Classic Works

Xenophon, The Persian Expedition

Wayne Ambler, translator, with an introduction by Eric Buzzetti, Agora Editions, Cornell University Press, 2008.

To encourage fidgety school boys to pay attention to their Greek lessons, English and American headmasters would frequently assign Xenophon’s Anabasis of Cyrus (The Ascent of Cyrus, sometimes rendered as “The March Up-Country” and popularly titled “The Persian Expedition”). Xenophon told the thrilling story of what became known as the Ten Thousand, a Greek mercenary contingent engaged during the summer of 401 B.C. by a Persian prince, Cyrus the Younger, to support his campaign to claim the throne from his brother, Artaxerxes II. These events took place shortly after the Spartan-led coalition, with aid from Persia, had defeated Athens and its allies in the decades-long Peloponnesian War. Sparta now quietly supported Cyrus’s ambitions. According to the Anabasis, Cyrus concealed his intentions to attack Artaxerxes; but he eventually persuaded the Greeks, led by the Spartan exile Clearchus, with promises of higher pay. After a march of hundreds of miles from Sardis, the two sides met at Cunaxa, north of Babylon. The Greeks dominated their portion of the battlefield–supposedly only a single Greek hoplite was wounded by an arrow–but Cyrus was killed and his troops routed. Clearchus and four senior commanders of the expedition were lured into negotiations with the Persians, and were then captured and executed. The Greeks elected new generals, including a young Athenian, Xenophon, an acolyte of Socrates, who throughout his life was at odds with his city’s democratic leadership. Xenophon played a key role in persuading the Greeks to stay together and march to safety, despite the apparently desperate situation, rather than surrendering to the Persians.

Xenophon detailed the fighting retreat of the Ten Thousand through northern Mesopotamia and the independent or autonomous lands of the Kurds, Armenians and other peoples. (The original size of the Greek expedition was slightly larger than ten thousand, and that number did not include camp followers and slaves.) The Greeks must overcome the lack of supplies, brutal weather, difficult terrain, sickness, limited and misleading tactical and strategic intelligence, treacherous allies, and resourceful enemies who possessed knowledge of the ground and were highly motivated to fight off the invaders. After weeks on the move Xenophon, in command of the rearguard, heard great shouting from the troops on the high ground ahead of him. Alarmed, he assumed that the Greek vanguard must be under attack. But as the sound made its way through the ranks, he finally distinguished the words: “thalatta, thalatta!” “The sea!” The sea!” The troops on the heights had spotted the Black Sea and the relatively safety of the coast, which was dotted by Greek settlements. Five out of six men have survived the march. Their adventures were not yet over, however. Not all their local Greeks are friendly. The Ten Thousand divided into several distinct contingents. Unable to obtain ships to sail back to Greece, they marched along the shore to reach the Bosporus. Some of the troops, including Xenophon, crossed into Europe and fought with Suethes, a Thracian warlord, to obtain the kingship of Thrace, before being incorporated into the army of the Spartan general Thibron for further battles in Asia against the Persians.

XenophonThe Persian Expedition is one of the classic adventure stories and military chronicles of the ancient world. Xenophon’s Greeks walked in the shoes of Herodotus and foreshadowed the battles of Alexander the Great. (Some contemporary analysts have read Xenophon for lessons on how a Western empire might extract its forces from a difficult situation in the Middle East.) The literal accuracy of Xenophon’s account–told in the third person–and his role and importance during the campaign were challenged by his contemporaries and by later scholars. But many in Greece, recalling also their triumphs in the Persian Wars, took the lesson from Xenophon that the Greeks were so superior to the decadent “East” that its conquest was possible and desirable.

Greek chauvinism aside, serious scholars have noted the differences between the Greek and Persian worlds and have explored the reasons for the apparent advantages enjoyed by the Greek expedition. Historian Victor Davis Hanson describes the Ten Thousand as “a marching democracy”–a polis in motion. “The soldiers routinely held assemblies in which they voted on the proposals of their elected leaders. In times of crises, they formed ad hoc boards to ensure that there were sufficient archers, cavalry, and medical corpsmen. When faced with a variety of unexpected challenges both natural and human … councils were held to debate and discuss new tactics, craft new weapons, and adopt modifications in organization. The elected generals marched and fought alongside their men–and were careful to provide a fiscal account of their expenditures.” Greek successes on the battlefield, according to Hanson, had less to do with superiority in technology or tactics and more to do with their way of life. “The peculiar way Greeks killed grew out of consensual government, equality among the middling classes, civilian audit of military affairs, and politics apart from religion, freedom and individualism, and rationalism. The ordeal of the Ten Thousand, when stranded and near extinction, brought out the polis that was innate in all Greek soldiers, who then conducted themselves on campaign precisely as civilians in their respective city-states.”

