Long distance walking then and now

I’ve just finished reading what must be one of the most enthralling accounts of a long distance walk ever written, and it comes from the dawn of recorded history around 2,500 years ago. Xenophon’s Anabasis – titled The Persian Expedition in Rex Warner’s English translation – is an account of his trek with a column of 10,000 Greek mercenaries from Sardis (in today’s western Turkey) to a spot near Babylon (south of modern Baghdad), then north through what is today Kurdistan and eastern Turkey to the Black Sea, and from there back along Turkey’s north coast to Greece. The total distance covered was about 3,500 kms over a period of less than two years (401 – 400 BC).

As an elected officer in his army (yes, Greek soldiers elected their officers) Xenophon must have spent a lot of the journey on horseback, but his men, and a small number of female retainers, walked the whole way. From time to time there are memorable snapshots that capture what they endured. Here is one taken in central Turkey under the deep snows of mid winter, probably early in 400 BC.

“Soldiers who had lost the use of their eyes through snow-blindness or whose toes had dropped off from frostbite were left behind. It was a relief to the eyes against snow-blindness if one held something black in front of the eyes while marching; and it was a help to the feet if one kept on the move and never stopped still, and took off one’s shoes at night. If one slept with one’s shoes on, the straps sank into the flesh and the soles of the shoes froze to the feet. This was the more likely to happen since, when their old shoes were worn out, they had made themselves shoes of undressed leather from the skins of oxen that had just been flayed. Some soldiers who were suffering from these kinds of complaints were left behind.” (Part IV chapter 5)

And every modern walker who has arrived exhausted at the end of a long hike will instantly recognise the feelings of Xenophon’s soldiers as they emerged from the mountains of Turkey at the town of Trabzon on the Black Sea.

“Leon of Thurii stood up and spoke as follows: ‘Speaking for myself, soldiers, I am already tired out with packing up baggage, and walking and running, and carrying arms, and marching in the ranks, and going on guard, and fighting. What I want is to have a rest now from all this, and since we have now got to the sea, to sail for the rest of the way, and so get back to Greece stretched out at my ease on deck, like Odysseus.’ When they heard this, the soldiers shouted out in support of the speech.” (Part V chapter 1)

These are people pretty much like us. But there is one big difference between long distance walking in ancient times and long distance walking today. Until quite recently walking was a mode of travel, simply a way – for most people the only way – of getting from A to B. Perhaps it was the ancient counterpart of today’s commuting – an unavoidable and tedious necessity.

But today walking is a leisure choice. Walking, especially long distance walking, is an instance of what the great and endearingly grouchy sociologist Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous leisure”. You walk, not because you need to but because you can and you want to display to the world that you can.

Veblen sees conspicuous leisure – including sports and religion – as a sub-category of conspicuous consumption, that is, the waste of money and/or resources by people in a way that publicly demonstrates the distinctiveness or status of a person or group. He argues that modern leisure activities – I suppose he meant things like sewing, gardening, playing golf, gourmet cooking etc. – are survivals of ancient barbarian drudgery that have been stripped of their utilitarian functions, romanticised and boosted with powerful symbolic decoration in order to cover up the idleness of the people who engage in them basically to lift or sustain their status.

The epic walk of Xenophon's ten thousand. (Source: Wikipedia public domain image)

The Greeks of Xenophon’s column – like resigned and weary modern commuters – did not walk to boost their status in the eyes of the hoi polloi. They did not romanticise their experience, they did not transform it into a “philosophy”, they did not celebrate it as a physical or mental challenge. It was just everyday drudgery.

Perhaps some day in the future the drudgery of commuting (for example) will become a leisure-time indulgence of the middle-class with all the elaborate trappings of golf, quilting, long distance walking and a thousand other pastimes. People will drive back and forth not because they have to, but because they can. It will become a hobby, and people will romanticise it, as today we romanticise walking.

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