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  • James Houser

401 BC - Xenophon and the Expedition of the Ten Thousand

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

MAY 1 - 401 BC. After their involvement in a struggle for the Persian throne, 10,000 Greek mercenaries are stranded at the modern site of Baghdad. They are far from home and surrounded by enemies. Getting there was hard; getting back will be a feat worthy of song and poem. Their leader, Xenophon, is about to lead one of history’s most epic retreats.

In the 400s BC, the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta were engaged in a long, terrible war known as the Peloponnesian War. This struggle lasted over thirty years, involved the whole Greek world, and ended with Athens’ destruction and near humiliation. We’ll discuss the Peloponnesian War later this year…but not today.

The other big player in the Peloponnesian War was the Persian Empire. After its defeat in the Great Persian War of 480-479 BC, the Persians had withdrawn to their own lands, but had never gone away. They remained an enormous, powerful foe – and wealthy. The Persians were extremely pleased to see their two old enemies fighting each other, and made a practice of providing money and troops to whichever side looked like it was losing – just to help, see. By 404 BC and the end of the war, both Sparta and Athens were demoralized and exhausted.

Both Sparta and Athens had friends among the Persian royalty, and Sparta’s biggest friend in Persia was Cyrus the Younger. Cyrus’s father Darius II, King of Kings, had died in 404 BC and his brother Artaxerxes II had taken over. Cyrus believed he had been promised the throne; he had given a lot of money and support to the Spartans with the agreement that, if the time came, they would help him claim the Persian throne.

Cyrus began assembling his army and marching towards modern Iraq – the site of Babylon, the center of Persian power. Cyrus deceived most of his followers; he claimed their foe would be the Pisidian rebels, a hill tribe in his province. The young, charismatic prince recruited many Greek mercenaries to fight for him, led by the Spartan General Clearchus. The end of the Peloponnesian War had left a lot of soldiers and officers out of work, and for many of them war was all they had ever known. The Greeks were known throughout the Ancient world as the best heavy infantry to be found, and many young hoplites from all the major cities signed up for adventure, gold, and glory. Spartans composed only about 1,000 of the force, the rest coming from all over.

Among these soldiers was a younger Athenian, about 30 years old, named Xenophon. Many Athenians refused to serve under a Spartan, but Xenophon had consulted both the veteran and philosopher Socrates as well as the Oracle of Delphi. Socrates tried to warn him away, but Xenophon believed in Cyrus’s cause and, having in large part missed the Peloponnesian War, wasn’t about to miss this one.

The army reached Syria in 401 BC, only to be told that they were not going to be fighting hill people – instead, they were going to the east to overthrow the King of Kings. Most of them tried to turn back, but Clearchus rallied them and convinced them to continue. Encouraged by their Spartan general, the Greeks made the long, hot journey into the depths of the Middle East – a walk of 1200 miles.

Cyrus confronted the army of his brother at Cunaxa, around April of 401 BC. He had his 10,000 Greeks, along with a decent force of Persian infantry and cavalry, and confronted his brother’s army of 40,000. Cyrus wanted Clearchus and the Greeks to attack the Persian center, but Clearchus refused since it would expose the right side of the phalanx. Xenophon spoke with Cyrus before the battle, and the prince reassured him that everything was going according to plan.

When the battle began, the Greeks charged the Persian left, shattering it completely. Lightly armed Persian bowmen and infantry were no match for the heavily armored crush of the Greek phalanx. On the other flank, however, things went less well. Cyrus and his bodyguard charged the forces of his brother Artaxerxes, but Cyrus was killed in the attack. Even as the Greeks faced left and charged again, driving off the other wing of Artaxerxes’ army, the battle was already lost. Even worse, Persian cavalry had burned the Greek camp and food supplies.

With Cyrus’s death, the expedition was a failure, even though the Greeks had easily won the battle. Now the Ten Thousand were stranded over a thousand miles into enemy territory; their paymaster and employer was gone, they had no food, and they were surrounded by enemies. Clearchus proposed to Persian governor Tissaphernes, Artaxerxes’ leading satrap, that they could work for him instead, but Tissaphernes refused to hire them and the Greeks refused to surrender.

Tissaphernes was put in charge of Artaxerxes’ “Greek problem”: 10,000 heavily armed infantry that had just beaten most of their army. Tissaphernes decided there was another solution besides fighting, hiring, or surrendering. He invited Clearchus and all his leading officers to a feast, under the pretext of making a truce. When the officers arrived, they were taken prisoner, brought before Artaxerxes, and decapitated.

The Ten Thousand were stunned by the treachery, and determined that they had no other choice. They had to fight their way out of the Persian Empire. With Clearchus dead through trickery, they had to elect new leaders, and among the men they ended up picking was the Athenian Xenophon. With grim determination and the knowledge that there was no other escape, the Ten Thousand began their epic retreat.

