by Eric Niderost
Around 10 am on the morning of September 3, 401 bc Cyrus the Younger’s army was approaching the Babylonian village of Cunaxa, a tiny settlement not far from the Euphrates River. Cyrus was a prince of Persia’s Achaemenid dynasty, seeking to take over the throne from his older brother Artaxerxes II “The Mindful.” A messenger named Pategyas appeared, his horse well lathered from a hard gallop. Pategyas had a vital piece of intelligence to deliver: Artaxerxes’ army was on its way; the long-awaited battle to decide the ruler of the Persian Empire was now at hand.
Cyrus leaped down from his chariot, donned a breastplate, and mounted a magnificent charger. A horse would provide greater mobility in the coming action; Cyrus wanted to participate, not be a passive observer in the rear. The news of the enemy’s approach created a temporary confusion as units sorted themselves out and wheeled into battle position. Prince Cyrus was only about 25, his youth barely concealed by his splendid garments or his curled and oiled beard. A smile played upon his handsome features as he contemplated the coming fight; already he could see his brother dead and himself mounting the Great King’s throne at the magnificent city of Persepolis.
10,000 Highly Trained Hoplites
The prince’s confidence was not entirely the product of youthful arrogance. He was secure in the knowledge he had literally the best troops money could buy. His hopes of ultimate victory rested with his Greek mercenaries, particularly the 10,000 heavily armed hoplites. Sporting bronze helmets, breastplates, and bronze leg greaves, these armored warriors fought in a dense, shoulder-to-shoulder formation called a phalanx. The Greeks also had peltasts, light and mobile troops who carried small shields and javelins. Cyrus was sure nothing could stand against them.
A Spartan named Clearchus was the leader of the Greeks. A blunt, grizzled old soldier of about 50, he drew his men up with the Euphrates guarding their flank. The Greeks formed the right wing of Cyrus’s army; the prince’s left wing was largely native troops under a Persian named Arianeus. The center was held by Cyrus himself, leading a compact body of elite horsemen. Although about 600 men, this cavalry was a bodyguard that made up in fighting prowess what it lacked in numbers.
Artaxerxes’ army appeared in the early afternoon, its coming announced by an enormous white dust cloud that was stirred by the ceaseless tramp of thousands of feet. Occasionally the choking swirls parted to reveal the sun-glinting tips of bronze spearheads. It was a spectacle that chilled the blood even in the torrid afternoon heat.
Cyrus surveyed his army, and when he neared the Hellenes an Athenian named Xenophon approached him for orders. Hearing a murmur ripple through the Greek ranks, Cyrus asked what was being said. “Zeus Soter” and “Nike,” was the quick reply, “Zeus Savior” and “Victory.” Pleased, Cyrus took his position in the center.
When the opposing armies were no more than 600 to 800 yards apart the Greeks began to advance. Each man carried a large hoplon shield on his left arm, while his right brandished an iron-tipped spear. The serried ranks moved with perfect precision, horsehair plumes nodding over burnished bronze helmets in cadence with every step. They seemed an impenetrable wall of flesh and bronze, and as they drew nearer the Persians broke and ran.
Scenting total victory, the Greeks pursued the retreating foe for about an hour. In the meantime Cyrus, seeing his royal brother in the center just opposite him, galloped forward to personally slay the Great King. It was a rash move, something that ultimately cost Cyrus his life. Cyrus’s horsemen clashed with the Great King’s men, and in the ensuing melee Artaxerxes was wounded.
As he pressed forward Cyrus received a javelin wound under the eye, but before he could recover, enemy soldiers were swarming over him. The prince was hacked to pieces, his head and right hand cut off for display. Cyrus’s left wing under Arianeus was routed, the panicked soldiers abandoning the prince’s camp in a frantic effort to escape.
