How sorry I felt for the poor man who died this week stuck up a 290ft chimney in Carlisle despite desperate attempts — helicopter; cherry-picker — by the emergency services to rescue him. We’re so used to the idea that no matter how precarious or remote our plight — be it stranded kids deep inside a flooded cave in Thailand or tourists who’ve had their feet bitten off while snorkelling in Australia’s Whitsundays — those amazing emergency services will get us to safety in the end. It comes as quite a shock to be reminded that survival isn’t always inevitable.
But is this a sign, I wonder, that we’ve all become a bit too pampered and complacent for our own good? One of the reasons, I’m sure, for the existence of Generation Snowflake is all those pathetically indulgent parents — myself included, I’m afraid — who would happily drop everything at a moment’s notice to try to sort out their darling ones’ minor emotional crises. Maybe what we should be instilling in ourselves is a bit more resilience and self-reliance — just like the author of my new favourite classic, Anabasis.
Anabasis — or ‘The March of the Ten Thousand’, as it’s sometimes translated — was written around 370 bc by the Athen-ian nobleman Xenophon. It has been described as ‘one of the great adventures in human history’ — and rightly so. The set-up and denouement are so extraordinary that it reads more like the plot for a ten-part Netflix drama than something (give or take a bit of poetic licence) that actually happened to real people.
The story goes like this: in search of excitement and money, Xenophon joins a 10,000-strong Greek mercenary army to fight in the service of the great Persian prince Cyrus the Younger, who is trying to seize the Persian throne from his brother Ataxerxes. Being the best fighters in the known world, the Greeks easily win the battle — Cunaxa, in Babylon — only to have their fortunes suddenly reversed at the last minute when the impetuous Cyrus gets himself killed.
Now the 10,000 are in a pickle. Not only is their employer dead — and with him all the riches they were promised — but they are stranded deep in enemy territory, much of it controlled by the tyrannical king they were just trying to depose. The sensible option seems to throw themselves on Ataxerxes’s mercy. At least it does until his satrap Tissaphernes invites all the Greeks’ generals to dinner — then captures, tortures and kills them.
To anyone who has trouble facing work in the morning or who finds themselves drifting without purpose in life, I cannot recommend highly enough the passage where Xenophon takes the initiative. Like his comrades, he spends a fitful night resigned to death, feeling very sorry for himself, but — inspired by a dream involving Zeus and a thunderbolt — he realises that it doesn’t have to be this way. He must simply take responsibility for his and his comrades’ future.
‘What city, then, do I expect will produce the general to take the right steps?’ he asks himself. ‘Am I waiting till I become a little older? I shall never be any older at all if I hand myself over to the enemy today.’
So Xenophon becomes the Ten Thousand’s new general. (Or so he claims: the actual history is disputed.) And on we move to another of those classic movie scenarios: where the doughty but heavily outnumbered survivors organise themselves into an effective fighting force capable of beating an enemy more than a hundred times their strength. For example, unlike the Persians they have no cavalry, so they have to improvise some from their baggage train. Nor do they have any slingers, so the call goes out to the Rhodians in their contingent who, someone points out, are particularly handy at chucking leaden bullets, with a range twice as far as the Persians’ slings.
Spoiler alert: they make it safely home. A good half of them do anyway — the rest mostly succumbing to disease or starvation or cold or, at one point, poisonous hallucinogenic honey (probably made from rhododendron pollen). Fighting, too, takes its toll, though not so much: remember these are the best armed, best disciplined fighters in the whole world, their phalanx rendering them all but invincible against forces many times larger than their own.
In some ways, the Ten Thousand seem untouchably remote: for example, in their unshakable piety, which means they won’t take any action — even if it’s their best hope of survival — if the gods haven’t signalled their approval. In other ways, they seem immeasurably our superiors, such as in their peculiarly classical Greek dedication to the democratic process: every major undertaking is discussed beforehand with admirable rigour, logic and intellectual clarity, with every man given an equal say.
But still, across nearly two and half millennia, it’s more than possible to identify with these men, to share their hopes and fears, and exult in their remarkable triumph against the odds. They’re very weird — they’re ancient Greek soldiers; but they are recognisably us, which is why they continue to prove such an inspiration to this day.
Their story has provided the archetype for countless novels and movies: Iris Murdoch borrowed her title The Sea, The Sea from the men’s joyous cry on their first homecoming glimpse of the Mediterranean; Walter Hill used it as the basis for his cult 1979 movie The Warriors, about a New York gang which has to fight its way back home through countless exotic rivals’ turfs — just like the Ten Thousand, who encounter all manner of bizarre peoples, such as the ones ‘brightly coloured all over, tattooed with flowers’ who think it’s normal to have sexual intercourse in public.
And no wonder, Anabasis might contain the most important and inspirational message any of us will ever learn, as valid today as it was 2,300 years ago: keep buggering on; never give up; no one’s going to look after you — you’re on your own.