Xenophon Roundtable: Politics in a Bottle

Carl von Clausewitz famously asserted that war is the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means. The Anabasis of Cyrus puts this assertion to the test, reducing the phenomenon of war to a single petri dish filled with Ten Thousand wayward Greeks. The Ten Thousand descend into Mesopotamia for a purely political purpose: Cyrus the Younger wants his brother’s throne. Cyrus calculates that a quick strike into the political heartland of the Persian empire will allow him to catch his brother at a disadvantage. The initial descent is calculated to roll from Asia Minor down to Babylon with such momentum that Artaxerxes II’s political decision loop would be overwhelmed. Most of the political impact that Cyrus’s military strategy is calculated to produce will be produced by strategic shock alone.

This strategy, fed by what seems to be a decided tilt in Cyrus’s character towards rashness, nearly works. Cyrus’s seemingly rash attack mano a mano against Artaxerxes early in the Battle of Cunaxa could be charitably interpreted as a political act as well. By committing the ultimate political atrocity of lese majeste himself, Cyrus is asserting his superior claim as ruler by physically and therefore politically invading Artaxerxes’s sacred space, that splendid apartness that elevates a divine monarch in the eyes of mere mortals. Cyrus seeks to knock Artaxerxes off his pedestal, revealing him as an ordinary, physically vulnerable, and, hopefully, dead human being. Through the myth created by dispatching Artaxerxes through his own prowess, Cyrus will take on a new aura as the biggest man in Persia not only symbolically but physically as well.

Cyrus, as shown by the spectacles that he repeatedly puts on as motivation exercises for his reluctant mercenaries during the descent to Babylon, is a showman. Many citizens of modern liberal democracies miss the subtlety of manufacturing consent in a traditional hereditary monarchy. Monarchy relies on spectacle as much or in fact more so than a liberal democracy. Masters of the form, whether continent spanning tyrants like Louis XIV or petty princelings of the Holy Roman Empire, rely on symbol, spectacle, and sacralizing as much as the naked violence to which they often resorted. Traditional state violence, whether it be an execution, a military campaign, or jousting, served a theatrical, educational, and propagandizing purpose on top of its pure manifestation of brute force. Cyrus was putting on a performance intended to symbolically and morally knife Artaxerxes almost as much as he was seeking to literally shove eight inches of wrought iron into his own brother’s chest. That Cyrus signally failed in his attempt is no argument against the fundamentally political nature of his warfare. Failure is as much a part of politics as success. If Cyrus failed in his aspiration to become a potent symbol of political success in life, through the freshly rendered pieces of Cyrus meat conspicuously displayed by his brother, Cyrus became a potent symbol of political failure in death.

The remainder of the Anabasis is devoted to a political community whose war is waged for that most naked of political motives: survival. As Victor David Hanson pointed out in one of his more lucid moments, in the Anabasis we are presented with another species of political spectacle from the monarchial pomp and circumstance that Cyrus greets us with at the beginning of Book I. The Ten Thousand are a movable polis, the raw incarnation of Plato’s political animal. Artaxerxes and his minions attempt a decapitation strike on the Ten Thousand, expecting the loss of such high quality individuals as Proxenus, Menon, and Clearchus to reduce the Ten Thousand to the milling peasant rabble. In an Oriental context this strategy made sense: most Asiatic armies were composed of impressed peasants who would eagerly flee the scene of battle if their kings and lords were slain. But the Greeks of this time, before the Persian virus of autocracy transferred through the medium of Macedon hegemony rendered free Greece into slavish Byzantium, were different. Being a distributed command of more or less free men, they selected new leaders including the silver tongued Xenophon, debated their options, and retreated into the mountains of the Kurds and Armenians.

The entire ascent of the Ten Thousand is marked by the intensely political nature of its organizational structure. Leaders such as Xenophon go to great lengths, summoning all of the power of the century old art of sophistry, created just for such occasions of political deliberations by bodies of citizens, to keep the troops together. Discipline seems in many cases to be only imposed when the Ten Thousand want it. Xenophon, for example, is notably called to account for striking a soldier, something the soldiers found appalling. Much of the discipline imposed on the march up to the Euxine is imposed by the pressure of marching through hostile territory but much of it is imposed because the troops have heard the various options, discussed them openly, voted on them, and agreed that that vote is binding upon all. Those that deviate from the agreed consensus are not only scorned by the officers leading them but by their fellow soldiers. The Greeks practiced majoritarian tyranny in its purest form in a state where political questions were at their most stark: one road survival, one road death. Convinced that deviation from the general consensus physically threatened the survival of all, slackers were dealt with harshly.

