Xenophon, the Ten Thousand, and the Myth of Er

The Anabasis is indisputably one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. A party of Greek hoplites, betrayed, leaderless, surrounded by enemies, and stranded thousands of miles from home, fight through all obstacles to reach freedom. This all begins when an ambitious satrap poured lies into the ear of the king of the Persian Empire, accusing his younger brother Cyrus of plotting against him. The King of Kings arrested him and was about to put him to death but Cyrus was freed by the intercession of their mother. Although he was released and restored to his position, he knew that Tisaphernes was never going to stop maligning him and that his brother was sooner or later going to believe his lies. His mother could not protect him forever, and his only salvation was to take the crown for himself. He began to gather an army. The lessons of Marathon, Thermopylae, and Plataea had been learned and Cyrus wanted Greek hoplites in his army.

He began recruiting in Ionia, offering generous pay to any Greeks who would fight under his banners and he soon accumulated a sizable band. He didn’t want to tell them how far into the interior he was about to take them, nor that he was leading them into battle against the King of Kings. He lied, claiming that they were going to fight one much smaller, weaker enemy, then another, and all the while he led them farther and farther away from the sea and into the heart of the Persian Empire. The army could be deceived only so often, and eventually realizing who their enemy truly was, they grew angry, fearful, and mutinous. Their generals, who were close to Cyrus, called them together and spoke to them. They pointed out to the men how far that they’d come and how much more difficult it would be for them to turn back and return the whole way by themselves rather than to go forward as part of a mighty host. They reminded them how good Cyrus had been to them up to now, and how much more he could do for them once, with their help, he became the richest and most powerful man on earth. They also conveyed Cyrus’ promise of a great sum in silver to every man who marched with him.

The Greeks saw that they could turn and go back through many dangers with nothing or push forward and perhaps win great glory and riches. Cyrus had treated them well, and his consideration and his generosity won them over and they stayed with him. The armies of the great king and the aspiring usurper came together and clashed at a place named Cunaxa, between the Tigris and Euphrates not far from the ancient site of Babylon in the very cradle of civilization. The Greeks advanced and they drove their enemies before them. Cyrus and Artaxerxes lined up opposite on another, and if the stories are to be believed, brother fought brother hand to hand. Cyrus wounded Artaxerxes, but he himself was struck down and killed. The Greeks had gone off in pursuit of their foes and they knew nothing of the fate that had befallen their benefactor and master. Convinced that they had shared in a great victory, they returned to their own camp only to find it plundered and learn that their benefactor and master was slain. The rest of Cyrus army had been scattered and the Greeks alone were left to face the wrath of the victorious King of Kings.

The Greeks were still intact as a fighting force and very formidable and Artaxerxes had no wish to needlessly maul his own army after it had already suffered through a great battle. He offered the Greeks safe passage back to their homes, sealing his word with solemn oaths to the gods. The Greek army and a host of Persians then began marching back along parallel tracks. There was great suspicion and animosity between the two sides, and the Greeks saw that the Persians observed them closely, as if waiting for some moment of weakness when the parts of their force became separated on the march or during some river crossing, or grown complacent and inattentive they neglected to post watch or conduct proper reconnaissance. The two camps were always sited miles apart, but foragers collecting firewood, water, and food ran afoul of one another and there were clashes between small parties.

The generals of the Greeks feared that one of these small brawls might embroil both armies into a full battle, and so their supreme leader had an interview with Tisaphernes who commanded the Persians. He explained the fears of the Greeks to the satrap. Tisaphernes answered by reminding Clearchus of the huge numbers of the Persian host. The Persians had cavalry and could strike the Greeks and ride away untouched as they, encumbered with their heavy helmets, cuirasses, and shields, could only lumber after them only making themselves more tired and thirsty than they already were. There were mountains after mountains, and if the Persians should ascend these heights they could never be dislodged. There was river after river and the Greeks could ford these only by their sufferance, and sometimes had to be ferried across. He could wipe the Greeks out whenever he wished, but rather than doing so he had sworn to the gods to conduct them back home. Why would he now bring on himself the retribution of the gods and the contempt of all mankind, simply to do what he could have done all along? Clearchus was convinced and he agreed that he and the other Greek generals would meet Tisaphernes for a formal parley. When they heard of this proposal, the other leaders of the Greeks were mistrustful but Clearchus reassured them. They entered Tisaphernes’ tent under the inviolable terms of parley, but he betrayed them, slaughtering the retinue that had accompanied them, seizing them, and later putting them to death.

