‘Narrative Experience in Xenophon’s Anabasis’ Dr Rosie Harman Review

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The Classical Association in Northern Ireland kicked off its 2017 public programme with ‘Narrative Experience in Xenophon’s Anabasis‘ by Dr Rosie Harman of UCL on 16th March in the Old Staff Common Room of Queen’s University Belfast.

Having studied at Cambridge and Nottingham and taught at Liverpool and Trinity College Dublin, Dr Harman currently serves as a Lecturer in Greek Historiography at University College London and is widely published on various aspects of the works of the 5th/4th century BC Athenian philosopher, historian, soldier and mercenary Xenophon – power, panhellenism, barbarians, identity, colonisation – and what they say about the Greek world of his period.


Dr Harman’s illustrated talk was specifically about the narrative experience of what is probably the most famous of Xenophon’s works, the Anabasis, also known as the ‘March of the 10,000,’ where a Greek mercenary army, eventually led by Xenophon, finds itself trapped in Mesopotamia after the death of their Persian patron and having to march and fight their way back to the Aegean in 401-399BC.

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A major part of Dr Harman’s talk focused on the ideological and descriptive contradictions throughout the Anabasis, with Xenophon attempting to cover all bases so as to depict the Greeks as capable of doing everything the alien inhabitants of the Persian Empire could and more. On the one hand the Greeks wanted to return home like Odysseus only for that narrative to be replaced, almost immediately, with something approaching foundation poetry with the 10,000 contemplating founding a city of their own in the Persian Empire, much to the consternation of their enemies.


Was the Anabasis a triumphal journey through enemy territory proving the superiority of the Greeks, where their greatest opponents were geography and hunger or a harrowing tale of survival against all odds? Quite possibly both, with the Greeks frequently not in control but ultimately victorious – usually through the intervention of Xenophon…

Traversing of the difficult terrain of the east made victory all the more sweet, but at the same time there is room to question whether this is all bred of confidence that the Greeks would succeed, anxiety that the dangers would prove too much or indeed hindsight, given that Xenophon knows that they will succeed. ‘Desire for’ versus ‘dislike of’ the ‘easy’ life and the “exotic delights or terrifying danger” were highlighted, with perhaps the most colourful tale being the description of the 10,000 eating poisoned honey reading like a drunken night out, complete with the awful hangover afterward (which seems somewhat apt on St Patrick’s Day…).

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Demonstrating the interest stirred up by Dr Harman’s talk, there were a variety of different questions and points of discussion put forward by the audience – the reception of mercenaries at home, their aims of on the expedition and return, Greek perceptions of rivers and travel up-stream, the extent of the 10,000’s baggage train, when and where Xenophon might have been writing, his possible note-taking early in the march, his ultimate (un)reliability as a narrator, his harnessing of the styles of both Thucydides and Herodotus an his reception as an historian amongst his contemporary Greeks, Alexander the Great and the Romans.

The Classical Association in Northern Ireland would like to thank Dr Harman for her fascinating talk and to all those who attended, gave their enraptured attention and provided so many interesting and insightful questions.

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