A Battlefield Littered with 15,000 Corpses
The Greeks were unaware that their royal paymaster was dead. They were seemingly victorious over Artaxerxes’ left wing, but all was rendered moot by the prince’s sudden demise. The Hellenes found out the next day when a messenger from Arianeus brought the news. The day grew hot, and though the troops could quench their thirst in the Euphrates, food was scarce. Oxen and asses from the baggage train provided meat on the hoof, and were quickly slaughtered for rations. Greeks also foraged the battlefield, which was littered with the corpses of some 15,000 men festering in the heat. The gagging stench must have been indescribable, but tough Hellenes picked their way though the bodies to retrieve shields and arrows for fuel.
Heralds from the Great King appeared, asking if the Greeks wanted to continue the war. If not, they should lay down their arms and surrender. Clearchus gave the heralds an ambiguous reply to keep the Persians guessing, then the Greeks marched from Cunaxa to join Arianeus. Once the linkup was accomplished, Arianeus suggested they march north, since retracing their steps was out of the question. The country behind was picked clean, and they would soon starve. A shaky truce with Arta- xerxes was also arranged through the offices of a satrap (governor) named Tissaphernes.
Tissaphernes had commanded the Persian left that had so embarrassingly fled at the Greek’s approach, yet he still seemed to hold the king’s favor. The satrap personally appeared, pledging to lead them safely to Ionia (Greek Asia Minor) if only they would in turn promise not to pillage or harm any inhabitants along the way. All parties swore the appropriate solemn oaths, then Tissaphernes left, not to reappear for 20 days. Around 300 Greeks had already gone over to Artaxerxes, decamping when the Hellene cause seemed hopeless. Arianeus and his men also deserted the Greeks, swayed by the Great King’s honeyed promises of amnesty and reconciliation.
The Greeks resumed their march, fascinated by the new sights they encountered, even as they kept a wary eye out for Persian treachery, for they did not entirely trust Tissaphernes and his like. The Great Wall of Media, a rampart of bituminous sun-dried brick 20 feet thick and 100 feet high that stretched for miles, excited much comment. They then encountered two canals filled with water from the Tigris River. These arteries of life-giving liquid fed smaller irrigation ditches, transforming an arid plain into a fertile soil covered with wheat and other crops.
The Persian forces shadowed the Greeks, and even if they were periodically absent from view, their unseen presence was keenly felt by the weary mercenaries. The Greeks reached the Tigris, camping near a prosperous river town called Sittace. Lush green trees flourished amid scenes of natural beauty; the mercenaries must have thought they were in a terrestrial paradise like the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The Hellenes crossed the Tigris via a bridge of boats, then proceeded north. Another 60-mile trek brought them near a city called Opis. A large Persian army was there, commanded by a bastard brother of Artaxerxes and Cyrus. Ever the fox, Clearchus formed his men in a column only two abreast. The long, snaking line of hoplites seemed two or three times their actual number. The Persians, feeling discretion is the better part of valor, let the Greeks move on without incident.
After four more days the footsore Hellenes reached the vicinity of Caenae, a city on the opposite bank of the Tigris. The natives were cooperative, ferrying over bread, cheese, and wine to the famished travelers. The River Zapatas (today’s Greater Zab in Iraq), a smaller stream that emptied into the Tigris, was nearby.
The Persians had made no hostile move since Cunaxa weeks earlier; yet the very absence of hostilities made a clash seem certain, even inevitable. But when would Tissaphernes make his move? Double-dealing and treachery were his stock in trade—would he really let the Greeks depart unmolested, and thus expose the empire’s weakness and apparent inability to resist outsiders?
Four of the Five Were Beheaded on the Spot
Clearchus wanted to end the anxiety by having a face-to-face talk with the wily satrap. A truce talk was arranged, Tissaphernes being very agreeable to the idea. When the proposed meeting was discussed many Greeks were against the plan, for obvious reasons. In the end, Clearchus’s stubbornness won the day. The Greek truce-talk party included the tough old Spartan and four other Hellenic strategoi: Proxenus the Boeotian, Menon the Thessalian, Agias the Arcadian, and Socrates the Achaean.
