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Literature / Anabasis

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The Anabasis (also called The Anabasis of Cyrus, The March Up Country, The March of the Ten Thousand, and The Persian Expedition) is a work by the ancient Greek writer Xenophon. It details the journey of 10,000 Greek mercenaries in the army of Cyrus the Younger as he seeks to overthrow his older brother, the King of Persia Artaxerxes II. They fight Artaxerxes' army at Cunaxa, defeating it, and all seems well...

Until they realize that Cyrus had been killed in battle, leaving the Ten Thousand deep in the Persian Empire—whose king they had just fought to overthrow—with few or no friends and a long way to go before they could find anything even remotely resembling safety.

Well, crap.

There begins the real story, as the Ten Thousand battle the elements, Persian treachery, and their own fears—encountering some interesting people along the way—as they try to make their way back to Greece.

A classic of Western literature, and frequently the first full original text a student of Ancient Greek will read, on account of the exciting, action-packed plot and Xenophon's clear, energetic writing style (rather like Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War for Latin students). Classics professors often joke (or half-joke) that this is the book that Hollywood should make a movie of. And they have—sort of: The Warriors is a Setting Update of the Anabasis, with numerous embellishments and edits. There also exists a Low Fantasy novelization, The Ten Thousand, by Paul Kearney.

You can read the original work here. If that's all Greek to you (sorry), you might want to check out this English translation instead.

Tropes found in the Anabasis include:

