Known variously as ‘The Persian Expedition,’ or ‘The March of the Ten Thousand,’ the proper title would be ‘Anabasis,’ (Greek, meaning “the march up country”). Written in 350BC, it recounts the epic journey of an army of Greek mercenaries to return home from deep in the Persian Empire.
One of the more interesting things about The Persian Expedition is the fact that it is “real.” Xenophon was a professional soldier who played the critical role in this epic; this is not myth, fantasy, or an epic poem, it’s actual quite concrete and at no point leaves the realm of fact – no mythological creatures, no assistance from divinities. The Greeks save themselves. This book is about tactics, forced marches, tough negotiation, power politics and a celebration of Greek cultural and military superiority. As such, I can’t help but feeling that Xenophon is the great-great grandfather of exploration/expedition writing, military/adventure memoirs and along with The Odessey, the trope of fantasticesotic/ journeys a la Gulliver’s Travels and Star Trek.
The context to Xenophon’s march is important. The high Hellenic world was comprised of city states scattered throughout what is now the modern day eastern mediterranean, only roughly centring in modern day Greece. To the east, the massive, oriental Persian Empire loomed monolithically – not just a political threat, the Persian Menace was an existential and cultural threat as well. This is the birth of the East vs West divide and even the notion of the land-locked “evil Empire.” Famously, the Persians massively invaded Greece, the Greek city united, leading to the victories of Marathon (First Persian Invasion) Thermopylae (of 300 fame show casing the Spartans) and Samos (Athen’s great naval victory). This ominous pressure, combined with outstanding success set the stage for the high Hellenic Age and it’s this attempt by the Persians subdue these outlaying provinces of their Empire which more or less ignites the Greek cultural and philosophical revolution.
Following the Persian invasions, the rivalry between the militaristic Sparta and the vibrant, messy naval democracy of Athens dominated the Greek world. With Athen’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War, Sparta was the dominant power, but this also makes the end of the Hellenic Golden Age. So in this context of Spartan victory over Athens, and the epoch making sense of Greek superiority (a sense that each Greek city-state could treat with the mighty Persian Empire; that Greek freedom and logic was ultimately superior to the exotic despotism of the East), that Cyrus, the younger brother of the Persian Shahinshah – the king of kings – Artaxerxes, hires ten thousands Greek mercenaries to assist him with his expedition to depose his brother.
Xenophon clearly admired this Cyrus, who comes across as a shrew judge of men and moral yet honourable in the account. He clearly perceived the superiority of Greek heavy infantry – the hoplite in phalanx formation (the original shock troopers) – over the Persian manner of fighting which tended to take the form of lightly armoured spearmen, archers and chariots. Part of the inspiration behind the hoplite is the idea of the citizen soldier – Greek military discipline not only provided Cyrus with an elite core of an army which had the additional bonus of not being Persian (and therefore more likely to by loyal to Cyrus once they were far from home). Cyrus and his army march deep into modern day Iraq, and near Babylon, Artaxerxes engages in battle. The dense formations of Greek heavy infantry did well (being essentially invincible in toe-to-toe combat), but Cyrus is killed in the fighting.
Suddenly the Greeks are surrounded, deep in the Persian Empire, and betrayed on all sides. Greek solidarity pulls the mercenaries together into a cohesive army which marches north to the coast of the Black Sea, despite the best efforts of the Persians, hostile tribes and the elements. More than an exotic yarn, this is a legitimate military feat; Greek culture and Greek individualism, mixed with a sense of honour and duties owed to each other allow Xenophon, his fellow generals and soldiers to navigate the challenges that they face.
It’s engaging to read this text; for me it’s the prospect of reading a cornerstone, founding text of western civilisation, but more, a testimony to “what makes the Greeks so great.” It’s surprisingly readable and the narrative flows easily. A great glimpse into a lost world.