About 20 captains and 200 soldiers accompanied them, the latter less a bodyguard than a group of hungry men seeking additional provisions. When they arrived in the Persian camp Tissaphernes was all smiles, cordially welcoming the generals into his tent. At the signal the strategoi were seized and the rest of their entourage put to the sword. The five captive Greek generals were dragged before Artaxerxes so the king could witness their summary execution. Four of the five were beheaded on the spot; a fifth general, also named Menon, was spared for torture and abuse. He had an unsavory reputation, so he was a special target for Persian ire. Xenophon relates he was finally killed about a year later.
A soldier named Nicharus staggered into the Greek camp, the sole survivor of the truce-talk party. A Persian sword had slashed open his abdomen, a cut so deep his bluish intestines were held in place by his own gore-soaked hands. Through blood-flecked lips the mortally wounded man told of his companions’ fate. It was obvious that Tissaphernes had dealt the Greeks a grievous blow. With their leadership gone the Hellenes might dissolve into a rabble intent only on self-preservation.
That evening the Greeks shivered in their cloaks, so depressed that few kindled campfires and fewer still bothered to eat. What were these 10,000 Europeans doing here in the heart of Asia? What were they doing a thousand miles from their Mediterranean home? Once Greek hoplites had been motivated by loyalty to their native city-state, but at least for some, profit had replaced patriotism. By 401 bc the Greeks were becoming less parochial, more cosmopolitan. Still, many of the mercenaries must have cursed the sense of adventure and lust for wealth that had brought them here. It looked like the road to an early grave.
Survival Seemed Questionable for Xenophon
Xenophon had more to regret than most. He had come along at the urging of his now-dead friend General Proxenus, even though he wasn’t a soldier and had little use for military glory. Athens had been devastated by the Peloponnesian War; half its citizen body was dead, its once-flourishing commercial empire in ruins. It certainly didn’t seem the place to be for an ambitious man, someone who wanted to make his mark in the world. Xenophon’s dreams of success faded with Cyrus’s death at Cunaxa; now even bare survival seemed questionable.
The Athenian tossed and turned in his himation cloak that he used as a blanket. Sleep was tardy, but when he did drop off he had a dream that was later interpreted as a good omen from Zeus, the father of the gods. Awakening, he hastened to describe his dream to the captains of Proxenus’s old command. Encouraged, the captains told him to repeat the tale to the surviving officers of the entire Greek army.
When all were assembled Xenophon gave the speech of his life. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, the Athenian told the officers to rise to the occasion. They should be role models for their men, inspiring the troops with their courage and resolve. If the Greeks allowed themselves to despair, the Persians had already won. Xenophon suggested that new generals be elected to replace those so treacherously murdered. The proposal was adopted, but Xenophon found himself one of five new strategoi elected to lead the men.
A council of war was convened to discuss the situation. Xenophon put on his best clothes for the occasion, feeling that such raiment would be a talisman of victory. “We have fair hopes of deliverance,” he exclaimed, and as he pronounced the word soterias, “deliverance,” a man sneezed. In the Greek world such an occurrence was not accidental, but a good omen, a message from Zeus Soter. The men instinctively began to worship in the deepest gratitude. Religion was the glue that bound this disparate mercenary force together. These were Greeks from all over the Mediterranean, and some were even lately bitter enemies in the Peloponnesian War.
But Zeus would only help those mortals who help themselves. It was now time to adopt a plan of action. Xenophon felt they should march north; the route might be long, and fraught with danger, but the country ahead gave fair promise of abundance. And if the Tigris barred their way west and the way home, they would march toward its headwaters, “For all rivers, even though they be impassible at a distance from their sources, become passable, without even wetting your knees, as you approach the sources.”
Xenophon also suggested all unnecessary baggage be discarded, including tents and wagons. Such civilized comforts would only impede the march. The hoplites would form a hollow square, in that way protecting the baggage animals and the numerous camp followers the Greeks had acquired along the way. The Greeks had no cavalry, but Xenophon insisted it was no handicap. On the contrary, as infantry the Greeks “have a surer foundation than your horsemen; they are hanging on horses’ backs afraid not only of us, but of falling off.”
