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“Every one of you is the leader”: The Anabasis

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | September 14, 2011 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | September 14, 2011 |

Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.

The Anabasis is a funny set of books when considered in retrospect. Students of ancient Greek commonly read portions of it early in their studies, because it’s so simply and plainly written, the words of a soldier describing in common language exactly what happened. Yet from the distance of history, the writer is anything but a common soldier. Upon his return to Greece after the events he chronicles, Xenophon wrote additional works that endure as critical pieces of history and philosophy.

The tragedy of most great writers is that their genius is an insulator from the world. They write at a safe distance, removed from the events that find immortality in their words. It’s the work of statistics to a certain degree. What are the slim chances that an individual is blessed with the gift of words, and what is the sliver of odds that a certain individual will not only witness historical events, but be one of the lucky to survive their grinding gears? So much of history floats on by and out to sea, the witnesses dead or muted either by horror or a simple lack of the eloquence necessary to pass on their testimony. On the rarest of occasions though there is a perfect storm of chance: events so incredible that they would be absurd if presented in fiction, and a survivor with the gift to tell the world.

The story picks up with a Greek military company of about ten thousand soldiers. They’re mercenaries, contracted to be part of a rather enormous army on one side of what amounts to a Persian Civil War. This took place about eighty years after the three hundred Spartans made their stand, and about seventy years before Alexander set out to conquer the world. The idea was that they were getting paid to help put a guy named Cyrus on the Persian throne, taking it away from his brother.

In the lead up to the battle, the Greeks refused direct orders and told Cyrus that they wouldn’t take the center of the line, that in fact they preferred the flank. From the flank, they fought two separate battles in which they took almost no casualties but obliterated a pair of more numerous but less well-trained forces. In advancing on the enemy though, they were flanked and their supply camp was seized. This was critical to the next events to unfold since in the wake of this fighting, Cyrus made the brilliant decision to fight on the front line and personally charged the center of his brother’s bodyguard. With Cyrus dead of a sudden case of javelin-in-throat, the battle more or less petered out since the outnumbered force no longer had anybody to put on the throne.

The Greeks were left in the unenviable position of technically being foreign invaders helping a rebellion, so they understandably refused to lay down arms as requested, reasoning that they preferred their suicides to occur with swords in hand. Despite vastly outnumbering the Greeks, the Persian king had little desire to actually fight them given that they’d already ripped through a chunk of his army without much wear and tear. So he invited the Greek commanders to a feast in order to negotiate safe passage of the army back to Greece. That sounds like a win-win proposition except that the feast was a trap and the king had the Greek commanders decapitated.

Leaderless, left with no food and no water, a thousand miles from home, and surrounded by a massive Persian army, the Greeks did the unthinkable. The soldiers voted amongst themselves and elected three men from the ranks to be their new commanders, one of whom was Xenophon, and then spent two years fighting their way back to Greece.

When they finally reached home, Xenophon penned the Anabasis, an account of the events which has become legendary. Xenophon’s Anabasis has been referenced repeatedly in film and novels, the powerfully simple outline of the story being adapted to everything from space opera (Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet) to modern warfare (Harold Coyle’s The Ten Thousand) to fantasy (Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand) to the post-apocalyptic (John Ringo’s The Last Centurion) and of course to the surreal gang warfare of The Warriors. But despite a handful of novels that have retold the story in its original setting, no film has attempted such an adaptation. It would be a brilliant story to tell over the course of seasons of a television show, though I suppose that is what we always say about long and interesting stories. But it would make an equally intriguing film, and the sort that would have half a chance of landing the funding and studio support such an effort would need since it involves the crowd-friendly aspects of giant battles and the glaring subtext of a righteous underdog fighting against overwhelming odds. There’s even an election so they could release the film on the fourth of July with as much fanfare as Captain America.

Just don’t let Zack Snyder, Gerard Butler, or 3D anywhere near the production. Fuck. They’re going to make this into a film, and that’s exactly what they’re going to do.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.