Thalatta! Thalatta!

by Victor Davis Hanson

The New Criterion

In spring 401 B.C., amid the detritus of the recently ended twenty-seven-year-long war between Athens and Sparta, about 13,000 Greek mercenary soldiers marched eastward in the pay of the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger. The Greeks weren’t quite sure where they were ultimately headed. Most of them at first didn’t seem to care — even if it seemed unlikely that they were simply hired, as told, to put down some quarreling among insurrectionist Persian satraps.

Instead, the so-called Ten Thousand put their trust in their Spartan drill-masters, chiefly the brutish Clearchus, and kept pressing ahead. They wanted money, and were inured to military adventure after long experience fighting for all sides in the Peloponnesian War. Indeed, this ancient Wild Bunch figured that any one of them in a fair fight could lick ten Persians, and there were lots to be made and little to fear. Most had been nursed on stories of the Greek victories at Marathon and Plataea, and rightly figured that in such numbers they could do pretty much as they pleased in Asia.

Not too long after starting out from Sardis, the Ten Thousand discovered that Cyrus really meant to use them to kill his brother King Artaxerxes II and wrest away kingship of the vast Persian Empire. No matter — money was still money, and Cyrus had always been a reliable friend to Greeks who could deliver on promises of even more. After a leisurely six-month march, by September 401, Cyrus’s army ended up on the Euphrates at the plain of Cunaxa, not far from present-day Baghdad, where his invading army finally ran into the much larger forces of the king. Cunaxa soon proved why these clumsy, heavily-armed, and querulous Greek foot soldiers were worth bringing along on a 1,500 mile trek from the Aegean.

* * *

The Greek spearmen easily broke Artaxerxes’s far larger but variegated forces, had only one wounded in the bargain — and, at the moment of their victory, figured they were now going to be rich beyond comprehension. But then catastrophe struck, as a rash Cyrus — on the other side of the army — rushed wildly out at the sight of his panicking brother, was swarmed, and perished.

Not long after, both former friends and old enemies turned in unison on the mercenaries. What followed — unlike the later disastrous retreats in the Western collective memory, such as Romans slaughtered after Crassus’s disaster at Carrhae or Napoleon’s apocalyptic flight from Czarist Russia — was a gallant nine-month trek over some 1,500 miles northward to the Black Sea, and then west along its shore to European Byzantium. Somehow, the Ten Thousand, through snow, ice, ambush, and famine, saved three-quarters of their force and proved to be folk far more resolute and innovative than mere hired thugs.

We know all this because in his old age, Xenophon the Athenian — the prolific author of histories, biography, and how-to manuals — wrote a comprehensive memoir of his own youthful role, thirty-something years earlier, in saving the Greek army. Although he employed the optimistic title Anabasis (the first-leg “march up” into the interior of Iraq), in fact, Xenophon’s account really gets going only after the Greeks were dry-gulched at Cunaxa. So the core of the work is really a “Katabasis,” detailing the heroic slog through the cold and snows of upper Iraq, Kurdistan, and Armenia to the safety of the Black Sea, ending with a “Parabasis,” along the southern coast of the sea back toward Byzantium and Europe.

Classicists used to be fascinated with the Anabasis. It seemed an instructive primer on how later Greek generals from the Spartan King Agesilaos to Alexander the Great had prepped their armies for their own later, successful invasions of Persia. And whatever the brutish nature of the combatants, how the Ten Thousand survived — voting on critical decisions, assigning work by committee, creating new weapons and tactics — seemed to be a testament to Hellenic genius and innovation itself.

* * *

Yet the late twentieth century has not been so kind either to Xenophon or his march up country. The last few decades especially have seen an understandable resurgence in the study of Thucydides and Herodotus, brilliant authors of histories that also far better meet modern postmodern and anthropological tastes. Despite his philosophical pretensions, Xenophon does not stack up as such a seminal thinker, as one who could employ his narrative of warring Greeks for higher purposes. You seem to get only what you see in the Anabasis — and it is not quite a war between Athens and Sparta or the salvation of Greece from Eastern autocracy, much less Thucydidean insight on the interplay between culture and man’s nature.

Xenophon’s Greek, also, is straightforward, lacking long antitheses and elaborate subordination. The speeches serve the events at hand and are not used as explications of human nature. The narrative of the Anabasis moves along in predictable chronological fashion. For all those reasons the work often has been assigned as the first prose text encountered by second-year Greek students — which has only seemed to cement the author’s reputation for pedestrian thinking and expression.

Then came the politically correct age. The very notion that thousands of greedy Greek male killers would invade eastern peoples, bent on plunder and profit was bad enough. But when a Westerner chronicled the entire fiasco, informed by Eurocentric prejudices about effete Persians and duplicitous Armenians, there was no romance in survival over terrible odds. Recollections referring to the author in the third person, whether Xenophon’s or Caesar’s, naturally earn in our skeptical age charges of self-serving fabrication or at least conceit. And so much of what has been written in the last two decades about the Anabasisuses Xenophon as a locus classicus to take off on Western triumphalism, male supremacy, and colonialism.

