Xenophon in Mesopotamia: Part One

Today’s tale is set in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, much of Syria and parts of Turkey. The date? 405 BC. Mesopotamia is an empire which predates the written word – in fact laying claim to the first known work of literature – the Epic of Gilgamesh.

An empire credited, among a few others of simultaneously inventing the wheel. 

And an empire; because it was situated on incredibly fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, grew several of the most powerful empires of the ancient world. Their history is long, and complex – the earliest known parts pre-dating our story by over three millennia – and our own time five and a half thousand years. 

It encompasses Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Ur Empires and many more dynasties besides. It’s rulers include Ur- Nammu, who built the first law code. Hammurabi – often mistaken as the first law maker, but an important pioneer of Talionic law codes everywhere. Sargon of Akkad, a man with a mythical origin story (the illegitimate son of an unknown father and a high priestess, he was cast away in a reed basket down the Euphrates long before anyone had ever heard of Moses) and the first ruler in history to whom we can give a personal name. 

And many more. Various Rimushes, Shulgis, Rim-Sins, Kurigalzus, Nebuchadnezzars, Shamshi-Adads, Tiglath-Pilesars, Ashurbanipals, Sennacheribs, Esarhaddons and more besides… many impressive and terrifying figures. 

Which is a long-winded way of saying, when thinking of Mesopotamia, think of an ancient USA in it’s scale and dominance over other states – only the nation has been dominant for over three thousand years as the point of this Tale.  

The dynasty we’re concerned with is the Achaemenid Empire. This Persian kingdom rose to prominence in the wake of a successful war against the neighbouring Medes (believed to be the modern day Kurds) in 559 BC. Soon, their king, Cyrus was not just in charge of the entire region – but had extended the empire’s traditional borders into the Eastern Mediterranean, establishing the largest empire known to humankind to that date in the process. His son Cambyses conquered Egypt, and Cambyses son Darius in turn added much of Northern India to the club. The Tales around Xerxes, and his clashes with a little group of upstarts across the pond who invented democracy – well, much of that can be saved for another Tale. Suffice to say the Achaemenids ruled from 559 BC till Alexander the Great demolished Darius III’s army at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. 

In 405 BC Darius II was King of what was then called the Persian Empire. He ruled at a time when Egypt was successfully rebelling against them, but Athens and Sparta were at each other’s throats – and as such less a threat to his Eastern Mediterranean holdings. Unwell, he called for his sons Artaxerxes and Cyrus the younger to his bedside. 

The Greek sources don’t state what Atraxerxes did prior to his father’s passing – we know he was the dauphin, hand picked by Darius to take over the family business. Cyrus had been stationed in Lydia, modern day Turkey as the local Satrap – running the region and keeping an eye on the Greeks across the pond. Cyrus had given support, in turns to Athens, then Sparta – in the process making friends in the Greek world. His job in Lydia had come about via the displacement of his predecessor – a man called Tissaphernes. Due to the demotion of Tissaphernes, Cyrus also made a number of enemies at home. 

It should also be pointed out, he had allies who would like to see Cyrus the younger crowned in place of Artaxerxes – knowing their own position in society would receive a bump up the ladder. Others, no doubt wanted a man of action who would fight to maintain their grip on Egypt. Artaxerxes had a reputation as a ‘fair’ ruler – not a bellicose one. 

So one could imagine the arrival of Cyrus in 405 BC, with 300 Greek mercenaries in tow, caused quite a scene. 

Cyrus did attempt a coup on the eve of his brother’s coronation, which failed miserably. After much consideration King Artaxerxes pardoned his brother, reappointing him Satrap of Lydia and exiling him Thousands of miles North of Babylon. This proved foolish, and leads to the subject of today’s Tale. 

In 401 BC, Cyrus called upon his supporters, forming an army which at the least ran to tens of thousands of soldiers. A vital component of this army, ten thousand Greek mercenaries. Among this motley crew, which contained both Athenians and Spartans, a young Athenian soldier and philosopher named Xenophon. 

