By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 23, 2011
Xenophon was an Athenian nobleman, warrior and writer from the fourth century B.C. Here’s a story:
When Xenophon was a young man, he chanced to enter a narrow lane from one end at the same time that Socrates was entering from the other. It was just the two of them walking toward each other. Though Athens was a big city, its citizens interacted constantly in the Assembly and the agora; it’s a safe bet that the philosopher (who was probably about sixty at the time) recognized the young aristocrat by sight, even if the two had never been formally introduced. As Xenophon approached Socrates and moved to edge past, the philosopher turned his wooden staff crosswise, blocking the lane.
“Excuse me, young man. I’m looking for something and wondered if you might direct me.”
“Of course, sir. What do you wish to find?”
“My wife has broken a strap on her sandal,” said Socrates. “Where might I go to get this mishap repaired?”
Xenophon directed Socrates to the Street of the Cobblers. Socrates thanked him. “I have also a broken pot. Can you tell me where I might go to get it made whole?”
“To the Ceramicus, of course,” said Xenophon, directing Socrates to the Street of the Potters.
“Thank you indeed! Clearly, my young friend, you are well-acquainted with our city and its many purveyors of services. Now, may I put to you one final question?”
“Please do, sir.”
“If I wished to lead a noble, upright and honorable life, to whom might I go to learn this art?”
At this, the young Xenophon admitted that he was stumped.
“Then follow me,” said Socrates, “and find out.”
A few years later, Xenophon signed on with a military expedition financed by Cyrus the Younger of Persia. Xenophon became one of “the Ten Thousand,” Greek hoplites (heavily-armored infantry) who marched for three months into the interior of the Persian empire, to a place called Cunaxa not far from contemporary Baghdad. There Cyrus’ army of about 300,000 fought a great battle. Cyrus was killed and the army was defeated. The Ten Thousand found themselves lost, cut off and surrounded by enemies, three months’ march from safety.
The army set off for home, fighting Persian lords, bandits and wild tribes every step of the way. Xenophon, though he was still in his early twenties, became one of their leaders. The Anabasis (“The March Upcountry”), his account of this ordeal, became a classic. In England, from the 1700s onward, every schoolboy was required to translate the text as part of his studies in Greek.
Here is the Anabasis’s most famous passage, translation by Rex Warner from the Penquin paperback titled The Persian Expedition. This section comes at the end of three months of constant warfare. The weary Greeks are climbing a hill in a long, straggling column. Xenophon trudges at the rear. Like Caesar (who no doubt knew the Anabasis well), Xenophon writes in the third person, referring to himself not as “I,” but as “Xenophon.”
When the men in front reached the summit … there was great shouting. Xenophon and the rearguard heard it and thought that there were some more enemies attacking in the front, since there were natives of the country they had ravaged following them up behind, and the rearguard had killed some of them and made prisoners of others … However, when the shouting got louder and drew nearer, and those who were constantly going forward started running towards the men in front who kept on shouting, and the more there were of them the more shouting there was, it looked as though this was something of considerable importance. So Xenophon mounted his horse and, taking Lycus and the cavalry with him, rode forward to give support, and, quite soon, they heard the soldiers shouting out “The sea! The sea!” and passing the word down the column. Then certainly they all began to run, the rearguard and all, and drove on the baggage animals and the horses at full speed; and when they had all got to the top, the soldiers, with tears in their eyes, embraced each other and their generals and captains. In a moment, at somebody or other’s suggestion, they collected stones and made a great pile of them. On top they put a lot of raw ox-hides and staves and shields which they had captured. The guide himself cut the shields into pieces and urged the others to do so too. Afterwards the Greeks sent the guide back and gave him as presents from the common store a horse, and a silver cup and a Persian robe and ten darics. What he particularly wanted was the rings which the soldiers had and he got a number of these from them. He pointed out to them a village where they could camp, and showed them the road by which they had to go to get to the country of the Macrones. It was then evening and he went away, traveling by night.
In Greek, the soldiers cried “Thalassa! Thalassa!” as every British schoolboy well remembers. The Greeks of course were a sea-faring people. The sea to them meant home. They could built ships and sail to safety.
Did you ever see a 1979 movie called The Warriors? It’s a very clever knock-off of Xenophon’s structure—a homebound trek by an outnumbered and embattled tribe, who are confronted continually by enemies seeking to kill them—directed by Walter Hill, screenplay by David Shaber and Walter Hill from a novel by Sol Yurick.
In the movie, the Warriors are a street gang from the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. The story starts with all the gangs of New York gathering for a great assembly (at Van Cortlandt Park, I think—the farthest-away-from-Brooklyn place in the city.) The leader of the multitude is “Cyrus.” Somehow Cyrus gets killed. Every gang in the city blames the Warriors, who are innocent of course.
The story of the movie is the Warriors fighting their way back home to Brooklyn, sequentially battling every wild and crazy gang in the city (including one whose garb is baseball uniforms and whose weapons of choice are baseball bats.)
Thirty-plus years later, The Warriors is still a pretty watchable flick. James Remar is in it, along with Michael Beck—and David Patrick Kelly as the villain, Luther, whose signature line, “Oh Warriors, come out to play-ay-ay,” remains a classic.
There’s a “The Sea! The Sea!” moment too, when the beleaguered Warriors at last spot Sheepshead Bay (or is it Gravesend?)—and know that salvation is close at hand.
[My apologies for promising last week that I’d tell the story of Panthea and Abradatas today. We’ll get to it, I swear. Please, readers, if this new series resonates with you, send in any stories you’d like to see here—from literature or from your own real life. The criteria are just that the stories deal with conflict, honor, courage—and are worth reading in their own right. Thanks!]