Anabases 3: A Letter about Xenophon’s Diary

Dear Eric,

Rereading what I wrote about Anabases yesterday it dawned on my how I cannot allow this week of posts about your book to become anything approximating a review. I am currently months behind the review of another book and taking this mode of writing on at the same time seems especially perverse. That said, I have committed this week of Minus Plato posts to your book and so I want to find a responsible way of accounting here for my reading of it. For the record I am currently on page 150, about to start reading Homay King’s essay “Anti-Odyssey” (pp. 150-199). Flipping through the pages of King’s contribution to the volume, I see that it is more squarely focused on an interpretation of your work than the previous long essay (which I finished yesterday) by Pierre Zaoui (“Anabasis: A Brief History of Politics, Art and Their Strange Unnatural Marriage”, pp. 42-116). If this turns out to be the case, then these two extended essays will act to partner your Chronologies (pp. 14-40) that I partially wrote about yesterday – that is, Zaoui’s focus on Anabasis as a concept aligns with the first part of Chronologies, while King’s essay would (I presume, but I guess I need to read it to be sure) build on the second part of Chronologies that covers the series of works Of Signs & Senses, X-Rayograms, The Makes and Chanson d’automne. (I am not sure why I want to put the title of your contribution in italics, while the other essays of Montazami, Zaoui and King in quotation marks. Also, why am I not giving it its complete title Anabases: Chronologies? – maybe I’ll discover some explanation further down the road). I mention this correspondence between the chapters because I think that it gives me the perfect alibi for not continuing in the review mode that I was slipping towards yesterday. Since I still have to write about the second half of Chronologies as well as Zaoui’s essay, since the former is not strictly on the Anabasis theme and the latter doesn’t engage directly with you work, that gives me an excuse to write about something else, something beyond the scope of Anabases, but also something generated by my reading it. What I want to write about today (as I await news of the future from Athens, although that’s another story) is Xenophon’s diary.

There is considerable debate among Classical scholars as to whether Xenophon kept some kind of diary during his campaign with Cyrus and his wandering return trip. Given the generally accepted date of the composition of the Anabasis being several years after the event (you give the range 391-371 BCE although some think it could be as late as the 360s BCE) and the amount of detailed attention to distance traveled and the time it took, the idea that Xenophon kept a written record on the road has found favor. That said, there are some strong arguments against this view. These range from the observation that, when Xenophon set off, he had no idea what he was getting himself into, so he wouldn’t have lugged along with him the necessary materials to the claim that he was more intent on staying alive than recording his adventure. Furthermore, compared to our poor modern memory skills, Xenophon was probably much better at remembering details than anyone undertaking such a journey today and so he’d have little need for a written account to rely on later. Summarizing this position succinctly, George Cawkwell notes:

We who live in a world of books, including a plenitude of reference works, do not need to rely on our memories and so find it hard to believe that Xenophon could have written the Anabasis largely out of memory; he must have kept and used a diary. But it is even harder to believe that he did. When Xenophon answered Proxenus’ invitation to join him, Xenophon could have had no suspicion of what he would shortly be engaged in.

When I read Cawkwell’s critique of the diary thesis (in the book of essays The Long March: Xenophon and the Ten Thousand that I took out of the library – that sea of book-stacks, yesterday), I found it somewhat curious that he made reference to Proxenus’ invitation. He is, as you know, referring to the moment at the beginning of Book 3 of the Anabasis when Xenophon enters into the narrative as a leader of the remaining Greek forces. The nighttime scene is set for his introduction as follows:

After the generals had been seized, and the captains and soldiers who formed their escort had been killed, the Hellenes lay in deep perplexity—a prey to painful reflections. Here were they at the king’s gates, and on every side environing them were many hostile cities and tribes of men. Who was there now to furnish them with a market? Separated from Hellas by more than a thousand miles, they had not even a guide to point the way. Impassable rivers lay athwart their homeward route, and hemmed them in. Betrayed even by the Asiatics, at whose side they had marched with Cyrus to the attack, they were left in isolation. Without a single mounted trooper to aid them in pursuit: was it not perfectly plain that if they won a battle, their enemies would escape to a man, but if they were beaten themselves, not one soul of them would survive? Haunted by such thoughts, and with hearts full of despair, but few of them tasted food that evening; but few of them kindled even a fire, and many never came into camp at all that night, but took their rest where each chanced to be. They could not close their eyes for very pain and yearning after their fatherlands or their parents, the wife or child whom they never expected to look upon again. Such was the plight in which each and all tried to seek repose.

