Marching Upcountry with Xenophon

The Xenophon Roundtable is coming to it’s conclusion. While we may see a few more “final” posts this week, for the most part, we have had our say. This was the third roundtable hosted by Chicago Boyz and the discussion was different in character from the first two because The Anabasis of Cyrus is of a different nature than On War or Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. The first two books dealt with military theory but The Anabasis was not written by a professor of strategic studies or of military history, which Frans Osinga and even Carl von Clausewitz were. By contrast, Xenophon was an Athenian aristocrat at odds with democratic times, a brave soldier of fortune and foremost, a student of Socrates.

Xenophon the Socratic soldier and admirer of Sparta would never have written a book like On War because the character of war would have been of less interest to him than the character of men who waged it. Or at least the character of the Greeks who waged war and that of the leaders of the barbarian armies, Cyrus, Tissaphernes and Artaxerxes (ordinary, individual, barbarians are of no consequence to Xenophon except insofar as they are instrumental in carrying out the designs of their leaders). And their character at war and in peace were inseparable and constant, though having different effects, as Xenophon explained in his passages on Clearchus and his captains and his paean to Cyrus the Younger. It has been remarked in this roundtable by Joseph Fouche that Xenophon was thoroughly Greek in his attitude toward the barbarians which Joseph Fouche called a “mirror image” to the attitude of Herodotus toward the Others of the East. I agree, to an extent. The countervailing example though is Cyrus, on whom Xenophon lavished praise with so heavy a hand that it must have struck Athenian eyes as bordering on sycophancy toward a would-be basileus. Few Greek writers, other than Herodotus, were ever so generous with their pen to a barbarian.

The Anabasis of Cyrus is a broad book that contains many levels of understanding; we might even say deceptively broad because the literary style of a war memoir gives it a simpler impression than it actually contains. One can find lessons on leadership, human nature, psychology and always and above all, politics in Xenophon’s march upcountry. Writing in the ancient world was not done for profit as it is today (though “books” circulated or were “published” then far more widely than most moderns realize) but to acquire intangible benefits of influence, a reputation of a sort that the later Romans called “auctoritas”, or to have put in a final word for posterity. Xenophon is never an objective observer and The Anabasis is not a record of the deeds of the Ten Thousand, but instead is Xenophon’s advocacy for The Ten Thousand and most of all, for himself.

Finally, I must put in a word for the translator, Dr. Wayne Ambler, who has mostly been absent from this discussion. I am not a competent judge of linguistics nor is ancient Greece my historical specialty, but I thoroughly enjoyed his edition of The Anabasis of Cyrus. For me, Xenophon was “present” on the pages as I read it. One could see a determined, sweating, short of breath Xenophon dismounting and marching on foot in heavy bronze armor to shame those in the ranks who were complaining about the measures Xenophon was taking for the good of the army. This Xenophon lives and strives. He is not a distant, marble, statue of antiquity, inaccessible to the modern reader.

Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus continues to be read after 2400 years, I suspect, because the narrative of struggling to overcome terrible odds – and succeeding – appeals to our better nature. It is a construct of hope that our daring and our intelligence are enough to see us through any tight corner, given sufficient courage and inexorable drive.

We should all, at some point in our lives, march upcountry.

14 thoughts on “Marching Upcountry with Xenophon”

  1. Beautifully worded, Mark.

    “One can find lessons on leadership, human nature, psychology and always and above all, politics in Xenophon’s march upcountry.”

    A fitting close, that explains the true measure of this work. One hopes that we have stimulated some to take the time to go up country inside the pages of Dr. Ambler’s translation. I guarantee they will not be disappointed.

  2. Much thanks HG99! I strongly agree with you Ambler. I’ve previously read the book translated as “The Persian Expedition” and it was much drier and “distant”. Ambler brings the book home to the reader.

    You are welcome Jose! Glad you enjoyed the RT

  3. “We should all, at some point in our lives, march upcountry.”

    F*** me. Most of my life’s been an uphill climb already. Enough! All I need now some genuine success.