The plan was to march north out of Iraq, into Turkey, and reach the Black Sea. This would avoid most of the Persian armies between them and the direct land route home through Syria. If they got to the sea…if…they could contact their cities and have a fleet sent to bring them home. Xenophon and his fellow generals, the Ten Thousand set out, Tissaphernes leading a huge army hot on their heels.

The Greeks marched up the east bank of the Tigris River, fully aware that they were all alone on the open desert of Iraq. They were under constant harassing attack from Persian cavalry, light troops that fired arrows and threw spears, then ran away before the Greeks could get into melee range. Xenophon pulled a nighttime ambush on this pest, however, and kept moving.

Soon the Greeks reached the Zab River, which splits from the Tigris south of Mosul and marks the beginning of the mountains of Armenia. The Persians had burned the bridge ahead of them, and now they were cornered by Tissaphernes’ gigantic host coming up on their rear. With the soldiers tired and starving, most of them were in no condition to fight, and the Greeks feared they were finally trapped. Xenophon, however, devised a plan. He had the Ten Thousand kill most of their donkeys, stuff the bodies with hay, stitch them together and lay them across the river. This gruesome makeshift bridge allowed the Greeks to slowly cross as the rearguard held off repeated attacks from the Persians. Despite heavy losses, the Ten Thousand – now less than that, of course, but I’m gonna keep calling them that – made their escape into the mountains.

Their troubles were not over. In this part of the mountains, there lived a tribe named the Carduchians, who despised any outsiders and had even resisted Persian attempts to conquer them. Assailed day and night by arrows, stones, and guerrilla attacks, Xenophon and the Greeks had to cut their way through multiple enemy armies, well aware that they were still a long way from safety. When they finally came out the other side of the Carduchian territories, they were now pursued by the tribesmen – and there was another Persian army across their path, blocking the crossing of the Centrites River. They were caught between the hammer and the anvil once again. Xenophon devised a feint, drawing most of the Persian force away before forcing a crossing uphill with the bulk of his army. The Ten Thousand had cut a way out once again.

Winter had come. The Greeks trekked through Armenia without winter clothing, as they had never expected to pass this way. Bloody footprints laid out their path to the pursuing Persians. They fought off constant ambushes by local tribes, and had to overrun several hill forts to obtain enough food to keep marching. Starvation, disease, and death in battle wore down their numbers. They marched on.

Finally, from the top of Mount Theches, the Greeks spotted the sea. “Thalatta! Thalatta!” (“The Sea! The Sea!”) they cried in jubilation, running down the slopes of the mountain to bathe in the water. It seemed like their ordeal was over. They sent a Spartan messenger to the Dardanelles, where a Spartan fleet under Anaxibius held the city of Byzantium. This messenger returned with bad news: Anaxibius refused to give them a ride, but promised he would hire them and pay them if they made their way to him. No help was coming. New objective: Byzantium. Method of travel: the Mark 1 foot.

Throughout 400 BC, the Ten Thousand – by now far fewer – slogged and fought their way along the northern coast of modern Turkey. By now the Persians were back at it, constantly trying to attack them and block their path, but the much-reduced force kept juking and avoiding big armies, striking the weak point whenever they could. They still suffered terribly; Xenophon reports that they lost at least 500 dead to Persian cavalry raids. Finally the Persian general, fed up with this campaign, paid Anaxibius a great sum of money to pick up what was left of the Ten Thousand, pay their salaries, and get rid of them.

After all this, upon their arrival at Byzantium, Anaxibius tried to sell out the remnant of the Ten Thousand by withholding the money he had promised, and only Xenophon could keep his angry soldiers from killing the treacherous Spartan then and there. With money finally in hand, Xenophon led his tired comrades onto the boats that would carry them back to Greece. Of the 10,000 who started, 6,000 returned. Two of every five men who left never came home.

The dramatic, brilliant tale of the Retreat of the Ten Thousand is known to us now from Xenophon’s own account, which survives as the “Anabasis” – literally “the expedition up.” Xenophon was one of the great historians of Ancient Greece, and his writings are literally our only source for almost 50 years of Greek history, including the end of the Peloponnesian War. The epic tale of the Anabasis remains one of the most compelling works of classical Greek literature. It is also a model for countless works of fantasy and sci-fi in the 20th Century and onwards, including the 1979 cult film “The Warriors,” which turns the Ten Thousand into a New York City gang trying to make their way back to home turf.

The Anabasis also had a major, though indirect, impact on the future of the Persian Empire. The Persians had thrown everything they had at a bunch of starving, friendless Greeks and failed to overcome them. This brought many to the realization that the Persian Empire was nowhere near as strong as it looked. One young man in particular took this lesson to heart; he would read the Anabasis over and over as he grew up, and when he became King he would reenact the saga in reverse. His name was Alexander.

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