Category Archive 'Anabasis'

14 Jan 2019

Xenophon’s Anabasis

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Bronze horse and rider, found in the sea off Cape Artemision. Late Hellenistic sculpture, National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, 150-125 BC.

Eve Browning recommends reading Xenophon’s Anabasis, an all-time great military memoir coincidentally set in much the same territory that US troops also recently traversed.

The band of mercenary soldiers had been on the move through hostile territory for several months when they were told they had enlisted under a lie. They weren’t marching to put down a rebellion; they were instead marching in rebellion. Offers of special duty pay from their leader, Cyrus the Younger, however, calmed their anger and doubt, and on they advanced, dusty boots through the desert, as the heat of late-summer Persia rose around them in shimmering waves. The villages they passed by were hostile and strange: alien languages, customs, religions. There was little fresh water.

They has assembled under Cyrus in order to overthrow his brother and rival, Artaxerxes II, king of Persia. Before they reached his defensive line, they were harried on their flanks and from behind, depleting morale and using up their supplies. At a small village named Canaxa 50 miles north of Baghdad, they finally met the Persian king’s forces, on a day when the noon temperature could have fried a pork chop. As the battle began, Cyrus rashly charged Artaxerxes himself. He was pierced through by a javelin thrown by one of Artaxerxes’ guards, and died on the spot.

With heavy casualties and no reason to continue fighting, the mercenaries fell back. They were bleeding deserters. Those who had been recruited near Sardis and Smyrna, and who spoke some of the local languages, melted away. The remainders built camp and waited, parlayed, moved camp, skirmished, and waited some more. In the pitiless heat, now without communication or direction, they discussed their next moves with no particular conviction. After nearly a month of this, an envoy came: would their unit leaders please come to Artaxerxes’ tent and converse about their plans? The leaders agreed. The encamped troops waited for word on the parley. It was not until they saw Artaxerxes’ riders carrying the heads of their former leaders that the truth dawned on them. The campaign was lost. In order to survive, they must disperse.

So began this band of about 10,000 mercenaries’ two-year journey out of hostile country, from the heart of Persia to the shores of the Black Sea. Among the most important of the new leaders was a youngish Greek named Xenophon. By journey’s end, when he finally returned to Athens, Xenophon would have served the equivalent of six consecutive modern deployments and, like any modern soldier sent repeatedly into combat zones, he would be marked for life by what he experienced on that doomed expedition and the subsequent long march through winter mountains to the sea.


I read it recently myself (in the Greek, using a translation open on my knee for a trot) with considerable pleasure.

Xenophon, who also wrote treatises on Hunting and Horsemanship and Cavalry Tactics, was a gentleman who would have been right at home in a British Imperial regimental mess.

Just before the battle at Canaxa, Cyrus notices the Greek mercenaries whispering among themselves. The would-be-king becomes suspicious and asks Xenophon the Athenian: “What were they whispering about?”

“They were only exchanging the watchwords.” explains Xenophon.

“What were those?” inquires Cyrus.

“Zeus Soter kai Nike.” [Zeus the Savior and Victory!], Xenophon repies.

03 Jul 2011

Nike of Varna

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Gold earrings depicting the goddess Nike [Victory]. Hellenistic (Late 4th Century B.C), Varna Archaeological Museum, Varna, Bulgaria

Yesterday, a Facebook friend Ekaterina Ilieva Ilieva posted a photograph of these extraordinary Hellenistic portraits of the Greek goddess Nike in the form of earrings.

(The earrings can be seen worn today in a 0:26 video here.)

I wanted to quote a favorite passage of mine from Xenophon illustrating the importance of Nike to Greek soldiers in the same period, but Facebook’s programmed formatting truncated the quotation, so I’m making my intended comment into a blog post.

Xenophon’s Anabasis is an account of the Middle Eastern campaign of ten thousand Greek mercenaries employed by Cyrus the Younger in an attempt to wrest the throne of Persia from his brother Artaxerxes II in 401 B.C.

