who gets to command, come up repeatedly, Xenophon continues to succeed as a commander. His ascent in terms of skill and practical wisdom continues.

I hope to have two more posts – one on the rest of the book, and one on the theme of Xenophon through the lens of Clausewitz. We shall see how that plays out.

I will add here as a grumbling footnote, that Oscar Wilde was correct that youth is wasted on the young. Getting up at “0 Dark 30” to work on this before the kids get up, reading it haphazardly between various obligations, knowing that Xenophon deserves better from me, but being unable to give him what he merits – this all reminds that a college student who has the luxury to spend several uninterrupted hours in a quiet library with the sunlight streaming in (Winter afternoons in Harper Library come nostalgically to mind) has a priceless treasure that he will not appreciate until long after it is gone – and long after it has probably been squandered. But it is better to do our poor best, and spend as much time as we can with Xenophon and his army.

5 thoughts on “Xenophon Roundtable: The Army Reaches Level Ground”

  1. L/G

    You’ve penned Insightful post that has lessons in how democracy’s rise and fall, tucked amid the pages of this ancient tale.

    Here is a sketch of what I see. As long as a democracy has a challenge caused by friction and resistance to a threat, its leaders will be able to harness the energy and attention of the community to face the challenge or perish. When the challenge appears to go away, self-interest and a sense of entitlement begins to divert the attention of the group.

    We as a nation have traveled along a similar path. Our first two hundred years was strewn with outside challenges that threatened the community. When those challenges abated, (1815-1860) we turned on ourselves and internally began to squabble, ending in the Civil War, where we almost self-destructed, only to regroup and plunge ahead into the 20th century. In between each war we began to self-destruct as we turned our attention to isolation and self-indulgence. The Cold War, even with all its conflict provided the catalyst to keep the nation focused on a consensus of sticking together to confront the threat. Like it or not we harnessed our energy to build the strongest economic power and provide the highest standard of living in history.

    When the Cold War ended, we again find ourselves cast adrift fighting among ourselves over issues of greed, entitlement and self-loathing, played out between the classes. 9/11 gave us a taste of a threat, but the lack of further attacks, has left the country so unconcerned that the human loses in the current war amounts to pin-pricks on a bull. Today, we find ourselves in similar circumstances as the Ten Thousand, thinking ourselves safe from danger, we begin to believe we each know the right path and want our immediate share of the booty for our personal larders.

    As for getting up at “0 dark 30” to write, our friend S/P would say you have faced the old enemey “Resistance” and overcome its roadblock.


  2. I agree, a very insightful post.

    “In Chapter 2, the army fails, because it is foraging in disunited groups, fails to capture the town of the Drilae, and ends up being defeated badly, nearly disastrously. The army burns the town, and does manage to steal some provisions. It is not an exemplary performance. Further the army only gets away by fleeing. After this battle, the army is “fearful of the descent to Trapezus, for it is steep and narrow”. Again, the descent symbolism is matched by a decline in the army’s professional and moral character”

    You nailed it, in my opinion.

    The Ten Thousand had moral coherence from becoming a ” quasi-political community” based on their mutual “Greekness” and the external pressure of Persian hostility and the nearby armies of Tissaphernes and a vengeful Great King. When that external threat was removed, as you argued, not only did their internal cohesion begin to unravel but their strategic clarity along with it.

    Mutual Greekness was not quite enough once the environment was familiar and superficially “safe” rather than barbaric and dangerous.

    A lesson in human nature moreso than ancient history

  3. “Mutual Greekness was not quite enough once the environment was familiar and superficially “safe” rather than barbaric and dangerous.”

    You’re exactly right Xen, oops I meant Zen. It is just as your two by two matrix suggested. The Communal army reverted to anarchy as the weak rule-set was applied, as they got closer and closer to home.

    For, it was only Xenophon who understood what heroes and winners the people of the army was. Everyone else, my guess at times even the people of the army, thought of them as losers.

    Xenophon knew as Socrates knew that we are all winners inside ourselves. If the army could just be united with their families and their sons and daughters prosperous, everything else will be fine. The Greeks beat the King once, they can definitely do it again, let the A team do it this time.

  4. I had not thought of it until your prior post on ascent vs. descent, but that ties in with Plato’s use of ‘up’ and down’ in the dialogues. Whenever Plato uses “up”, it’s a good thing. “Down” usually means something bad (or at least not good) will happen.

    “I went down yesterday to the Piraeus”
    An oversimplification, maybe, but it holds fairly true throughout the dialogues. I just found it coincidental that possibly Xenophon might use similar symbolism.

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