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Xenophon’s Anabasis

The Anabasis is Xenophon’s best known work. Besides being the first known work of what later became as popular literary type–the account of a military expedition cast int he form of a novel–it is often studied by beginning students of Ancient Greek because of Xenophon’s simple and direct, yet vivid, prose. He was the Hemingway of Attic Greek.

The name “Anabasis” means “Going Up” but came to connote a march or military expedition “up country”. After Xenophon numerous Anabasi were written in imitation, The most famous is the Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian of Nicomedia. The title of Xenophon’s Anabasis plays a role in a humorous sketch provided by John Henry Newman, in his The Idea of a University, in which a young student, seeking admission to a university, has asked to be examined on the works of Xenophon,

Tutor. Mr. Brown, I believe? sit down.

Candidate. Yes.

T. What are the Latin and Greek books you propose to be examined in?

C. Homer, Lucian, Demosthenes, Xenophon, Virgil, Horace, Statius, Juvenal, Cicero, Analecta, and Matthiæ.

T. No; I mean what are the books I am to examine you in?

C. is silent.

T. The two books, one Latin and one Greek: don’t flurry yourself.

C. Oh, … Xenophon and Virgil.

T. Xenophon and Virgil. Very well; what part of Xenophon?

C. is silent.

T. What work of Xenophon?

C. Xenophon.

T. Xenophon wrote many works. Do you know the names of any of them?

C. I … Xenophon … Xenophon.

T. Is it the Anabasis you take up?

C. (with surprise) O yes; the Anabasis.

T. Well, Xenophon’s Anabasis; now what is the meaning of the word anabasis?

C. is silent.

T. You know very well; take your time, and don’t be alarmed. Anabasis means …

C. An ascent.

T. Very right; it means an ascent. Now how comes it to mean an ascent? What is it derived from?

C. It comes from … (a pause). Anabasis … it is the nominative.

T. Quite right: but what part of speech is it?

C. A noun,—a noun substantive.

T. Very well; a noun substantive, now what is the verb that anabasis is derived from?

C. is silent.

T. From the verb ἀναβαίνω, isn’t it? from ἀναβαίνω.

C. Yes.

T. Just so. Now, what does ἀναβαίνω mean?

C. To go up, to ascend.

T. Very well; and which part of the word means to go, and which part up?

C. ἀνά is up, and βαίνω go.

T. βαίνω to go, yes; now, βάσις? What does βάσις mean?

C. A going.

T. That is right; and ἀνά-βασις?

C. A going up.

T. Well, now you say Anabasis means an ascent. Who ascended?

C. The Greeks, Xenophon.

T. Very well: Xenophon and the Greeks; the Greeks ascended. To what did they ascend?

C. Against the Persian king: they ascended to fight the Persian king.

T. That is right … an ascent; but I thought we called it a descent when a foreign army carried war into a country?

C. is silent.

Etc.

It is hard to imagine that anyone reading the Anabasis would not know what it was about, since it is a very engaging book in any language. An army of around 10,000 Greek mercenaries, recruited from throughout the Hellenic world are hired by Cyrus the younger, a Persian prince, ostensibly for use in a local brush war. Soon after the men are gathered, however, it becomes clear that Cyrus actually intends to use the army to attack his older brother and place himself on the throne. With some misgivings the 10,000 agree to follow Cyrus. Unfortunately in the first real battle, a nominal victory for Cyrus’ army, Cyrus himself is killed. After multiple disastrous attempts to parlay with the Great King the mercenaries realize that he absolutely can’t be trusted. Accordingly, they set off to march and fight their way across the breath of the Persian Empire and Armenia to reach the Black Sea where Greek cities offer the chance of taking ship for home.

