Tuesday, October 28, 2008


John W. I. Lee, A Greek army on the march: soldiers and survival in Xenophon's Anabasis. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. XII, 323 p. $99.00. ISBN 9780521870689.
Reviewed by Vivienne Gray, University of Auckland (v.gray@auckland.ac.nz)

Table of Contents

This book by John Lee, written in a straight-shooting style that is suited to the topic, recreates the daily experiences of the Greek mercenaries on the march in Xenophon’s Anabasis. They marched first under Cyrus, who led them against his brother the ruling king of Persia in 401 BC, and then under their own commanders as they struggled to return from the heartland of Persia to the sea and to Greece.

Chapter 1 presents this recreation of experience as a departure from previous focuses on panhellenism and ideal leadership in the work, its understanding of the east, its narrative art, and more traditional military matters. It is presented also as a departure from earlier, very distinguished studies of individual military experience, such as those of Keegan and Hansen. They focused on battle experience, whereas the present study excludes it, on the grounds that the ‘men of Cyrus’ fought only one pitched battle, and spent ‘most of their time not actually engaged in combat’. The book also moves away from the viewpoint of commanders. Engels investigated logistics, but from the commander’s point of view. Lee is interested in logistics at the lower levels, as well as decision-making: previous descriptions of the army as community and as a polis on the move are said to have emphasized mass assemblies, but not daily decision-making. And though Xenophon’s apologetic purpose may distort some of his other evidence, it is no barrier to this investigation; his comments on the soldier’s life are without bias, it is argued, because they are incidental to that purpose. Even in the most apologetic circumstances, as when he is defending himself against charges of beating a man, Xenophon’s narrative ‘unwittingly’ gives us objective information.

The chosen focus means that there is no experience of the battle of Cunaxa, or of the skirmishes that in fact form a significant part of Xenophon’s narrative. It means that we have what happened as the soldiers prepared in haste to fight at Cunaxa, and how they survived afterwards, but nothing in between. The relegation of commanders to the background also means that the scene in which Xenophon, a central figure in the original account, rouses his soldiers out of their fatal desire to continue sleeping under the snow that fell on them during the night because it felt like an insulating blanket, is presented as a mere measure of the cold. In other places, inevitably, the men’s experiences of their commanders do figure.

The focus also requires additions to Xenophon’s account because although Anabasis is rich in information about soldiers’ experiences, it still does not describe all of those encompassed by this investigation; the reconstruction is therefore presented as an ‘interrogation’ of Xenophon’s text, filling his silences with comparative ancient material, with ‘probably’ and ‘would have been’. The interrogation in fact highlights these silences, provoking readers to reflect on the difference between Xenophon’s literary representation and the experience itself, and between modern and ancient notions of relevance and interest.

Chapter 2 begins the main account of the soldier’s experience with a focus on the environment, reconstructing the march in its different geographic phases with the help of modern climatology and topography, and with full references to Anabasis. A useful table at the end of the book charts distances, temperatures and hours of daylight. In accordance with the purpose of the reconstruction, the famous hunting of the ostriches and bustards and other game in the Arabian Plain becomes an illustration of difficulties in the food supply. ‘Xenophon and other rich Cyreans with horses’ hunt and secure meat to eat, whereas ‘ordinary soldiers likely subsisted for five days mostly on what they had gotten at the Araxes’. (Xenophon does describe the taste of the game, and he could have caught it himself, I suppose, but in fact he refers to the hunting group only as ‘the horsemen’, the usual term for more regular cavalry). The reconstruction goes on, very reasonably, to put together references to the death of the pack animals through starvation during this desert crossing and the subsistence of the army on meat to produce the new idea: ‘they resorted to eating their baggage animals, some of which had died for lack of fodder’. Sometimes there is a greater challenge to Xenophon’s text. Xenophon says that there were no Greek casualties in the fighting at Cunaxa, but here ‘the Cyreans may have suffered some casualties from heatstroke and exhaustion as they advanced under the midday and afternoon sun to meet Artaxerxes’. The intense heat is also adduced to explain why the army did not move for 20 days after the meeting with Tissaphernes, even though Xenophon implies they were just waiting for Tissaphernes to return. Xenophon’s silences on environmental factors are elsewhere interpreted as evidence that such factors made no impact.

