Thalassa! Thalassa!, the legendary cry of excitement uttered by Greek mercenaries when they saw the sea, which could put an end to their painful retreat by Persian land and return them safely to their homeland, is now a classic phrase that metaphorizes that Hellenic world so closely linked to the great blue and could very well serve as a subtitle to the work in which Xenophon immortalized it, the Anabasis. But, even though narrated in literary style, his account is historical and he himself only recounts his personal experience, since he took part – and was one of the generals – in the known as the Retreat (or Expedition) of the Ten Thousand.

Let’s start from the beginning and using the words with which Xenophon himself begins the Anabasis and which say: Darius and Paristadide had two sons: the elder, Artaxerxes; the younger, Cyrus. The phrase refers to Darius II, illegitimate son of Artaxerxes I and Cosmartidene of Babylon, who originally was called Oco and seized the throne of Persia after overthrowing and killing his stepbrother Sogdianus (who in turn, had done the same with his brother Xerxes II). These fratricidal succession struggles were common and, in fact, when Darius died in 404 BC his offspring also engaged in one.

The monarch was married to several women and had numerous offspring, but the legitimate heir was Arsicas, whom he had with his wife Paristadide (or Paristatis) and who upon being crowned changed his name to Artaxerxes II. But his younger brother, Cyrus the Younger, whom Plutarch describes as stubborn and vehement, was not satisfied with his satrapies of Lydia, Phrygia, and Cappadocia; Tissaphernes, satrap of Caria and his alleged friend, denounced him for conspiring and he only escaped death thanks to the plea of his mother, who according to Xenophon loved him more than King Artaxerxes. It was a mistake because, as Plutarch recounts, his resentment made him desire the kingdom more eagerly than before.

The sovereign got rid of Cyrus by sending him to Sardis, a city in Ionia, a region that although it was within Persian territory (in present-day Turkey) was dotted with cities of Greek culture. Sending him there was another mistake, as it facilitated his contact with Lysander, a Spartan general with whom he had previously formed a friendship to such an extent that he funded Sparta’s war against Athens (despite Darius II’s policy being more of neutrality) and who now showed himself willing to return the favor by helping him dethrone his brother.

Lysander had just won the naval triumph at Aegospotami (405 BC), which granted Sparta hegemony over Greece and marked the end of the Peloponnesian War the following year. The victorious city was in a position to provide troops to Cyrus, albeit unofficially to avoid escalation, as Athens was not destroyed but incorporated into its domains with the same friends and enemies. Thus, it opted to send seven hundred volunteers, who joined an army of mercenaries in which many veteran hoplites of the Peloponnesian War enlisted, wishing to continue their military life. Not only Spartans but also from other places in Greece and Ionia.

We’re talking about the famous Ten Thousand – actually more, around eleven or twelve thousand – formed by contingents from Sparta, Athens, Crete, Arcadia, Boeotia, Achaea, Thrace, Thessaly, Crete, and Syracuse, plus additional units from Syria and the Ionian cities, each with its own general and all under the command of Clearchus, a former Spartan governor of Byzantium (who had been exiled for treason). The bulk consisted of hoplites (heavy infantry), although there were also two and a half thousand peltasts (light infantry) and two hundred Cretan archers.

With naval support from thirty-five triremes commanded by Pythagoras (not to be confused with the mathematician of the same name) and twenty-five under the command of the Egyptian Tamos, the Greek soldiers joined Cyrus’s Persian army, which according to Xenophon totaled another fifty thousand men although experts reduce its number to a quarter. Then they set out to, officially, suppress a rebellion in the region of Pisidia, which had sided with Tissaphernes in the war he waged with Cyrus for control of the border territories of Ionia. A conflict in which Artaxerxes II did not want to take sides as long as he continued to receive his corresponding tributes.

Tissaphernes, belonging to the high nobility (he was the grandson of Hidarnes, one of the satraps who brought Darius I to power, in turn the great-grandfather of Artaxerxes II), had also collaborated with Cyrus and Pharnabazus II (the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia) in aiding Sparta during the Peloponnesian War; in fact, it was he who welcomed the Athenian general Alcibiades when he fled to Persia accused of sacrilege. His confrontation with Cyrus stemmed from the fact that the latter had been given the satrapies of Lydia, Phrygia, and Cappadocia to the detriment of Tissaphernes, who was only left in charge of the Ionian cities.

