Friday, January 28, 2011


Tim Rood, American Anabasis: Xenophon and the Idea of America from the Mexican War to Iraq. London: Duckworth, 2010. Pp. x, 292. ISBN 9780715636848. $37.50.

Reviewed by John David Lewis, Duke University (

Version at BMCR home site

The power and importance of Xenophon's Anabasis in the development of American military culture and national identity is the theme of Tim Rood's American Anabasis. Three great military movements in American history—the drive into Baghdad (2003), Alexander Doniphan's march into Mexico (1846), and William T. Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas (1864/5)—provide the settings for the book's three parts, and become the points of focus for the use and abuse of Xenophon by participants and commentators. As a study of the reception of Xenophon's text, American Anabasis is chock-full of historical information, a gold mine of references to Xenophon that draws on literary interpretations as well as first-hand accounts to show how Xenophon's text shaped people's views of these events and of themselves.

American Anabasis begins in 2003 with the Americans in Iraq, moving then back in time to the mid- twentieth century (Part I, "Xenophon and America" with two chapters), before leaping back further to American forays into Mexico in the 1840s (Part II, "The March of Destiny," five chapters), then turning forward to the American Civil War and its aftermath in the 1860s and later (Part III, "The War Between the States," two chapters). A conclusion returns us to the twentieth century. During this journey out and back—the "journey" is a leitmotif throughout—Rood adopts an explicitly "restricted focus on anabasis as an emblem of American expansion." This stance continuously betrays his own "imperialistic" view of this history. But at every step he provides his readers with a rich context of historical material on which to anchor his interpretations, stamped with the ever-present image of Xenophon the commander and the writer.

Our journey begins in Chapter 1, "Dubya Anabasis: Xenophon and the Iraq War,"1 with the "Anabasis Project," a covert plan to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, and with depictions of the "march" into Baghdad. The problems raised by attempts to compare American soldiers with Greek mercenaries—in books such as The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the First Marine Division2—start with the fact that there was little marching on the road to Baghdad. But American Anabasis here reveals a certain underlying imprecision of its own, for Rood's claim that "the allure of classical antiquity" was used "to give authority to the American imperial project" raises the question of what exactly was "imperial" about overthrowing a bloody, aggressive despot in order to turn a country over to citizen self-rule. Repeated references to "American imperialism" fail either to define "imperialism," or to adequately contrast it with the ancient use of Greek mercenaries to support one claimant to a dynastic despotism over another.

The depth and breadth of Rood's treatment—and its limits—are revealed in Chapter 2, "Look Homeward: The Idea of America," which delves into literary works of the mid-20th century. Special emphasis and the greatest space is given to the first draft of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel," originally titled O Lost.3 Wolfe's many evocations of Xenophon's Anabasis did not make it through the ruthless editing required for final publication, but the theme of homecoming still rings, in terms that juxtapose the ancient Greek and modern American experiences across a continent. The American prairie in the 19th century is visualized as the sea, and ancient sea travel is juxtaposed with wagon travel across the American frontier, a theme that, we are told, resonates with the sound of train whistles that haunt the text. By the 19th century, Rood asserts, Xenophon had become a schoolboy text dedicated to the promotion of continental expansion, a path that continued in the next century, and that culminates in an "American journey" in which President Obama "sought to reaffirm the greatness of the American nation after the grave damage inflicted by the Bush presidency." (p.29) Those in agreement with these allusions may see the connections, but others may wonder whether such political stances really belong here.

Part II, Chapters 3 through 7, the meat of the book, take us to the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. Rood skillfully shifts his focus through these chapters, from how the march into Mexico by American commander Alexander Doniphan with his band of Missouri volunteers was described by later literary sources (Chapter 3, "The American Xenophon: Doniphan in Mexico"), to first-hand accounts by participants (Chapter 4, "East and West: Promised Lands"), to images of Spartan warriors juxtaposed with American soldiers (Chapter 5, "Spartan Courage: The Culture of Militarism"), into the democratic actions of Greek and American fighters (Chapter 6, "A Wandering Democracy: Freedom on the March"), and reaching an apex with a comparison between American views of Indians and Iraqi Kurds (Chapter 7, "The Savage State: Kurds and Indians").

Perhaps the "wandering democracy" of Chapter 6 can illustrate the kinds of comparisons that Rood makes; a review of this length cannot possibly reach them all. We read of how American soldiers selected their officers and debated their next move—similar to Xenophon's mobile ekklesia but also how senior officers (Doniphan and Clearchus) manipulated such debates to obtain the desired results. The question of homecoming rises—do we stay in a foreign land, wondered the Americans?—an option never seriously considered by the Greeks. What was the ultimate goal of each march, and did the soldiers or their leaders really know that goal? What was the moral purpose of each expedition, and was an elevated purpose undercut by personal looting? Were American paid volunteers really that similar to Greek mercenaries? And, in Chapter 7, what (if any) real similarities were found in the portrayals of Mesopotamians, Mexicans, and Kurds by American commentators, and how did Greek and American conclusions about the "savage state" of these nations resound with ideology and policy in these widely separated times?

An "Intermezzo" that compares the brash, risk-taking Colonel and presidential candidate John Charles Frémont with Xenophon bridges us from the Mexican War to the far more sanguinary Civil War. Frémont is blessed (or saddled) with the attributes of Xenophon and his Ten Thousand: a strident risk-taker marching through hostile lands, taking on bold adventures and rising almost to the top of American leadership, a writer of note to be set beside Xenophon himself.