In an even more jocular mood Xenophon reminded his listeners that “nobody ever lost his life in battle from the kick or bite of a horse.” This wry observation, which must have raised a laugh from his audience, was to haunt Xenophon the very next day.
200 Cavalry and 400 Archers Attacked Fiercely
A Spartan named Cheirisophus was placed in command of the vanguard, Xenophon the rear guard. The march began shortly after breakfast, the army adopting the hollow-square formation Xenophon had suggested the previous night during council. In essence the camp followers and baggage animals were protected by a four-sided “wall” of hoplite infantry.
A Persian commander named Mithradates appeared with 200 cavalry and 400 archers and slingers and launched an immediate attack. It was clear the Persians were bent on nothing less than the complete annihilation of the Greeks. Those initially spared might be tortured to death, mutilated, or simply sold into slavery. It was a grim prospect no matter how one looked at it; even Socrates, Xenophon’s old teacher in Athens (and not the murdered general), would not have been able to derive much comfort from the perilous situation the Greeks found themselves in.
Hoplites lifted their hoplons (shields) to full port in anticipation of the missile barrage to come. They were not disappointed. Stone sling bullets drummed on upturned hoplons in a murderous, noisy tattoo and arrows shattered against their bronze-faced hardness. Persian cavalry galloped forward, the riders wearing brown and white tunics and their distinctive tiara headdress. This multicolored avalanche of men and horseflesh was designed for missile offense, not shock action. Each man would hurl one or two javelins into the Greeks before retreating on swift mounts.
Xenophon’s rear guard suffered the most, being unable to mount an adequate defense. There were Cretan bowmen with Xenophon, but their bows lacked the range of Persian weapons, and they were without protective armor. Worse still, they were marching inside the hoplite square, cheek by jowl with the milling baggage animals and frightened noncombatants. Trying to aim at an unseen enemy from a chaotic crowd of braying asses and panicked civilians proved too great a task.
Incapable of standing the punishment a moment longer, the Greek rear guard pursued their tormentors. Hoplites went forward at the run, though naturally enough their heavy armor was an impediment. Their bronze helmets provided for little ventilation, and soon the searing heat of the sun and their own exertions caused cascades of sweat upon their faces.
The Persian bowmen and slingers were so far away they had a good head start on their pursuers and easily evaded them. The cavalry were mounted on swift horses, and they had the discomforting skill of being able to turn around and shoot to the rear as they retreated. Try as they might, the exhausted Greeks were unable to close with such an elusive foe.
Fighting “Fire with Fire”
That night a somewhat chastened Xenophon came in for a good deal of criticism, though there were recriminations all around. Xenophon admitted he had been rash in ordering a fruitless rear-guard pursuit, but on reflection realized a solution was within reach. The Greeks had no cavalry, and although he once scorned the mounted arm, the day’s painful experience had taught him the error of his ways. The Athenian proposed forming a kind of flying squadron of cavalry that would deal with Persian horsemen on something like their own terms. Some of the Greeks knew how to ride, and there were still a few horses with the baggage train and about the camp. The plan was adopted, and Lygius the Athenian was placed at the head of 50 Greek horsemen.
But the problem of the Persian slingers remained. Here again, Xenophon felt the Greeks had the means to fight “fire with fire.” There were a number of Greeks present who hailed from the island of Rhodes, men known throughout the ancient world for their skill with the sling. They could cast missiles farther than the Persians, and—when circumstances permitted—prefered to use lead “bullets” instead of stone. Before long a 200-man corps of Rhodian slingers was organized. Later, lead was found in some villages that provided the Rhodians with their favorite ammunition.