Then Xenophon is introduced so that we can hear of the dream that stings him into action and to rouse the troops to action and a plan. Now the introduction of Xenophon goes as follows:

Now there was in that host a certain man, an Athenian, Xenophon, who had accompanied Cyrus, neither as a general, nor as an officer, nor yet as a private soldier, but simply on the invitation of an old friend, Proxenus. This old friend had sent to fetch him from home, promising, if he would come, to introduce him to Cyrus, “whom,” said Proxenus, “I consider to be worth my fatherland and more to me.” Xenophon having read the letter, consulted Socrates the Athenian, whether he should accept or refuse the invitation. 

What follows offers an insight as to Xenophon’s pursuit of and self-acknowledged failure to follow the teachings of the philosopher Socrates. When the teacher suggests seeking the wisdom of the Delphic Oracle as to whether he should even embark on the campaign with Cyrus, the student asks the wrong question: not whether he should go, but how he could best undertake his journey. Furthermore, Socrates’ reasons for concern being that Athens might attack Xenophon for his friendship with Cyrus on account of his cooperation with the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War, turned out to be prophetic, as if Socrates had a direct line to the gods!

Now, Eric, what intrigues me here is not so much the tale of teacher and student, Socrates and Xenophon, but the fact that a written text plays a pivotal role in the narrative.  Proxenus’ letter, directly quoted by Xenophon, is then read and then reported to Socrates. Did Xenophon read out the letter to Socrates? Or did he summarize it orally? Either way, Xenophon’s mistake with the oracle appears to reflect the competing discourses of the letter of invitation and introduction to Cyrus and the philosophical, market-place conversations with Socrates. Or course Plato knew all to well the challenges of the ‘dangerous supplement’ of writing, as explored in his Phaedrus, but it seems that Xenophon was also attuned to these tensions between oral and written communication. Furthermore, as Deborah Gera tells us an essay called “Letters in Xenophon”, this critical exchange between Xenophon and Socrates became a topic for the literary exercise. popular in the Greek writing of 2nd Century CE Roman Empire, of writing pseudographical letters attributed to ancient figures. Gera refers to two such letters – one purported to be written (yes written!) by Socrates to Xenophon offering moral support after he had already left to join Proxenus and another by Chion of Heraclea who writes to his father about meeting Xenophon in Byzantium and how he knew at once that he was a student of Socrates by the way he controlled the troops. As Gera concludes:

These later Greek writers do not allow any hint of a rift between Socrates and Xenophon, despite Xenophon’s own account in the Anabasis, and they use epistles to underline the positive relationship between the two.

Now, to finally track back to the question of Xenophon’s diary, I think that this later literary tradition could offer another piece of evidence against its existence on the campaign. If Xenophon’s reference to the letter of Proxenus as a written motivating factor in his following Cyrus is made to actively contradict Socrates’ oral, philosophical teachings (teachings that ancient readers, like the author of the Chion letter, have traced in the text of the Anabasis) then the written text of the Anabasis acts as a retroactive inscription of the student’s attempt to get back on track with his teacher (who, as you well know, had been put to death in 399 BCE). In this way, rather than a text that shows the remnants of a day-to-day diary, a blow-by-blow of miles covered, deeds accomplished, written on the road and on the run, could not the Anabasis be read as a belated letter to Socrates? This letter would then offer a counterweight to the ambition that drove Xenophon to follow the order (of Proxenus, of Cyrus, of history), by modestly inscribing the lessons learned in the aftermath of and the return from, an ordeal.

I thought of this as I re-read the following passage in Pierre Zaoui’s essay about allowing the babble of recent history to disturb our desire for logic and connections grounded in grand historical narratives:

Then how is this babble written? How does one write the anabasis of this unfinished century, the word century being understood in both its chronological and theological sense, as a period of a hundred years and the current becoming of the world? How does one meet this challenge, which is almost a contradiction in terms – to write babble when babble is not written – given that it is necessarily torn between ambition and modesty, universality and singularity, history and geography, politics and art? Chances are, it will require some innocence and an ordeal.

Or, Eric, to put it more directly and bluntly: what role, if any, did the making of your film Letters to Max (stills from which I have chosen to use to illustrate this post) have on the book Anabases? Both were released in 2014, so maybe you were juggling both projects at around the same time?If you could do Anabases all over again, where would insert Letters to Max in your Chronologies? Would it be a culmination of the Anabasis theme? Or would it be crossed-out like that missing entry for 1964? Perhaps we could claim that with Letters to Max we’ve discovered the unpublished diaries of Xenophon’s Anabasis!

Well, this letter has already gone on too long – I have to save some fuel in the tank for tomorrow’s dispatch (oh, and I have that review to write!). So, for now, over and out.

Yours faithfully,


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