Friday, August 10, 2012

Anabasis (Xenophon)

Meanwhile, back in the Persian Empire...

Yes, I have deviated from my top 105 books yet again, motivated in part by my recent reading of "The Histories" by Herodotus.  If you'll recall from my recent post on that book, which I KNOW you've read, Herodotus describes the invasion of Greece by the Persians, under the kings Darius and Xerxes, from about 493-479 BC.  But what happened to the Persian Empire after the invasions of Greece failed?  Well, in 404 BC Xerxes great grandson Artaxerxes II was crowned leader of the Persian Empire, much to the dismay of his brother Cyrus the Younger.  Cyrus was the Satrap (ruler) of Lydia, a kingdom in what is now western Turkey, but Cyrus was not happy with that.  He wanted to be leader of the whole damn empire, and so he formulated a plan...and that's where the story in "Anabasis" opens.

"Anabasis", or "The March Up Country", is a memoir by the Xenophon, written in the third person.  Xenophon was a wealthy aristocratic young Greek...what we might refer to as a "country gentleman".  He was clearly ferociously intelligent and charismatic, and was a friend of Socrates.  When Cyrus the Younger hires an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries to allegedly fight enemies in Ionia (the Greek region on the west coast of Asia Minor) Xenophon decides to go along and check out the action.  Little does he or the army know, but Cyrus has other plans for them.  The army marches east, but doesn't fight anyone.  Hmm, that's odd.  They keep marching east.  "WTF?" asks the army. "Where the Sam Hill are we going?"  Soon it becomes clear...Cyrus is taking the army east to attack his brother and claim the throne of Persia for himself.  The army's one thing to fight for booty in Ionia, but to go into the heart of the Persian Empire and overthrow the that's way too much for them.  Heated discussion ensues, but Clearchus, a Spartan, convinces the Greek mercenaries to continue with the expedition.  After all, imagine how generous Cyrus will be to them if he becomes leader of the Empire.  The booze, the broads..totally worth it.  So the army marches on, deeper into the Persian Empire.

Meanwhile, Artaxerxes II hears of this, and assembles an army to go meet his brother's forces.  Their armies clash at Cunaxa.  The Greek mercenaries rout their Persian foes, but Cyrus and his bodyguatds spy Artaxerxes II and charge in to kill him.  A javelin is thrown, piercing Cyrus through the eye, and he dies.  Uh oh.  It is not immediately apparent to the Greeks what has happened, because they won their part of the battle, but when they learn about Cyrus's death it dawns upon them how totally fucked they are.  Now they're deep in Persian territory, Cyrus is dead, and they have no food, friends, or all they can do is run for their lives.  They start to retreat, but are pursued by the Persian army.  Artaxerxes II would like to see them all dead, to teach a lesson to any would-be revolutionists.  The general of the Persian army, Tissaphernes, has a problem, though.  The 10,000 Greek soldiers are to large a force to directly attack, and they need a lot of food, since 10,000 mouths are a lot to feed.  So Tissaphernes comes up with a plan.  He tells the Greeks he will make peace with them and lead them out of Persia, and the generals of the Greek army should come to his tent and have a feast to celebrate and make plans for the assisted withdrawal.  So the leaders of the Greeks all go to Tissaphernes' tent, where he has them seized and beheaded.  If General Ackbar had been there he would have shouted "It's a trap!", but alas that did not come to pass.  Now the Greeks are so totally fucked it's not even funny.  They could have split up and been picked off one by one, but somehow they pull their shit together and elect new leaders from the within ranks...and Xenophon is chosen to lead the whole army.  Which he does.

What follows is an incredible tale of adventure.  I don't want to go into a lot of details, because I highly recommend this book and you should read about what happens yourself.  But imagine Xenophon's have to lead 10,000 men on a very long trek home through enemy territory.  And we're talking 10,000 men!  Xenophon's army is basically a wandering plague of locusts, stripping the countryside bare of food, firewood, and other provisions (including, probably, women) and no doubt leaving behind a trail of garbage and, well, human waste.  They pass through some barbarian lands, where the barbarians run into the surrounding mountains and throw rocks down upon the army.  I mean, what else could they can't fight a 10,00 man army, but you don't want them to stick around and destroy your crops and villages and then move on.  Xenophon tries to keep the army in line, and not have them suck up everything in their wake, but what can he do...there's 10,000 hungry young men to feed!

As the army marches along it's one damn thing after another.  Attacks!  Treachery!  Snow and bitter cold!  The story reminds me a bit of the Shackleton story...adventure upon adventure, with each escape miraculous, often involving cunning, strategy, or brilliant oratory by Xenophon.  Someone should seriously turn this book into a comic book or graphic novel.  It's unbelievable, and yet it all really happened.  Of course, in Shackelton's ill-fated Antarctic expedition not a single man was lost.  In Xenophon's case, only about 6,000 of the original 10,000 made it out alive.  Still, that's not bad, given the obstacles they faced.  Even once they make it "safely" back to Greek territory they are still in danger.  The Greek cities don't want them around, again because they're like locusts.  People try to hire them, but there's always a catch.  Finally, a Spartan hires them and the army, now being gainfully employed once again, sets off to fight.  It is here that Xenophon takes his leave.

This is a much more personal book than Herodotus.  You can imagine yourself with Xenophon and his men, battling their way from WAY behind enemy lines.  If you ever saw the movie "The Warriors" you'll know what I mean.  And if not, just read the damn book.  It's a good one.


Viktoria said...

Just happened to come by and am happy to see you´re still alive and reading. I don´t care if you stick to your list, I like reading about your reading.

Must go for a G&T to celebrate.

Anonymous said...

They did turn this into a movie. 1979 called The Warriors. Set the story in 70s New York.