Xenophon’s ideas soon proved their worth. Encouraged by the success of the previous day, Mithradates promised his superior Tissaphernes that the Greeks would soon be delivered into his hands. The Persian force that attacked was much larger, 1,000 cavalry and 4,000 archers. The Hellenes soon sprung their surprise on the unsuspecting Persians, Polystratus and his horsemen riding down the startled enemy before they even knew what hit them. The Persian cavalry faired no better, and 18 of them were captured. The Greeks mutilated the Persian corpses, disfiguring them in hope of demoralizing the enemy.
There was little time for rejoicing; they might overcome the Persians, but they had yet to conquer distance. The Greek odyssey continued, the fear of battle replaced by the mind-numbing tedium of endless marching. Sweat soaked through chiton tunics; faces became grimy, dust-caked masks; and throats grew parched with thirst.
The trek took them past the ruins of a great city that Xenophon called “Mespila.” This was in fact the remains of Nineveh, once capital of the great Assyrian empire. Its crumbling battlements, now inhabited by scurrying lizards, elicited little interest from the fatigued travelers. Philosophy was a Greek passion, but exhausted minds had little time to ruminate on the fall of empires; self-preservation was the immediate concern.
The countryside began to change, and at times the road snaked through narrow ridges and rolling hills. The hollow-square formation was found wanting—when the road narrowed, the hoplites bunched together and lost all cohesion, and when it finally widened it took time to sort things out and regain original ranks.
Enough Wounded To Require Eight Surgeons
To solve the problem, a flexible hollow-square formation was adopted, necessity truly being the mother of invention. Six companies of a hundred men were formed; three companies marched in the middle of the front of the square, three in the rear. When the road narrowed, the six companies would drop back in order, allowing the square to contract without difficulty. When the road widened again, they would plug the gaps that were created and complete the square. This expanding and contracting “accordion” formation helped combat efficiency.
The Greeks now came upon a series of low hills whose natural undulations ended at a mountain in the distance. When the Hellenes ascended the first hill there was no opposition, but when they clambered down, Persians from a second hill pelted them with arrows and sling bullets. When the hoplites tried to climb the second hill, their assailants were gone before they could reach its crest. Even the nimblest Greek was helpless when encumbered by helmets and heavy hoplon shields. Greek peltasts were dispatched to climb the mountain slopes and outflank the Persians in the hills. The maneuver proved a success.
For a time one Greek division marched up and down the range of hills while another division of peltasts guarded their flanks by adopting a parallel course along the mountain slopes. These operations, while successful, were not without cost. There were so many wounded, eight surgeons were appointed to care for them.
The Greeks finally reached the headwaters of the Tigris, but found to their dismay the swift, bone-chilling waters were too deep to cross. A Rhodian came forward and announced he knew how to get across the river—for a price. He suggested a line of inflated animal skin floats fastened together like buoys, the ends firmly anchored on each bank with stones. There were plenty of goats, sheep, cattle, and asses to provide the skins, and the Rhodian insisted that once sewn and inflated each float could support the weight of two men.
The Greek leaders agreed the plan had merit; mercenaries themselves, they didn’t seem to mind the Rhodian’s “profit motive.” In the end, the plan was rejected because horsemen could be seen on the opposite bank. The Greeks would be hard put to establish the bridge of floats, much less cross by them. It was decided they would keep to this side of the river at present, continuing north into the country of the Carduchians (today’s Kurdistan). Fiercely independent, the Carduchians were a tough and savage people who had never been fully incorporated into the Persian Empire.
But just because they didn’t like the Persians didn’t mean they would ally themselves with the Greeks. On the contrary, the Carduchians would fight any outsider foolish enough to “invade” the mountain fastness of their rugged domain. But if the Greeks could successfully cross Carduchian territory, they would find themselves in Armenia, where the going would hopefully be easier. The ultimate goal would be the Euxinus (Black Sea), where a number of Greek cities managed to maintain a fragile toehold of Hellenic civilization. Once they arrived in those Greek cities they would be “home,” able to book passage on ships returning to mainland Greece or Ionia.