 

After this treachery, there was an open state of war. The Greeks elected new leaders and they fought the Persians off as they marched for home. Horses before used as pack animals were mounted for cavalry, and some islanders among them skilled in the use of the sling, fashioned some of these weapons and outdistanced the slingers and archers of the Persians. Tisaphernes suffered so much in these encounters that he left off his pursuit. The Greeks pushed on into the high country and here they had to fight through one tribe after another. Day after day, mile after mile, they marched and fought, climbing over mountains, stumbling through snows, swimming across rivers. Clambering up yet another mountain, the Greeks heard their scouts shouting about something. Certain they were under attack, they rushed forward to their aid until they could hear their cries more clearly. The sea, the sea! The cry was taken up and passed down the column. From the vanguard to the rearguard, all began to run until reaching the summit they saw the waters glistening on the horizon. Their faces glistening with tears, they fell into one another’s arms, jumping and sobbing for joy. They erect a cairn to forever mark the spot where they sighted their salvation, and then descended to the Greek town that waited to welcome them.

A touching end to a moving story, but the Ten Thousand reach the sea only two thirds of the way through the story. In a five-act plot, the climax comes just before the end, but many tales have leisurely endings. The final act may be drawn out. Companions on the adventure will say their affectionate goodbyes. The long-lost son will be sighted from the front porch. Wives, children, and parents will run out to meet him. The one given up for lost, mourned, remembered, and cherished is now come back from the grave. He is embraced, hugged, kissed. The fatted calf is slain for the feast and there is joy all around. There is no such reunion. The Greeks keep heading for home but then they waver and ultimately turn back. The rulers of the cities they enter see them as pests if not as invaders. Some wish to recruit them, some to expel them. In the end, they enter the service of a brutal Thracian king, deposed but determined to retake his throne. The Greeks fight for him, and raise him to greater power, glory, and riches than ever before, and in so doing they butcher the Thracian peasantry, burn their villages, and take the youngest, strongest, and fairest among them for slaves. Seuthes proves ungrateful in his power and his pride, and he withholds their pay. The Greeks abandon his service and leave Europe going back to Asia to fight against their old enemy Tisaphernes.

This seems a disappointing and disgraceful ending to the story of men who only wished to go home in peace. Yet these Greeks only really longed for home when they despaired of life. They were few who fought against many, and we feel for them; we root for them; we forget that they are mercenaries. They fought their own way to freedom. They don’t owe anything to anyone. It is through their own strength and their own courage that they survived. We the readers might deplore their crimes but we the readers did nothing for them. If it is we who delivered them, we may have grounds to reproach them. These men never stopped being what they are. We forgot who they are as we were caught up in the story. And yet there is a story. Why?

Xenophon wrote his tale decades later. He told it because others were telling the same story, but he wanted his version to prevail, a version in which he and his comrades are heroes. Then, as now, the mercenary, a man who fights and kills for money and not for anger or conviction was regarded as a figure of odium. Xenophon tries to explain his presence in an army of mercenaries, and to make clear that he was neither a general, a captain, nor an ordinary soldier. He speaks of his camaraderie and solidarity with one Proxenus who was already involved in the enterprise and who persuaded him to come along. He expounds on the great qualities of Cyrus, his virtues, his magnanimity, his charms of character. He would have us believe that he took this Persian prince as a friend, and was personally loyal to him, that he was so dazzled by a claimant to a throne that he and every other Greek reviled that he journeyed to the ends of the earth in his service. These ten thousand Greek mercenaries had stolen food from peasants who were already starving, had seized captives as slaves, had put innocents to the sword all along their journey long before Seuthes, but Xenophon glides over these actions or tries to excuse them. He stresses that the army must find food to survive. This is true, but they’d come to these lands as paid combatants, greedy, rapacious, violent men lured by the prospect of slaves, booty and glory.

When the ten thousand saw the sea, they knew they’d survived their ordeal. But they were the same men as they were before. They’d taken nothing away from their sufferings, their misfortunes, or their remarkable escape. In The Republic, Plato recounts the story of Er, a man who came back from the dead to tell the living about what lay beyond. In his description, every soul comes back to this world, and these souls may pick the fate they wish in an order fixed by lottery. Every soul takes his turn and selects the life that seems best. Some pick beauty, some fame, some power, some wealth, some children and snug domesticity, some adventure and renown. The soul who fared worst of all in the lottery and who was made to wait and draw last was Odysseus. There were many souls, but far more destinies, and Odysseus sorted through many still left over and neglected by all the rest before he chose. The hero who had won the greatest war ever fought, who had outwitted monsters, who had been favored by gods and goddesses, who’d survived epic voyages, wanted nothing more than the quietest, most ordinary, and most unremarkable of lives. He’d learned from everything he’d gone through, and that wisdom taught him to eschew all human vanity. The saddest part of The Anabasis is that the Ten Thousand learned nothing.

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