Xenophon’s account of the Battle of Cunaxa, which took place 70 km. north of Baghdad on the left bank of the Euphrates, contains reference to the Greeks invoking Nike in the watchwords selected before the battle.

Anabasis, A, 8.6-8.17.:

Κῦρος δὲ καὶ ἱππεῖς τούτου ὅσον ἑξακόσιοι, ὡπλισμένοι θώραξι μὲν αὐτοὶ καὶ παραμηριδίοις καὶ κράνεσι πάντες πλὴν Κύρου: Κῦρος δὲ ψιλὴν ἔχων τὴν κεφαλὴν εἰς τὴν μάχην καθίστατο. …

καὶ ἐν τούτῳ τῷ καιρῷ τὸ μὲν βαρβαρικὸν στράτευμα ὁμαλῶς προῄει, τὸ δὲ Ἑλληνικὸν ἔτι ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ μένον συνετάττετο ἐκ τῶν ἔτι προσιόντων. καὶ ὁ Κῦρος παρελαύνων οὐ πάνυ πρὸς αὐτῷ στρατεύματι κατεθεᾶτο ἑκατέρωσε ἀποβλέπων εἴς τε τοὺς πολεμίους καὶ τοὺς φίλους.

ἰδὼν δὲ αὐτὸν ἀπὸ τοῦ Ἑλληνικοῦ Ξενοφῶν Ἀθηναῖος, πελάσας ὡς συναντῆσαι ἤρετο εἴ τι παραγγέλλοι: ὁ δ᾽ ἐπιστήσας εἶπε καὶ λέγειν ἐκέλευε πᾶσιν ὅτι καὶ τὰ ἱερὰ καλὰ καὶ τὰ σφάγια καλά.

ταῦτα δὲ λέγων θορύβου ἤκουσε διὰ τῶν τάξεων ἰόντος, καὶ ἤρετο τίς ὁ θόρυβος εἴη. ὁ δὲ [Κλέαρχος] εἶπεν ὅτι σύνθημα παρέρχεται δεύτερον ἤδη. καὶ ὃς ἐθαύμασε τίς παραγγέλλει καὶ ἤρετο ὅ τι εἴη τὸ σύνθημα. ὁ δ᾽ ἀπεκρίνατο: Ζεὺς σωτὴρ καὶ νίκη.

ὁ δὲ Κῦρος ἀκούσας, –ἀλλὰ δέχομαί τε, ἔφη, καὶ τοῦτο ἔστω. ταῦτα δ᾽ εἰπὼν εἰς τὴν αὑτοῦ χώραν ἀπήλαυνε. καὶ οὐκέτι τρία ἢ τέτταρα στάδια διειχέτην τὼ φάλαγγε ἀπ᾽ ἀλλήλων ἡνίκα ἐπαιάνιζόν τε οἱ Ἕλληνες καὶ ἤρχοντο ἀντίοι ἰέναι τοῖς πολεμίοις.

Cyrus was with his bodyguard of cavalry about six hundred strong, all armed with corselets like Cyrus, and cuirasses and helmets; but not so Cyrus: he went into battle with head unhelmeted. …

At this time the barbarian army was evenly advancing, and the Hellenic division was still riveted to the spot, completing its formation as the various contingents came up. Cyrus, riding past at some distance from the lines, glanced his eye first in one direction and then in the other, so as to take a complete survey of friends and foes;

when Xenophon the Athenian, seeing him, rode up from the Hellenic quarter to meet him, asking him whether he had any orders to give. Cyrus, pulling up his horse, begged him to make the announcement generally known that the omens from the victims, internal and external alike, were good.

While he was still speaking, he heard a confused murmur passing through the ranks, and asked what it meant. The other replied that it was the watchword being passed down for the second time. Cyrus wondered who had given the order, and asked what the watchword was. On being told it was “Zeus the Saviour and Victory,” he replied,

“I accept it; so let it be,” and with that remark rode away to his own position. And now the two battle lines were no more than three or four furlongs apart, when the Hellenes began chanting the paean, and at the same time advanced against the enemy.

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