What was Xenophon's purpose for writing the Anabasis?

by recardocar

What was Xenophon’s purpose for writing the Anabasis?

Xenophon wrote the Anabasis in about 370B.C, which records the Greeks fighting with Cyrus at the battle of Cunaxa and their struggle to return home. Having read the Anabasis it is evident that there are a lot of themes throughout the narrative, and this has led scholars to question what was Xenophon’s real purpose for writing the account as many believe that he must have had a motive for wanting to retell the journey. The reason that this theory has become evident is because after reading the book, themes such as authorial Apologia, and the relationship between Greeks and Barbarians run through the narrative. Consequently in this essay I will look at and try to answer what Xenophon’s purpose was for writing the Anabasis as well as looking at its relationship to other literary texts and whether the book has any didactic tendencies. As well as the Anabasis Xenophon had also written a number of other pieces including the Hellenica and Memorabilia to name a couple. The reason scholars have questioned whether Xenophon wrote the narrative as an Apologia is because it is evident in other literary texts that Xenophon does not play such a major part in the expedition as he does in his account. This is evident from Sophaenetus’s account, although sadly little is known about him and much of his narrative concerning the expedition does not exist anymore. However, it would appear that Sophaenetus was a general under Cyrus and was older than Xenophon. From his version of the expedition, it has been suggested Xenophon did not play a very important role in the decision making of the army, but instead that responsibility fell to a Spartan general called Chirisophus. However, it is noticeable that although in Xenophon’s version of the expedition he does play a significant role in the expedition, Xenophon does allude to Chirisophus being the overall commander in two parts of his narrative. This is apparent in Book 3.4.38 where Chirisophus is described summoning Xenophon and also in Book 4.6.19 where Chirisophus is presented as the overall commander making the final decision and overseeing the sacrifices to the Gods. Therefore from Xenophon’s account we do get the impression that Chirisophus was the leading general of the expedition, who would direct and order the other generals including Xenophon. Another suggestion has been that when Chirisophus hit a slave causing him to run away, Xenophon fell out with him (Book 4.6.3). So it possible that in Sophaenetus’s account he had highlighted the tension between the two men, but had laid the blame on Xenophon who was jealous of Chirisophus’s seniority. This is quite feasible especially as Xenophon only states Chirisophus’s death in passing (Book 6.4.11). Consequently Xenophon having read Sophaenetus’s account could have seen himself being portrayed very badly if at all, whilst Chirisophus’s importance in the expedition was being vastly exaggerated out of all proportion. Perhaps Xenophon could have felt obliged or maybe even his duty to write the Anabasis in order to set the record straight and show that whilst Chirisophus was the overall general, he was just below in rank and was extremely instrumental in the army’s safe return and its well being. If this was Xenophon’s purpose in writing the text then it would mean that the overall theme of the narrative was designed as an Apologia to silence his critics and to show to the readers that he was a vital player in the expedition. From the narrative there does appear to be further evidence to strengthen this claim, as particularly from Book 3 onwards Xenophon’s presence and role in the army is constantly increasing with more of the narrative describing his speeches and actions compared to the other generals. This is apparent in Book 3.1 where it is Xenophon who takes the initiative and speaks on what actions he believes would benefit the army best, and one would not be excused from thinking that the way Xenophon is speaking that he was in fact the main general. However, by the end of the chapter we realise that this is not the case but Chirisophus is the main general as Xenophon is elected as one of the five officers. However, from the chapter we see that the majority of the text is centred on Xenophon’s speech, this is a far cry from Sophaenetus’s account where Xenophon is presented as a minor figure in the text, further proof that Xenophon had intended his work to be an apologia. Having brought himself to the forefront of the narrative Xenophon’s importance as a key figure grows throughout the text as he spends a lot of the narrative from Books 5-8 alluding to his speeches and actions. One example of this is Xenophon defending himself against the charge of thinking to found a city in Book 5.7.Consequently Xenophon has to vigorously defend himself against the charge that he was planning to keep the army there without informing them. When Xenophon speaks we get a clear example of his brilliant oratorical skills, as he goes about defending himself by explaining that he would not try and deceive them by insulting their intelligence “ Now is it conceivable that anyone could deceive you into thinking the sun rises over there and sets here, or sets here and rises there?” Such is the persuasive manner of his speech that Xenophon is forgiven and again becomes a leading decision-maker in the army, with him being offered the supreme command in Book 6.1, which