Sparta and Athens fought a thirty-year war towards the end of the fifth century BCE. It ended with the defeat of Athens and the establishment of Spartan hegemony over Greece. Sparta’s victory was partly due to help from Cyrus, a satrap (governor) of a large province of the Persian Empire in western Anatolia (Turkey). This Cyrus was not the same Cyrus who had conquered Ionia (the Greek city-states along the western coast of Anatolia); that guy came about a hundred years earlier. Apparently ‘Cyrus’ was a pretty common name among Persians.
Anyway, this other Cyrus was the brother of the emperor, Artaxerxes II, and he realized that he had a golden opportunity to kill Artaxerxes and take the throne for himself. There were 10,000 Spartan soldiers left over from the war with Athens and they had nothing better to do, so Cyrus invited them over to his place to (supposedly) help him conquer some barbarians in eastern Anatolia. He offered good pay to them as mercenaries, and, having nothing better to do, they accepted his offer.
Accompanying them for no particular reason was an Athenian named Xenophon. He was neither general nor soldier; instead he was the son of a wealthy Athenian with time on his hands, and this sounded like fun, so he tagged along. Cyrus also brought along his own army, but the fact was that the Greek heavy infantry was the elite military force of the era; they could smash through much larger armies of Persians.
Eastward they marched, ostensibly towards the barbarians. But they turned south, towards Babylon, at a critical point, and Cyrus could no longer maintain his sham. The Greek generals confronted him and he revealed the truth: they were marching on Babylon.
This put the Greeks in a nasty jam. Cyrus was dragging them into a Persian civil war; this would be no rout of ragged barbarians, but a serious war with hard battles and the very real possibility of defeat and death. The problem was, they were 600 miles from home by now, and they had no knowledge of the country they were in; finding their way home without Cyrus’ help would be extremely difficult. And without Cyrus’s pay, how could they buy food? Moreover, Cyrus promised them vast riches if they conquered the Persian Empire for him.
It was a lousy quandary, but the lesser of the two evils was to move forward. Off they went, traveling down the Euphrates River towards Babylon. They met Artaxerxes and fought a battle at Cunaxa. The Greek heavy infanty, as expected, smashed through and routed the bulk of the Persian army, attaining a solid but not overwhelming victory. While mopping up their sector, they learned that Cyrus, in a fit of enthusiasm, had charged straight into Artaxerxes’ division and gotten himself killed.
Cyrus’ Persian army, realizing that further fighting was futile, surrendered to Artaxerxes, who demanded that the Greeks surrender as well. They knew that he’d probably execute all of them if they surrendered, so they refused. A tense standoff ensued; Artaxerxes didn’t have the strength to defeat the Greeks, but they would gain nothing by further offensive action. Neither could they retreat: they would be vulnerable to attack while marching.
After some days, a deal was hammered out: the Greeks would depart from the Persian Empire, they would not ravage the countryside but would pay for their food at local markets, and an army would shadow them to keep them honest. So began their march home, moving up the Tigris River. After a week or two of peaceful marching, the Persian general, Tissaphernes, invited the Greek generals to his camp to discuss the route ahead. He slaughtered them and all the officers who accompanied him.
Tissaphernes knew that his army could not defeat the Greeks outright, but without leaders it would probably fall apart, so he simply waited in his fortified camp. The Greeks very nearly did fall apart, but somehow new leaders were selected. One of these was Xenophon. The next day, they resumed their march, although they really had no idea of the country ahead of them. For the moment, they just knew that following the Tigris upriver would take them further away from the Persians.
So they marched, with the Persians in careful pursuit, picking off stragglers and making it impossible to send foraging parties far from the main army. They left Persian territory in eastern Anatolia and Tissaphernes relented his pursuit. But now they were struggling through high mountains, fighting off barbarian attacks at every point. This was a bleak time for the Greeks; they had no clothing for the cold conditions and many froze or lost ears, toes, or fingers to frostbite. They sustained themselves by raiding the small villages, taking all the stored food, and enslaving the locals for sale later.
After many difficult weeks, they reached the Black Sea in northeast Anatolia. This was the first joyous moment in the long struggle; Greek ships could transport them home. But there was no fleet large enough to contain them all, and to leave a group behind in hostile territory was unacceptable because they would surely be picked off by the locals. So they marched westward along the coast.
After many more trials and adventures, they finally made it the Bosporus, where the Black Sea connects with the Aegean. They were in friendly territory now, but a new class of troubles beset them. They had lost everything; they had no money to pay for food, and certainly not enough to pay for travel home.
There followed a long series of intricate political activity; at one point, they went on a short campaign for a local king to reconquer some of his lost territories. I won’t bore you with all the twists and turns here; they eventually extricated themselves and moved on to Ionia, which was as good as home as far as they were concerned. Thus ended the long journey, in which they fought countless battles, travelled some 2,000 miles almost entirely on foot, covering more than a year.
1. The Greeks may have been the founders of rationalism, but these Greeks were superstitious in the extreme. They made no major decision without first carrying out a sacrifice and examining the entrails of the victims to see if the portents were favorable. Over and over again Xenophon refers to these sacrifices holding up important actions because the portents were unfavorable.
2. They were very democratic. The army would undertake no major action without a vote. Over and over again they deliberated in the open air, arguing before taking a vote. The generals were subject to being overruled by the vote.
3. Their basic method was to raid the surrounding territory, taking everything they could, including the locals, whom they then sold into slavery to purchase food. This army devastated every region it moved through.
4. Since Xenophon wrote this story many years later, it presents him in an unsurprisingly generous light.
5. The standards of pay were a lot more egalitarian than today: generals received four times the pay of regular soldiers, and officers received twice the pay of regular soldiers.
It’s still a rip-snorting adventure tale.