So, as soon as he learned that his rival was planning a coup, Tissaphernes rushed to warn the king and he began to gather his army in a hurry, which was no easy task considering that it was composed of troops sent from all corners of such a vast empire as the Achaemenid. Meanwhile, Cyrus continued to advance with no more opposition than that presented by the Greeks when they reached Tarsus and learned of the true objective for which they had been hired: to seize the throne from the monarch and hand it over to him. Initially, they felt deceived, but the promise of good pay and rich spoils made them change their minds.

After all, their perception of Cyrus was very positive, as Xenophon expresses:

…nothing in his behavior stood out more than the importance he attached to faithfully fulfilling any treaty or pact or commitment made with others. He would not tell lies to anyone. Without doubt, that was how he gained the trust of both individuals and communities entrusted to his care; or in the event of hostility, a treaty made with Cyrus was sufficient guarantee for the combatant that nothing contrary to its terms would be suffered.

And he insists on highlighting the noble qualities of Cyrus and why he was so appreciated by the troops:

Many were the gifts bestowed upon him, for many and diverse reasons; perhaps no man has ever received more; certainly, no one was more willing to grant them to others, taking into account the taste of each, to satisfy what he considered the individual requirement. Many of these gifts were sent to him to serve as personal adornments of the body or for battle; and regarding this, he said: ‘How am I going to adorn myself with all this? In my opinion, the principal adornment of a man is the adornment of nobly adorned friends’ (…) Or, perhaps, there was a great shortage of fodder when, thanks to the number of his servants and his careful foresight, he was able to obtain provisions for himself; at those times he would send his friends in different places, asking them to feed their horses with his hay, since it would not be good for the horses carrying his friends to die of hunger. Then, on any march or long expedition, where the multitude of spectators was large, he would call his friends and entertain them with serious conversations, as if saying to them: ‘I delight in honoring you.’

Xenophon, by the way, was an Athenian. He was born into a wealthy family, of the equestrian class, and in his youth he attended events of great significance for the city such as the return of Alcibiades or the fall of the Thirty Tyrants. He joined the Ten Thousand in Ephesus at the urging of one of their captains, the Theban Proxenus of Boeotia, a friend of his. Before that, he sought advice from his teacher Socrates, who referred him to consult the oracle of Delphi. He did not ask the Pythia whether to accept Proxenus’s proposal, but which gods he should pray to and make sacrifices to in order to return alive and with good fortune, something that the philosopher would later reproach him for considering it a falsehood.

The fact is that Xenophon, who was then twenty-five years old, found himself immersed in an extraordinary adventure with which to distance himself from the unhealthy political atmosphere of Athens in 401 BC. And the first great episode of that adventure was the battle of Cunaxa, in which the forces of Cyrus finally faced those of Artaxerxes and which, in the end, would prove decisive for all. Cunaxa (modern-day Tell Kuneise) was a village located next to the river Euphrates, about sixty kilometers from Babylon. There, a clash would take place that had acquired colossal dimensions according to classical sources.

Xenophon recounts that the king had finally gathered around a million and a quarter of troops, a number that modern historians reduce to about a hundred and twenty or a hundred and thirty thousand. In front of them were the ten thousand Greeks (which we previously said would be twelve and a half thousand) and about forty thousand Persians under the command of the general Ariaios, totaling about sixty thousand men. Some experts halve the figures of both (sixty thousand and thirty thousand, respectively). The fact is that Cyrus could barely cover half of the enemy front, although in practice it was balanced because the Greek hoplites were much superior to the Persian soldiers.

They were divided into three bodies. Artaxerxes directed the center, where his magnificent cavalry was, leaving the right for the light infantry and the left, the most powerful, made up of Median infantrymen, chariots, and Tissaphernes’ heavy cavalry. In front of this, Cyrus placed Clearco’s mercenaries, whose right flank was protected by the course of the Euphrates and, predictably, were going to bear the brunt of the combat (something that his brother also foresaw, hence he assigned Tissaphernes to reinforce that area). Indeed, Cyrus ordered Clearco to advance towards the center to attack the king directly… and was surprised because the Greek refused.

The reason given was that leaving that position weakened them, as they lost the protection of the river on the right (in the phalanx formation, the hoplites held their shields with the left arm) and left the enemy cavalry free to attack, against which they were the only ones capable of stopping them.

