The Persian Expedition by Xenophon.


The Persian Expedition, probably better known as Anabasis (Ἀνάβασις) was written by the Greek soldier and writer Xenophon in about 370 B.C. Xenophon was a soldier, part of the army known as the Ten Thousand (οἱ Μύριοι) whose goal was to depose Artaxerxes II of Persia, led by Cyrus the Younger, Artaxerxes' brother. The Ten Thousand were largely made up of native Persian soldiers and Greek soldiers: Xenophon was one of the latter.

The action begins in 401 B.C., just three years after the end of the Peloponnesian War (431 B.C. - 404 B.C.). Xenophon explains in the first book (altogether there eight short books) how Cyrus gathered his army and took the slow and difficult march to Babylon, beset with problems such as a shortage of supplies, dissenting and deserting men, and not a small amount of irritability among the troops. Nevertheless they reach their destination, the battle takes place (the Battle of Cunaxa, which is outside present-day Baghdad in Iraq), and Cyrus the Younger is killed. In the ninth chapter of Book I Xenophon writes a eulogy which begins,
This, then, was the end of Cyrus. Of all the Persians who lived after Cyrus the Great, he was the most like a king and the most deserving of an empire, as is admitted by everyone who is known to have been personally acquainted with him. 
And so the fight goes on as news filters down that Cyrus is no more. Eventually the Ten Thousand are forced to retreat and return home after a great many of their generals were executed. This march home takes up much of the book: Xenophon describes the many challenges they faced: the lack of provisions, the demoralised soldiers, bad weather (there is snow, for example, in Armenia and Tiribazus) the lack of generals and leadership, and the various attacks on their way.

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch.
The Persian Expedition is only the second Greek history I've read, the first being History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (411 B.C.), which I struggled with and found a little dry, so I must say I approached Xenophon with some trepidation. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found it not only very readable but also very exciting. I more or less read it in one sitting, which has many disadvantages of course, it's always best to take these types of books a little slower, but I couldn't put it down. It is genuinely exciting and gripping, aside from being very interesting of course. One particularly memorable and famous line comes from the seventh chapter of Book IV: with every mountain passed the army faced a fresh attack until at last they saw the sea:
... Xenophon mounted his horse and, taking Lycus and the cavalry with him, rose forward to give support, and, quite soon, they heard the soldiers shouting out 'The sea! The sea!', and passing the word down the column. Then certainly they all began to run, the rearguard and all, and drove on the baggage animals and the horses at full speed; and when they had all got to the top, the soldiers, with tears in their eyes, embraced each other and their generals and captains.
This joyful shout, "Thálatta! Thálatta!" ("Θάλαττα! θάλαττα!") - "The sea! The sea!" can be found elsewhere in literature. Iris Murdoch used it as a title for her 1978 novel, and it's also quoted in Jame Joyce's Ulysses (1922):
Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks, I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look.
Truly it's a wonderful book and I look forward to another (slower) re-read, and also Hellenica, a continuation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.

Comments

  1. I've heard of the Ten Thousand before, always lauded for their ability to make an exit from Persia together, despite being marooned far from their homes. Something I've heard is that, having no commander, they elected captains for themselves. Did you run across anything like that?

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    1. Yes I did, I think that's about half way through... :)

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  2. i've got this but haven't read it yet. soon to be remedied. tx for the prompt...

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    1. No problem, let me know what you think! :)

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