This book’s based on the “Anabasis” written by Xenophon of Athens … one of the books traditionally read by students of ancient Greek, but not particularly familiar to most other people. Wikipedia says that it is to Greek students what Caesar’s Gallic Wars is to Latin students: I sincerely hope that it isn’t as boring! I kept wishing that Asterix and Obelix would turn up and make our A-level Latin lessons a bit more interesting. Give me Suetonius and all his wonderful scandalous gossip any day. Er, hmm, I appear to have got totally off the point.
Had Ancient Greece been conquered by the Persian Empire, as it might well have been, the entire course of Western history would have been different, and Western culture as it is now, and as it’s developed over the past two thousand years and more, would probably never had existed. As it was, the Persians never succeeded in making Ancient Greece part of their Empire, despite their famous victory at Thermopylae in 480BC. The events of this book took place 79 years after that, when Cyrus the Younger attempted to overthrow his brother Xerxes, King of Persia, with an army of Greek, mainly Spartan, mercenaries, known as the Ten Thousand. The future historian Xenophon was amongst them, and the main character, and narrator, of this book is his fictitious mistress, a Syrian girl called Abira.
The story of “the Lost Army” is that it was defeated and Cyrus killed at Cunaxa, close to modern day Baghdad, but that the Greek survivors somehow made their way, via Kurdistan and Armenia, to the Black Sea, and from there back to Greece. Part of the story is missing from Xenophon’s account, and Valerio Massimo Manfredi speculates that maybe Sparta was playing a double game, allowing Cyrus to recruit mercenaries from amongst its warriors without officially being involved, and that a Spartan secret agent deliberately got the survivors lost to try to prevent them from getting home and potentially embarrassing his government. Double agents in the 5th century BC: it is fascinating how highly developed these states were, at the time of the Early Iron Age in Britain. But mostly it’s a fascinating human story, the story of an army without pay or supplies and the story of the women who accompanied them, in an epic finding-our-way-home tale that sounds as if it should be fiction but is actually based on fact.
Ancient history can seem a very long way away from us, but it shouldn’t do. And I think this is Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s best book to date. Recommended.