The Dilemma of Genre in Xenophon’s The Persian Expedition

It is always good to get your bearings—to take stock of where you are and what you are doing, to orient yourself (from the Latin for ‘East’). While this principle is beneficial to life on a grand scale, it can also be applied to the civilized reader whenever he takes up a new book. The late Dr. Thomas Dillon, long-time president of Thomas Aquinas College in California, would often begin his Sophomore Seminar class with the same question: “What kind of book is this?” This deceptively simple-sounding question is not always simple to answer. And yet it demands answering before you can really get anywhere. You need to know what you are dealing with before you can intelligently encounter it. Your approach to a book will be very different depending on whether the book is a work of literature, theology, history, or philosophy. For many books, the answer is easily determined. There are some books, however, which are more difficult to classify as they do not seem to fit into any common genre; or which seem simultaneously to exist comfortably in several genres at once. This quality can be a source both of confusion and delight. The Persian Expedition (or the Anabasis) by Xenophon is such a book that proves difficult to put into any of the regular classification boxes.

On the surface, The Persian Expedition is a thrilling history book. Within its pages we read the firsthand account of the most fantastic military retreat in history. Shortly after the close of the Peloponnesian War, a mercenary force of ten thousand Greek Hoplite warriors found themselves—to say the least—in a very tight situation. They were in the very heart of the Persian Empire, thousands of miles away from home, while the man they were hired to put on the throne of Persia was dead and his native army scattered. The Greek generals and captains had been treacherously slaughtered by the Persians who had invited them to a friendly meeting to discuss terms. The Persian king, Artaxerxes, wanted the annihilation of the ten thousand to serve as an example to those who would dare march against the might of the Persian Empire. Facing certain doom, Xenophon, a young Athenian with little military experience, took command and led the Greeks to safety against all odds.

The Persian Expedition is more than your average history book, however. The book can also be read as a manual for effective leadership. Xenophon not only exemplifies the qualities a strong leader, but he also takes time in his book to discuss the differing leadership strategies of several of the Greek generals and of the Persian Prince, Cyrus. Darius’ son Cyrus would hardly be known to historians if it were not for the pages of The Persian Expedition, in which we meet the charismatic and admired Persian prince who, being wrongfully imprisoned by his older brother, is determined to win the throne. In describing Cyrus as a leader, Xenophon attributes to him the qualities of generosity and justice. Cyrus was fond of saying that he wished to live long enough to pay back with interest both his friends and his enemies. Xenophon also introduces us to the leadership style of the Spartan, Clearchus, who ruled by fear and severe discipline, leading to success in battle but not to loyalty among the soldiers. Clearchus is contrasted with the Theban, Proxenus, who was a virtuous, and noble general, but whose good nature was exploited by his men. Xenophon observes that Proxenus would be an effective general if all of his men were as virtuous as he. In such ways, Xenophon paints a picture of what he considers the good and bad qualities of an effective leader of men. And this examination of the qualities of successful leadership certainly seems to be one of Xenophon’s motivations for writing the book.

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The genre of the travelogue is not currently very fashionable, but the descriptive experiences of a traveler on his journeys used to more popular among civilized readers. The Persian Expedition certainly has much of the characteristics of the classic travelogue. Xenophon describes landscapes, towns, wildlife, and landmarks. Some of the more delightful passages in the book explain the strange customs and manners of natives encountered on his adventure. During a particularly difficult march through deep snow, Xenophon relates the respite the army received from a people who lived underground with their livestock and who drank an alcoholic drink from a huge communal bowl through long reed-straws. Xenophon also relates the approximate marching distances from town to town, mapping the Empire using the Tigris and the Euphrates as reference points. All of this provided for the Greek something new: a glimpse into the mighty and mysterious Persian Empire. Xenophon drew back the curtain and revealed the customs and ways of the Persians on both a public and private scale. This aspect of the book was recognized by Alexander the Great forty years after it was written. He often referenced The Persian Expedition as he swept through the Persian Empire ruled by Darius III, the grandson of Artaxerxes II, whose overthrow was attempted by the prince Cyrus.

This drawing of the curtain also reveals another possible genre for The Persian Expedition. After arriving back in Greek occupied territory, Xenophon had to undergo legal scrutiny for a few episodes that occurred during the long march home. While Xenophon was publicly exonerated, there is certainly something in the book that suggests an Apologia. But this idea of reading the book as an Apologia applies not only to Xenophon personally but also to the Greek culture as a whole. By shining a light on the Persian world, Xenophon affirms and defends much of what is good in the Greek world. It is easy to see the virtues of the small and communal Greek polis when contrasted with the vast and forever-warring satraps of the Persian Empire, in which sometimes dwell hostile and rebellious groups of natives. The Persian perfidy is put on full display and is encountered with horror by the characteristically pious Greeks. The discipline and Spartan toughness of the Greeks is clearly contrasted with the soft and luxurious Persian life, as is the free ingenuity of the Greek with the servile fear of the Persian. These are some of the more prominent ways that Xenophon defends the Greek virtues and indeed, it would be reasonable to say that these characteristics are exactly what enabled the ten thousand to escape from Artaxerxes and the Persians.

So there is in this history book a little of the apologia, the autobiography, the self-help manual, and the travelogue. But all of these different genres are artfully mixed into a delightful and coherent whole. Now that I have properly oriented you, pick up a copy of The Persian Expedition and encounter for yourself the ancient Orient. It will not be long before you are drawn into the ancient and vivid world painted by Xenophon. Within its pages you will meet the Greek Hoplite warriors, the terror of the Mediterranean world and beyond. You will meet brave men of noble character and men that are scoundrels and traitors. You will encounter wealthy queens and unconquerable mountain tribes. For those wishing to read ancient history as told by the ancients, Xenophon’s The Persian Expedition makes a perfect beginning.

(Photo credit: Walter Maderbacher / Wikimedia)


  • Stephen Fitzpatrick

    Stephen Fitzpatrick received a B.A. in the Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. in Theology from the University of Scranton. He is the Head of School at Cardinal Newman Academy in Richmond, VA.

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