he turns down due to unfavourable omens. As can be seen this description of Xenophon is completely different to the one presented by Sophaenetus where he figures so little in the narrative, this could further justify why Xenophon wrote the Anabasis as he intended it to be a reply to Sophaenetus’s version. As well as presenting to us his great oratorical speeches, he also presents himself in a military context by describing how he had saved the Arcadians by proposing a strategy in Book 6.3. In the final Book of the Anabasis we see that it is Xenophon who proceeds to secure the army a financial backer (Seuthes), thus providing the army with the security of pay and food (Book 8.2). However, to begin with Seuthes does not fulfil his promise, so we see that it is Xenophon who gets the blame for this deed by being accused that he is keeping the money. This episode is reminiscent of Book 5.7, and from the way the army immediately attacks Xenophon for this occurrence it would make sense to presuppose that Xenophon was the leading general, as in terms of strife a soldier would go to his general to get a problem rectified. So it is perhaps possible that seeing as Chirisophus was dead, Xenophon had taken over his role as leading general, but instead of saying so he merely alluded to it by making himself the person who had set up an alliance with Seuthes. This would consequently explain why the soldiers blamed Xenophon, and by doing so Xenophon could very cleverly have set up the perfect ending for the Anabasis. As we see that Xenophon having defended himself against the charges of keeping the pay, describes how he had gone without his own pay in order to make sure that the army got theirs (Book 8.6). Finally Xenophon leaves the army after joining them up with Thibron who takes them on another venture. If all this evidence is considered it is hard not to believe that Xenophon had written the Anabasis as an Apologia as a large proportion of it is centred on him. By the end of the Book you get the sense that Xenophon was a man who only ever had the best interests of the army at heart but was always being scrutinised or undermined by other officers which led to him having to defend himself. This could have been how he intended the Anabasis to be interpreted as one feels a sense of pity towards him, but also admiration as you get the impression that it was he who had given the army a course of action after the defeat at Cunaxa. In addition to the fact that it was he who had secured them a financial backer who was going to secure the mercenaries another profitable venture against Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus. Because of this the lasting impression you get from the narrative is that Xenophon was the saviour of the 10,000. This could therefore explain that his main purpose in writing it was as an Apologia to show that other accounts of the expedition where he featured so little were untrue. From the narrative it is also evident that Xenophon presents the theme of Greeks and Barbarians throughout the book. The term Barbarian means any person who did not speak Greek, this theme of highlighting and contrasting the differences between Greeks and Barbarians was a common theme that many ancient authors such as Herodotus had highlighted as well. Consequently as it is quite normal to find the relationship between Greeks and Barbarians in ancient texts, I do not believe that this was his main purpose in writing the Anabasis. However, that is not to say that it was not a contributing factor in him wanting to write about the expedition. From Xenophon’s account we can clearly see that Xenophon presents the Barbarian world as vast and diverse, with many feudal and ancient and savage tribes being described in the text. Xenophon by showing this is highlighting how different the Barbarian world is compared to the Greek world, which is compact and united by the sea. From the text other differences between the two worlds are also apparent as throughout the text the Greeks are presented as being democratic and voting on what the best course of action is after listening to the different proposals. This is clearly apparent after the treachery of Tissaphernes in Book 3.1 where despite the fact that they are leaderless and have no clear aim for their expedition they have a debate and vote in a proposal whilst also voting in officers. On the other hand the Persians are presented as non-democratic who ally themselves to blood rather than intellect and reason. It is extremely evident that the Greeks and Barbarians are radically opposed who are presented as being morally and militarily inferior to the Greeks. Throughout the narrative we get the impression that the Greeks are looking to settle some of their population in Asia to stop the overcrowding and to secure trade links with Greece. This is evident in Book 3.2.24f where it is clearly apparent that the Greeks recognise the weakness of Persia and the opportunity, which it could provide in settling poorer Greeks in Asia. This is further alluded to in Book 5.6 where Xenophon presents himself of thinking to found a city but due to unfavourable omens decides against it. Therefore from the Anabasis it is possible that Xenophon in showing the relationship between Greeks and Barbarians intended to highlight the weakness of Asia, and the possible opportunity of wealth that could arrive from settling Greeks there. So it is possible that Xenophon in writing the Anabasis had in mind to show this weakness, so action could be