BMCR 2007.07.41

Xenophon’s Retreat: Greece, Persia and the End of the Golden Age

, Xenophon's retreat : Greece, Persia, and the end of the Golden Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. xiii, 248 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0674023560 $27.95.

This is a time to be reading and teaching Xenophon, and not simply because of a recent wave of scholarly interest.1 Xenophon and the rest of the Greeks in the pretender Cyrus’s army formed their ranks for the Battle of Cunaxa somewhere near the present location of Baghdad International Airport. Early plans for the current administration’s invasion of Iraq included a program of infiltration with the code name “Anabasis.”2 (What on earth were they thinking?) As America and Europe go over old ground in our struggle to keep and clarify core values in conflict with the Islamic world, it is worth remembering that, as Robin Waterfield reminds us, “Orientalism . . . is the child of panhellenism” (p. 198). The Anabasis is a good place to begin understanding the Greek and thus Western way of inventing the East and defining ourselves through contrast, and sometimes conflict, with it. Waterfield’s book is a good place to begin understanding the Anabasis.

On the armature of Xenophon’s narrative Waterfield sculpts a readable, accurate recounting of the Greek march up-country and the retreat after Cunaxa. Digressions on hoplite warfare and chapters on “Greeks and Persians” and “Xenophon and His Times” supply background and context for Cyrus’s expedition and the Greek campaign and accommodate Waterfield’s intended reader, who has only a sketchy knowledge of Greek history. (Those with more specialized knowledge may disagree on points like Waterfield’s presentation of the shield signal at Marathon [p. 34] or the Peace or Peaces of Kallias [pp. 56-57], but at no point will the naive reader be seriously misled, and, if he or she is curious, Waterfield has provided sound notes and an annotated bibliography.) Waterfield knows that Xenophon wrote the Anabasis some thirty years after the events that it describes, and he reads Xenophon’s work as a story of gradual disillusionment with youthful hopes and as a counter to the panhellenist, aggressive propaganda of fourth-century authors and politicians like Isocrates (pp. 206-208). I wish I had known this book when I read the Anabasis with my students in the fall of 2006. When I read it again in 2007, my students will learn much from Waterfield’s accessible introduction.

Waterfield begins with the Battle of Cunaxa (pp. 1-19) and ends with a discussion of its effects on history (pp. 197-212). He supplements Xenophon’s narrative with details from Plutarch, Diodorus, and other sources and with his own interpretation of Persian tactics. Artaxerxes II, Waterfield believes, was a better strategist than Xenophon suggests, and those who served him were better field commanders. Tissaphernes in particular gets credit for neutralizing the best component of Cyrus’s force. His retreat in the face of the Greek charge was not the panicked rout that Xenophon describes ( Anabasis I.8,19), but a deliberate feint intended to draw the Greek phalanx away from the battle and prevent Clearchus from carrying out Cyrus’s plan (p. 18). The Greek hoplites on the right of Cyrus’s force should have defeated Artaxerxes’s left wing and then wheeled to flank the royal center and attack the Great King’s guards and the King himself; as both Cyrus and his brother knew, the battle, like all eastern affrays, was essentially “single combat, massively multiplied” (p. 15) between monarch and pretender. The one who survived would remain or become Great King.

Waterfield’s account makes better tactical sense than Xenophon’s narrative and explains why some have mistakenly believed that Clearchus, the hoplite commander, deliberately disobeyed Cyrus’s order to lead the phalanx against the enemy center. He could not unhook his right flank from the Euphrates to wheel left until he had driven back the Persian forces on his front. He did not carry out the second part of his orders because his hoplites, aroused by blood-lust at the sight of their enemies’ backs, “lacked the discipline to cut short their pursuit” (p. 18). Although Xenophon was stationed with the Greek force ( ἀπὸ τοῦ Ἑλληνικοῦ Anab. I.8), he may not have been in a position to hear the details of Cyrus’s last-minute order shouted through an interpreter ( Κῦρος παρελαύνων αὐτὸς σὺν Πίγρητι τῷ ἑρμηνεῖ καὶ ἄλλοις τρισὶν ἢ τέτταρσι τῷ Κλεάρχῳ ἐβόα Anab I.8,12), since he appears to have been too far away to know exactly how many staff riders accompanied Cyrus, and he had to rely on hearsay for one detail of the hoplite phalanx’s fighting technique ( λέγουσι δέ τινες Anab. I.8,18). In any event, he reduced the order to a simple command to attack the enemy center because the King was there.

