March 3, 2013 § Leave a comment
“Speak to them and find out first of all who they are.”
He asked them this, and they replied that they were Macrones.
“Now ask them,” said Xenophon, “why they are drawn up to oppose us and why they want to be our enemies.”
Their reply to this was: “Because it is you who are invading our country.”
A group of heroic men is stuck deep in Persian territory. They are nervous, leaderless, unfamiliar with the terrain, and with limited supplies and resources. They have to get back to home and safety through a thousand miles of hostile turf. Several hair-raising adventures later, they achieve this against all odds.
No, this is not the plot of a recent Hollywood blockbuster, but that of Xenophon’s Anabasis, which, by the way, is a far cooler name than ‘The Persian Expedition’, the translated title of the volume I read. It is also cooler, in my opinion, than Hollywood representations of ancient Greek action dramas.
Hollywood: I’ve seen your 300, and I raise you 10,000.
It is 401 BC, eighty years after that minor skirmish at Thermopylae and after the vastly more significant and fascinating naval battle of Salamis. Themistocles was a far more interesting personality than Leonidas anyway, and if I ever got around to scripting the sensational sleeper hit, ‘Salamis’, George Clooney would get to play Themistocles, and Al Pacino would play Xerxes. But I digress. Cyrus, second son of Darius II of Persia, decides to displace his brother Artaxerxes as Shahenshah of a massive empire stretching from the Arabian Sea to the Black Sea, the Oxus to the Nile, the Himalayas to the Alps. He raises a secret army from the western fringes of that empire, from among the battle-hardened barbarians who had dealt grandpa Xerxes the biggest embarrassment of his illustrious life. The Greeks are the most fearsome and disciplined warriors in the world, but they have lately fallen to violent internecine squabbles. They are no longer a military threat to the Achmaenids as a nation, but they make wonderful mercenaries. And so, ten thousand of them – Peloponnese, Chersonese, Thessalians, Boeotians, Stymphalians and Achaeans – are recruited by Cyrus with promises of fabulous wealth, added to his Persian force, and marched from Sardis to Tarsus, through the Syrian Gates and across the Euphrates, across the Arabian desert and through Babylonia, where at last they are met by the Shah’s army at Cunaxa. The Greeks hold their own on the right flank, but Cyrus is slain while attacking his brother, and the battle is lost.
Trivia break: the word checkmate derives from Shah-mat, old Persian for ‘The King is Dead’. I’ve known this for decades, but didn’t realize how apt it is until I read this book. In the Persian version of warfare, you could outnumber your enemy, have better technology, better generals, more rested soldiers, and a better formation; and you could use all this to fight your way to a very strong strategic position and the opposing army could be on the brink of collapse; but then your stupid King could get himself killed, and then it is game over.
Anyway, the real story begins when the army starts on its way back, under the leadership of Xenophon, who had to assume charge after the Greek generals were killed in a treacherous ambush. Harried nonstop by the Persian army, they retreat through Kurdestan, cross into Armenia, encounter waves of belligerent tribes – the Carduci, the Mossynoici, the Paphlagonians – surviving through force of arms and plundering passing villages for sustenance, until they reach Greek cities and the sea. “Thalatta! Thalatta!” they roar with joy and relief. But wait – their travails aren’t over yet. Greek cities are as nervous as any other, about harbouring – and having to feed – a large army at their doorstep; the men are not wanted anywhere. The men have been a tightly knit unit until that point, unified by adversity and danger, but now, cracks begin to appear. . Xenophon’s motives, integrity and decisions are questioned by his men, and he is forced to defend himself in impassioned speeches. Of course we have only his word for his own selflessness and the calumnious ingratitude of his jealous opponents. The army dissipates into mutually suspicious factions. Some of the soldiers are lured back into Asia afresh, while Xenophon leaves the army alone, safe and well-paid for his efforts – and in possession, presumably, of a nifty little book deal.
The anti-climactic end is extremely appropriate. Xenophon is describing real life, which is, after all, just one thing after another. The end is in keeping with his tone throughout the book – matter of fact, down to earth, practical. The military tactics he adopts are pure common sense – whether it is about fighting cavalry with infantry, trudging through mountain passes, or marching at night. When we think of a Greek army on the march, we think of Gerald Butler and Colin Farrell rocking miniskirts and thinking noble, inspirational thoughts. But Xenophon’s overriding worries are about food supplies and pack animals. His men whine incessantly about pay. They are fighting to get back home, not to save civilization. And, most impressively, even when they are being attacked by Persians, they don’t demonize them. They recognize that they themselves had invaded Persia first with the intention of overthrowing the Shah; if the Shah wasn’t overly thrilled about this, well, they could see where he was coming from. Of course they fought his army, and that of everyone else opposed to them, because it was a matter of survival; but they fought them without a sense of moral superiority. Xenophon never dumbs down each battle to Good v Evil, and he never paints his opponents in the devil’s colours.
For Xenophon as for Herodotus before him, the Persians are no less brave or good than the Greeks, it is only their inferior weaponry that put them at a disadvantage. To me, this is the most powerful take-away from Anabasis. Somewhere between then and now, we have lost this objectivity, this balanced perspective; we think simplistically in black and white, good-and-bad, with-us-or-against-us. Whether it was religion, democracy, the media, or Hollywood that made this change happen I do not know, but perhaps they all had a role to play.
Of course, the Greek relativism has a negative side as well. “One of the results of power is the ability to take what belongs to the weaker,” says Xenophon, casually, and thinks nothing of razing villages to the ground, stealing their corn and cattle, slaughtering the villagers who oppose them. Occasionally the soldiers are attracted to women and small boys that they see, and these they acquire for themselves; soldiers will be soldiers, Xenophon’s benign tolerance of these practices leaves me shocked.
As Stanley Rosen points out in Herodotus Reconsidered, a historia is distinct from art. Homer would suppress information if it were not compatible with the purpose of his epic. Herodotus or Xenophon, on the other hand, would, on principle, write the stories they heard, the world they saw. Their purpose was depiction of reality, warts and all. When mainstream Hollywood wants to tell a simple story, it needs whiter-than-white heroes and blacker-than-black villains. And this is fine as long as people do not confuse them for historically accurate accounts.
I, for one, prefer Herodotus and Xenophon any day.