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.
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.
An army marches on its stomach – Napoleon Bonaparte
While we have no real idea how much insight Xenophon possessed when he joined the invasion of Persia, the Anabasis is written by a professional with a profound appreciation of the issues of logistics (as is the Agesilaus). From beginning to end, the Anabasis is replete with not just the story of the Persian expedition, but how the Greek forces managed to maintain themselves in supply, from the time of their entry into Persia, until their retreat is complete. Xenophon understands that other professionals will be interested in this as much as in anything else that he relates. It is likely that Alexander read these logistical details with great attention. For instance, if you re-read the Anabasis from the perspective of a logistician, you will find that it serves as a nearly complete narrative of the logistics of the Persian expedition. In most instances, you are far more certain of how the Greeks remained in supply than of what happened to them in battle. If you compare it to other histories you have read, you may well find that there is, well, no comparison.