Wherever Xenophon was, he was intimate enough with Cyrus to expect to receive orders directly from him and pass them on, for, as the forces were drawing up for battle, “Xenophon, an Athenian, having approached [Cyrus] from the Greek lines so as to meet him, asked if he had any orders to pass on” ( ἀπὸ τοῦ Ἑλληνικοῦ Ξενοφῶν Ἀθηναῖος, πελάσας ὡς συναντῆσαι ἤρετο εἴ τι παραγγέλοι Anab. I.8,15). Like many readers, Waterfield misses this first introduction of the author into his narrative; he notices Xenophon only when he steps onto stage in the crisis of leadership after the Greek generals had been assassinated ( Anab. III.1,4; cf. Waterfield p. 121).

Waterfield’s account of Cunaxa illustrates several of the strengths of this book—its clear narrative line, its careful attention to evidence of all kinds including terrain (in 2004 Waterfield drove over much of the route of the Ten Thousand), and its willingness to venture explanations of motive where evidence fails—and also reveals what seems to me the book’s one weakness. Not only can we not be sure where Xenophon was at Cunaxa, but we also sometimes have to seek the author in his narrative more carefully than Waterfield has done.

Somewhere in the mountains of eastern Turkey, the Cyreans, as Waterfield likes to call them, find their passage opposed by the local inhabitants, who hold a pass against them. Cheirisophus, commanding the van, can see no way through except the obvious road strongly defended by the natives. “Wait,” says Xenophon, “I have two prisoners, which we captured for this very purpose!” ( Ὁ δὲ Ξενοφῶν λέγειἈλλ’ ἐγὼ ἔχω δύο ἄνδρας Anab. IV.1,22.) They interrogate the prisoners. One refuses to give any useful information, despite every kind of threat. When it becomes clear that he will not talk, he is killed in front of the other ( ἐπεὶ δὲ οὐδὲν ὠφέλιμον ἔλεγεν, ὁρῶντος τοῦ ἑτέρου κατεσφάγη, Anab. IV.1,23). The second man then agrees to show the Cyreans a passable track around the pass. He adds that the first man kept silence because he had a daughter living in the direction that the army had to take. Xenophon does not need to spell out what the man feared would happen to his daughter.

It is a nasty story, as Waterfield says—”a barbaric act carried out not by barbarians, but by the Greeks themselves” (p. 133). “Xenophon’s dead-pan style,” he adds, “which permits no editorial comment, leaves his readers not just to imagine the details, but to appreciate the gap that too often exists between military necessity and moral virtue” (p. 134). Another gap in the story, though, yawns between the triumphant first person singular direct speech of “Ἀλλ’ ἐγὼ ἔχω δύο ἄνδρας” and the third person passive of κατεσφάγη. From this gap questions emerge. Who gave the order to kill the first prisoner? Once again, where was Xenophon?

Because Waterfield reads the Anabasis as a text of the 360s (p. 52) and foregrounds the melancholy sense of disillusion that runs through its narrative, he sometimes fails to interrogate Xenophon’s careful reticence. That task, though, can be left to the fortunate readers who will turn from this first-rate introduction, as they surely will, to the Anabasis itself.


1. E.g. Robin Lane Fox, ed., The Long March: Xenophon and the Ten Thousand (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), and Christopher Tuplin, ed., Xenophon and his World, Historia Einzelschriften 172 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004).

2. Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006), p. 6. I am grateful to Page Dubois for calling my attention to this instance of classical reception.