So instead of attacking the center, they attacked the enemy in front of them and scattered them, causing them to flee and annihilating them in the midst of a general rout. However, Artaxerxes’ troops fought much better on the other wings, with their light cavalry trying to surround the enemy army.

Seeing the danger, Cyrus charged directly against the center at the head of six hundred horsemen, seeking to kill his brother and win the battle in a surprise attack. He was almost successful – he even wounded him slightly, later being treated by the Carian Ctesias, who besides being a physician was a historian and wrote a History of Persia or Persica – but he ended up failing against the enemy’s overwhelming numbers… and received a spear thrust from the king’s personal bodyguard, a man named Mithridates, ancestor of the kings of Pontus Euxinus, who paradoxically was condemned to death for having deprived the king of the glory of killing his enemy. In his Parallel Lives, Plutarch recounts that he was executed by scaphism:

The king Artaxerxes II, therefore, ordered Mithridates to be put to death, having him die by scaphism, which is done in this way: two wooden boats that fit exactly into each other are taken, and lying supine on one of them to the one who is to be punished, the other is brought and adjusted in such a way that only the head, hands, and feet are left outside, covering everything else of the body, and in this arrangement they feed him, if he does not want to, they force him by poking his eyes; after eating, they give him honey and milk mixed, pouring them into his mouth and spilling them over his face: then they constantly expose him to the sun, so that it shines in his eyes, and the whole face is covered with an infinity of flies. Because when it is seen that the man is already dead, the upper boat is removed and the eaten flesh is found, and inside there are swarms of those insects attached and fattened in them. Consumed in this way, Mithridates barely died on the seventeenth day.

Ironically, Mithridates had rendered a great service to the ungrateful monarch, as Cyrus’ death meant a reversal of the battle’s course. As was customary, fear spread among his soldiers upon seeing that their lord had fallen and, faced with the danger of their disintegration, Ariaios had to order a general retreat, which turned into a disorganized flight. Only the experienced Greek phalanx maintained its position, easily resisting the enemy’s assaults but being surrounded and cut off from their camp – and, therefore, from provisions – by Tissaphernes’ cavalry.

The hoplites made their way back there with the idea of also retreating, but the pressure from Artaxerxes’ forces forced them to regroup and counterattack, causing panic among the Persians and making them flee in the midst of chaos. The king himself chose to leave hastily while the Hellenes pursued him; nightfall came to his aid because Clearco, wisely, ordered them to return to camp. Thus ended that battle which turned into a Persian massacre; if we believe Xenophon, the Greeks only suffered one wounded, but it was one of the most useless victories in History because they had lost their cause.

Now everyone had a problem. The mercenaries lacked a lord and Ariaios rejected their offer to crown him because he was not of royal blood and would find no support among his own, just as Tissaphernes refused to hire them and they didn’t know how to get out of the hornet’s nest they had gotten into, in the heart of the Achaemenid Empire. Nor was the outlook promising for Artaxerxes, with an almost invincible enemy army on his soil. Finally, they agreed that Tissaphernes would provide them with provisions, accompanying them to their camp by the Tigris, where they would negotiate what to do.

It was a trap. The Greek commanders accepted his invitation to a banquet in his tent and he made them prisoners, sending them before Artaxerxes, who ordered their execution; among the fallen were Clearco and Proxenus, in addition to Menon, Agias, and Socrates (not the philosopher). The Ten Thousand were left without leaders, so they had to choose new ones: the Achaeans Janticles and Philesius, the Orchomenian Cleanor, and the Dardanian Timasion. As commander-in-chief, the Spartan Cheirisophus was appointed, who had been in charge of conveying the mercenary support to Ariaios, which in practice he shared with Xenophon.

It was the latter who plotted a route for the retreat to the north. The march was not easy at all because, once the Persians’ intentions were revealed, they had to endure their continuous harassment attacks. The delicate situation was saved thanks to the good understanding between Cheirisophus and Xenophon, with the former in command of the vanguard and the latter of the rearguard. Diodorus Siculus recounts that their only argument throughout the journey was caused because, in a fit of anger, the Spartan struck the Armenian who served as their guide, causing him to leave. Because, indeed, the Ten Thousand had reached Armenia after crossing Syria and Babylonia facing endless dangers and adventures.

