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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.


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.

Thucydides Book IV: The Boethian Flamethrower

Military history is a see-saw between fixed defensive technology and mobile offensive technology. Sometimes offensive technology leaps ahead, as at the close of the middle ages when improved cannons suddenly rendered every castle in Europe obsolete. At other time defenses gain the advantage, such as on the Western Front of the Great War, when armies became deadlocked for years in their trenches. Reading Thucydides, there can be no doubt that in the era of the Peloponnesian War defensive technology was ascendant. A fourth century Greek army had little chance of storming the stone walls of a fortified city, even with a significant advantage in numbers. The main land force of the Peloponnesian League, with the best infantry in the world, was afraid to directly attack the Long Walls of Athens. We read of lesser cities withstanding sieges for months or years, before finally yielding through starvation or treachery. In the years leading up to the war, a city deciding to build fortifications was considered a reasonable pretense for declaring war, to preemptively attack before the walls made them impregnable.

Thucydides alludes several times to “engines” used to attack walls, but these seem to have been simple battering rams which had to be pushed right up to the wall to work. An alert garrison was often able to destroy them before they could do damage. During the siege of Platea, for example, the defenders were able to break apart a Spartan ram with lassos and logs. Other siege engineering techniques were even cruder, such as piling earthen ramps against the walls or trying to light fires.

In Book IV, however, we read about a new device: the first recorded flamethrower. First used by the Boethians at the siege of Delium, this device could incinerate wooden walls and gates and even crack stones. Like the first tanks deployed at the Somme, this device signaled that the balance between defense and offense was about to shift again.

Thucydides gives a fairly detailed description of the Boetian flamethrower,

Meanwhile the Boeotians … marched against Delium, and attacked the fort, and after divers efforts finally succeeded in taking it by an engine of the following description. They sawed in two and scooped out a great beam from end to end, and fitting it nicely together again like a pipe, hung by chains a cauldron at one extremity, with which communicated an iron tube projecting from the beam, which was itself in great part plated with iron. This they brought up from a distance upon carts to the part of the wall principally composed of vines and timber, and when it was near, inserted huge bellows into their end of the beam and blew with them. The blast passing closely confined into the cauldron, which was filled with lighted coals, sulphur and pitch, made a great blaze, and set fire to the wall, which soon became untenable for its defenders, who left it and fled; and in this way the fort was taken. Of the garrison some were killed and two hundred made prisoners; most of the rest got on board their ships and returned home.

For all we know, he may also have included a drawing. If so, though, it has long since been lost to history. A quick search on the web yields many modern day artists’ conceptions, but I couldn’t resist sketching my own.

The Boethian Flamethrower, as described in Thucydides [Copyright 2015 by Kevin A. Straight, CC BY-SA]

The Boethian Flamethrower, as described in Thucydides [Copyright 2015 by Kevin A. Straight, CC BY-SA]

There is debate about what substance was burned in the “cauldron” at the end. A number of flammable substances were available in the ancient world, including naphtha, animal fat, and various vegetable oils. I’m inclined to believe that actual pitch–a simple wood tar–was used. Wood tar is easy to make and was already used by the Greeks to waterproof their ships, buckets, ropes, and other items. The besieging army might well have brought a supply with them for general maintenance. Wood tar is sticky and flammable. While it is possible to put it out with water, it takes a great deal of water to do it. Furthermore, since it is only mildly water soluble, water tends to spread the burning pitch, which makes it even harder to put out.

Sulfur from several locations around the Mediterranean and was a common household item for the Greeks, used to fumigate buildings and as a component of medical preparations. Sulfur has particular characteristics which make it useful in incendiaries: it lights easily and fast, yet burns long enough to light other things. The first matches were chips of wood soaked in sulfur that could be lit with a flint and steel then used to light fires. Modern military manuals still include several sulfur based recipes for “igniters” that can be used to set off hard to light compounds. The sulfur added to the pitch in the Boethian flamethrower would have helped insure that most of the pitch caught fire when the air blast hit it, instead of just being squirted out of the cauldron.  Burning sulfur also produces nasty fumes which would have further hampered fire fighting efforts.

How well would this have worked? Lets assume that the “kettle” held about five gallons of burning pitch, about the size of a large paint bucket. Wood tar contains several chemical compounds but the most common and representative is a ketone with the formula C19H22N2O2. Based on its entry in the database PubChem, five gallons of it would mass about 43.3 lbs. The Boethians didn’t know modern chemical stoichiometry (for that matter, it has been a decade and a half since I took a chemistry class) but lets assume that, through trial and error, they made the bellows big enough to fully combust the pitch in one puff. The net combustion equation for C19H22N2O2 is probably something like:

C19H22N2O2 + O2 –> CO2 + N2 + H2O + HEAT

It would therefore take 0.07 lbs of Oxygen to fully combust the pitch. This would require a bellows that held 34.3 gallons of air at one atmosphere, plus as much more as would be required to oxidize the sulfur. A 50 gallon bellows would probably be safe, erring on the side of extra oxygen. How much heat would be released by this setup?

The combustion properties of wood products have long been of some interest to the US Forest Service, and they have released a number of pamphlets on the subject. Using the heat of combustion of pine tar from one of the tables from this study, 12,195 BTU/lb I calculate that each puff would release about 528,044 BTUs of heat energy on the enemy’s walls. Not too shabby.

The flash point of dry oak is about 900degF and its specific heat is 0.48 BTU/lb*degF. Assuming a paltry 20% efficiency, this would be enough heat in one shot to instantly ignite 244 lbs of wood, and the flames would spread rapidly. While this is scarcely as destructive as a modern napalm bomb, it is still probably no accident that wooden fortifications fell out of favor rather rapidly around this time.