Friday, January 10, 2014

The Warriors and the Ten Thousand

Many people are aware that the classic 1979 film The Warriors (based on the 1965 book by Sol Yurick) has deliberate and overt parallels to the famous "march of The Ten Thousand," the account of an army of Greek mercenaries who were isolated in the middle of the Persian empire and had to "bop their way back" to friendly territory.  I myself still vividly remember having this fact and all the parallels explained to my seventh grade Latin class by our outstanding Latin language and classical history teacher, only a couple of years after the movie hit the box office.

In the movie, every gang in the city sends a delegation of nine representatives, none of them (in theory) armed, to a big "conclave" in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.  There, Cyrus -- the leader of the biggest gang in the city (the Gramercy Riffs) -- delivers his famous speech (part 1 -- part 2 -- part 3), in which he dramatically points out to the assembled "soldiers" that the various gangs, if they would only stop fighting against each other, far outnumber the police and anyone else who might stand in their way.

However, when Cyrus is treacherously shot by the leader of a gang calling themselves "The Rogues," who promptly frames the Warriors for the murder, the Warriors find themselves isolated in the middle of unfriendly territory, with every gang in the city (especially the Riffs) out to get them.

This plotline very closely parallels the situation faced by the Greek band of ten thousand hoplites who had ventured into the heart of Persia behind the popular Persian prince Cyrus, the son of Darius II, to face his older brother (the new King of Persia) in battle in an attempt to seize the throne. Cyrus was killed in the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC, and the Greeks were isolated, deep in enemy territory, outnumbered by enormous armies and with hundreds of miles of hostile territory between them and their homeland, all of it occupied by various tribes who would oppose their passage through, in addition to the armies of the King who had killed Cyrus and scattered his other troops.

In addition, one of the generals of the King treacherously captured and killed the leading Greek generals immediately after the battle, and so one of the Greek warriors -- the Athenian Xenophon, who was probably about 26 or 27 years old -- was elected to be the new leader (by his own account) and successfully brought them to safety (see the map below showing their route).

Xenophon's account of the expedition and its desperate aftermath, which was called the Anabasis in Greek and which is sometimes called The Persian Expedition in English (the Greek word itself means "A Journey up from the Sea"), makes clear that the Greek warriors were extremely able fighters, possessed of deep traditions and admirable discipline, and with solid tactics that made them more than the match of whomever they faced, as long as they kept their wits about them and did not give in to fear or panic.

They also display throughout the entire ordeal a deep faith in the gods and in the propriety of their own behavior, and a belief that if they acted uprightly rather than treacherously, the gods would be on their side rather than on the side of their enemies, who did act treacherously and murderously.

And, while the movie version contains the memorable speech given by Cyrus, complete with rhetorical flourishes, the speeches recorded in Xenophon's ancient account of the march of the Ten Thousand take second place to no one for their stirring articulation of the ideals of the proud and free Greek soldiers, who may be cut off, isolated, and outnumbered, but who would rather fight like free men than throw themselves on the mercy of the Persians.

When, after the Battle of Cunaxa is over and Cyrus has been killed, the King sends his heralds (led by a Greek named Phalinus who is working for the King) to the Greek army and demands that they surrender their arms and appear at the court, to obtain whatever favor they could get from the King,  the reply recorded by Xenophon given by Theopompus the Athenian is timeless:
As you see, Phalinus, the only things of value which we have at present are our arms and our courage.  So long as we keep our arms we fancy that we can make good use of our courage; but if we surrender our arms we shall lose our lives as well.  So do not imagine that we are going to surrender to you our only valuables.  On the contrary, with their aid we shall fight for what you value, too.  [page 105 of the Penguin edition (translation by Rex Warner, first published in 1949)].
Phalinus, trying to persuade the Greeks to lay down their arms, gives them various reasons to do so. The leader of the Greeks, Clearchus, gives Phalinus their final answer:
Well, then, so much for your advice.  Now you can take back our answer, which is that we consider that, if it is a case of becoming friends with the King, we shall be more valuable friends if we retain our arms than if we surrender them to someone else; and if it is a case of fighting, we shall fight better if we retain our arms than if they are in someone else's possession.  106.
Thus should free people always reply to tyrants and their persuasive counselors -- not with malice or ill intent, but with dignity and the willingness to stand on the natural-law right of men and women to defend their persons and freedom against violence from any quarter, howsoever cloaked in the garb of supposed worldly authority.  The ancient Greeks knew their rights and the difference between freedom and slavery, and thus were able to make such a reply.  In the intervening centuries some people have forgotten those rights and differences, while others have malevolently done whatever they could to obfuscate these simple and anciently-established principles.