Xenophon’s Fighting Retreat
The march resumed, and the Greeks came upon some abandoned Carduchian villages that provided much-needed supplies. The famished soldiers took only what was absolutely necessary, purposely refraining from looting to gain the natives’ good will. But any hope of peaceful accommodation was dashed when the Carduchians fell on the rear guard, killing and wounding many.
During the melee, slate-gray clouds produced a heavy storm, a strong, slashing downpour whipped to a frenzy by gusting winds. As usual Cheirisophus commanded the van, Xenophon the rear. The rear seemed to get the worst of it, and Xenophon became so heavily engaged he sent messages to Cheirisophus asking him to halt and wait for the rear to catch up. The Spartan usually complied, but in one instance he ignored the plea and moved forward rapidly. A large gap now separated the van and the rear guard, and there was a distinct possibility that Xenophon would be cut off and annihilated.
Xenophon’s men conducted a fighting retreat and managed to link up with the van. The rear had taken casualties, including Leonymus the Laconian, killed by an arrow that somehow went through his shield and breastplate; and Basias the Arcadian, shot through the head. Xenophon sought out Cheirisophus at once, bitterly reproaching him for abandoning his comrades in the rear guard to their fate.
“Take a look at the mountains,” was Cheirisophus’s reply, “and observe how impassable all of them are. The only road is the one there … and on that you can see the great crowd of people [Carduchians] who have taken possession of it and are guarding our way out.” The Spartan continued, “That’s the reason why I would not wait for you, for I hoped to reach the pass and occupy it before they did.” Obviously the race had been lost, and they were trapped.
Or were they? Xenophon had two Carduchian prisoners taken for just such an emergency. They were brought forward and interrogated, but one of them stubbornly refused to talk. The enraged Greeks killed him on the spot, which quickly loosened the tongue of the other prisoner. Yes, the Carduchian captive admitted, there was another trail across the mountains, and he would show the way. The prisoner proved as good as his word, and after many hardships the Greeks successfully evaded the trap and pushed forward.
Nowhere to Retreat, No Way to Move Forward…
The bone-weary Hellenes reached the Centrites River (the eastern Tigris), a broad band of water stretching 200 feet across what was the boundary between the land of the Carduchians and Armenia. But before they could cross they saw masses of Armenian, Mardian, and Chaldaean mercenaries drawn up along the far bank. These were the troops of the Persian satrap Orontas, obviously sent to bar their way. The river itself was icy cold and very swift, and the Greeks realized they would have to wade the waters with hoplon shields high above their heads to protect against missile fire, an almost impossible task.
The Greeks saw great masses of Carduchian warriors clustered in the mountain slopes to their rear, just waiting for the right moment to pounce. They could not go forward, and they could not retreat; the game seemed up at last. The weary Hellenes camped for the night, many wondering what the morrow would bring. Xenpohon had another dream—or so he says—that promised salvation. In his dream the Athenian was securely bound in chains, but suddenly the fetters dropped off. Upon awakening he hastened to tell Cheirisophus, who was heartened by the tale.
Xenophon was eating breakfast when two youths came up to him with exciting news: they had stumbled upon a practicable ford. Immediately there was a libation—a ritual pouring of wine from a cup—to the god who had shown a path to freedom. The Greek army forded the river and continued the march. The territory was more level here, and they came across a palace surrounded by some villages. This palace-villa obviously belonged to an enemy potentate, so the Greeks had no qualms about sacking it from top to bottom.
Snow was falling, but the Greeks found good shelter in the villages that surrounded the ransacked villa. There were supplies in great abundance; and the men gorged themselves on dried grapes and beans, washing it down with “old wines with a fine bouquet.” It would have been nice to linger for a while, but during the night some of the Greeks saw the gleam of many campfires in the distance. Tiribazus, a Persian official under the satrap Orontas, was at their heels, forcing them to move on.
It was now late November, and heavy snows began to fall in earnest. The march resumed, taking on the qualities of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow 2,200 years later. A bitter north wind blew directly into their faces, chilling the Greeks as they plodded through the snow-drifts.
