There is something very satisfying in reading history written by contemporaries in the original text version. It has that feeling that you are getting it as it is – and you can also pick up on what things seemed important at the time without the benefit of hindsight.
The only trouble is that the further back in history you go the more inaccessible the texts become and the more background knowledge you need to make sense of them. This is particularly the case when you look at works from the ancient world. We have come a long way we since the days of Greece and Rome and just thinking your way back to the technology and politics of the time is a daunting undertaking.
Most of the time, most of us would rather read a modern account that has done all the hard work for us and which can serve up what happened in a way that fits our modern way of seeing things.
But there is one piece of writing that has come down to us that can still be read simply for the pleasure of reading a good story and which is not too hard on the reader, at least not in the excellent Rex Warner translation for Penguin.
It helps that it is basically a simple account by a simple man. Xenophon was an Athenian soldier. Like all Athenians he was also a part time politician. All the indications are that he was a good soldier but his political skills weren’t quite as good. In fact they seem to have got him exiled.
The Persian Expedition tells of his experiences in a job he undertook as a mercenary working for Cyrus, the younger brother to the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes II. Cyrus planned to lead a large army into Persia aiming to seize it for himself. He initially enrolled his army under slightly false pretences, suggesting a much smaller legitimate mission. The true goal wasn’t revealed until they were already deep into Persian territory. This deception doesn’t seem to have bothered Xenophon or any of the other soldiers in the slightest. I guess it was just the kind of thing autocrats did. It was a pre-Truth world.
The liveliest bit of the book covers the advance into Persia, with a lot of descriptions of the landscape that the army covered. This was good enough shortly after Xenophon’s time to be a useful reconnaissance to Alexander the Great when he covered the same territory. It is also detailed enough that later historians have been able to work out that Xenophon, unbeknown to himself, must have crossed the ruins of ancient Nineveh.
It is clear that the Greeks regarded themselves, and were regarded by their employer, as the crack troops. Xenophon himself seems to regard victory over superior numbers of Persians as simply par for the course. But despite this Cyrus’ plan came to nothing. A large pitched battle with his brother’s forces took place at Cunaxa. The Greeks were placed on the right and their charge carried all before them. But in the centre and on the left it was a different story, leaving Artaxerxes in control of the field. The undefeated Greeks were invited to negotiate, but it was simply a ruse and their leaders were killed.
Now the story really comes alive. The Greeks are miles from home in a hostile country – they have to stick together, and fight their way back. They meet with various obstacles, have to do some fighting and find some interesting places. Eventually most of them make it back. The final adventure is getting into the Greek world again and finally getting to do what the original plan was and overthrowing a government, though it was Thrace rather than Persia.
This book combines a good story well told with numerous insights into the world of Ancient Greece. The tolerant attitude to homosexuality for instance comes out of one or two asides. The casual acceptance of violence as a legitimate means to settle things is telling. It is also intriguing to realise how little people of the time knew of the geography of even quite nearby countries – this is something we take for granted but is a very modern thing. Think back to the Merchant of Venice – in the whole play there is no reference to canals. Neither Shakespeare nor his audience were aware of one of the major features of one the most important cities of the era.
All in all, I can recommend Xenophon to modern readers for a number of reasons, not least being the chance to hear about another era first hand from a great communicator.