Thursday, March 26, 2015

Xenophon: Anabasis

Old Khndzoresk, Armenia (Photo by Mher Ishkhanyan). Xenophon mentions seeing troglodytic villages like this.

[Image source:]

Xenophon wrote the Anabasis some time around 370 BCE. The narrative covers spring 401 - spring 399.

The book I read was a Penguin Classic (The Persian Expedition) containing Rex Warner's translation of 1949 along with George Cawkwell's 1972 introduction.

Some readers have found George Cawkwell's introduction to The Persian Expedition too captious, because it's primarily concerned with weighing the accuracy of Xenophon's account; but after all that's the proper thing for a historian to do, rather than spend time eulogising the lucid prose. We do like, I know, a eulogistic introduction; it reassures us we are reading something great, and are spending our time wisely. (Just as, so I've heard, the main audience for car adverts on the TV is people who have just bought the model being advertised.)

Not everything Cawkwell says has the weight of consensus behind it, for instance his account of the battle of Cunaxa. He asks the right question, though: how on earth did Cyrus expect to win it? Once asked, Xenophon's account is plainly unsatisfying. And Cawkwell's scepticism about the young Xenophon keeping a travel-journal is persuasive.

I don't think it's a firm conclusion, either, that the Anabasis has a Panhellenic agenda. Still, few works of canonical literature are as straightforwardly militaristic. The book's former prominence in the education of our male elite is something to ponder.

Xenophon tells the story about himself in the third person: he makes himself the hero. That's what Caesar did too, but it isn't a form that attracts modern writers and it makes a poor impression on modern readers.

Yet in those days the first-person approach may not even have been a possibility. Herodotus didn't use it. Nor did Thucydides.

We are so used to the idea that an author can just break into his text and tell us about himself or his thoughts in the first person that it is hard to think back to a time when that wasn't the case.

But even today, there are literary forms in which the authorial "I" is not really a possibility. An epitaph on a gravestone.  The minutes of a team meeting (the minute-taker would annotate their own contributions in the third person).  A song-lyric:  because in the song "I" does not mean Jerry Leiber or Gerry Goffin but the role taken by the singer. All these analogies are helpful.

In more ancient times, literature was not, on the whole, a way of "saying" something. It was a way of recording something. And that isn't the same thing.

The ancient conception:

SPEECHES say things. They are attributable, because if you can hear the speech you can also see who's making it. "I" is therefore instantly meaningful.

WRITING records things. Writing is often not attributable; it travels in the absence of its author. The assumption that an author's own name would remain attached to her/his work wasn't really secure until the invention of printing. Writing was typically broadcast by being recited, so if the word "I" were to be used, it would mean the reciter, not the author.

The obvious exception to this knocked-up scheme of mine is the letter. Letters are attributable, because of the address ("Plato to Dionysius wishes well-doing.") Such being the case,  Plato feels free to use "I" in his letters.

... Plato, or pseudo-Plato. Because the further back you go, the more surviving letters tend to be outright forgeries. And even when a letter does happen to be by its putative author, it often looks, not so much like a "genuine" letter, as like a piece composed in the form of a letter. The literary letter should perhaps be considered as just another narrative genre.

Anyway, letters aside, the idea of the author as him/herself an implicit character within the literary text was not an automatic one. Even if Xenophon had contemplated writing in the first person he would have had to write "I, Xenophon, the author of this book ..." in order to make himself clear.

(I suppose I ought to have used the word "deictic" somewhere around here.)

Our distaste for the third-person form of memoir isn't automatic either. It seems quite an obvious way to write a memoir, and why should it be intrinsically any more prone to dishonesty than a first-person account? Perhaps we now feel that being written about in the third person is a rare tribute that ought to be earned by fame or infamy, not something you do for yourself. But there was no press in those days. Besides, Xenophon and Caesar were already famous when they wrote their accounts. The form doesn't entirely exclude Xenophon's thoughts, but they tend to be practical ones - "Xenophon realized that, if they left the hill which they had just taken unguarded, the enemy might reoccupy it..." Normally, of course, his thoughts are expressed by putting them into a speech (see above).

As for the author's emotions; well, here emotions tend to be communal rather than personal: "At this point the Greeks certainly felt very downhearted..." There's a lot of times when you feel that people must have felt furious towards other people, but it doesn't tend to get said.

Xenophon's account of the Persian Empire is two-edged. There is an element of "us and them". In his book Greek discipline can always beat superior Persian numbers. But there's no racism of the modern sort. And his book also testifies to the huge importance of the Persian Empire to Greek life, a background that tends to be absent when we think narrowly about Platonic dialogues or Athenian tragedy (The Persians aside).

The book certainly is apologia. Xenophon makes no bones about the numerous disputes within the army, and it's clear that neither he nor his actions were universally approved. The army itself was mercenary and doubtless brutal; he soldiered in a world with no Geneva conventions.

Cyrus may have mustered his troops somewhere near the present-day location of Baghdad International Airport (formerly Saddam International Airport).  

[Image source:  . Info from Lee T. Pearcy et al, review of Robin Waterfield's Xenophon's Retreat: Greece, Persia and the End of the Golden Age (Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2007) ]



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