History as Anabasis

CYBER-HISTORY: Applied Heuretics; Section 1

History as Anabasis

What is cyber-history? The second part of this term is familiar; history as research into and dissemination of information about the world for purposes of documentation, commemoration, and memory. History as memory is particularly important here, with the function of history as collective memory highlighting its use as a tool in learning, planning, and problem-solving, fueling George Santayana’s famous adage, ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (Santayana 1922, 284). The aspect of historical research that engages contemporary creativity and problem-solving is the focus of this work.

The prefix ‘cyber’ is recognizable because of its recent popularity but uncanny because its widespread use is evocative and not based on any specific meaning. Today, ‘cyber’ evokes the vaguely digital, with cyberspace, cyber-art, and cyber-sex being digital, computer-based analogues of their physical counterparts. This prefix comes from the ancient Greek words kybernân, meaning ‘to steer’, and kybernet, ‘stearsman/helmsman’, and provides the root for the word ‘government’. The root ‘kyberne-’ comes to its present form and usage through the work of scientist Norbert Wiener, who used it to form the neologism cybernetics, his application of mathematical modeling to feedback systems of communication, response, and control. This fertile ground of work spawned developments in automation, artificial intelligence, and computing technologies, and also influenced researchers in anthropology (in the work of Gregory Bateson), sociology (Norbert Wiener’s owns The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society) and economics (W. E. Deming). So, a cyber-history is not merely a digital history, but that specific component of historical research that is driven to utilize information from the past and present for decision-making and guidance. Its conceptual tools articulate the affective connections of persons to their environment that allow for the processing of information into materials suitable for creative work and invention.

This instrumental and highly pragmatic use of history has been active from the beginnings of ancient Greek historiography, in the work of Herodotus, then Thucydides, who attempted to document and ultimately understand the world-changing events of the Greco-Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War of the 5th century BCE. While their research became influential on the work of countless writers, it was also used as practical information for later travelers and strategic material for further military campaigns, and many scholars believe that this application was one of the original intentions in developing the methods of historiography. The precise and collectively accessible memory provided by written empirical history has always been utilized for the production of strategy. It is the nature of this productive aspect of history that cyber-history examines.

This research contrasts with the usual concerns of historiography, namely the attainment of isometric relations between historically relevant information and its transmission. This makes it prudent to name the practices sought herein, to isolate it from and thus protect the work of conventional historical research. Cyber-history is not meant to replace history, as it could not be useful without the practices that prevail in modern historiography with its conceits of objectivity, transparency, and propriety. Consequently, establishing the practices and values of cyber-history does not necessitate the avoidance of existing precedents in favor of obscure or more exotic material. If we wish to supplement established practices, then the use of familiar and accepted sources is necessary while also shedding new light on obscure territories.


Strategy vs. tactics

The work of Michel de Certeau provides us with a guide toward a creative/inventive history of practices, found in his distinction between strategy and tactics (de Certeau, 1988). According to de Certeau’s representation of a classical military distinction, strategy is possible when the subject can be isolated from its environment and assume a proper place defined as its own. This proper place, or propre, serves the subject as a basis for conceiving relations with a distinct exterior, the objects of research. A tactic is activity that cannot utilize a propre, where there is no clear borderline to use in distinguishing an exterior other party, or when the activity must take place in the territory of the other (de Certeau 1988).

In tactics, fragmentary and heterogeneous elements are continuously manipulated to assemble opportunities, the agent constructing relative victories that cannot take place in a unified and stable space. Strategy, on the other hand, relies on the continued existence of a proper space with identifiable boundaries. Through this distinction, de Certeau presents us with an opportunity to reconsider the actions we perform in our field of study, indicating the possibility for a discourse that examines the multifarious production of ‘ways of operating’ (de Certeau1988, xix). For our purposes, tactical discourse is suited for studying the production of methods, and is far more appropriate for such a task than the object-based conceptual tools of history and criticism. To find examples on which to base a tactical inquiry of method as an alternative to object-based discourse, we can examine: Herodotus’ Histories, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and Xenophon’s Anabasis, and the contributions made by each to early developments in historiography.

History and perilpous

Herodotus’ Histories, from the Greek word ἱστορία, roughly translated as ‘inquiries’ (Connor 1996), presented his investigation of the causes of the cataclysmic war between the Persians and the Greeks and possible explanations for the Greek victory in 490 BCE (Lateiner 1989). Herodotus traveled, questioned people of different Mediterranean cultures and gathered their stories together along with accounts of his experiences to produce a text that he called ‘a demonstration of his research’ (Lateiner 1989, 7). In this aspect, Herodotus’ ‘history’ is strategic, the communication to one’s own culture of information about other people and their cultures in the context of events that must remain external to the investigator due to their location in an unseen past.

