Monday, 9 April 2018

Review: The Persian Expedition, by Xenophon

The story of the Ten Thousand, as told in this book (aka the Anabasis), used to be one of the most commonly taught in British schools, and it’s not hard to see why. Ten thousand Greek mercenaries are hired by Cyrus, younger brother of the Persian king Artaxerxes, to defeat his brother and put Cyrus on the throne. Although the battle of Cunaxa is won by Cyrus’ forces, Cyrus himself ends up dead.

The Greeks are a thousand miles from home and surrounded by enemy troops who vastly outnumber them. Going back the way they came is impossible because the supply situation, even with Cyrus helping, was dangerously difficult.

The Persian Expedition, written by Xenophon (one of the army’s leaders), is the story of how the army got back to safety. It’s thought (perhaps along with no longer extant versions by other writers) to have been the geographical and moral inspiration behind dreams of invading Persia, which eventually bloomed under Philip II and Alexander of Macedon.

As well as fending off some Persian attacks, the army grapples with unfamiliar territories and peoples, keeping itself fed and watered, and, perhaps most dangerously, internal political wrangling and the threat of disintegrating obedience once safety seems to have been reached.

It is not in the top rank of classical history. Xenophon lacks the rigour of a Polybius or Thucydides (although he also tends to avoid eight clause sentences...), and has a bias similar to Josephus, but not balanced by the same level of detail and insight. This may be because Xenophon wrote of the journey decades after it happened.

However, it is an interesting book. The failure of Persia (to be fair, they didn’t try as hard as they could’ve) to prevent the Greeks from leaving led those across the Aegean to believe that moral decay had made the orientals weak as well as decadent. The army hung together very well so long as it felt in danger, but as safety seemed at hand, things started to splinter and there was seemingly little gratitude to those who had helped lead the men out of the fire.

The innkeeper considers this to be three and a half out of five pints.


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