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Anatolian Retreat: Robin Waterfield, author of a new book on the Greek soldier Xenophon, explains how he came to retrace the steps of the soldier's famous journey to the Black Sea.

ALONG WITH COUNTLESS SCHOOLCHILDREN, stretching back to ancient Rome, I encountered Xenophon's Anabasis young. By the age of twelve, I was struggling through excerpts or, worse, translating a paragraph of military English into hesitant and hideous Greek, only to be faced with a triumphant schoolmaster brandishing the original from Anabasis as the model to which we should aspire.

Then I neglected Xenophon for many years. Of course, his name came up from time to time, but none of his works was on my O-Level or A-Level syllabus, or among the set books at my university; he was, and remains, somewhat out of favour, too morally earnest for our modern tastes. I returned to him when I began to take the study of ancient philosophy seriously, to see what light he could cast on Socrates--and I still believe that he is more astute and philosophical than many scholars think.

Closer study of Anabasis began by chance when Oxford University Press asked me to translate it. Having by then translated two other volumes of Xenophon's works, and finding his cast of mind congenial, I leapt at the chance. I was keen to become further acquainted with the book that everyone regards as his masterpiece--the story of his journey east, along with the so-called 'Ten Thousand' Greek mercenaries hired by Cyrus to support his attempt to take the Persian throne from his brother. The attempt failed when Cyrus lost his life at the battle of Cunaxa (somewhere in the desert west of Baghdad), and the Greeks then had to find their way home under appalling and terrifying conditions, surrounded by hostile forces, and crossing some of the worst terrain in the world in a bitter winter.

Translating Anabasis was a sheer joy, and I soon came to see why the book was so highly regarded. Xenophon is consistently at his best in this book as a writer and story-teller--graceful, lucid, urbane and witty. He speaks about events plainly and impassively, though with flashes of humour, and lets them tell their own tales. But he is not artless: those who think him so cannot have read Anabasis with open minds. Lawrence of Arabia was more astute when he described the work as 'pretentiously simple'. The book is nuanced and thematized, beautifully paced and dramatically broken up with anecdotes, speeches, vignettes, contrasts and digressions. It is always readable, holds the attention and has the inimitable presence of an eyewitness narrative. Above all, the book has the quality, so highly prized by the ancient Greeks, of vividness, of finding just the right words to bring events immediately before the mind's eye. And so the Italian postmodernist fabulist Italo Calvino compared the experience of reading the book to watching an old war documentary on television.

But the clarity of the surface of the text is also misleading. On the face of it, Xenophon told a kind of Boy's Own tale of derring-do, of mighty obstacles mightily overcome. Many readers--especially schoolchildren struggling to make sense of irregular verb forms--never get past this surface. There is, however, far more to the text: Xenophon wove into it a number of recurrent themes, most of which combine to darken the story: how the army was plagued by greed and indiscipline; how Xenophon himself became disillusioned; how Persian treachery (if that's what it was) was mirrored even by the Spartan authorities; the impossibility of going 'home'. There are lighter themes too: as in a number of Xenophon's works, we are led to reflect on the qualities and characteristics needed by a true leader (such as Xenophon himself, we are brought to believe); Xenophon is an advocate of flexible military tactics, without over-reliance on traditional hoplite warfare; he amuses us with tales of some of the peoples he met along his route--those he had time to become acquainted with, rather than having just to kill or chase off.

I wanted to find a way to communicate to others how rich a text it was, and Xenophon's Retreat was the result. In this book, I use Xenophon's original as a skeleton, which I flesh out with accounts of Xenophon's life and work, of Greek-Persian encounters from the sixth to the fourth centuries, of Persian history, Greek military history, social history, and all the themes that can be extracted from Anabasis.

Usually, I am a typical scholar: I sit in a library surrounded by books, and periodically pluck one off the shelves for research purposes. A great deal of the time spent researching Xenophon's Retreat was taken up with this happy, familiar pursuit. But there clearly had to be more to this book. Even the title of Anabasis refers to a journey (it literally means 'the march up country'), and I was never going to do justice to Xenophon if I didn't get up from my chair and make a journey of my own.

Again, library work came first, but scholarly doubts and disagreements soon taught me the impossibility of tracing Xenophon's route in detail. His sense of distances is not always accurate and sometimes downright schematic; he does not provide enough details of places or topography or directions to allow certainty for many stretches of the journey; rivers have changed course or dried up and coastlines have receded or advanced; towns and villages have vanished without trace; for large stretches of the route he provides very few markers. These 'deficits' are at least partly explained by the fact that Xenophon's geographic framework was, along with nearly all pre-map people, 'odological' rather than 'cartographic'; rather than thinking spatially of extended areas of territory, he thought in linear terms of routes, and their borders and obstacles such as rivers, coastlines and mountain ranges.