  • Aerith and Bob: The Persians' names include Artaxerxes, Tissaphernes, Ariaeus, Artaozus... and Cyrus.
  • Asshole Victim: By modern standards, the Persians' prolonged torture of Menon is their most horrific act, but right before we learn about it Xenophon establishes Menon as such a horrible person that it doesn't seem so bad.
  • Badass Army: The Ten Thousand.
  • Blood Knight: Clearchus really, really, really likes war. So much so that after the Peloponnesian War ended, instead of retiring in peace, he convinced Sparta to let him go to war in Thrace. After he had left, they changed their mind and told him to return. He preceded to ignore them and go to war anyways, resulting in him being sentenced to death in his home city. Bear in mind that the Spartans were the same people who (according, incidentally, to Xenophon, writing elsewhere) had gone to war with Elis "because they had no one else to fight at the time."
  • Blood Oath: The Greeks and the barbarians under Ariaeus make one after Cyrus's death, sacrificing animals onto a shield and dipping their swords in the blood. The oath is to be loyal to one another, which Ariaeus promptly violates once they meet up with Tissaphernes.
  • The Cameo: Socrates, of whom Xenophon was a student, makes a brief appearance at the beginning, trying to persuade Xenophon not to join the Ten Thousand.
  • Cain and Abel: Cyrus and his brother, the Persian king Artaxerxes.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: After Menon was taken, the Persians kept him alive to torture him for a year before he died, as punishment for his wickedness.
  • Decapitated Army: Twice. First, Cyrus, the prince who hired the Greeks is dead. Next, Greek officers who went over to negotiate with the Persians are killed.
  • Dreaming the Truth: After the generals are killed, Xenophon tries to go to sleep with everyone else. He has a dream of a lightning bolt filling his home with light, and suddenly wakes up and realizes that the Persians are almost certainly attacking soon, everyone is moping around dejectedly instead of preparing, and that he is the one who has to take charge.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Clearchus, who believes that "Soldiers should be more afraid of their leader than of the enemy." As a result of his reputation for this, he gets all the soldiers who joined up because they were forced to or had nowhere else to go.
  • The Empire: The Persian Empire, to be exact.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The King of Persia, who 99% of the time is just referred to as "King" (basileus). His name, Artaxerxes, is mentioned once or twice at the beginning.
  • A Father to His Men: Proxenus tried to be this...the end result was that he was so afraid of his soldiers hating him that he failed to get them to respect him at all.
  • Frontline General: All over the place, including both Cyrus and the King of Persia.
  • Hired Guns: The Ten Thousand, again. Well, technically they're hired spears, but the point stands.
  • The Homeward Journey: Most of the Anabasis is taken up with this.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Clearchus's soldiers see him as this, at least when they're in combat and his harshness is directed on the enemy. Notably, as soon as they get out of combat many men desert him for a less strict general.
  • Keystone Army: Played with. After Cyrus's death, the rest of his army scatters, but the Greek mercenaries hold fast and win the day on their ownfor all the good that ends up doing them.
  • Kick the Dog: Tissaphernes allows the Greeks to plunder a certain village because it belongs to Cyrus's mother, just to mock him. (He's already dead by then.)
  • Nasty Party: After Cyrus' death, the Persian governor Tissaphernes invited the Greek officer corps over to his camp for negotiations. They were relieved of their troubles once and for all.
  • Never Trust a Title: Anabasis means "march upcountry", a march from the coastline to the interior. The titular "anabasis" was the march with Cyrus to the battle that left the Greeks stranded—a small, and not very exciting, portion of the work. The good stuff (and the bulk of the history) is the katabasis, the march from that battlefield back to the sea.
  • The Oath-Breaker: Tissaphernes, who swore to protect the Greeks, betrayed them and killed their generals. Similarly, Ariaeus swore to stick together with the Greeks, and abandoned them for Tissaphernes.
  • Ocean Awe: One of the more famous passages of the Anabasis is the Greek army shouting "thalatta, thalatta!" ("the sea, the sea!") from joy when they first got sight of the Black Sea (as there were Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast, "the sea" meant that their worst troubles were over).
  • Only One Name: Everyone, because last names haven't been invented yet. Geographic regions of origin are used to identify people specifically.
  • Parental Favoritism: Parysatis, Cyrus and the king's mother, likes Cyrus more, and at one point saves his life after Tissaphernes accuses him of plotting against the king.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Clearchus, the Spartan, of course.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Cyrus' army, and particularly the Ten Thousand, would unquestionably have bested Artaxerxes' at Cunaxa. However, Cyrus was killed in the fight, making the whole exercise pointless. As a result, most of his army fled the field for fear of being discovered by the king—except for the Greeks, who didn't hear of Cyrus' death and still stood firm, bringing the battle to a draw. As a result, they get singled out for bad treatment at the hands of the Shah.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: The usual modus operandi both for the Persians and the Greek heroes.
  • Rousing Speech: All over the place. Xenophon gives a particularly long one after he is elected general in place of Proxenus.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Both Cyrus and the king lead their armies in person.
  • Sneeze of Doom: Just after the Ten Thousand's original leaders are captured and killed by the Persians, they decide to hold a meeting to decide what to do. After some panicking, somebody sneezes. Everyone immediately drops to the ground in supplication (the Greeks considered a sneeze to be a sign from the gods). They then got up, elected new officers, and decided to march back to Greece. Because of a sneeze.
  • The Sociopath: According to Xenophon, Menon was motivated entirely by greed, had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, manipulated and lied to get what he wanted, regarded his "friends" only as means to an end, and viewed honesty and piety as negative character traits. He was thought he was the only one who realized that stealing from your "friends" is way easier than trying to take things from your enemies. Very little of this is actually demonstrated by his behavior in the Anabasis, although he does use some manipulation to get into Cyrus's favor.
  • Straight for the Commander: Before the battle with the king, Cyrus, who knows where the king is, orders Clearchus to use this strategy. Cleachus, unfortunately, refuses.
  • Third-Person Person: Xenophon is both the author and a major character, but always writes about himself in the third person. Justified, as the Anabasis is intended as a history, not a memoir, but it sometimes feels a little odd, especially because it is very obvious that the character of Xenophon is the author.
  • Title Drop: A few times, in the original Greek. For example, Book III begins: "What the Greeks did during The Anabasis of Cyrus up till the battle ... has been shown in the preceding book."
  • Translation Convention: Everyone in the Anabasis speaks perfect Attic Greek, including the mercenaries, almost all of whom would speak some or another non-Attic dialect, and the Persians, who should probably be speaking...Persian, or something. There are occasional references to interpreters, but that's as far as it goes.
  • Trapped Behind Enemy Lines: More or less why the Ten Thousand have to get back to Greece. Anywhere else, they're in Persia, with an angry Emperor looking for them.
  • Untranslated Title: Except when it's published as The March Up Country, The Persian Expedition, The March of the Ten Thousand, or some variation on that.
  • Wacky Wayside Tribe: The Ten Thousand often run into these guys. Sometimes they're helpful, sometimes they aren't.