On Xenophon’s Ascent

Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus (or “going up” or “ascent” of Cyrus the Younger) is the incredible and autobiographical story of a small group of mercenary Greek soldiers standing up to the largest empire of the ancient world, the Persians. Cyrus the Younger employs a band of ten thousand private Greek soldiers to attack and take over the legitimate kingship of his brother, Artaxerxes. Both Cyrus the Younger and Artaxerxes are the two sons of Darius, emperor of Persia. On his deathbed, Darius gave kingship to Artaxerxes, the elder son, and governorship to Cyrus, the younger brother. Naturally, distrust arose between the two brothers. Artaxerxes received advice that Cyrus was attempting to overthrow him, so he banished Cyrus until their mother intervened and Cyrus was reinstated in his province, but from this moment on Cyrus seeks to “avoid being subject to his brother ever again.” The only way to achieve Cyrus’s goal is to commit regicide. Thus, Cyrus endeavored to secretly marshal troops from Greece against his brother.

Xenophon’s Anabasis is written in the third person (i.e. Xenophon refers to himself as “he” rather than “I”) though it is also Xenophon’s essential autobiography. The text contains a great many echoes of Thucydides in its active military exploration of political philosophy through the question of one particular moment of regicide. Was Cyrus’s campaign justified? Was Cyrus successful? Why does Xenophon use Cyrus’s campaign to present his autobiography?

As with other Xenophontic literature, the title is ironic. It mainly reflects the action of Book I, or Cyrus’s ascent (which is perhaps continued briefly into Book II), however the remainder of the text is of Xenophon’s “ascent” as he leads the Greek mercenary warriors back to the coast, away from the Persians who had resoundingly defeated Cyrus. The ascension of Cyrus proves to be flawed, but the amazing ascension of the Greeks comes to light as successful. Cyrus was killed in battle causing commotion and confusion among the troops, and then some of the top Greek generals are captured and beheaded, or tortured alive for one year.

Cyrus’s Macbethian regicide is a spectacular failure, but the dominion of the Greeks both in intellect as well as in battle is apparent. The setting of the adventure takes place shortly after the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, and there are both Laecadaemonians as well as Athenians among the soldiers’ ranks. For Sparta, soldiers were marshaled by the city, while Athenians are largely free and independent men. They decide for themselves if they choose to participate in this skirmish. The reasons for Xenophon’s participation in Cyrus’s campaign are provided in Books II-III. He received a letter from a compatriot promising him that he would get to know Cyrus the Younger better if he became a part of the campaign. But he wound up being deceived. Xenophon was not aware that the campaign was to overthrow the “Great King” of Persia, Artaxerxes. Upon receiving a letter from his friend in Cyrus’s militia of mercenaries, Xenophon first consulted Socrates in Athens who advised him to seek advice from the Oracle of Apollo. Socrates then criticized the form of Xenophon’s question to the god, as it implied Xenophon’s personal desire to participate in the militia. Thus Xenophon’s fate was sealed. He was to join up with the Greek mercenaries in pursuit of the most powerful emperor of the ancient world.

After the death of Cyrus the Younger in battle, the Greeks continue battling the Persians until they make a safe exit, under Xenophon’s leadership, and they eventually arrive at the Black Sea or Pontos (crying the famous chant: “Thálatta! Thálatta!” or “The Sea! The Sea!”) a Greek city on the coast under much celebration around Book V. The tone of Books V-VII is celebratory until the Greeks finally arrive at Lydia. They return to their fatherlands after great struggle.

The Anabasis was considered for a long time the seminal introductory text for learning Greek because of its simple and smooth prose. Throughout the text we are offered various glimpses of persuasive speeches, some successful and some not. In this way, the text mirrors certain aspects of Thucydides. One of the key elements of the text is the relatively feeble defenses of the Persians. Some scholars have suggested this was an inspiration for Philip of Macedon, and later his son Alexander, to conquer Persia. Xenophon’s text was also the inspiration for Arrian’s famous book, the Anabasis of Alexander.

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus as translated by Wayne Ambler.

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