Xenophon

Born around 430 BC, we know precious little about Xenophon’s early life. He was born in an idyllic village outside of Athens called Erchia, to a wealthy, land owning class. He received a philosophical and martial education in line with other young gentlemen of his time, and studied under the philosopher Socrates; who he later counted as a close friend. When approached about joining the grand army Cyrus was gathering together, Xenophon sought Socrates’ advice. Socrates was a veteran of the Peloponnesian War in the 420s BC, having fought in several battles – but he was also purportedly the wisest of all men. Wise in knowing what he didn’t know, that he didn’t know if this campaign was a good idea or not – he advised his friend to seek advice at the Oracle of Delphi. The Pythia (priestess) advised Xenophon should sign up – so he did. 

It bears mention up front it was a terrible idea, but few outside of the high command knew Cyrus planned to march into Babylon. They believed they were being called on to conquer the Pisidians – a people in the South-West of modern day Turkey who thus far had remained independent, in spite of several attempts to conquer them. They suspected following this, they would be called on to defeat Tissaphernes – who had been sabre rattling for a war for a few years now. No-one suspected they would be called on to overthrow the king. 

Tissaphernes watched intently as the army rolled through the Pisidians, onwards into Lydia. He could guess, based on the size of the army, they were looking to seize power. He called on Artaxerxes to gather an even bigger army to put a stop to them.

The army rolled through Lydia, then inland to Phrygia – where Alexander would ‘untie’ the Gordian Knot centuries later. As they moved on they collected thousands more troops. Near the river Marsyas the army stopped for a month while another mercenary general, Clearchus, arrived with a thousand hoplites, eight hundred Thracian Peltasts, and two hundred Cretan archers. A Syracusian general arrived soon after with three thousand hoplites. An Arcadian with a further thousand. From there to Cilicia, near the border of modern day Syria – where the Cilician queen begrudgingly handed Cyrus a large tribute of gold – soon after handed to the army, covering four months’ worth of pay. 

Moving south, they faced a number of aggressive states. Several men were killed by locals on their way to the city of Tarsus, so the army retaliated by pillaging the city, and enslaving whoever was unlucky enough to still be there. The local king, Syennesis, brokered a peace with Cyrus – at the cost of further aid to the ever growing army.

But it was also at this point that Cyrus’ army began to realise this force was well in excess of what was needed for the mission. Many refused to go any further – judging an attack on Babylon suicidal. Some of the generals – Clearchus primarily – tried to force his men to continue, but was assaulted by the men. Hours later a tearful Clearchus made an impassioned plea to his men to continue on their mission – begging them, but stating ultimately wherever they chose to go he would follow. After some consideration, and a pay rise, the army continued on it’s way. They marched south, through rugged terrain. Often crossing massive rivers. At one Syrian fortress, where Cyrus expected a battle from the Satrap Abrocomas, they found the fort empty. Rumour had it the soldiers had all left to join up with Artaxerxes’ own growing army -already rumoured to be 300,000 strong. Further on they demolished the palace of the Satrap Belesys with little bother. 

From here they marched alongside the Euphrates, through increasingly inhospitable terrain. Not far from Babylon they reached a prosperous town named Charmande. Exhausted and running on fumes, the men made for the market for provisions. While recuperating, tensions arose between factions in the army – one of Clearchus’ men getting into a fight with one of Menon’s (a rival general) men. This soon escalated to both factions facing off against one another. 

Moving on it soon became apparent somewhere in the order of 2,000 of the enemy were travelling ahead of them, slashing and burning anything which could provide sustenance. Orontas, a relative of Cyrus, offered to take a few thousand horsemen out to track these vandals down and kill them – which Cyrus happily assented to. However, as Orontas prepared to leave, he was stopped in his tracks and arrested. A letter had just been intercepted – addressed to the King. Orontas was a spy for Artaxerxes, and had written ahead to advise he was on his way. This was sensible if he hoped not to be killed by ‘friendly fire’ from Artaxerxes’ men, but it’s interception was damning for him. Cyrus put his relative on trial before the men. He freely confessed to the treachery – was found guilty – and was led away, never to be seen again. 