Chapter 8, "Advance and Retreat: Sherman in Georgia," takes on one of the most audacious marches in world military history: Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's "March to the Sea" from Atlanta to Savannah in 1864. Press reports of the march—and Rood cites many—swung between praise for its breathtaking success and denigration of it as a desperate retreat from the Confederate armies to the north—in both cases setting it side by side with Xenophon's own march. The Greek word anabaino (the root of anabasis) has been twisted from its original meaning of "mount" a ship or a horse and "march up" from the sea, to an ambiguous range of meanings between "embark" and "return." We are invited—again—to think about what Xenophon's and Sherman's marches really were, and to consider how they influenced both the formation of classical Greek identity, and the more fully centralized national identity of the American nation as it emerged from its only internal war.

Moving now forward in time, to "The Brutal Romance of War: Reconstruction and Beyond," (Chapter 9), Rood turns to the use and abuse of Xenophon in the decades after the Civil War, leading into the 20th century. The hell of war, Rood maintains, was often described with the language of the picturesque, a recurrent leitmotif that is here embodied in a book-length 1896 poem The March to the Sea by Union soldier Samuel Byers.4 The title draws from a song he wrote while a prisoner of the Confederates in South Carolina, and may be directly reminiscent of Xenophon's Anabasis. Similarly, the Indian chief who led the tribe the Nez Percés in flight from American forces was known as "the modern Xenophon"—for his heroism of course, not for his Greek virtues. Here the savage is equated with the civilized, another motif of the book, which places American troops into an uncomfortable position indeed.

In the end, both sides in the Civil War, now unified politically but needing deeper reconciliation, used their views of Xenophon to support their respective evaluations of Sherman, thus elevating the importance of both marches in American intellectual life. Southern apologists, for instance, decried the burning of homes (and the city of Columbia) with the support of Xenophon's Cyropaideia, while ignoring Xenophon's claim to have openly stated an order to burn a town in the Anabasis. One contrast with Sherman is with his denial of any orders to burn Columbia, which shows his reservations about such actions—reservations that were lacking in Xenophon's account. Xenophon himself (in the Cyropaideia) becomes a weapon to be wielded against Xenophon (in the Anabasis), in which the logic of a moral treatise during peace has been subordinated to the logic of war. Xenophon, Rood reminds us, was used in contrary ways because he himself embraces contrary ways, as the situation demands—and as the literary and ideological purposes of his readers continue to demand.

A Conclusion, "Anabasis Investments," purports to bring out private responses to the Anabasis, in order to tie the themes of American Anabasis together, although the majority of sources remain books and films. Readings over decades by Kermit Roosevelt and his father President Theodore Roosevelt, and by a later soldier in Iraq, lead to Rood's conclusion that Xenophon has been used "to project an image of American power abroad—an image of democratic forces bringing the light of freedom to benighted lands." This greater use of Xenophon to promote military virtue, claims Rood, has come at the expense of a declining interest in civic virtue, and with a sharper concern for Greece over Rome.

Rood has abided by the limits he sets to his own study; many areas of American history have been left out or shortened. Xenophon was also used in descriptions of the Czech march into Siberia, the post-World War I German revival, and the expansion of Russia in the 19th century. Rood tempts us to explore these elsewhere. In the study of the American reception of Xenophon, Rood is clear that the danger of over-simplification is great; synchronic and diachronic differences, as well as differences of genre and purpose, must be respected. The Nez Percés flight, as well as the movement of the Cheyenne in 1878, were both cast as Xenophontic, along with the expeditions of Doniphan and Sherman, as was, in the 1979 film The Warriors, the flight of a New York gang from the Bronx to Coney Island. In the hands of writers, Xenophon is nothing if not adaptable to a broad range of scenarios.

This book is extensively researched and annotated; every page has references to Xenophon in American letters, literature and film, and much will be eye-opening to those readers, like this reviewer, who are not experts in American history. It is a vital source for the reception of Greek thought into American culture. 227 pages of text are followed by thirty-nine pages of endnotes, a six page select bibliography (which does not list all of the sources cited in the endnotes), and an eighteen-page index.

In contrast to the treatment of Doniphan in Mexico, Rood's accounts of Sherman's march, the Civil War Reconstruction, and the Iraq War are short, but he provides an abundance of material on the Mexican War for readers to use in evaluating other conflicts. The book's uneven examinations may be a virtue, in that Doniphan's movement through Mexico will be far less known to readers than the US Civil War, and in that the antebellum period is more important to the formation of the American nation than many may realize. Readers may not agree that the American anabasis will end with Cy Twombly's paintings, or that misreadings will end with "the age of Bush." It is, however, the "transfer of cultural authority and imperial power from Greece to Rome and ultimately to the United States" that constitutes, for Rood, the "key myth of the West." This is, in the end, the wider theme which this book aims to illuminate, and this theme will stand or fall, for individual readers, on whether they accept this myth as progress or decline—as a march up or down—or whether they see it as a myth at all.


1.   "Dubya Anabasis" is the title of a prose poem by Richard Peabody, in T. Swift, 100 Poets against the War, at
2.   F.J. West and R.L. Smith (New York: 2003).
3.   T. Wolfe, O Lost: A Story of a Buried Life ed. A. and M.J. Bruccoli (Columbia, SC, 2000).
4.   S. Beyers, "The March to the Sea," in Poems of S. H. M. Byers: Including The Happy Isles; The March To The Sea And Other Poems (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2008).

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