Perhaps September 11, and the subsequent toppling of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, reignited some interest in this otherwise obscure tale of Western adventurism come to naught — even if bin Laden did not include it with the Crusades and the Reconquista in his litany of still unpunished Western sins. In any case, in March 2003, the Americans marched up the Tigris-Euphrates corridor, not far from sites like Cunaxa (and Alexander’s later masterpiece battle at Gaugamela), in relatively small numbers, intent on toppling a despot, and otherwise supremely confident, despite their relative ignorance of what they were getting into.

Robin Lane Fox, best known to the public for an engaging biography of Alexander the Great, organized a symposium on the Anabasis in October and November 2001 at Oxford University. Yale University Press has recently published the subsequent twelve essays under the somewhat confusing title The Long March — while the trek was long, it had little to do with anything resembling Mao’s more famous escape.1

It should be admitted at the outset that there is little chance that non-Classicists will read this book. Besides the fact that few Americans anymore know who Xenophon was, essay titles range from “Sex, Gender and The Other in Xenophon’s Anabasis” (editor Fox) to “You Can’t Go Home Again: Displacement and Identity in Xenophon’s Anabasis” (John Ma). Yet, compared to most such collections in the academic genre, The Long Marchturns out to be an engaging read.

Thomas Braun (“Dangerous Liaisons”) gives a nice portrait of both the Spartan mercenary warlord Clearchus and the Persian Prince Cyrus. But the charm of his essay, aside from his constant references to having studied classics with the greats (like Tony Andrewes and Russell Meiggs), is politely stripping away the sometimes warm and fuzzy Xenophonean veneer from the tyrannical Clearchus and the would-be fratricide Cyrus — and from Xenophon himself, who, after all, went to kill others largely in pursuit of profit.

In “Xenophon’s Ten Thousand as a Fighting Force,” Michael Whitby explains how the march offers a valuable prognosis of an evolving Greek warfare to come. While hoplite crashes no longer constituted the main arena of war, phalanxes of heavy infantry still could change an entire theater — if generals were wise enough to incorporate light-armed cavalry and archers into a multifaceted army without worrying about social connotation or past tradition that often hampered military efficacy. The Ten Thousand, then, really were a precursor to Alexander, who crushed his enemies at four set-pieces with phalangites, but who also got to those battlefields only through the use of almost every other type of troops imaginable.

James Roy reminds us that most of the Ten Thousand were Peloponnesians, and then, again, mostly Arcadian hoplites. Neither rich nor poor, they were probably recruited from hardscrabble farming families, on the rocky plateaus of Arcadia, who went east not so much to escape poverty as to find wealth in good wages and booty that might earn them, like Xenophon himself, a nice retirement estate back in rural Greece.

* * *

Tim Rood, who contributes an essay to the Fox volume on the speeches in the Anabasis and the resurgence of Panhellenism, offers in a new book almost everything that we might have wished — and perhaps far more besides—about just two words, “The Sea! The Sea!” (thalatta, thalatta), that Xenophon’s men hollered after catching a glimpse of the Black Sea. The survivors were almost done in after their harrowing winter escape from Iraq. Atop Mt. Theches near Trapezus, the unexpected sight of the coast far below meant salvation and a return to civilization among the Hellenic communities along the southern shore.

Rood exhaustively traces how the refrain came to symbolize both a universal sigh of relief after an impossible ordeal survived, and, more specifically, a theme in almost every European adventure story of survival in the East. Because so many Edwardians and Victorians, in addition to American and Continental elites, had been nursed on the Anabasis as part of their obligatory Latin and Greek childhood education, it was no surprise that the adventure story stayed with them for life, whether they evoked it at the desk or out in the wilds of the British Empire.

And what a gallery of illustrious men (and women) Xenophon’s march has inspired, from fiction writers and poets like Daniel Defoe, Louis MacNeice, and Mary Shelley, to the real men of action like the Norwegian adventurers of the Arctic, T. E. Lawrence, and the desperate at Dunkirk. Novels and stories were entitled “Thalatta,” and “O, you Xenophon!” and the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon’s Xenophon — a recreation of the shouters from the heights of Mt. Theches — was for a time inspiration for the Philhellenic romance of early-nineteenth-century London.

Of course, Rood acknowledges that, more recently, the image of Xenophon has devolved from that of confident Western triumphalism to the postmodern angst of ending up where you don’t belong. But the sheer richness of his examples — and the wide variety of both leftists and imperialists who were inspired by the Anabasis — reflects the timeless power of human ordeal and triumph.

After Rood’s (often mind-boggling) catalogue of Xenophonisms, one wonders: If Thucydides and Tacitus were the superior ancient historians, why is it that the ripples of the Anabasis proved far broader over some 2,500 years of Western creative experience? The answer is that for all the brutality of the Ten Thousand, Alexander at the Indus, or Hernan Cortés burning his ships at Vera Cruz, a Xenophon, Arrian, or Bernal Diaz captures a desire for something big, something heroic — however dark — in all of us.

1. The Long March: Xenophon and the Ten Thousand, edited by Robin Lane Fox; Yale University Press, 376 pages, $45.
2. “The Sea! The Sea!”: The Shout of the Ten Thousand in the Modern Imagination, by Tim Rood; Duckworth, 256 pages, $35.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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