After the Greeks reach the sea, Xenophon’s strategy has a clear political purpose: the Ten Thousand must acquit themselves in such a way that they can be easily reintegrated into the contemporary Greek world. Not only that, but they had to be able to be reintegrated into a contemporary Greek world ruled by Sparta. This meant the Ten Thousand had to conduct themselves in a manner that fit Greek norms and accommodated Spartan interests. This meant that if they pillaged other Greeks they would draw the hatred of the entire Hellenosphere and if they got on the wrong side of the surly Spartans, they not only couldn’t go home but they might be attacked by the Spartans. In accommodation there was the possibility of pay and provisions. In crossing the Spartans, there was the possibility of poverty and starvation, the common lot of the ancient world. Relations with barbarians were less important but the Ten Thousand politically exploited local disputes to win themselves provisions and passage as they hacked, slashed, sailed, and marched their way across northern Asia Minor. Even when Xenophon plays with the notion of founding a city he clearly is expecting to found a city that would be well integrated with the Greek world. Military operations contrary to that goal of integration are contrary to the political end that Xenophon consistently seeks.

The denouement of the Anabasis with its petty squabbles with the Spartans and Thracian warlords can sometimes seem anticlimactic after the drama of the initial descent and the retreat up to the sea. However, in micro, they present the close intertwining of politics and its servant war. Watch the fun of Xenophon seeking to gain leverage with the Spartans by keeping the Ten Thousand together even if it means slumming with the Thracians. Witness the Thracians maneuvering for political advantage even while they are fighting in the field. See Seuthes try and cozy up to the Spartans while attacking the reputation of the Ten Thousand. In the end the Spartans accommodate the Ten Thousand for their own political purpose: they want to loose them upon the Persians. The Ten Thousand march off to fight in another hazy war under yet another Spartan general.

Politics is nothing if not circular.

6 thoughts on “Xenophon Roundtable: Politics in a Bottle”

  1. Hmmmm, he Ten Thousand and their experience brings to mind some controlled (social) laboratory-experiment…..or is a more apt image that of some juvenile god dumping out a jar of red ants onto the hill-home of the black ant ant colony?

  2. Well done Joseph!

    You’ve tied many unexplained loose ends together into a neat package that becomes the dessert of this series. As exampled by:

    Cyrus, his political failure brought on by his own brashness.

    Artaxerxe’s oriental strategy, ironically similar to Cyrus’s that if you cut off the head the body will die.

    Xenophon and his fellow generals used every play in the political book to maintain momentum and cohesiveness.

  3. @historyguy99

    Interesting thing about Cyrus’s rashness: if he’d succeeded in killing his brother and managed to avoid getting killed himself, this particular trait might have been described as decisiveness or enterprise.

    I missed the connection between Cyrus’s (and Artaxerxes’s strategy against the Ten Thousand) decapitation strategy and the prominent display of Cyrus’s head. Great catch.

  4. Nice post. Cyrus’s rashness was necessary due to his inferior political/military situation, he had to stake everything on one card, one opportunity, or fail trying. Clearchus is the same type of personality and thus is the only Greek general who is aware of Cyrus’s true intention from the beginning. Clausewitz wrote that a total overthrow of the enemy required bold risktaking and an advantage in moral and physical resources. What Cyrus lacked in physical resources he hoped to compensate for with momentum and the strong cohesive core of Greeks which formed his army . . .

  5. Excellent post. Good analysis of the decapitation strategy. Great king dies or flees, the Persian army routs. Greek generals die, Greek army executes a fighting withdrawal.

    Regarding Cyrus…

    It would seem that Cyrus understood very well the disadvantages that the sheer geographic size and political complexity of the empire hung on Artaxerxes. The Great King brought an overwhelming army with him to confront his brother – though I have to think that such a levy was designed to forestall revolt in the rear by compelling particpation with less regard to whether such overkill was militarily or logistically efficient. Persia had a history of rebellion when a Great King went to the western reaches of his realm.

    Had the swift moving Cyrus employed 30,000 Greeks instead of 10,000 he would have carried the day. If his strategy was to ride on shock then class had to confound mass.

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