Illustrations of Greek Soldiers from An Illustrated Dictionary to Xenophon's Anabasis, 1892 [public domain via Internet Archive]

Illustrations of Greek Soldiers from An Illustrated Dictionary to Xenophon’s Anabasis, 1892 [public domain via Internet Archive]

The Anabasis more or less introduces the literary trope of the “wandering mercenary company”, which has since been used by numerous authors. It is easy to draw parallels with the free company in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company, for instance. The trope is a mainstay of military sci-fi: David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers was one of the most successful series of the 1980’s. A somewhat more recent example is David Weber’s and John Ringo’s March Upcountry tetralogy, the name of which is itself a nod to the Anabasis. In fantasy the exploits of the mercenary companies in Glen Cook’s long running Black Company series and Barbara Hambly’s Sun Wolf and Starhawk trilogy are utterly unforgettable. More recently, “sell sword” companies play a recurring role in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series Of course, there have been plenty of historical mercenary units since the time of Xenophon. Yet his way of writing about life in a mercenary army seems to have set the pattern for all later authors.

One of the interesting things that differentiates Xenophon’s 10,000 from many other armies, particularly the Persian forces that they fought, is that it never has unity of command. There are rarely less than five generals in command at any given time. Towards the end of the book Xenophon himself, who has accepted a generalship to replace a man killed by Persian treachery, is increasingly able to dominate the other four. He is never able to ignore their wishes completely, though. When he tries to simply override them they take their own men and do what they want. Still less are the generals able to ignore the will of the common soldiers. The generals command in the heat of battle but all other decisions are put to a vote. And if a general becomes too unpopular he faces a real chance of getting lynched by his own men.

Another interesting feature of Xenophon’s account is that he is the first military author I am aware of who actually mentions camp followers. In most armies in history the number of actual armed “effectives” was dwarfed by the hostlers, merchants, mistresses, prostitutes, servants, and others who traveled with them. In the ancient world, when slaves were an important type of individual wealth, a successful army was usually further swelled by numerous captives bound for sale in the first slave market the army came to. This is why it is interesting that historians like Thucydides and Herodotus never mention any of these people. In Xenophon, however, the need to protect the camp followers is mentioned as a recurring tactical consideration. While he doesn’t attempt to count them, it is clear that they are numerous and are regarded as bona fide stakeholders in the overall venture.

It is also interesting that Xenophon mentions the presence of “comrade-women”,

As soon as the victims were favourable, all the soldiers began singing the battle hymn, and with the notes of the paean mingled the shouting of the men accompanied by the shriller chant of the women, for there were many comrade-women in the camp.

It is hard to say whether these women were primarily prostitutes, mistresses, or adventurers in their own right. They certainly weren’t wives–he mentions several times how eager the men were to return to their families back in Hellas. It certainly seems though, that while they could not have been expected to have fought in the hopelite battle line, these “comrade-women” were present and played a role in battle. This is yet another of the tantalizing mentions of women that we find in various works that is so at odds with the accepted view of women in the Greek world as a secluded and disenpowered class that was rarely allowed out of the women’s part of the house.

Overall, Xenophon was an important literary innovator whose books are still accessible and interesting to the modern reader. While they do not always make their way onto the various published Great Books lists, I still would recommend them. And if you only read one of his books, the Anabasis is probably the one you should pick.

Note: The Penguin Group’s popular translation of the Anabasis is sold as The Persian Expedition. I personally read Dakyns’ translation, which is also quite good and is available from Project Gutenberg.

Eugenics in the Early 20th Century

A Review of the Book Race Improvement, or Eugenics (1912)

I’ll be getting back to my survey of the Great Books soon, but it has been a while since I wrote a book review, and I read an interesting work yesterday.

Throughout my life, eugenics has been something of a dirty word in intellectual circles. It usually comes up in reference to the social dangers of out of control human genetic science. From the mid twentieth century on numerous science fiction stories had cast totalitarian Eugenicists as antagonists–the best known early example is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In the Star Trek chronology the Eugenics Wars almost wiped out humanity and produce Khan Noonien Singh and his genetically engineered goons. The trope is still popular today. For example, in David Weber’s long-running Honorverse space opera series the Mesan Alignment, a group dedicated to perfecting the human genotype through genetic engineering and selective breeding, are recurring villains.

