“I can’t sleep,” Xenophon said to the officers, “and I know you can’t either.”
Their generals were all gone. The Persian king had sworn a truce and invited them to his camp to talk, then cut them down. Now, without leaders, the soldiers were lost. Each of them lay on his mat, going over his life, thinking this would be his last night, there was nothing anyone could do.
“Let me tell you what I’ve been thinking,” Xenophon said to the little group of officers, who had sat up to listen.
He knew very well how to talk to a group of men. Speech giving was part of the education of a Greek leader, who often had to address assemblies and gatherings of townsmen. In a world without pictures language was the only instrument of influence and information; and men spoke better then and listened better too.
A bust of the great orator Demosthenes, in the Louvre, Paris
“We are far from home and without provisions or friends in a country we don’t even know. The Persians will come tomorrow with a huge force. We know that if we fall into their hands, we can expect torture and death. Yet here we sit like lambs waiting to be slaughtered.”
He paused, then shook his head, as though just having convinced himself. “We’ve got to get out of this country. We’ve got to take the men home.”
Some of the officers huffed. Sure. Easy to say. We mice have got to put a bell on the cat.
Xenophon watched them, and focussed on the most influencial among them, ignoring the simple gripers.
“Is going home such an extravagant proposition? We’ll tell the Persians we are pulling out and if they attack us we’ll stand up to them like good Greeks. We still have our weapons.”
Convincing the men of the feasibility of his project and infusing courage were Steps One and Two of his talk.
“They don’t really want to confront us. You saw how they backed off from our line of spears in battle. They should have attacked us just after Cyrus was killed but they held back—why? They are afraid of us! The king has obviously been waiting to collect a bigger army against us. Big as his army is, he thinks it’s not enough!
“They have cavalry and chariots, you say. All right: but remember this: horses and chariots are only as dangerous as their riders and drivers. And those men are scared to death of our archers and spears.”
A few of the officers began to fidget, to scratch their cheek, to rub their fist.
“Can’t you see this is a great time for all of us? Our ancestors were the heroes of Marathon and Salamis. They stood up to King Xerxes’ army and kept Greece free. All our lives we have heard about their courage and their faith.” And he went on to dramatize some individual stories of heroism and self-sacrifice in those far-off times. “It is our time now, gentlemen, our time.”
His Third Step was challenging them, making them feel the risk of shame and regret.
“There are plenty of men lying awake out there in camp wondering why because of our incompetence they must simply turn themselves over to the king. Are we going to wait for one of them to step up, take the lead, and show the men how to be brave?”
Then came the reminder of divine protection: “Don’t any of you doubt that the gods are on our side. How do I know? Because the king broke his solemn oath to them by killing our generals. They will surely punish him and favor us.”
Step Five, a final punch of persuasion, was an appeal to their greed:
“And you know, when you stop to think of it, we are better off now than before the king broke the truce. Then, to go back home we would have had to get our provisions by paying for them—and we have no money. But now, since Artaxerxes has made us his enemies, we can simply take anything we need from his country as we go. And, gentlemen, the country is full of rich prizes for the brave. You saw that on your way here.”
And what was the end, the aim of Xenophon’s rhetoric?
“I’ll take orders from any of you or, if you want me to, I’ll be your leader; but for heaven’s sake, let’s get going, there’s no time to lose.”
The officers immediately begged him to be their leader. That seemed to them to be their own idea.
There was one man, however, who said that what Xenophon proposed was nonsense. “We don’t stand a chance against the king’s army,” he said. “Our only hope is in his clemency.” And he began to enumerate the difficulties.
It was Xenophon’s first great challenge as the group’s leader and he acted fast and decisively. He cut the discourager short. “What the hell are you talking about?” He glared at him. “You saw how the king has just killed our generals and now you talk of his clemency!” And Xenophon turned to the other officers: “I think this man is not one of us. He’s a disgrace to his country and we should take his rank from him and send him away.” The other officers agreed (or obeyed) and drove the man out of camp.
Xenophon was now in control. He called a meeting of all the captains and told them to choose men to replace the lost generals.
Then the new generals ordered all the soldiers to assemble. It was a little after midnight.
See Your Time to Be a Hero 3 and read how Xenophon harangued the little army and soon had them singing their battle hymn and embracing each other. Now they would go home.
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What an interesting man he was. That was a real honour from the Spartans, wasn’t it? I did a bit of reading on him, not much, didn’t want to spoil the conclusion of your story.
Erika: In fact, he did become a soldier. After he got the troops back to Greece most of them signed on again for another fight against a Persian pasha. The whole region was full of Greek captains with their little armies, ready for hire. Xenophon joined the army of a Spartan king and did some more distinguished service. But that got him in trouble at home because Sparta was an enemy of Athens. He was exiled. The Spartans appreciated him, though, and gave him a pension and a country house, where he lived happily hunting and writing books like this March of the 10,000 and Memories of Socrates.
So true, the spoken word is on decline these days, but the written word is on the rise.
If Xenophon was such a good orator, why didn’t he opt for a political or military career, I wonder. I enjoyed his/your rhetoric.