Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Xenophon’s autobiographical description ‘The Ten Thousand’, detailing the escape of ten thousand Greek mercenaries from Persia
This is the first in a series of several reviews of Xenophon’s works that I will be posting on the site in the coming weeks. Although they are all packaged in one volume for the edition I have (pictured above), and each review will cover what was presented originally by the author as several books, this arrangement should neatly divide the works by the topics they cover. Unlike the multiple books contained in Herodotus’s Histories, which could be thought of as installments in a series, or even as sections within a book, many of Xenophon’s works are much less connected, and therefore it made sense to split them up across multiple reviews. Since together they are also quite lengthy, this also means that I won’t get too far behind in my review schedule by applying myself to finally finishing these works. If none of that makes any sense, don’t worry: all of the reviews for the next few weeks can simply be thought of as independent reviews. Now that I’ve made something relatively simple sound incredibly complicated, let’s get into the actual review, which for this week is for perhaps Xenophon’s most famous work, referenced here as The Ten Thousand.
I’ve actually read this part before, but decided to re-read it in light of my recent reading of Herodotus’s Histories, which covered the period about a hundred years or so before the events in The Ten Thousand, and provided a lot of valuable context for understanding what was happening in Xenophon’s story. Unlike Herodotus, Xenophon is not writing about history in The Ten Thousand; he is writing a semi-autobiographical account of what happened to him and his companions during a campaign as mercenaries in a decidedly short-lived Persian civil war. Like Caesar in his Commentaries, Xenophon refers to himself in the third person, and the result is perhaps the most story-like and modern-seeming of all the ancient works that I’ve been reading recently. In fact, Conn Iggulden wrote a historical fiction novella primarily based upon the events in The Ten Thousand, and it was a very interesting experience to read that having already read its primary source.
Despite a generally barbaric “might makes right” kind of philosophy that makes you realize just how rare and unique the concepts of private property and rule of law and rights of the individual are in human history (even in ancient Greece, often thought of as the birthplace of many of those ideals), I find Xenophon a deeply sympathetic and compelling character. It’s not just the circumstances, I think. After two readings, I now believe that I relate so much to Xenophon because he’s always trying to find a way to explain himself. Over and over again in the The Ten Thousand, he finds that the soldiers for whom he has repeatedly made sacrifices and tried to aid however he could have started to believe slanderous things about him, and always he just tries to present his case in reasonable terms, justifying and framing what he did and the rumors amongst the soldiers. I guess that feels like something that would happen to me, and would be much the way I might respond.
The Greeks are often thought of as the “home team,” the protagonists, the heroes of western civilization when looking at history, and it is therefore easy to either a) assume that it was inevitable that they should prevail, or b) assume that we only think of them that way because they happened to prevail. Both of these ways of thinking about the ancient Greeks fail to address what really was different about the Greeks, which may have contributed to how their ideas and culture came to influence the world for more than two millennia (I’m still reading what they wrote 2500 years ago, aren’t I?) – some of those attributes are on magnificent display in The Ten Thousand. On the Persian battlefield, the ten thousand Greek mercenaries have complete freedom of maneuver and tactical superiority over the Persians, who outnumber them by more than ten to one (if Xenophon’s numbers are reliable). In fact, they arguably win the battle, but lose the war because the usurper king for whom they were fighting was killed. Then the Persians try to cripple them by killing all their leaders. Now, in ancient armies, killing the leaders was a pretty good way to leave an army completely useless, but the Greeks just turned around and elected new leaders. That kind of flexibility of thought, and of action, is arguably one of the keys to the Greek cultural dominance over the entire western hemisphere, and not just to the reason that they consistently defeated numerically superior Persian forces in ~500 BCE.
Not that the Greeks were without flaw: their divisiveness is famous, and the reason there was never a Greek Empire was probably because they could only manage to get along if there was an existential threat to all of them, and even then it was a fraught thing. The Persians of this period routinely bribed, threatened, cajoled, and otherwise manipulated the Greeks into warring continually with each other so that they wouldn’t be strong enough to threaten the Persians. While a nascent, unified Greek identity was beginning to exist at this time, everyone was still very much from their independent city-states, and not “Greek.” That’s really emphasized when the ten thousand (well, fewer than that, by the time they make the journey) finally get back to Greek territory, and their reception is, well, not the warmest. Some of them are even sold into slavery by the Spartans. I was reflecting on China and the Great State concept a few weeks ago, and it occurred to me that China and Europe responded very differently to empire. When the Mongols unified China with other territories and called it the Yuan Dynasty, that eastern civilization embraced the concept of unification and arguably continues to do so to this day – while China had feudal periods and warring states periods, it tended to come back together. Compare that with Europe, where despite occasional attempts at unification, like Rome, the various tribes, state, and cities all eventually fragmented again. Perhaps the source of this difference can be traced back to the fiercely independent and freedom-loving Greek city-states and their often violent rivalries.
Even if you don’t read the rest of Xenophon’s works, I at least recommend you read The Ten Thousand. It’s in many ways the ancestor of all classic fantasy travelogues, and whether read from a military strategy perspective, a philosophy perspective, a leadership perspective, or just a compelling story perspective, this is well worth your time. And don’t be intimidated if you get the collected version: The Ten Thousand is only the first four percent of so of the book. Consider reading The Ten Thousand soon, and we’ll have a review next week for Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (the education of Cyrus).