The Anabasis, as The Expedition of Cyrus is often called, stands out among classical Greek texts for the glimpses it offers of Hellenes encountering a baffling and often dangerous alien world. A mishmash of military memoir, travelogue and biography, it's also the most detailed description we have of Greek soldiers on campaign. The story opens with the rebellion in 401 BC of the Persian prince Cyrus against his brother Artaxerxes II, and recounts the progress of his army (which included around 13,000 hired Greek soldiers, among them Xenophon) from his headquarters in Sardis through modern Turkey and the Syrian desert to the plains of Mesopotamia. The first book culminates in Cyrus' death at the hands of his brother in the battle of Cunaxa. The remaining six follow the ordeals of the stranded Greek survivors ('the Ten Thousand') as, against all odds, they fight their way back home, a trek of a thousand miles, which first takes them north to the Black Sea then west to Byzantium. (The term anabasis technically denotes only the march 'up country' to Cunaxa; the march 'down' to the sea is properly the katabasis, that along the coast the parabasis.) On the way, the Greeks encountered Syrians who regarded 'fish as gods and did not let anyone harm them, or doves either'; Armenians who lived underground and binged on barley wine; and Mossynoecians who 'wanted to have sex in the open with the kept women whom the Greeks had brought, because that was their custom there'. Xenophon has an eye for a snapshot.
LRB 2 November 2006 | PDF Download