Sunday, October 12, 2014

Socrates in the Anabasis

Xenophon's Anabasis is one of the great works of Greek history. It is an autobiographical tale in which Xenophon tells how he joined the Greek mercenary band of the Ten Thousand. The Ten Thousand were hired by the Persian prince, Cyrus the Younger, who was trying to take the throne of Persia from his brother, Artaxerxes II. The Greek army marched into Persia (anabasis means an expedition inland from the coast -- literally, it's a 'going up') and at Cunaxa, north of Babylon, they tore the Persian army there to shreds, despite the fact that they were outnumbered nearly four to one. Unfortunately, they then learned that Cyrus the Younger had been killed. So the Greek senior officers offered their services to the satrap Tissaphernes. He accepted and invited the officers to a feast, where he promptly arrested and killed them all. Thus the Ten Thousand were stranded in hostile territory with no officers. They worked out on the fly a 'marching republic' structure of decision-making, in which Xenophon played a prominent role, and marched back to the coast. The most famous episode, often echoed, is when they finally and suddenly come to Trebizond on the Black Sea and the soldiers begin shouting, "Thalassa, Thalassa!" (The Sea, The Sea!). They then did some mercenary fighting for various powers for a brief period, and it was due to this that Xenophon the Athenian came to be in the service of Sparta, which led to his official exile from Athens.

Xenophon begins the work in the middle, first telling us about the Battle of Cunaxa. Then in Book III, when the Greek army discovers that its captains have been killed, he tells us, in third person, how he came to be involved in the matter:

There was a man in the army named Xenophon, an Athenian, who was neither general nor captain nor private, but had accompanied the expedition because Proxenus, an old friend of his, had sent him at his home an invitation to go with him; Proxenus had also promised him that, if he would go, he would make him a friend of Cyrus, whom he himself regarded, so he said, as worth more to him than was his native state. After reading Proxenus' letter Xenophon conferred with Socrates, the Athenian, about the proposed journey; and Socrates, suspecting that his becoming a friend of Cyrus might be a cause for accusation against Xenophon on the part of the Athenian government, for the reason that Cyrus was thought to have given the Lacedaemonians zealous aid in their war against Athens, advised Xenophon to go to Delphi and consult the god in regard to this journey. So Xenophon went and asked Apollo to what one of the gods he should sacrifice and pray in order best and most successfully to perform the journey which he had in mind and, after meeting with good fortune, to return home in safety; and Apollo in his response told him to what gods he must sacrifice. When Xenophon came back from Delphi, he reported the oracle to Socrates; and upon hearing about it Socrates found fault with him because he did not first put the question whether it were better for him to go or stay, but decided for himself that he was to go and then asked the god as to the best way of going. “However,” he added, “since you did put the question in that way, you must do all that the god directed.”

What Xenophon says was Socrates' worry turned out to be at least more or less accurate: the association with Cyrus the Younger probably did contribute to the Athenian banishment of him.

One of the things that is also clear is that Xenophon took Socrates' parting advice very seriously: not only did he do what the Oracle told him, he makes sacrifices and follows omens throughout the course of the expedition, up to the very end, and is scrupulous about following through. The practical importance of piety to the gods is quite prominent in all of Xenophon's works, and it seems very likely that this interaction is a significant influence on him in this regard.

This scene is the only one in which Socrates the philosopher appears in the Anabasis, but it sheds a light on everything else in the work.


  1. Enbrethiliel2:52 AM


    I like this story enough not to complain that Socrates has popped up again! ;-) Besides, I had the same reaction that he did, thinking that Xenophon was a bit presumptuous in making his decision first and only then asking the gods to advise him how best to carry it out. I also like getting a better understanding of Greek piety through Xenophon.

    My question is about banishment. I recall reading somewhere that one's city or region used to be so integral to one's identity and place in the world that exile was one of the worst punishments that a person could receive. Would you agree with that description? And if so, was it true in Xenophon's case?

  2. branemrys8:11 AM

    I imagine it varied considerably, although it would have usually been considered less bad than death. The basic issue with exile is that since all of your rights were tied up in your citizenship, being exiled from your city was effectively equivalent to being stripped of all rights -- from that point on, you were thrown on the good graces of others. Xenophon himself did fairly well during his exile -- he fought for Sparta, so they gave him a house and some very nice land where he could raise horses. His banishment may have been revoked at some point, as well (perhaps due to the death of his son Gryllus fighting for Athens at the Battle of Mantinea). He doesn't seem to have gone back immediately, but the land he was given by the Spartans was conquered territory, and when the Spartans were defeated he was driven out. He might have gone to Athens for a while, but might not have -- he died in Corinth, so it's possible that he never went back again. We just don't have enough details.


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