The names in the ancient account closely parallel those in the movie.  Cyrus, of course, has the same name in both epics.  Xenophon's account paints Cyrus as an admirable, brave, and generous leader, and one who admires the Greeks for their ferocious dedication to their freedom.  At one point before the fateful Battle of Cunaxa, he addresses the Greeks:
Soldiers of the Greeks, I am not leading you into battle with me because I am short of native troops.  No, the reason why I sought your help was that I considered you to be more efficient and formidable than great numbers of natives.  I want you, then, to show yourselves worthy of the freedom which you have won and which I think you happy in possessing.  You can be sure that I would rather have that freedom than all I possess, and much more. [. . .] 82.
Clearchus, who is treacherously murdered by the King's general Tissaphernes after the battle is over, is no doubt Cleon in the movie, the leader of the delegation of nine Warriors to the conclave in the Bronx, who is fingered by the leader of the Rogues and is surrounded and beaten down by a mass of hostile Gramercy Riffs.

Xenophon himself is no doubt Swan (note the linguistic similarity of the two names), who is elected "war chief" by the rest of the Warriors after a tense standoff with the powerful fighter Ajax, in a scene that has some parallels with the episode in the Persian Expedition in which Xenophon offers himself as the new leader after the murder of the Greek generals.  In that scene, Xenophon says that all the captains of the Greek army wanted Xenophon to be their leader, except for one Apollonides, who opposed Xenophon and started complaining about all their difficulties.

Apollonides does not play any significant role in the rest of the Anabasis, but Ajax is actually one of the most memorable characters in the film, because although he is sullen about not being elected to be the new war chief, he is actually happy as long as he is given opportunities to fight, and approaches every one of the film's "battle scenes" with a grim sort of joy, and he is unstoppable until he falls into a trap set by the police and is hauled away in cuffs.

In the film, the Warriors have to get back to Coney Island, and Swan articulates the sentiment that once they see the ocean, they figure they're home.  In the Anabasis, there is an unforgettable moment when the embattled Greeks, who have fought their way through tribe after tribe, across range after range, crest the summit of Mount Thekes and catch a glimpse of the sea for the first time:
They came to the mountain on the fifth day, the name of the mountain being Thekes.  When the men in front reached the summit and caught sight of the sea there was great shouting.  Xenophon and the rearguard heard it and thought that there were some more enemies attacking in the front, since there were natives of the country they had ravaged following them up behind, and the rearguard had killed some of them and made prisoners of others in an ambush, and captured about twenty raw ox-hide shields, with the hair on.  However, when the shouting got louder and drew nearer, and those who were constantly going forward started running towards the men in front who kept on shouting, and the more there were of them the more shouting there was, it looked then as though this was something of considerable importance.  So Xenophon mounted his horse and, taking Lycus and the cavalry with him, rode forward to give support, and, quite soon, they heard the soldiers shouting out 'The sea! The sea!' and passing word down the column.  Then certainly they all began to run, the rearguard and all, and drove on the baggage animals and the horses at full speed; and when they had all got to the top, the soldiers, with tears in their eyes, embraced each other and their generals and captains.  In a moment, at somebody or other's suggestion, they collected stones and made a great pile of them. 211.
In George Cawkwell's introduction to Rex Warner's translation of the Persian Expedition, that Oxford professor (and native of New Zealand) begins by saying:
Every schoolboy used to know how ten thousand Greeks found themselves in the heart of the Persian empire a thousand miles from Greece, with half their leaders arrested by the Persians, and with a Persian army at hand, and how Xenophon the Athenian took charge and brought them safely home over rivers and mountains, through terrible winter and equally terrible barbarian foes, and it was a dull schoolboy indeed who did not thrill at the sound heard one day by Xenophon from the rear of the column as he laboured up yet another mountain against, as he thought, yet another hostile tribe -- 'The sea, the sea.'  9.
Sadly, it is safe to say that most schoolchildren can now go from kindergarten through graduate school without learning the story of the ten thousand Greeks, and the thrilling sound heard one day by Xenophon, "The sea, the sea."  Even George Cawkwell's phrasing makes it clear that when he himself wrote those words, in 1972, it was no longer the case that every student would as a matter of course learn the story.

That cultural amnesia is most unfortunate -- and characteristic of much else that we have forgotten about the ancients.  The march of the Ten Thousand has plenty to teach us today about courage against seemingly impossible odds, and about devotion to freedom, of faith in the wisdom of standing for the natural rights of mankind against tyranny, of faith in that which is divine, and revulsion for those who are willing to treat other men as gods instead.

Cyrus himself said he was envious of the freedom which the Greeks had won for themselves -- a freedom which we in fact are still heirs to.  Let's not forget that, no matter how far away from the sea we may seem to be at the moment.