  4. Zen: Mornin’ chum. Thanks to your posts & others’, I’m gonna purchase the Anabasis as well. I’m already plannin’ on readin’ The Iliad & The Odyssey come next month.

  5. I’d like to know more about why you think Xenophon “would never have written a book like On War“. He did write a short treatise on The Cavalry Commander, though I suppose it’s more practical and less theoretical than Clausewitz — I’ve only dipped into both.

  6. Hey YT,

    Gracias! I think that is a good plan. That kind of literature was once considered foundational, now it is read primarily by adults (!)

    Hi Dr. Weevil,

    Excellent question.

    I’ve read On War and I have not read the The Cavalry Commander. From quickly looking at the link that you provided, it does seem to be oriented toward “practical” advice. CvC was not attempting to offer formulas or basic field instruction for junior officers or some kind of handbook.

    Clauswitz was trying to explain the nature of war. I am doubtful that it would have ever occurred to Xenophon to frame his thinking in the fashion of Clausewitz, even with the experience of the Pelopponesian War behind him. Clausewitz was applying a kind of exacting mental rigor to his examination of war that was, in part, a product of familiarity with the scientific revolution. The Greeks were exceptionally curious and creative but outside of mathematics they were more speculative and frankly, tolerant of sophistry than moderns. At the more abstract, Xenophon probably would have thought in terms of “waging war noblely” but that’s not what Clausewitz was contemplating.

    Interested in hearing what the other Clausewitz RT participants who were in the Xenophon RT have to say on this score. Seydlitz89 has a deep knowledge of CvC, maybe he will weigh in on your question. Lex, HG99 what do you two think ?

  7. Xenophon would have never written a book like On War. Surviving tactical works from the ancient Western world tend to be HOWTO manuals like the The Cavalry Commander, The Education of Cyrus, and Polybius’s Histories (which most denizens of the ancient world probably found more useful). The closest thing to On War was Thucydides’s history but in many respects Thucydides’s work was closer in spirit to The Anabasis of Cyrus than Clausewitz’s work. They were both apologia aimed at the book listening public of Athens, hoping to explain and justify their controversial military careers. Clausewitz was attempting to grapple with a giant tarball of a problem that transcended the ambitions of HOWTO manual writers like Jomini and Bulow. There wasn’t a lot of people in the ancient world interested in the philosophy of war, except as an illustration. Xenophon was a philosopher at war, not a philosopher of war.

  8. This is an interesting question. Clausewitz has his more practical side, which is the Napoleonic art of war portion of On War, whereas the theoretical side would be the general theory of war and what I identify as Clausewitz’s theory of politics. I would only add in regards to this latter approach that my sole contribution to this roundtable connected this concept to Xenophon.

    Xenophon attempts to describe the art of generalship (or of the popular ruler of a political/military community) as he sees it. The actions of the Strategos (army commander) is of course where we get the term “strategy”. Xenophon is most successful where the relationship between political purpose (basically survival of the political community in this instance), military strategy and tactics all are very closely bound together, where a tactical mistake can lead to political annihilation, that is tactical effect leading to strategic and political effect in short order. Xenophon starts having more difficulties when the threat of political disaster is removed, when the threat is not so well perceived and the politics become much more murky, the connections between political purpose and military means become unclear, as in intra-Greek politicial dynamics. In this regard we see a very clear connection with Clausewitz.

    I would add that Xenophon’s handling of intelligence is also Clausewitzian in certain respects, as in the distrust of intelligence information and the reliance on intelligence analysis/product (if we can consider his libations to the gods as his version of the intelligence cycle) . . .

  9. “Xenophon starts having more difficulties when the threat of political disaster is removed…”

    Yes, it would be interesting if this threat of political disaster was never removed. What if the army came home to a political situation in which neither side, of the political system inside Greece, could even raise an army? What would happen if, the condition at home was so bad that the people of the army, under Xenophon, couldn’t find a job or worse, sold into slavery, as, if I remember correctly, many were made slaves any way?

    I guess the real question would be: would they install Xenophon as king, or switch sides? They had quite a reputation in Persia; maybe the Persians would join them as they sacked Greece.

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