Cavalry and archer units had to be improvised to face those of Tissaphernes; unheard-of plans had to be devised to cross rivers (building a bridge with the inflated and stitched skins of hundreds of sacrificed animals); they had to lay waste to all the villages and crops they found to deprive their pursuers of provisions; endure the cold and intense snowfalls of the Armenian winter without warm clothing; thwart the guerrilla attacks of the indomitable Carducian natives (who had already resisted the Persian conquest attempt and whom Xenophon deceived by sounding trumpets to push them into a trap in a pass); assault a wooden fort with a cunning ruse…

Nor were there any lack of open confrontations with the Persians. In one of them, they tried to block the passage of the Greeks by the Centrites River and were crushed by the phalanx, which carried out what is considered one of the first depth attacks, twenty-three years after the one carried out by the Thebans against the Athenians in the battle of Delium and three decades before the most famous one carried out by Epaminondas in Leuctra against the League of the Peloponnese. The victory opened the way for the Ten Thousand to Colchis, where they also had to overcome the hostile locals, and from there they went to Trebizond.

There, from the top of Mount Teches, they finally glimpsed the Black Sea, a symbol of hope for any Greek -the term thalassocracy is not applied to them for nothing- after so long seeing land, mountains, and deserts. However, to return home they needed ships and Cheirisophus traveled to Byzantium to try to acquire them, knowing that the navarch (admiral) of his fleet, Anaxibius, was a Spartan like him. However, there was no agreement and that wandering mercenary army had to continue on foot, either plundering the enemy cities controlled by the satrap Pharnabazus, or receiving help from the Ionians (Trebizond, Heraclea, Sinope).

Pharnabazus, fearing that they would take away Hellespont Phrygia, persuaded Anaxibius to hire the mercenaries – paying the Persian – and thus remove them from his territory. And so it was that the Greeks arrived in Byzantium, where they were not allowed to enter and were ordered to camp on the outskirts. They understood that it was all a setup to not give them the agreed money and entered by force, looting everything in their path. Xenophon managed to calm them down and, once order was restored, they set off for Thrace. Anaxibius, by the way, would try to make them return when Pharnabaces refused to pay him, but it was already too late.

The army was then scattered into groups. Xenophon had relinquished command for not being a Spartan and since Cheirisophus lacked his charisma, he couldn’t prevent the Achaean and Arcadian soldiers from acting on their own, raiding the towns they found along their way through Paphlagonia and earning such a bad reputation that even the Greek cities refused to receive them. They were mercenaries, after all; none wanted to return home empty-handed. There was even a rumor that Xenophon planned to found a colony in Asia Minor, something he had to deny himself in an assembly.

So they rented their services, first to the Thracian Seuthes II and then to the Spartan Thibron, who wanted to defend Ionia from the attacks that had been resumed by Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus in the context of the new war between Persia and Sparta. By then, the Ten Thousand were only such in name, since half of them were no longer there. Those who remained went to Pergamon and it was there that Xenophon handed over command to Thibron for not being Spartan. It is in Pergamon, in 399 BC, where the Athenian brings the Anabasis to an end, although the army -him included- still fought in several battles during the following five years as part of King Agesilaus’ Spartan force.

The conflict ended in 394 BC with the independence of Ionian Greece. Xenophon became a hero to Sparta, but his native Athens reproached him and exiled him for it, settling in Scillus, near Olympia, for twenty-three years. In 371 the Eleans confiscated his estate and he had to settle in Corinth, where he died the same year. But there is no better way to end than to resort to the words of the great protagonist of this epic historical episode:

The whole march, between going and returning, was made in two hundred and fifteen days, covering a distance of one thousand one hundred and fifty parasangs [leagues], or thirty-four thousand six hundred and fifty stadia; between going and returning the march lasted a year and three months.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on February 16, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La Expedición de los Diez Mil, los griegos que se internaron en el corazón del Imperio Persa cien años antes que Alejandro


Jenofonte, Anábasis. La retirada de los diez mil | Jenofonte, Ciropedia | Plutarco, Vidas paralelas. Artajerjes | Plutarco, Vidas paralelas. Lisandro | Diodoro de Sicilia, Biblioteca histórica | Karl Witt, The retreat of the Ten Thousand | Wikipedia

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