The days passed, and if the winds abated, the suffering did not. Snowdrifts reached heights of six feet, and men and animals began to perish from exposure. Even old soldiers were finding it tough going, because they were unprepared for cold weather. Much of the campaign had been on the sun-baked plains of Mesopotamia, and the Greeks had dressed accordingly. Flimsy wool tunics were inadequate, and even heavy military cloaks did little to keep out the freezing cold.
The Greeks struggled on, breath misting in great clouds of smokey vapor as they trudged through the snowdrifts. Sandals and boots left feet exposed to the elements, and many lost toes to frostbite. A great many soldiers had worn out their sandals long before, substituting freshly flayed oxhide brogans as replacement footwear. Men who kept these on overnight found that the oxhide froze on their feet, the straps biting deeply into the flesh.
Hopelessness So Severe—Some Men Lost Their Instinct for Self Preservation
The whole area was blanketed in snow, a stark whiteness so all-encompassing many Greeks succumbed to snow blindness. Rations grew so short there was barely enough to keep body and soul together. The men began to suffer from what Xenophon calls bullimia (hunger-faintness).
Xenophon had his hands full trying to keep up his men’s spirits in the face of such extreme conditions. One group of stragglers refused to leave a hot spring they happened upon, even when Xenophon warned them the enemy was close. These men had lost all hope; even the instinct for self-preservation was gone. They begged Xenophon to kill them; even death was preferable to the abject misery of the march. He refused, and later sent able-bodied men back to retrieve them.
The Greeks reached some Armenian villages that provided welcome food and shelter. More mountains blocked their way, but somehow they managed to cross these natural obstacles. They entered the country of the Taochians, a people who were generally hostile to all travelers. Several Taochian strongholds had to be stormed before the Greeks could get desperately needed supplies.
At length they arrived at a city called Gymnias. The local ruler was friendly and provided a guide for the next stage of the journey. Ragged, hollow-eyed men took heart when they realized the Black Sea was only five days from Gymnias. The epic trek was drawing to a close.
Xenophon was with the rear guard when he heard a distant shout from the head of the column. Others took up the cry, and soon thousands of voices melded together in a single exultant roar. The men were also hitting spears against their hoplons, the clatter sounding like a desperately fought battle to those in the rear. Xenophon mounted a horse to see what was the problem, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
8,000 of the Original Force of 10,000 Remained
The men were crying Thalassa! Thalassa!, “The Sea! The Sea!” Xenophon drew rein on the top of a mountain where the soldiers were clustered; it was a place that afforded a bird’s eye view of the surrounding countryside. There, clearly framed against the mountain peaks, were the waters of the Black Sea. They were saved; once they reached the Greek colony of Trapezus (now Trabzon) they could find ships to go home.
It was late January, 400 bc. Altogether the trek had taken about five months; perhaps 8,000 Greeks remained of the original force of over 10,000. The Hellenes built a stone cairn memorial on the spot where they first saw the sea. In 1997 British scholar Timothy Mitford announced he found the stone cairn still intact after so many centuries. It is located at Deveboynu Tepe, 30 miles south of today’s Trabzon. There is a magnificent view of the distant sea, which seems to clinch the discovery.
Xenophon (431-350 bc) succeeded in his return to Greece. Still a young man, he wrote of his experiences in Anabasis (“upcountry march”), sometimes also known as Anabasis Kyrou (“upcountry march of Cyrus”), one of the great adventure tales of all time. The work resonates to this day and has many lessons to teach about fortitude and improvisation. The volume brought Xenophon considerable fame and money. He then soldiered in Greece for Sparta (earning temporary exile from Athens) and wrote books on horsemanship and cavalry. He also penned memoirs of his studies with Socrates, highly valued along with Plato’s works in giving a portrait of the renowned philosopher.
These literary efforts all had their impacts, in Xenophon’s own time and through the centuries. But one effect of Anabasis was profound on world and military history: The adventure story revealed weaknesses of the Persian Empire that Alexander the Great was quick to exploit some 70 years after the events it described had taken place.