As we delve into the details, however, we see that Xenophon relates a complicated story, not merely one of Greek superiority and unchallenged success. The Ten Thousand was indeed a polis in motion, one plagued by factionalism as well as civic virtue, divided by allegiances to their respective native Greek cities and roiled by personal ambitions. They were not, or were not simply, a happy band of brothers. They were often their own worst enemies. Troops struck out on their own and disobeyed orders, frequently to plunder, which endangered the expedition as a whole. The unexpected arrival of thousands of armed men was viewed suspiciously by many of the Greek communities along the Black Sea; these cities warned that they would ally with the local non-Greek peoples to oppose the expedition if it plundered them or otherwise threatened their security and interests. Xenophon often must persuade the troops under his command and the army in general to follow what he regarded as the sensible course, especially the need for discipline and unity. (This included strict observance of religious ceremonies and paying heed to omens, even when military factors indicated otherwise.) But Xenophon must overcome suspicions that he was hardly a disinterested party himself, especially given his expressed desire to found a city as a way out of the dilemma of the expedition–which was not precisely what his mercenary colleagues had in mind–and his argument that it was necessary to defer to Spartan concerns because of Sparta’s established position of leadership among the Greek-speaking world.

The military success of the Ten Thousand had less to do with the famous hoplite tactics than with the ability to adapt on the fly to widely different fighting conditions, especially marching while under pursuit (Xenophon, for instance, urged that they deploy in towns and villages when threatened in the rear by an attacking force, rather than engage in a fighting retreat). The Greeks jury-rigged a cavalry force and slingers to replace the capabilities lost with the destruction of Cyrus’s army. They reduced their baggage and animals, and recently-acquired slaves, to the bare minimum to ease logistical demands. Diplomacy proved to be essential to the success of the expedition. After the capture of Clearchus and the other senior Greek leaders, Xenophon and his colleagues refused further talks with the Persians, so as not to undermine the morale of their forces. But as they moved into the territories outside Persian control, they must find ways to address the “security dilemma” to avoid unnecessary battles without undue risk of being lured into a trap. They struck agreements with cities and tribes to fight their local enemies in return for safe passage, guides, and supplies. They told their prospective allies that they would never again have at their disposal such a force with which to obtain their objectives. The leaders of the expedition negotiated truces to retrieve and bury bodies, in exchange for promises not to burn villages. One of Xenophon’s fellow commanders offered this message to the Persians and other potential opponents: “we shall go through the country doing as little damage as possible, but if anyone tries to stop us on our way, we shall fight our way out as hard as we can.”

Xenophon’s overriding operational plea to his colleagues and troops was that of unity, even when they reached the relative safety of the Black Sea coast: “So long as you keep together in your present great force, you are sure both of respect and finding supplies. One of the results of power is the ability to take what belongs to the weaker. But if you became dispersed, and this force of ours was broken up into small detachments, then you would not be able to secure your food, and it would be a sad business getting away from here. … if anyone is discovered leaving us before the whole army is safe, I think he should be put on trial for misconduct.” Unity was necessary to obtain decisive victory. Unless the Greeks were seen as being absolutely superior on the battlefield, they would lose their ability to deter and coerce the local peoples, who would soon learn to play upon the factionalism among the expedition.

Throughout the Anabasis, Xenophon offers his reflections on the nature of military command. He told his newly-elected fellow commanders that they could not display any discouragement or indecision before their soldiers. “In peacetime you got more pay and respect than they did. Now, in war time, you ought to hold yourselves to be braver than the general mass of men, and to take decisions for the rest, and, if necessary, to be the first to do the hard work.” Leadership consisted in creating a sense of direction and purpose: “there will be a great rise in their spirits if one can change the way they think, so that instead of having in their heads the one idea of ‘what is going to happen to me?’ they may think ‘what action am I going to take?’” The commanders of the expedition must especially overcome despair because the quantitative advantages that the Persians possess: “You are well aware that it is not numbers or strength that brings victory in war. No, it is when one side goes against the enemy with the gods’ gift of stronger morale that their adversaries, as a rule, cannot withstand them.”