A western army marches to within sixty kilometers of Baghdad. Their leader, the youngest son of a great ruler, has gathered them to oust the current regime. They face a large irregular force. A pitched battle is fought. The result is inconclusive. The rudderless army suffers greatly as it attempts to extricate itself from the conflict and find its way home. Perhaps this sounds like something we’ve recently lived through, but it’s not. It’s Xenophon’s Anabasis — the title loosely translates as The March Up Country.
This book — written around 370 B.C., almost thirty years after the events it relates — chronicles an expedition of 10,000 Greek mercenaries under the command of Cyrus against his brother the Persian King Artaxerxes II between 401 and 399 B.C. Arguably the first soldier-turned-author, Xenophon was an Athenian of noble birth, but one who had little taste for the hectic and cosmopolitan life of fifth-century Athens. He had a predilection for war and was an admirer of the Spartans, then ruling the Hellespont after the humiliating Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars.
The Anabasis opens when Xenophon’s old friend Proxenus, a Theban mercenary serving as a general in the army gathering under Cyrus, invites him to participate in the campaign. Unsure whether or not to join the march, Xenophon consults with the philosopher Socrates who advises him to ask the Oracle at Delphi for guidance. “Xenophon went and put the question to Apollo, to which of the gods he must pray and do sacrifice, so that he might best accomplish his intended journey and return in safety, with good fortune.” The oracle tells Xenophon that he should pray to Apollo, but when he reports this to Socrates, the philosopher is quick to point out that Xenophon asked the wrong question. Rather than inquiring as to whether or not he should go on the campaign or stay at home in the first place, he instead only asked whom he should pray to so that he would achieve the best result once he left.
It seems asking the wrong question in the run-up to war isn’t just a 21st-century phenomenon.
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