War Reporters: Xenophon

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Introducing Seema Syeda’s new series on battlefield scoops throughout the ages.

Greek commander Xenophon

The practice of recording the events of war is as old as war itself. The likes of Herodotus and Thucydides are well known as great ancient historians of conflict. Often placed alongside them is Greek military commander and philosopher Xenophon.

However, instead of being classed as a historian, Xenophon may well qualify as an ancient prototype of the contemporary war reporter. Xenophon’s writings were versatile and prolific, ranging from horsemanship to biography, philosophy to agriculture, and politics to military strategy.

His most famous work, the Anabasis (Going Up), is a gripping retelling of the journey of 10,000 Greek mercenaries as they accompanied Cyrus the Younger on his expedition to dethrone his elder brother Artaxerxes II, the King of Persia.

Xenophon himself travelled on the epic march from western Greece into the heart of the hostile Persian Empire, and the Anabasis is a rare first-hand account of the events that took place.

As Irish historian John Bagnell Bury said – rather condescendingly – of Xenophon, ‘If he had lived in modern days, he would have been a high-class journalist and pamphleteer, and would have made his fortune as a war correspondent.’

Xenophon was born to an affuent equestrian family c.430 BC, on the outskirts of ancient Athens. As a young boy, he had the privilege of being taught by the Greek philosopher Socrates, who, according to the Anabasis, advised Xenophon to consult the Oracle before joining Cyrus the Younger’s expedition to Persia as a mercenary.

Xenophon did indeed consult the Oracle – asking not whether he should go at all, but to which gods he should pray for success. Much to Socrates’ consternation, the adventure-hungry young man had already determined to leave.

It was the spring of 401 BC. Misled by Cyrus into thinking they were fighting a Persian satrap rather than the far more powerful King of Persia, 10,000 Greek hoplites joined Cyrus’ fighting force on its march into Asia. When they discovered the real aim of the expedition, the Greeks refused to carry on; but their warlike Spartan general, Clearchus, whom Xenophon describes as ‘a thorough soldier and a true lover of fighting’, persuaded them to continue.

Seventy kilometres north of Babylon, Cyrus’ army clashed with the far larger forces of the Persian King at the Battle of Cunaxa, and though Xenophon testifies that the Greeks fought effectively, Cyrus was killed.

Describing the action, he writes,

Cyrus, in apprehension lest the [Persian] king might get round to the rear and cut to pieces the Hellenic body, charged to meet him. Attacking with his 600, he mastered the line of troops
in front of the king, and put to flight the 6,000, cutting down,
as is said, with his own hand their general, Artagerses.

But as soon as the rout commenced, Cyrus’ own 600 themselves, in the ardour of pursuit, were scattered, with the exception of a handful who were left with Cyrus himself – chiefly his table companions, so-called.

Left alone with these, he caught sight of the king, and the close throng about him. Unable longer to contain himself, with a cry, ‘I see the man,’ he rushed at him and dealt a blow at his chest, wounding him through the corselet…

As Cyrus delivered the blow, someone struck him with a javelin under the eye severely; and in the struggle which then ensued between the king and Cyrus and those about them to protect one or other… Cyrus himself fell, and eight of his bravest companions lay on top of him.

So died Cyrus; a man the kingliest and most worthy to rule of all the Persians who have lived…

Given that he was so deeply involved in the events, Xenophon was certainly somewhat unreliable as a narrator – glorifying his own side almost to the point of hagiography.

But this passage does exemplify his dramatic, emotive narrative style. The panache with which he delivers his account of the battle and ensuing retreat has made the Anabasis a popular text among students of the ancient Greek language, and it has been a key source for Classicists and military historians alike.

Continuing the narrative, Xenophon describes how the Greek generals sued for peace. But, despite being promised safe escort, Clearchus and a host of other generals and captains were betrayed and executed.

The retreat of the Ten Thousand

Bereft of leadership and stranded deep in hostile territory, the ‘Ten Thousand’ (as the 10,000 hoplites came to be known) elected Xenophon as their commander, and his subsequent military strategy would go down in history as the archetypal example of
a successful retreat.

Between the hoplites and their homeland were hundreds of miles of rivers, deserts, mountains, and ravines; as well as hostile tribes, and the Persian army in hot pursuit. Beating a hasty retreat, all the while harried by Persian horse-archers, Xenophon formed a body of archers and light cavalry.

When the Persian harrying forces caught up with the Greeks, Xenophon let loose the light cavalry in a shock charge, which succeeded in routing the enemy. Yet more Persian troops replaced the attackers, and the pursuit continued.

Having reached the seemingly impassable Great Zab River, which blocked the route into Armenia, the Ten Thousand appeared to be hemmed in. But then Xenophon’s ingenuity came into play. He ordered all the goats, cows, sheep, and donkeys kept by his forces to be slaughtered, their bodies stuffed with hay, and then stitched together to make a floating bridge across the river.

This allowed the Greeks to cross the water safely. Led by Xenophon, the Greeks continued to battle their way through the mountainous terrain of south-east Turkey, attacking granaries and plundering farms to keep themselves fed.

After a long, bitter winter, they finally reached the Black Sea, across the shores of which lay the Greek islands they called home. Though not quite a victory, their successful return must have tasted sweet.

It is well worth reading through the full text of the Anabasis for a comprehensive and entertaining description of the long retreat, and the numerous battles that took place during it.

Alexander the Great is known to have consulted the work in preparation for his expedition into Asia, with Eunapius, another ancient historian, writing, ‘Alexander the Great would not have become great if there had been no Xenophon.’

This is article was published in the March 2019 issue of Military History Matters.

To read the full analysis, get a copy of the issue from W H Smith, or click here to subscribe to the magazine and have it sent straight to your door every month.

1 Comment

  1. Love the new series and look forward to more scoops. I always assumed ATG had a really good publicist to hype his legend. Now we know he just did his homework. Thanks for clarifying.

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