Anabasis

Xenophon

Book cover

This started out pretty good, but ended up disappointing. There were two things that had made me want to read it for a while. First, it is mentioned in one of the stories in Steinbeck’s book “The Pastures of Heaven,” wherein the father of one of the characters reads Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon every year. “Everything mankind is capable of is recorded in these three books,” the father says. Second, the epigraph of one of the chapters of “Watership Down” (one of my favorite books) is from “Anabasis.”

The story itself starts out very promisingly, and it is clear to me why Adams chose it as an epigraph in WD–it is a fairly similar story in general contours. It is the story of a group of Greek mercenary soldiers who are working for Cyrus, the brother of the king of Persia. Cyrus decides to attack his brother for the throne and is defeated. The Greeks, often referred to as “the 10,000,” are left stranded in the middle of Persia with very few resources and fewer allies. The book is the story of their efforts to get home. The story is similar not only to WD in this respect, but also to the recent TV series of “Battlestar Galactica,” another favorite of mine. It is just a very engaging idea for a story.

In the beginning, the book delivers. Cyrus is an engaging character, but then he is killed. There is some pretty cool strategy/diplomacy involved as the Greeks try to figure out whether various Persians are friendly or not. In outside commentary I have read on it, the book is often hailed as depicting a model in miniature of Greek self-government. This is true to some extent, but in most cases, Xenophon (the character) just presents some convincing argument, asks if anyone has other ideas, and then everyone just goes along with him, so not really that exciting.

I think the main weakness of the book, though, is that it just unravels at the end. While it starts out with the grand deeds of the battle between Cyrus and Artaxerxes, it devolves into the tales of the mercenary army helping various minor Thracian lords overthrow one another. It has so little resolution that I was literally surprised when the book was over that there wasn’t another chapter (I read it on Kindle). I guess I can’t really blame Xenophon for this as the story seems to be a more or less straightforward recording of historical events, and it is probably an accurate depiction of the life of a mercenary hoplite–short periods of glorious deeds, interspersed with interminable stretches of long marches, near-starvation, and minor conflicts. That’s the advantage of a mythologized story such as “The Odyssey,” which can end with a real punch.

If I recall correctly, in Lit Hum when we read Thucydides and Herodotus, we only read selections from each. I think that would probably be the better way for a casual reader to encounter Xenophon as well.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars

IndieBound