taken in the future to make that possible. Although it could well have been an aim of his, I would not say that it was his main purpose for writing the narrative as I believe that his main aim for writing it was as an Apologia. In the text Xenophon describes how suspicious and mistrusting the Greeks were towards the Persians. This is evident in Book 2.4.10 where the Greeks are scared that the Persians will destroy the bridge and leave the Greeks trapped. This mistrust on the Greeks part is further emphasised by Xenophon in Book 5.8.22 where the Greeks are marching with the Persians. However, as they approach the sea the Greeks at the front begin to cheer with delight but the Greeks at the back charge forward fearing the Persians are attacking them. This is a good example of the mistrust and uneasiness that Xenophon presents the Greeks having towards Barbarians as they are always on their guard and are always wary of the Barbarians acting irrationally. Xenophon in his account also describes tribes other than Persians throughout the expedition. This is evident as he describes the Kurds in Book 3.5.16, who were a nuisance to the Greeks and attacked them luckily not inflicting too many casualties. Xenophon also describes the tribe of Mossynoeci who were just as fierce and war hungry as the Kurds but were more welcoming of the Greeks. Xenophon in Book 5.4 dedicates a whole chapter describing their customs and appearance. By doing this Xenophon allows his readers to see the differences between Greeks and Barbarians and thus is able to show that Greeks are superior, as they are more rational in their behaviour and actions. Despite this it is fair to say that Xenophon does present some Barbarians in a good way, the best example of this would be Cyrus whom he gave a very detailed and flattering obituary to. This is evident in Book 1.9 where Xenophon dedicates a whole chapter describing Cyrus’s life. Xenophon in his description shows how Cyrus was a good speaker and fighter who was able to gain people’s respect due to the way he awarded bravery but also gave out very severe punishments. However, Xenophon in his obituary does not mention his crueller side and only focuses on his generous nature. From the account it becomes clear that Cyrus had one virtue which was reward. It is evident that Xenophon had great admiration for Cyrus showing that although in the large part he presented Barbarians badly compared to Greeks, if individuals were worthy of praise he would do so regardless if they were Barbarians. The question of whether Xenophon wrote the Anabasis with the intention of it being used for didactic purposes is extremely difficult, as I believe that there are factors for and against the argument. The reason I believe this is because from having read the Anabasis, one does learn about the role of the 10,000, as well as learning about the generals who were in charge of it, through Xenophon’s description of them and notably in his obituary chapters. From the text we also learn about how religion played a major role in the army’s actions and decisions because if the omens from sacrifices were unfavourable they would not proceed with that course of action. This teaches us that the Greeks were therefore very superstitious and used religion on a moral basis to justify actions. We also learn about the Persians and other barbarian tribes and how they behaved and how they were governed which is very useful when comparing them to the Greeks. However, despite these factors I do not believe that Xenophon’s main purpose for writing the text was for didactic reasons as there are some very major faults in the narrative, which hampers it especially if its main purpose was to be for learning. One example of this is the fact that it is very difficult to accurately account for the passage of time in the narrative, as it is very difficult to record the movement of space through the Anabasis. This makes it very difficult as a learning tool as it is hard to figure out how far they are travelling. This is evident when they are travelling through Kurdestan in Book 4 as Xenophon stops using days for mileage and by the time they reach Trapezus in Book 4.8 we have lost all recollection of time. There are further problems with Xenophon’s account, as is evident in Book 4 where he reports that the snow lasted for a month, yet it is known that the snow in eastern Anatolia can last up to four months. This would mean that either four months of the text have been lost or Xenophon chose to ignore writing about them. It is also very evident that Xenophon’s report of the battle of Cunaxa is very poor and factually incorrect, as he reports that the king’s station was outside Cyrus’s left in Book 1.8.12-23. This would have meant that when he reports Clearchus as being ordered to attack the king, Xenophon is also wrong. The reason I believe this to be true is because if what Xenophon says is correct, Clearchus would have had to have marched through Ariaeus’s troops in order to attack the king. What is more likely is that Xenophon meant to say that Artaxerxes was outside the left of the Greeks. Because Xeniophon’s account of the battle is so vague and incorrect I do not believe that he intended the book to be used as a military handbook as it is very difficult to understand how exactly the two armies lined up against each other, and what actual fighting occurred. As is evident I do not believe that Xenophon’s sole purpose for writing the Anabasis was for didactic purposes as there are grave