/ history

Anabasis: The Persian Expedition

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Beautifully written, the "Anabasis of Xenophon" is one of the truly great accomplishments of world literature and serves as a model for much of what comes after. Xenophon himself was a total badass - a soldier/mercenary, general, philosopher, and historian. Historically, he pretty much picks up where Thucydides left off (post-Peloponnesian War). The Anabasis (a Greek word meaning “march inland from the sea”) is the story of how 10,000 Greek mercenaries teamed up with a Persian royal named Cyrus and attempted to overthrow his brother, failed, had their leaders murdered, elected Xenophon to lead them, and then had to march over a thousand miles through hostile territory back to the sea and to sail back to Greece.

Anabasis is an incredible true story which Xenophon wrote himself (although the writing style is in the third person). The man was an enormously gifted leader and speaker - I often paused when reading the book to try to figure out how I would get myself out of the disasters that came up… I had nothing on Xenophon. From surviving ambushes to seeking alliances in hostile territory, to maintaining leadership at the head of a rag-tag bunch of jealous mercenaries a long way from home, Xenophon carries himself spectacularly and provides the modern reader with timeless wisdom and cunning. Even though this book was written over two millennia ago, it’s eminently readable and as relevant in our own time as it was in his.

Some of my favorite passages below


Altogether it was plain that Cyrus was bent on pressing on the march, and averse to stoppages, except where he halted for the sake of provisioning or some other necessary object; being convinced that the more rapidly he advanced, the less prepared for battle would he find the king; while the slower his own progress, the larger would be the hostile army which he would find collected. Indeed, the attentive observer could see, at a glance, that if the king's empire was strong in its extent of territory and the number of inhabitants, that strength is compensated by an inherent weakness, dependent upon the length of roads and the inevitable dispersion of defensive forces, where an invader insists upon pressing home the war by forced marches.

"Clearchus, Proxenus, and you other Hellenes yonder, you know not what you do. As surely as you come to blows with one another, our fate is sealed--this very day I shall be cut to pieces, and so will you: your turn will follow close on mine. Let our fortunes once take an evil turn, and these barbarians whom you see around will be worse foes to us than those who are at present serving the king."

"Men of Hellas," he said, "it is certainly not from dearth of barbarians to fight my battles that I put myself at your head as my allies; but because I hold you to be better and stronger than many barbarians. That is why I took you. See then that you prove yourselves to be men worthy of the liberty which you possess, and which I envy you. Liberty--it is a thing which, be well assured, I would choose in preference to all my other possessions, multiplied many times.

… on the contrary, these he punished most unflinchingly. It was no rare sight to see on the well-trodden highways, men who had forfeited hand or foot or eye; the result being that throughout the satrapy of Cyrus anyone, Hellene or barbarian, provided he were innocent, might fearlessly travel wherever he pleased, and take with him whatever he felt disposed.

So again, wherever he might discover any one ready to distinguish himself in the service of uprightness, his delight was to make this man richer than those who seek for gain by unfair means.

Many of these presents were sent to him to serve as personal adornments of the body or for battle; and as touching these he would say, "How am I to deck myself out in all these? to my mind a man's chief ornament is the adornment of nobly-adorned friends."

Indeed, that he should triumph over his friends in the great matters of welldoing is not surprising, seeing that he was much more powerful than they, but that he should go beyond them in minute attentions, and in an eager desire to give pleasure, seems to me, I must confess, more admirable.

And here Clearchus's system of superintendence was a study in itself; as he stood with a spear in his left hand and a stick in the other; and when it seemed to him there was any dawdling among the parties told off to the work, he would pick out the right man and down would come the stick; nor, at the same time, was he above plunging into the mud and lending a hand himself, so that every one else was forced for very shame to display equal alacrity.

Yet it was not without purpose that he applied the whip; he had a theory that there was no good to be got out of an unchastened army. A saying of his is recorded to the effect that the soldier who is to mount guard and keep his hands off his friends, and be ready to dash without a moment's hesitation against the foe--must fear his commander more than the enemy.

To defend ourselves--to ward off that fate--not a hand stirs: no one is preparing, none cares; but here we lie, as though it were time to rest and take our ease. I too! what am I waiting for? a general to undertake the work? and from what city? am I waiting till I am older myself and of riper age? older I shall never be, if to-day I betray myself to my enemies.

This observation, also, I have laid to heart, that they, who in matters of war seek in all ways to save their lives, are just they who, as a rule, die dishonourably; whereas they who, recognising that death is the common lot and destiny of all men, strive hard to die nobly: these more frequently, as I observe, do after all attain to old age, or, at any rate, while life lasts, they spend their days more happily.

"For all that," retorted Cheirisophus, "I have heard that you Athenians are clever hands at stealing the public moneys; and that too though there is a fearful risk for the person so employed; but, I am told, it is your best men who are addicted to it; if it is your best men who are thought worthy to rule. So it is a fine opportunity for yourself also, Xenophon, to exhibit your education."

One fact we plainly recognise, strength is everything to us. So long as we have the mastery, we shall be able to protect ourselves and get provisions; but if we are once caught at the mercy of our foes, it is plain, we shall be reduced to slavery."

What friendly city will receive us when they see rampant lawlessness in our midst? Who will have the courage to afford us a market, when we prove our worthlessness in these weightiest concerns? and what becomes of the praise we expect to win from the mouths of men? who will vouchsafe it to us, if this is our behaviour? Should we not ourselves bestow the worst of names on the perpetrators of like deeds?"

"But really," he added, "it does surprise me with what keenness you remember and recount the times when I incurred the hatred of some one; but some other occasions when I eased the burden of winter and storm for any of you, or beat off an enemy, or helped to minister to you in sickness and want, not a soul of you remembers these. Or when for any noble deed done by any of you I praised the doer, and according to my ability did honour to this brave man or that; these things have slipped from your memories, and are clean forgotten.

For what of the man who cannot be trusted? I see that the words of his mouth are but vain words, powerless, and unhonoured; but with him who is seen to regard truth, the case is otherwise. He can achieve by his words what another achieves by force. If he seeks to bring the foolish to their senses--his very frown, I perceive, has a more sobering effect than the chastisement inflicted by another. Or in negotiations the very promises of such an one are of equal weight with the gifts of another.

Of course to the mind of Heracleides this is all silly talk; since the one great object is to keep money by whatever means. That is not my tenet, Seuthes. I believe that no fairer or brighter jewel can be given to a man, and most of all a prince, than the threefold grace of valour, justice, and generosity.

Max Nova

Max Nova

I love books! My reading theme for 2017 is "The Integrity of Western Science." I'm also the founder of www.SilviaTerra.com.

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