For the purposes of my journey, I decided to make my bible the standard work by historian and novelist Valerio Manfredi (La Strada dei Diecimila, 1986); but I also soaked myself in nineteenth-and twentieth-century travellers' accounts, until I felt ready to go. Luckily, I already had the foundation: I was in the process of moving to Greece, and already kept a Land Rover there.

I set off from my home in southern Greece and drove north and east into Turkey. I picked up Xenophon's route where he landed at Ephesus, and followed Xenophon to Sart (ancient Sardis), Denizli (Colossae), Dinar (Celaenae), Usak (Ceramon Agora), Cay (Cayster Field), Aksehir (Thymbrium), Ilgyn (Tyriaeum), and Konya (Iconium). Manfredi's maps were always by my side, consulted at every stop. At Konya I turned south across the formidable Taurus Mountains and down to Tarsus. From Tarsus, the Ten Thousand travelled south, and then turned east at Iskenderun (Myriandus) into Syria.

As it turned out, their passage into Syria, into the heartlands of the Persian empire, was unopposed--far less opposed than mine was by border guards in need of either paperwork I didn't have or a bribe. The Ten Thousand crossed the awesome Euphrates at Thapsacus (probably modern Ar Raqqah) and followed the river south to Cunaxa. My journey was undertaken in the autumn of 2005: it was impossible for me to get to Iraq, where about a quarter of Xenophon's travels took place, so I turned north and picked up his route again where Iraq, Syria and Turkey meet. I did the best I could to make sense of, and to follow, the twists and turns of the route through the eastern Turkish highlands, and eventually down from the fantastic Pontic Alps (the most magnificent mountains I've ever seen) to the Black Sea coast at Trabzon (Trapezus). From there the route was straightforward: west along the coast to Istanbul (Byzantium); Xenophon, too, fell into the trap of thinking that his and the army's lot would be improved now they had reached relative civilization.

My own experiences on the route can only be the palest of pale reflections of those of Xenophon and his men. But even so they were informative. Above all, I gained an indelible im pression of the toughness of these warriors: a great deal of the landscape is forbidding semi-desert, or formidable highlands. There was nothing resembling what we would call a road in those days, and when visibility was bad it would have been easy to get lost. They had no maps, only more or less hostile guides. And they walked the most arduous part of the journey in bitter winter-time, for which they were ill equipped. Even in a Land Rover, it was tough. The relentless driving (through the heat of the desert or the freezing mountains), sometimes over unsurfaced, unmarked roads, trying to follow this or that twist and turn of Xenophon's journey, faintly echoed the unrelenting days and weeks of the Ten Thousand's march; making forced drives just to reach a town that might have a no-star hotel in which to catch bedbugs and some semblance of sleep hardly parallels the terrible billets Xenophon's men generally found; my inability to find a beer or a decent meal at the end of a hard day was nothing compared to the near-starvation the Ten Thousand put up with from time to time. But Xenophon. would certainly have recognized my frequent, exasperating encounters with people whose languages I didn't speak or understand.

There were other, more scholarly insights to be gained. Perhaps the most important was that the usual dating of Xenophon's journey is wrong. Scholars have usually dated Xenophon's sight of the Black Sea to early March at the latest. I was there in the middle of October; and in deliberately taking one of the high 'scenic' routes across the mountains from Bayburt to Trabzon, along unmetalled tracks, I coincided with the first snowfall of winter. The snow would only increase for several months (there is a ski centre just a couple of peaks away) and would finally leave only in June. Gullies become clear of snow only in July. Xenophon makes no mention of snow; his men built a cairn. Even granting some leeway, the earliest he was there was the middle or end of May.

Everyone knows the story of how, when the Ten Thousand first caught sight of the Black Sea, they wept with joy, thinking that their troubles were over, and cried 'Thalatta! Thalatta!' (The sea! The sea!'). The mountains there are high and remote, occupied, if at all, by just a few transhumant shepherds, and only recently have scholars identified the site: the identification was aided by finding nearby the vestiges of the very cairn Xenophon and his men built. I was determined to find the cairn. With learned help and with a great deal of frustration and hazardous driving, I found it. The grassland around the cairn is still remarkably free of the stones that litter all these mountains: Xenophon's men used them all. Long passion for ancient history has driven me to visit countless sites, but the experience of finding and then standing on the remains of the cairn delivered the greatest historical thrill of my life. A lammergeier carved huge spirals overhead as if to confirm that this was indeed the place.

Robin Waterfield's Xenophon's Retreat: Greece, Persia and the End of The Golden Age is published by Faber & Faber, price 16.99 [pounds sterling].
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Author:Waterfield, Robin
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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