‘Anabasis’ by Xenophon

Route of Xenophon and the Ten Thousand.
Map courtesy of US government publications via Wikipedia

Classical literature like this is something that I rarely review and even more rarely review after the first read-through.  There’s often so much history and culture and philology to investigate that I feel awkward and presumptuous even when I’ve spent hours and read multiple books on the topic.  So this is a first for me, having only read one translated version with minimal annotations and no research whatsoever.

Anabasis is the recounting of the journey of Cyrus’ army and their encounters with friendly and hostile forces.  I’m sure that to many readers the text may seem a little blow-by-blow and focused on the fighting and politics, but there’s truly beautiful details regarding food, culture (art, clothing, dancing), and how really vulnerable and muddy travelling can make a person.  There’s also some sweet and scary episodes, like when one man of the company risks his life to save that of a pretty young boy – it’s somewhat romantic, and also quite creepy and predatory when read from the context of modern western culture which recently (compared to all human history I mean, at least in the last hundred or so years) has lumped ephebophilia in with paedophilia, with all the criminal and abusive connotations.  Not that I’m much of a fan of ephebophilia either, but do keep in mind that there were very different contemporary ethics and cultures when you read some sections.

There’s a great sense of community amongst the men, in every rank.  When some commanders are seduced by promises of peace and then betrayed to death, Xenophon himself delivers an inspiring speech.  To revenge the deaths of their own not through emotional reactions or any attempts at discordant vengeance, but by simply being even more than they were; more loyal to their hastily patched command hierarchy, more steadfast and resolute and calm in battle.  There’s some inspiring stuff that isn’t just valid for war, but any time or place in one’s life.  The best retribution towards those who offend in whatever manner is not to hate or obsess, but to focus and succeed despite the injuries to yourself.

While some of the long lists of characters and the nuanced references that I haven’t absorbed or looked up yet escape my memory, there’s a sense of open horizons, solidarity and determination that lingers in my mind.  It’s not a light read, however, and if you haven’t got a good idea of ancient geography and place-names you’d do well to find a map to follow along with as you read.  I would recommend this to classicists and historians, to anybody who gets excited about Alexander the Great, and to role-players and wargamers who will find the descriptions and tactics both useful and fascinating.

You don’t get many people reviewing the Anabasis, but you can grab a free copy from Project Gutenberg, and read up on some analytical essays in the ancient history section of the Military History Digital Journal (you have to hunt and click, I can’t link directly) and in the usual journals and periodicals like The Classical Journal.  If you can’t access those online, try asking your local librarian to help you get access.  For the classicists you can find some summaries, grammar and vocab notes here.

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