Chapter 3 begins dramatically with Ionians watching the movements of troops on the eve of the march. The focus is on the Greek contingents who joined Cyrus, their backgrounds, their loyalties, their organization, their re-organisation after the death of Cyrus and the removal of their original commanders through treachery, then their bonding experiences in the new formations of the later expedition. The army was made up of men from different parts of Greece, but in this investigation divisions are down-played. Even the quite strong group identities of the Arcadians and Achaeans did not impact on the sense of unity on the most dangerous part of the journey; within their group in any case the Arcadians had strong local identities. It was only when danger was over that they became a threat, when the Black Sea was reached, and then only for a short time. The verbal abuse of Apollonides for having pierced ears is put down to crisis rather than ethnic prejudice. Other potential divisions, such as age, and wealth, are shown to play no negative role either. The main focus of identity, the book argues, is the lochos and its division into smaller suskeniai.

Chapter 4 discusses the hoplite lochos of around 100 men, and the suskeniai within each lochos, those groups of 10-15 men who camped and ate together. The lochoi were the main army divisions, a series of mobile fighting units which could operate together or separately. Their individual sense of identity is reflected in the term lochites. The light-armed non-hoplites were organized differently, under taxiarchs. The reconstruction of experience within the suskenia calls on references to similar units in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and good use is also made of the account in Anabasis in which Xenophon defended himself against the charge of beating a man who had been assigned the function of carrying their equipment by his suskenoi; this shows suskeniai as the basic unit that looked to the care of its own members in the lack of any central organisation. The case of Clearetus, the lochagus who planned to abandon his lochos and took his suskenoi as the starting point for the formation of his new group, shows how suskenic loyalty threatened the cohesion of the lochos and the safety of the entire army when it took independent action.

Chapter 5 calls on comparative evidence about ancient military gear to supplement Xenophon and recreate the nature and provision and care of dress and weapons, tents and beds, cooking utensils and pack animals.

Chapter 6 is on marching, and Chapter 7 on resting. The experience of a lochos is recreated, that of the Arcadian with the big appetite. This involves night marching, as well as more routine daily marches, the rapid marches under Cyrus, the defensive marches under attack in the famous ‘hollow square’, marches through restricted and rugged terrain such as ravines and mountain passes, in narrower columns, with a longer tail, and finally the easy passage by sea along the Black Sea Coast, covering distances once only dreamed of. “On the march, a man’s lochos was his world’. Comparative evidence, some from Roman practice, is used to recreate the experience of the camp. This includes the layouts of the tents under Cyrus, then the more closely packed defensive camps after his death, the dense huddles of soldiers around their fires in the open air once the tents were abandoned, as well as the occasional quartering in villages, more comfortable but more open to attack.

Chapter 8 is about the routine of cooking and eating. Because, it is argued, there was no central commissariat, suskenoi acquire food for themselves, finding fuel to light fires for cooking, deciding what to eat on the basis of the time available to them and what cooked food was best to carry the next day on the march. Leavening bread takes time, but unleavened bread and porridge can be cooked quickly, and parched barley can be made into the maza of Archilochus. Meat turns out to be desirable, but expensive in the time taken to process it, and difficult to keep once cooked. The honey that famously made the men of Cyrus drunk is put in the context of a regular desire for intoxication, attained more usually through wine.

Chapter 9 is about the needs of the body: nutrition and rest, sanitation (for kilograms of excrement, both human and animal), tooth care, bathing, shaving, treatment of injuries and wounds, diseases, frostbite, and gangrene, burial practices. The point is made again that suskenoi manage these challenges without centralized organisation.

Chapter 10 argues that the ordinary soldier had little help from slaves either. The men of Cyrus do for themselves what in other armies was done by attendants -- such as carrying equipment and provisions. Attendants do figure, but not in great numbers. When Xenophon refers to the ochlos he does not mean slaves, but men out of combat, the ill and wounded, prisoners, and those detailed to act as porters. But there were captive boys, and women too, gained along the march and kept for personal use.

This investigation successfully uses Anabasis to recreate the experience of Xenophon’s fellow soldiers and will have direct appeal for readers interested in the routine of the ordinary soldier on the march in the extraordinary story that Xenophon has to tell. Some might miss the experiences of fighting and skirmishing, or of command, but can still appreciate the detail of more routine struggles against nature and the elements. The book is well presented and well priced with a reasonably helpful index and a good bibliography. There are useful appended tables of the chronology of the march, with distances, and climate information; of troops strengths at various stages of the journey; of casualties and desertions. Useful diagrams of march formations and encampment layouts and so forth are found within the main chapters.

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