Tuesday, October 21, 2008

X is for Xenophon

No, seriously.

No, not the Senator.

And not directly, but at third or fourth hand.

But I am not just scraping around desperately for authors starting with ‘X’. I really do have an autobiographical story about my interaction with the Anabasis, though it can hardly be called one of *the* most significant books in my life.
When I was about eight, I read a paraphrased and condensed English version of Xenophon’s account of the retreat of the 10,000. I remember its illustrations were those black and white prints interspersed amid the text that used to be really common. Among them there was one of an ostrich running across the Syrian Desert, I am pretty sure, and one of a column of soldiers walking along a road with steep cliffs on either side. The lowering, overcast-sky quality of the illustrations helped colour my whole perception of antiquity. And translated over to my perception of Middle Earth, I think. The pictures that automatically leap to my mind when I think of those long lost places always have overcast skies. I think- again, I am not sure- that this was the first non-Biblical work I had read dealing with the Greco-Roman world. So it reinforced a mental image that I had for a long time, until I read much much more, of Greece as a distant place that you approach from the East, rather than as a place where you are.

The next year I wrote a story at school, which I think must have been influenced strongly by the bit in Xenophon’s book where they are freezing to death in the Armenian mountains, because it was about a Greek army marching through an icy landscape and being generally miserable. Of course, in my story, there were also vampires.
The teacher (aide?) I showed it to didn’t believe I had written it and wanted to know where I had copied it from. I can’t remember whether I talked them around or not, but the accusation was evidently traumatic enough that I remember it with irritation even now.

This is all very trivial and autobiographical, I know. You may console yourself with the thought that we are nearly at the end of the alphabet, so soon I will stop talking about myself.

I had a read of a non-juvenile English translation before I wrote this, and it is interesting how very topical some of the themes are.

The dangers of unconditional negotiations with perfidious Persians:

Tissaphernes replied as follows: ‘I am really delighted, Clearchus, to hear your sensible speech. With the sentiments which you have, it seems to me that, if you were to contemplate doing me an injury, you would be simultaneously plotting against your own interests. But, now, you must listen in your turn so that you may be convinced that you, too, would be wrong in entertaining any lack of confidence either in the King or in me.
If we really wanted to destroy you, do you think we are short in numbers of cavalry or infantry or in the right sort of equipment with which to damage you, while incurring no risk of retaliation? Or do you think it is likely that we could not find favourable ground to attack you? Remember all the flat country which you go through with great difficulty even when the inhabitants are friendly to you. Consider all the mountains which you have to cross which we could occupy first and make impassable for you. Think of all the rivers where we could cut you into detachments and engage with as many at a time as we liked. And there are some of these rivers which you could not get across at all unless we brought you across. Even supposing we had the worst of it along all these lines, you can be sure, anyway, that fire is more powerful than crops, and if we burnt the crops we could bring famine into the battle against you; and, with all the courage in the world, you could not fight against that. With all of these methods of making war on you at our disposal, how can you imagine that out of all of them we should choose the one method which involves wickedness in the sight of the gods and shame in the eyes of men? It is simply and solely among people who are without means and desperate and without any other way out (and even then they must be villains) that you will find men willing to secure their ends by perjury to the gods and faithlessness towards men. It is not so with us, Clearchus. We are not such blockheads and simpletons.
You may ask why, since we have the power to destroy you, we have not proceeded to do so. Let me tell you that what is responsible for this is my own desire that I should earn the confidence of the Greeks and that I should, by doing good to them, return to the coast with the support of that mercenary army on which Cyrus, in his journey inland, relied only because he gave them their pay. As to the ways in which your help is useful to me, you have mentioned some of them yourself.’

After this conversation Tissaphernes behaved with great affection towards Clearchus, urged him to stay with him for the time being and had him as his guest at supper.

When they arrived at the entrance to of Tissaphernes’ tent, the generals were invited inside. They were Proxenus the Boeotian, Menon the Thessalian, Agias the Arcadian, Clearchus the Spartan and Socrates the Achaen. The captains waited at the entrance. Not long afterwards, at one and the same signal, those who were inside were seized and those who were outside were massacred. After that contingents of native cavalry rode over the plain and killed all the Greeks they could find, slaves and free-men alike. The Greeks saw with surprise these cavalry maneouvres from their camp and were in doubt about what they were doing until Nicarchus the Arcadian escaped and came there with a wound in his stomach and holding his intestines in his hands.

Some of the immemorial inherent problems of democracies, in this exchange between a Spartan and an Athenian:

‘It would be a much better plan, then, for us to steal a bit of the undefended mountain from them when they are not looking . . . I gather that you Spartans, Chirisophus,- I mean the real officer class- study how to steal from your earliest boyhood, and think that so far from being a disgrace it is an actual distinction to steal anything that is not forbidden by law. And, so that you may become expert thieves and try to get away with what you steal, it is laid down by law that you get a beating if you are caught stealing. Here is an excellent opportunity for you to give us an exhibition of the way in which you were brought up and to preserve us from blows, by seeing to it that we are not caught stealing our bit of mountain.’
‘Well,’ said Chirisophus, ‘what I have gathered about you Athenians is that you are remarkably good at stealing public funds, even though it is a very risky business for whoever does so; and your best men are the greatest experts at it, that is if it is your best men who are considered the right people to be in the government. So here is a chance for you too to give an exhibition of the way in which you were brought up.’

Then there is the bewildering melange of ethnic groups riven with internecine strife in the Caucasus, just like there is today.

And I think there are clear analogies between the ‘poll-driven’ leadership of our times and Xenophon’s reliance on consulting sheep entrails to make decisions.

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