Soon after, on a dusty afternoon, the two armies faced off, near the town of Cunaxa – just 70 miles North of Babylon. I’ve read varying accounts of the battle – one claiming Cyrus’ combined force of just over 110,000 was dwarfed by Artaxerxes combined forces of 1,200,000 men. Most modern sources estimate Cyrus’ army at closer to 13,000 – Artaxerxes at around 40,000. In all tellings Cyrus was heavily outnumbered. The two armies faced off against one another – Cyrus’ crew positioned with the non-Greeks on the left, the Greeks on the right – closest to the river. Cyrus positioned himself in the middle, alongside his 600 strong bodyguard. On the opposing side Artaxerxes took a middle position, amidst his 6,000 bodyguards. He similarly had his army arranged in a flank either side. 

Then, the battle was on. To quote Xenophon’s ‘Anabasis’

“…with the forward movement a certain portion of the line curved onwards in advance, with wave-like sinuosity, and the portion left behind quickened to a run… Some say they clashed their shields and spears, thereby causing terror to the horses; and before they had got within arrow shot the barbarians swerved and took to flight.”

The left wing of Artaxerxes’ army basically folded. Horses spooked at this wave of caterwauling mercenaries who had broken into a sprint towards them, and took off, riderless -mowing through their own ranks. The Hellenes, as Xenophon refers to his collection of Greeks, made quick work of the Persians who stayed to fight. They were easily outclassed. Having lost few men, the Hellenes would turn back around and enter the affray with the other wing of their army. 

The battle in the centre was a whole other story. Cyrus scanned for his brother before riding out. On reaching the front line, again Xenophon

“Attacking with his six hundred, he mastered the line of troops in front of the king, and put to flight the six thousand (bodyguards) – cutting down, as is said, with his own hand their general, Artagerses. 

But as soon as the rout (by the Hellenes, turning round and headed towards the other Persian wing) commenced, Cyrus’s own six hundred themselves, in the ardour of pursuit, were scattered, with the exception of a handful… his table companions, so called. “

Cyrus sited his brother

“Unable longer to contain himself, with a cry, “I see the man” he rushed at him and dealt a blow at his chest, wounding him through the corselet (chest-plate)”

But

“As Cyrus delivered the blow, some one struck him with a javelin under the eye severely… Cyrus himself fell”.

The man who dealt the killing blow was named Mithridates (not OUR Mithridates from several months back). Though he likely saved the King’s life, Mithridates would be put to death by scaphism – essentially tied between two boats naked, covered in milk and honey – and left prone for the insects to devour over several days – for his troubles. Artaxerxes wanted the honour of killing Cyrus so badly the poor guy couldn’t go unpunished in his view. 

Meanwhile, on the battlefield – The Hellenes, having demolished much of the opposing army, took a defensive position. The battered Persians ceded the field to the victorious mercenaries after attempting one last time to take them on. The Hellenes pursued them back to their base. They had won the battle, but with Cyrus dead – had they lost the war? They would not discover his death till the following morning. Returning to their camp they found it ransacked. They bedded down for the night. 

The following morning they were advised of Cyrus’ passing. Ariaeus – the man most likely to replace him in the event of Cyrus’s death, had fled with the Non-Greek contingent. He had no plans to wear the crown of Persia, and planned to escape before the Persians could regroup and come after then with an even bigger army. 

Later that morning, Phalinus – a Hellene in Tissaphernes employ – came with a message for the mercenaries

“The great king having won the victory and slain Cyrus, bids the Hellenes to surrender their arms; to be taken themselves to the gates of the king’s palace, and there obtain for themselves what terms they can”

The Hellenes, the Ten Thousand – as formidable and battle-hardened as they were, suddenly found themselves thousands of miles from home. Vastly outnumbered. Completely lacking in the geographical knowledge to get themselves home safely. 

Suddenly they were rudderless. Strangers in a strange, hostile land. We’ll conclude this Tale in a week’s time. If I overshoot and don’t get part two out before the 25th, Happy Holidays all. 

4 thoughts on “Xenophon in Mesopotamia: Part One

      1. thesilentwithin

        I thought he was a little dismissive of the since forever man has yearned to fly line. I know you recently did a bit on flying and parachutes.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Simone Toni Whitlow Post author

        Hmm… yeah. I liked his take on it…. But would point out people don’t need cautionary tales for things people are not thinking about – and needing to be cautioned of.
        I tell you what though, am in awe of the time he took going through each ‘cautionary tale’ as opposed to my half-arsed effort… Definitely a lesson learned there for the future – less examples, more detail.

        Liked by 1 person

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