Between 401 BC and 399 BC, a Greek army (consisting of the wayward cast-offs of the Peloponnesian War) marched its way into the heart of the Persian Empire (current day Iraq, ironically enough), supporting a contender for the Persian throne. When their employer had an unfortunate (and fatal) encounter with a Persian sword and the army’s supply train was ravaged by the Persian cavalry, the Greeks found themselves stranded and alone in the midst of the Persian Empire, surrounded by enemies, cut off from the sea.
This then is the famed tale of the Ten Thousand, The Anabasis, by Xenophon, an Athenian exile of noble blood, who helped lead the beseiged Greek army in an epic march across Persian and Armenia to the Black Sea and the safety of the Greek colonies.
I doubt anyone can read The Anabasis and not wonder at the Greeks horrific and epic struggle to reach safety, or not feel a tingle down their spine when they cross that last spine of mountains and wearily raise their eyes to the spy the far blue of the sea…it is a tale indeed.
The Ten Thousand goes to great (and mostly worthy) efforts to retell the same tale as Xenophon, as told by his slave (later freedman) Theo. The characters are well-drawn, particularly the war-ravaged and acid-tongued Spartan general leading the Greek mercenary army but I found my interest flagging shortly after the long journey out of Persia began.
Despite efforts by the author to dress it up with a side-story romance between Theo and a beautiful Persian concubine, the journey of The Ten Thousand becomes much like the journey of the Greeks – long, difficult, somewhat tedious, and intermittantly exciting. The first half of the book, leading up to the events of the Ten Thousand’s March were (I thought anyway) far more interesting as it gave you a glimpse into the life in Athens, Spartan politics and the chaos that followed the long Peloponnesian War. It is not bad, but it is not great.
I suppose if you haven’t read The Anabasis previously, The Ten Thousand may be a more fresh and exciting story – but for my money, read Xenophon himself instead. There is less hand-holding and it is, as with many classical stories, written in a style that is sometimes stiff and archaric to modern readers, but…it is permeated with the beliefs and thoughts of its writer and participants, and so you get a direct sense of how the Greeks fought, thought and died, how they debated and made decisions, guided by both reason and omens from the gods.
A better book set in ancient Greece is Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, telling a vivid (and bloody) account of the Battle of Thermoplye and the 300 Spartans. I highly recommend this book – and I will review it sometime in the future.
If you are interested, you can grab the complete text of Xenophon ‘s Anabasis from Project Gutenberg. You can even download it onto your PDA…There’s something rather kicky about reading a text written more than 2,000 years ago on a 21st century device, even if you do prefer paper.
For more on ancient Greece, visit the Perseus Project from Tufts University.
Oh, and lastly, in case you were unaware, Julius Caesar is blogging (I know, I know, he’s Roman, but what the hey…).