'Both Free and Slave'
Considering Xenophon's Anabasis and Human Autonomy: Part 1
Previously published on Patreon
Written in the midst of Classical Antiquity, round about 400 B.C., the story of the Ten Thousand, and their adventures into the heart of the Persian Empire and their misfortune and harrowing escape, ranks as one of my favorite stories. As I listen to ancient literature which I last read some between 23 and 20 years ago, it is a differently attuned ear that hears. Reading in the late 1990s, I was investigating the nature and context of ancient prize-fighting and focused on references bearing on those activities. Rereading the epics in the 2000s my focus was on military and masculine tradition.
Since 2012, I have been involved in researching the history of slavery in Plantation America—quite an accident of science-fiction research. During this process I have noted that modern translators have obscured the rather simple ancient understanding of free and slave with the introduction of many English terms to represent a few ancient terms, with many such terms misunderstood in English, such as “maid” which is a term used to describe an unfree woman who is in service to a free woman, and that her lack of freedom is specifically focused on her not having the authority to grant or deny sexual access to her body. The modern English speaker thinks a maid is a low status free person, when free maids have rarely peopled the earth before the 1900s.
Having listened to those portions of Xenophon's Anabasis up to the point where he relates the nature of the five generals betrayed and murdered by the Persian satrap Tisaphernes, this slave-finding ear has noted the following.
-The Greek mercenaries are all free men, and based on their negotiations with the Persians, their free status is vested, in their minds, entirely in their bearing arms.
-Among the free Greek mercenaries are Greek slaves who serve them.
-Free Greeks agree to submit to a code of discipline which leaves them open to beating, stoning and execution up and down a democratic hierarchy, with even the General Clearchus being stoned and nearly killed by angry soldiers in Cilicia. Among these soldiers were men who he had ordered beaten and would later order beaten for infractions, as what he saw as a necessity of a soldier fearing his commander more than the enemy. Even so, Clearchus called his soldiers friends, and used persuasion as a main command tool and often stepped back, had the soldiers decide on a course of action, and, as the most able commander, then enforced the agreed upon discipline. This discipline seems to have been a yoking and harnessing of the Aryan honor code to the grim necessities of high cohesion spear and shield phalanx warfare.
-By contrast, the Persian warrior class and soldier class were separate. The various foot soldier types engaged at Cunaxa had no honor or cohesion and simply dropped their weapons in such numbers that the victorious Greeks used the arrows and shields to make camp fires and cook fires. These slave soldiers were excluded from the honor cult—were mostly non Aryan—and were not free men. The Persian nobility were brave and fierce and capable but lacked the extreme discipline of the Greeks, being horseman and more autonomous actors. However, ironically, only one man in the entire empire was not regarded as a slave, and he was the King of Kings. The lesson is clear that Aryan honor codes suffered under sustained immersion in slave societies. Yet ironically, the honor culture experienced a kind of cultural hybrid vigor among armies of free infantry, who physically occupied the functional caste of the slave soldier yet used the high cohesion hoplite form of warfare to sustain honor above the level of their noble Aryan paymasters even as they choked on the dust of their steeds.
-Slaves are regarded by the Persians and Greeks both, as properly attached to either a master or the land as a kind of resource extraction mechanism. Taking food without payment while going through allied territory or through the property of an enemy while under truce, was agreed to be reasonable. But to seize the slaves who worked the land was regarded as malicious. This indicates that the economy was even more dependent upon forced labor than our modern economy is dependent upon oil.
-An examination of the bad character of Menon of Thessaly—whose leading men were notorious for lax morality in classical Greece—mentions obliquely that commanders such as he would sometimes sell their soldiers into slavery through trickery.
So, as we go forward with Xenophon's account, we have a Greek army outnumbered a hundred to one and in the heart of an enemy empire, buoyed by a tribal, democratic, warrior honor code, which has been forged into a military tool in which temporary master slave relationships exist between officers and men. These officers are ultimately beholden to the soldiers who elect them and behave as a combination of tribal war chief and civic executive, taking the most risks and leading by example, such as Clearchus digging with the men. These men “render service” as mercenaries, as paid “friends” to paying “benefactors” as a body, represented by leaders chosen or confirmed by the troops.
These men hold the same exact view of unfree men of any race as chattel, or things for gain and pleasure in human form, as do their enemies. According to this view, unlike the traditional Aryan nobility such as the Persian and later British cavalier class, superior field command can be exercised by Greek and later American leaders of the 1700s and 1800s [such Major Rogers and Nathan Bedford Forest] by sharing the toils and hardships of their men. Such hazard sharing, which serves to forge a super-cohesion in combat units, especially at brigade level and lower where battles hinge, is not available to a managerial or even warrior hierarchy which accepts the twin notions of armed men as slaves and of masters occupying a risk-averse station.
The salient difference, is that the Greek honor code precludes the ideal of a free armed man yet being a slave to a higher ranking armed man. This ideal alone seems to account for their absolute battle superiority over the “natives” of the Archimedean Realm.
In Part 2 I will detail accounts of slavery, honor and discipline according to Xenophon's account.
Note that Xenophon's first appearance as a character in his own narrative, is as a private soldier, just prior to the battle of Cunaxa, when he approaches a claimant to the Persian Throne, Cyrus, stepping out of rank of his own accord as a private soldier, addressing the supreme commander. This is an act that is not tolerable in modern military settings and was worthy of the death penalty in most traditional slave armies.