Eugenics has so many negative connotations today that we forget that in the early 20th century it was a fairly respectable idea. People were just beginning to grasp a modem understanding of things like hereditary diseases. Watson and Crick would not discover DNA for another five decades, but empirical statistical analysis was already being done to estimate the probabilities that certain human traits would be handed down to peoples offspring. There was real interest in the health implications of heredity and the possibilities of “improving the race” through selective breeding.

In 1912 La Reine Helen Carter wrote the book Eugenics or Race Improvement: A Little Book on a Great Topic. Last month Project Gutenberg released a well-proofread electronic edition. The book is short enough to read in a couple hours and gives a fascinating snapshot of the state of thought in the Eugenics Movement at the end of the Gilded Age.

La Reine Helen Baker lived in Spokane, Washington and was one of the main leaders of the women’s rights movement on the West Coast. Her influence peaked between about 1909 and 1912, when she was in high demand as a speaker at suffragette conventions and orchestrated a two year European grand tour to network with suffragettes internationally. She seems to have shamelessly leveraged this platform, along with a very modern understanding of book publicity, to sell her book and several magazine articles on her other passion: eugenics.

Baker in 1910 [from The Spokesman Review, Public Domain]

Baker in 1910 [from The Spokesman Review, Public Domain]

In the book she recommends a program of education to teach people about heredity, combined with physical examinations to allow the fittest individuals to marry each other. She also advocates the sterilization of “the unfit”, by which which she means idiots, habitual criminals, and those with serious hereditary diseases. She seems to think that leprosy and most sexually transmitted diseases are hereditary. In a newspaper article of the same period she criticizes the government for funding the leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii where “lepers are allowed to marry and perpetuate their kind”. She waivers a bit on the question of whether to sterilize alcoholics, but concludes it probably isn’t necessary since natural selection tends to destroy them and since their children “aren’t always” alcoholic themselves.

She also makes a kind of neo-Malthusian argument. The standard neo-Malthusian position is that technology increases production to counter the exponential rate of population increase. Baker argues that fitter people will produce more and that, “The world does not contain too many people, it only contains too many of the wrong sort of people.”

Baker’s writings are, unsurprisingly, infused with a strong feminist strain. She also seems to have had an ongoing flirtation with socialism and ideas about equality and social welfare appear throughout her book. She calls for paid maternity leave, sex education in school, co-education, easy divorce, and a welfare program for new mothers, including fresh milk, which sounds substantially similar to the USADA’s current Women Infants and Children (WIC) program. In fact, other than paid maternity leave, all of these things now exist in the US. Baker herself was wealthy. In the same newspaper article she claims to personally support three children’s hospital wards. Today we might be tempted to label her as a “limousine liberal”.

She was also prone to the prejudices of her time: She is horrified by the idea of mixed marriage and says that “each race” should look to its own improvement. Once, when invited to speak at a banquet, she was astounded to find out that Chinese women had been invited. She betrays a deep distrust at the idea of women pursuing careers outside the home. She believes that people are criminals because they are born to “degenerate” bloodlines, and that environment plays little role.

The main reason modern intellectuals are so distrustful of eugenics is because we know what happened later. Tthe well-meaning ideas of people like La Reine Helen Baker became fused with the more dangerous pseudo-science of Arianism. By the 1930’s the Nazis had discovered how easy it was to broaden the definition of “degenerate” to include any group that got in their way. Genocide was their preferred tool to protect the “Master Race”, not sterilization. Baker herself specifically states that she is against abortion, infanticide, or “the lethal chamber”. The fact that any of these options was under discussion by 1912 is scary in itself.

When we read an old book like this, our first impulse is to dismiss it as hopelessly archaic. Look how much our ideas have changed in the last century, right? But we will never completely escape the ethical question of how much eugenic manipulation is acceptable. Today we have sequenced the human genome and genetic testing is standard during pregnancy. We already know enough to advise certain people not to breed. We will soon have the ability, if we don’t already, to engineer custom people the way we already do seeds and vegetables. It can even be argued that, now that technology removes most forces of natural selection, we need to take control of our own evolutionary destiny. It is inevitable that some government or group, somewhere will again experiment with a policy of Eugenics because while the underlying science has advanced, the basic temptation hasn’t changed in a century.