errors in the text, however, I believe that Xenophon wrote it with the main purpose as an Apologia with the reasons for that mentioned above. Despite that fact though we do learn about the Greeks’ mercenary army as well as Persian individuals and tribes, but because of the problems with geography and chronology I do not believe he intended the Anabasis to be used solely for learning. Finally I believe it is important to compare the Anabasis with other literary sources, such as Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch. It is believed that Diodorus who wrote his account in the 1st Century B.C. derived his account from the historian Ephorus who wrote his account in the 4th Century who in turn possibly got his version of the expedition from Sophaenetus. We have to wonder why Ephorus chose to use Sophaenetus’s version and not Xenophon’s and the only reason I can perhaps suggest is that Ephorus considered Xenophon’s account as being too exaggerated in his own favour. As Ephorus version does not exist anymore we have to look at it from Diodorus’s account. From it we can see that the framework is very similar as just like Xenophon he tells how Cyrus had kept the truth of the expedition from the troops, until he finally tells them and promises them more money in order to make sure they fight. Diodorus’s account is also very similar to Xenophon’s as he too also tells how Tissaphernes killed the generals in tent, as well as recalling other events such as their difficulty in passing through the snow, as well as telling of the different tribes especially the Mossynoeicians. Diodorus also tells about when the Greeks first saw the sea and the Greeks at the back on hearing the cheering ran forward fearing the Persians were attacking. Diodorus also tells us how the Greeks having eaten too much honey became poisoned and were unable to move because of it. Diodorus’s account finishes in Book 14.21 when the army arrived at Chrysoplis, Diodorus tells how some of the army departed home whilst the other stayed to fight the Thracians. Indeed if one was to study Diodorus’s and Xenophon’s versions up to the army reaching Chrysopolis, one would see that they are pretty much identical which must presuppose that the version both men tell had become the standard literary form of narrating the expedition. What is noticeable about Diodorus’s version is that although the framework is similar there is no mention of Xenophon anywhere in the text, until the very end in Book 14.37.2, where Diodorus tells how the remaining army appointed Xenophon as general to make war on the Thracians. After they had defeated them and burnt the villages Thibron hired them to make war against Persia again. This is the only mention Xenophon gets throughout the whole of Diodorus’s version, which is in total contrast to the version Xenophon presents. In Diodorus’s account there is no mention of Xenophon intending to found a city or him being offered the supreme command or him negotiating with Seuthes to get the army’s pay. Therefore there is good evidence to suppose that Xenophon having read Sophaenetus’s version was very unhappy with what he had read, so wanted to make amends by telling his side of it. In Plutarch’s account in the “Life of Artaxerxes” he says that Xenophon gave a good account and will only mention what he had omitted. Plutarch’s version is largely centred on the battle of Cunaxa. Xenophon was not an eyewitness to Cyrus’s death and so only mentioned it fleetingly. However, in Plutarch’s account he mentions two sources who both comments on the death of Cyrus. Firstly he mentions Dinon who says that Cyrus was killed by Artaxerxes javelin. Whereas in Ctesias’s version Cyrus having wounded Artaxerxes, was first struck by Mithradates, and as he was dazed was struck by a blunt instrument. Plutarch derived his version in the “Life of Artaxerxes” from Ctesias’s account, which was published before the Anabasis. It is also apparent in Plutarch’s account that unlike Xenophon, Plutarch is more willing to blame Clearchus for the defeat, as he never attacked the centre of the Persian troops for fear of being encircled. This is perhaps a bit unfair on Clearchus as after all it was Cyrus’s battle so he might well have expected Cyrus to attack the centre. This shows how the two authors presented the battle of Cunaxa differently, as Plutarch was more willing to point the blame at individuals unlike Xenophon. It also shows that Plutarch was more willing to mention other sources to give a more detailed account of Cyrus’s death whereas Xenophon merely passed over it as he had not seen it, even though he could have used Ctesias’s account to give a more accurate description of Cyrus’s death. In conclusion, I believe that Xenophon’s overall purpose for writing the Anabasis was as an Apologia, although he still would have wanted other themes to be apparent in the narrative. The fact that so much of the text is centred around him further proves this point. As well as the fact that his account is similar to other literary texts, with the exception that they do not mention Xenophon in their narratives, and certainly do not provide him with any major role in the expedition. It is because of this very fact that I believe Xenophon wrote the Anabasis as in his portrayal of the expedition, he is the key figure who was making the decisions and making sure the army was safe and looked after.


Xenophon “The Persian Expedition” trans R.Warner, Penguin,1949

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