Thursday, March 27, 2014


Michael A. Flower, Xenophon's Anabasis, or the Expedition of Cyrus. Oxford approaches to classical literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 242. ISBN 9780195188684. $19.95 (pb).

Reviewed by John Dillery, University of Virginia (

Version at BMCR home site

It is difficult to know where to begin. This is such a good book on so many levels. Michael Flower has written a book that is precisely a 'clear, lively, and reliable account based on the most up-to-date scholarship' (Editor's Foreword p.vii) on an important but strangely understudied text from Antiquity: Xenophon's Anabasis. It is deeply insightful and fairly sparkles on every page with apposite and often novel interpretations that shed light where there was darkness (at least for me!). It is, to boot, really well written—quite literally a pleasure to read. In short, this book is a triumph and should be read by anyone interested in Xenophon, the Anabasis, or the interpretative complexities of 'the most important autobiographical narrative to have survived from ancient Greece' (p.4).

If, as Flower documents so well at the start of his study, the Anabasis was enormously popular in the Nineteenth and the first half of the Twentieth Centuries, since that time—and no doubt in part precisely because it was a text to learn Greek on—it has fared rather less well, until recently that is. If it was once regarded as a simple text for schoolboys to learn from, it is now regarded (as it should always have been) as a wonderfully constructed yet elusive text with all sorts of narrative oddities. So, we (the general reading public) need a book that treats Xenophon and us as grown-ups. Flower is clearly up to the task. Throughout the volume, Flower is alert to the possibilities and requirements of literary theory in the interpretation of his text; he never preaches or prescribes, he simply lays out what we must do as readers in order to make sense of what Xenophon has written, as well as the limitations of his (and our) views (note esp. pp.5ff.).

After the introductory material, Flower organizes the book into large thematic chapters that each range over the whole of the Anabasis: Ch. 2 'Xenophon as Author, Narrator, and Agent' (self explanatory); Ch. 3 'Let It be Fact and Let It Be Fiction?' (emphasis original; the status of the Anabasis as history or as something else); Ch. 4 'Style and the Shaping of Narrative' (again, self-explanatory); Ch. 5 'Xenophon Takes Command' (Xenophon and the problem of leadership); Ch. 6 'Xenophon on Trial' (the Anabasis and the apology problem); the enigmatically titled Ch. 7 'Reading the Anabasis' (in fact a treatment of several interrelated interpretative chestnuts: Anabasis as panhellenist tract and Xenophon's characterization of the barbarian; the nature of Xenophon's treatment of Cyrus the Younger; relations between Greeks in the Anabasis; the problem of order and discipline among the Ten Thousand); and finally Ch. 8, 'The Hand of God Artfully Placed' (religious elements in the Anabasis and in particular Xenophon and divination).

Rather than write up a digest of each chapter, I would like instead to offer just a few of the many brilliant observations to be found in the book—readings that really stand out in my mind for their originality and insight. I am embarrassed to admit that I never saw the connection between the opening of Book 3, 4.3.1-34 and 5.2.24-25 (pp.133 and 138-39): crisis is signaled in all three passages by the key term aporia, and then a 'way out' is discovered, marked by a dream in the first two cases, and in some sense engineered by burning buildings in the first and last. Acute crisis is an inability to act; by a flash of inspiration (quite literally), the best leader provides the means whereby effective action can be undertaken and whereby it will succeed.

Flower's interpretation of Xenophon's attitude toward Cyrus the Younger is extremely persuasive. While seeing that there are contradictions ('several competing purposes' p.188), he also notes that Xenophon's most ringing endorsement of the prince, one that actually comes from his Oeconomicus (4.18), is conditional: '"if Cyrus had lived he would have proved to be an excellent ruler" which…is not quite the same as saying that he had been an excellent ruler' (p.189, emphasis original). Indeed, can't we just say that in Cyrus were the seeds of great leadership but that he was also young and rash and so met his end attempting very foolishly to kill his brother in one-on-one combat at Cunaxa? The idea of youth and its limitations is also glimpsed in Flower's handling of Xenophon himself, but in this case in the positive. If the episode of his consultation of both Socrates and the oracle at Delphi shows the callowness of his youth and the transparency of his true desire mastering his judgment, Flower points out that never again in the Anabasis do we see Xenophon taking an important action 'without first consulting the gods through divinatory sacrifice' (p.124). Xenophon the agent in history seems actually to be able to learn. Youthful error is overcome. The Anabasis shows not a static personality in Xenophon the historical agent, but one that evolves. This strikes me as fundamentally right and of great significance.

Flower's treatment of the problem of the Anabasis as apology is really first rate. While granting that it does indeed have apologetic elements, he observes that Xenophon's 'self-portrait moves beyond apology into the realm of scripting a paradigm of the ideal democratic leader' (p.119). I do not know if I can agree completely with the specific political claim here ('ideal democratic leader')—perhaps 'group leader' would be a better, though admittedly also a weaker claim—but I do take the larger point that is being made: 'apology' is simply too narrow a category to account for all the things that Xenophon says in connection with his own actions and those of other model leaders in the Anabasis. While apology is part of what he is doing, it does not explain all of what he is doing. Another point that Flower makes in connection with leadership, and Xenophon specifically, is that Xenophon is distinguished 'from all his fellow commanders [by] his concern for the common soldiers and his readiness to share their burdens' (p.135). This is an important observation and squares nicely with similar statements elsewhere in Xenophon's corpus (e.g. when Cyrus the Younger tells the shocked Lysander that he did his own farming: Oec. 4.22-24).

Inevitably there are going to be places where problems arise or where one disagrees. If the Hellenica was 'composed in the 350s and so written after the Anabasis' (p.171), as is surely correct in my view, then in choosing to make his Anabasis a 'microhistory' instead of a 'macrohistory' (see esp. p.48), Xenophon didn't really have much of a choice, if the macrohistory (Hellenica) was still just notes or even only notional. I don't know whether since the same verb is used of both Xenophon 'sharing' Proxenus' letter with Socrates, and Socrates encouraging Xenophon to 'consult with' (Greek anakoino├┤) the Delphic Oracle, this means that Socrates and the Oracle are both authorities of the same status (p.123); for one thing the two occurrences, while indeed close to each other, are in different voices (middle first, then active An. 3.1.5-6). If Xenophon states that 'someone' dealt Cyrus the fatal blow under his eye at Cunaxa, he is not introducing doubt when others (namely Ctesias) insist that it was Artaxerxes himself (p.83); he is in fact denying that this was the case.

But, as one can see, these are really just quibbles. When I teach the Anabasis again I will most assuredly assign this book as background reading. It is a model of its kind: a generous, thoughtful, and deeply insightful interpretation of an ancient text, and one that is clear and well written. What more does one have to say, other than, 'well done'?

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