The nature of many of Herodotus’ movements in gathering his material was also strategic, taking the established format of the periplous (Hartog 1988). For the ancient Greeks, the periplous was a circuit around the Mediterranean, beginning and ending in the same place, generally a safe port or the traveler’s home. This is a kind of journey with a high degree of order and deliberation, and like any useful and identifiable typology, it is communicable and repeatable. The periplous also objectifies gathered information. Each element, whether descriptions of Herodotus’ experiences or stories related by other informants, was placed in a specific physical location, relative to both the other elements in the collection and to a unified, Ionian geographic and cultural space. This objectifying tendency was common amongst Classical Greek historians, who privileged the solidity of the viewed object over the ephemeral quality of spoken or written language (Hedrick 1996). For early prose writers interested in documenting established truths, objectification was a conceptual tool that allowed the author to sidestep this distrust of language. Greek historians after Herodotus would take the development of their craft along this tangent of objectivity for generations, following the empirical rigor of Thucydides, who generally avoided histories of the past, regarding reconstructions of all periods before his lifetime as mired in uncertainty (Lateiner 1989).

Thucydides attempted to remove uncertainty from historical method, focusing on his own personal experiences as a general in the Peloponnesian War. Cultural history, as attempted by Herodotus’ inquiries into how and why the different cultures of Greece and Persia came to war, was abandoned as a project for at least a century after Thucydides focused the field of history on political and military narratives. After the popularity of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War led to its widespread influence amongst historians in the 4th century BCE, historical accounts became annalistic, or focused on highly localized, singular events (Lateiner 1989).

Using Xenophon’s Anabasis as a guide

Xenophon’s Anabasis, written in the 4th century BCE, uses Thucydides’ format of the first hand account to textually represent the movements of his army. But Xenophon’s movements and their subsequent representation are exemplary for us in that they are almost entirely tactical. The Anabasis tells how ‘The Ten Thousand’, a group of Greek mercenaries hired by Cyrus the Younger to help overthrow his brother and take the Persian throne, made it out of enemy territory after Cyrus’s defeat in battle. The title of the work ties it to the precarious situation of the men themselves, anabasis meaning a movement inland away from the coast. Unlike the periplous format, which stays along or close to the coast of the Mediterranean, the propre cultural space of the Greeks, anabasis as movement away from the known territory of the sea implies a venture into the unknown. Anabasis is mysterious, tactical, and profoundly inventive.

‘Thálatta! Thálatta!’, ‘The sea! The sea!’, is what The Ten Thousand shouted when they finally caught sight of their goal, the Black Sea. The sight of this sea meant they were near the colonial Greek cities strung along its coast, and they were one step closer to being out of enemy territory, and ultimately going home. It seems ironic that the majority of Xenophon’s story of anabasis actually recounts movement toward the sea, or katabasis. But it is the tactical nature of the movements recounted that typifies the story: Xenophon documents the dynamic development of a ‘how to’, and in the process provides his readers with a manual for ‘how to move’ through enemy Persia effectively. Similarly, the value of Herodotus’ immense work is not in its documentation of ‘what happened’, but rather ‘how one finds it’. Herodotus, like Xenophon, is our guide through a territory so strange and harrowing that one must follow quite closely to reconstruct the journey (Purves 2010). When Alexander the Great invaded Persia in the 4th century, Xenophon’s Anabasis was used as source material for military movements and ultimately for the writing of a new text documenting them: Arrian’s Anabasis (Rood 2004). To follow only selectively, loosely picking and choosing material as one sees fit, as did Thucydides and Alexander, will produce a different path, and a new method.

Section 2, Part 1: >

Setting the stage for the Neo-Scholastics: the Summulae Logicales of Petrus Hispanus and Meno's Paradox


  • de Certeau, M. 2002. The Practice of Everyday Life. S. Rendall, trans. University of California Press: Berkeley.

  • Connor, W. R. 1996. ‘The Histor in History.’ In: R. M. Rosen, J. Farrell, eds. Nomodeiktes: Greek Studies in Honor of Martin Ostwald. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor.

  • Hartog, F. 1988. The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History. J. Lloyd trans. University of California Press: Berkeley.

  • Hedrick, C. W. 1996. ‘The Meaning of Material Culture: Herodotus, Thucydides, and Their Sources.’ In: R. M. Rosen, J. Farrell, eds. Nomodeiktes: Greek Studies in Honor of Martin Ostwald. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor.

  • Lateiner, D. 1989. The Historical Method of Herodotus. University of Toronto Press: Toronto.

  • Purves, A. C. 2010. Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative. Cambridge University Press: New York.

  • Rood, T. 2004. ‘Panhellenism and Self-Presentation: Xenophon’s Speeches.’ In: R. Lane Fox, ed. The Long March: Xenophon and the Ten Thousand. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT.

  • Santayana, G. 1922. The Life of Reason. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York.

#herodotus #perilpous #xenophon

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