Anabasis is Xenophon’s personal account of one of the most amazing marches in history, the march of a Greek army numbering ten thousand men from Babylon to the Black Sea. Xenophon played a leading role in the march and was, in effect, supreme commander of the army, although he refused the actual title. This account of the Persian expedition begins with the recital of Cyrus’s effort to wrest the Persian throne from his brother Artaxerxes, but its principal part is concerned with the march from Babylon after the death of Cyrus at the battle of Cunaxa.
For centuries, Anabasis has been recognized as a stirring piece of historical narrative but dismissed as lacking in intellectual substance because of what some have seen as Xenophon’s overzealous self-justification. Unquestionably, the portrait of Xenophon the military leader that emerges from the text is exceedingly flattering. The tone often shows great objectivity and restraint, but the stirring record of the Greeks rising to the many challenges they faced in struggling to survive against both military and political obstacles can hardly be called impartial. Unfortunately, the propagandistic qualities of the story have often overshadowed the literary and intellectual merits of a work important in its own right.
One must remember, however, that historiography had a different meaning for the Greeks than it does for later scholars. Like most historians of antiquity, including his predecessor and model Thucydides, Xenophon takes great liberty with speechmaking, inventing lengthy speeches to place in the mouths of characters who represent various types Xenophon respects or reviles. One has a sense, however, that he represents the major actions he describes with great accuracy, and his analysis of motives sets his story apart from mere chronicles. Xenophon also examines larger moral and social issues important to his countrymen. Through his presentation of character and motive, and through his careful structuring of events to present his readers clear parallels that highlight comparisons and contrasts, Xenophon elevates his narrative to an analysis of moral qualities, revealing something of the nature of his society and its values. In Anabasis, Xenophon offers a valuable lesson to readers about the impact of practicing virtue, especially in times of crisis.