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Reading the Future in Xenophon’s Anabasis

Emily Baragwanath

The ability to foresee and understand future developments was regarded by Greek historians as a particularly valuable quality in a politician or general, associated especially with the famous wartime leaders Themistocles and Pericles. Xenophon’s profound awareness of change over time and of the disjunctions that may be exposed between past and present, as between ideals and reality, pervade his literary oeuvre, including Anabasis, with its evocation of his later exile from Athens and idyllic times at Scillus (5.3.7). Against that background, this paper explores the extent to which the ability to read the future remains for Xenophon an important possession of excellent leaders.

It first establishes how knowledge of the future in Anabasis is intimately connected with two other varieties of knowledge: knowledge of human character, which enables one to conjecture, and thus shape, the likely future behavior of individuals and groups, and knowledge of divine intent. At the same time, the narrative exposes the problems associated with attaining either form of knowledge.

Thus book one stages a clash of probable versus actual futures. On both human and divine levels, Cyrus the Younger is regarded as a man destined to be King. His initiative is evident and his leadership ability has won recognition (from his father and then the Ionians, who revolt to join his side), in contrast to his brother Artaxerxes’ passivity. Divine portents appear to confirm the trajectory – the Euphrates miraculously falls when Cyrus’ army crosses it (1.4.18) – as do intertextual resonances with Herodotus. But the future does not unfold in accordance with likelihood: by the end of book one, hopes and expectations of Xenophon and the Ten Thousand are dashed and this probable future derailed, after a contingent event—the death of Cyrus at Cunaxa—sets the future onto a different track.

Indeed, Xenophon’s narrative spotlights the problem of ἀπορία (‘lack of paths’, ‘resourcelessness’) in regard to future time (ignorance about what paths the future holds and how to negotiate them), just as it famously spotlights the problem of ἀπορία in space (the difficulty of negotiating the arduous march from the Persian heartland back to Greece). Especial problems in terms of judging future action are presented by such opaque characters as Tissaphernes and the Spartans (the unpredictable and contingent character of whose behavior the abrupt ending of Anabasis reflects).

Transporting readers back to the time when future outcomes were uncertain is a key way Xenophon generates suspense in this work, but might its use also cast a shadow on the leaders through whose limited visions the narrative is focalized? Or is reading the future so difficult as to make failure understandable? What is the implication for example of Cyrus’ failure to read Tissaphernes (whom he wrongly takes to be a friend), and later his failure (at Cynaxa) to read the intentions of his brother, the King? What is the significance of the catalyst of the entire story: the Greeks’ failure until too late to read Cyrus’ intentions (to attack the King), and subsequently to decipher Tissaphernes’? 

Evidence from Anabasis at least suggests that the ideal leader ought to take a pragmatic approach to the future. Renouncing the possibility of ‘clear’ (σαφῶς) knowledge of what is to come, the character Xenophon acknowledges that the future is ‘unclear’, ἄδηλον (cp. 5.1.10, 6.1.21), and works as closely as possible with advisors in realms both human and divine before taking action. The terminology here (which recalls Thucydides 1.22.4) invites reflection on how far the attitude towards futurity of characters in the text compares with that of the author/ narrator, and whether and how far Anabasis anticipates futures outside of the text (regarding e.g. the ruinous consequences for Sparta of her style of leadership, the potential for a future conquest of Persia). Xenophon’s devotion to depicting incisively the problems of ascertaining future action leaves no leader’s conduct above examination and reproach, including his own.

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Xenophon on the Challenges of Leadership

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