Historical Tales: 10—Greek - Charles Morris

The Retreat Of The Ten Thousand

We have now to tell of one of the most remarkable events in Grecian history, to describe how ten thousand Greeks, who found themselves in the heart of the great Persian empire, without a leader and almost without food, marched through the land of their foes, over rugged mountains swarming with enemies, and across lofty plains covered deep with snow, until finally they reached once more their native land. Xenophon, their chosen leader, has told the story of this wonderful march in a book called the "Anabasis," and from this book we take what we have here to say.

First, how came these Greeks so far away from their home and friends? We have told elsewhere how the Persians several times invaded Greece. We have now to tell how the Greeks first invaded Persia. It happened many years afterwards. The Persian king Xerxes had long since been dead, and succeeded by his son Artaxerxes, who reigned over Persia for nearly forty years. Then came Darius Nothus, whose reign lasted nineteen years. This king had two sons, Artaxerxes and Cyrus. On his death he bequeathed the throne to Artaxerxes, while Cyrus was left satrap of a large province in Asia Minor.

Of these two sons, the new king was timid and incompetent; Cyrus was remarkably shrewd and able, and was filled with a consuming ambition. He wanted the Persian throne and knew the best means of obtaining it. He was well aware of the military ability of the Greeks. It was he who supplied the money which enabled Sparta to overthrow Athens. He now secretly enlisted a body of about thirteen thousand Greeks, promising them high pay if they would enter his service; and with these, and one hundred thousand Asiatics, he marched against his brother.

But Cyrus was too shrewd to let his purpose be known. He gave out that he was going to put down some brigand mountaineers. Then when he had got his army far eastward, he threw off the mask and started on the long march across the desert to Babyonia. The Greeks had been deceived. At first they refused to follow him on so perilous an errand, and to such a distance from home. But by liberal promises he overcame their objections, and they marched on till the heart of Babylonia was reached.

The army was now in the wonderfully fertile country between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, that rich Mesopotamian region which had been part of the Persian empire since the great cities of Nineveh and Babylon were taken by the Persians a century before. And in all this long march no enemy had been met. But now Cyrus and his followers found themselves suddenly confronted by a great Persian army, led by Artaxerxes, the king.

First a great cloud of white dust was seen in the distance. Then under it appeared on the earth a broad dark spot, which widened and deepened as it came nearer, until at length armor began to shine and spear-heads to glitter, and dense masses of troops appeared beneath the cloud. Here were great troops of cavalry, wearing white cuirasses; here a vast array of bowmen with wicker shields, spiked so that they could thrust their points into the ground and send their arrows from behind them; there a dark mass of Egyptian infantry, with long wooden shields that covered the whole body; in front of all was a row of chariots, with scythes stretching outward from the wheels, so as to mow down the ranks through which they were driven.

These scythed chariots faced the Greeks, whose ranks they were intended to break. But when the battle-shout was given, and the dense mass of Greeks rushed forward at a rapid pace, the Persians before them broke into a sudden panic and fled, the drivers of the chariots leaping wildly to the ground and joining in the flight. The horses, left to themselves, and scared by the tumult, rushed in all directions, many of them hurtling with their scythed chariots through the flying host, others coming against the Greeks, who opened their ranks to let them pass. In that part of the field the battle was won without a blow being struck or a man killed. The very presence of the Greeks had brought victory.

The great Persian army would soon have been all in flight but for an unlooked-for event. Artaxerxes, in the centre of his army, was surrounded by a body-guard of six thousand horse. Against these Cyrus, followed by six hundred horse, made an impetuous charge. So fierce was the onset that the body-guard were soon in full flight, Cyrus killing their general with his own hand. The six hundred hotly pursued their flying foe, leaving Cyrus almost alone. And now before him appeared his brother Artaxerxes, exposed by the flight of his guard.

Between these two men brotherly affection did not exist. They viewed each other as bitter enemies. So fiercely did Cyrus hate his brother that on seeing him he burst into a paroxysm of rage which robbed him of all the prudence and judgment he had so far shown. "I see the man!" be cried in tones of fury, and rushed hotly forward, followed only by the few companions who remained with him, against Artaxerxes and the strong force still with him. As Cyrus came near the king he cast his javelin so truly, and with such force, that it pierced the cuirass of Artaxerxes, and wounded him in the breast. Yet the assault of Cyrus was a mad one, and it met the end of madness. He was struck below the eye by a javelin, hurled from his horse and instantly slain; his few followers quickly sharing his fate.

The head and right hand of the slain prince were immediately cut off and held up to the view of all within sight, and the contest was proclaimed at an end. The Asiatic army of Cyrus, on learning of the fatal disaster, turned and fled. The Greeks held their own and repulsed all that came against them, in ignorance of the death of Cyrus, of which they did not hear till the next morning. The news then filled them with sorrow and dismay.

What followed must be briefly told. The position of the Greeks, much more than a thousand miles from their country, in the heart of an empire filled with foes, and in the presence of a vast hostile army, seemed hopeless. Yet they refused to surrender at the demand of the king. They were victors, not defeated men; why should they surrender? "If the king wants our arms, let him come and try to take them," they said. "Our arms are all the treasure we have left; we shall not be fools enough to hand them over to you, but shall use them to fight for your treasure."

This challenge King Artaxerxes showed no inclination to accept. Both he and his army feared the Greeks. As for the latter, they immediately began their retreat. They could not go back over the desert by which they had come, that was impossible; they therefore chose a longer road, but with more chance of food, leading up the left bank of the Tigris River and proceeding to the Euxine, or Black Sea. It was in dread and hopelessness that the solitary band began this long and perilous march, through a country of which they knew nothing, amid hosts of foes, and with the winter at hand. But they were soon to experience a new misfortune and be left in a still more hopeless state.

Their boldness had so intimidated King Artaxerxes that he sent heralds to them to treat for a truce. "Go tell the king," their general replied, "that our first business must be to fight. We have nothing to eat, and no man should talk to Greeks about a truce without first providing them with a dinner."

The result of this bold answer was that food was provided, a truce declared, and Tissaphernes, a Persian satrap, with a body of troops, undertook to conduct the Greeks out of the country. Crossing the Tigris, they marched for fifteen days up its east side, until the Great Zab River, in the country of Media, was reached. Here the treachery which Tissaphernes had all along intended was consummated. He invited Clearchus, the Greek leader, and the other generals to a conference with him in his tent, three miles from their camp. They incautiously accepted, and on arriving there were immediately seized, the captains and soldiers who had accompanied them cut down, and the generals sent in chains to the king, who ordered them all to be put to death.

This loss of their leaders threw the Greeks into despair. Ruin appeared inevitable. In the midst of a hostile country, more than a thousand miles from Grecian soil, surrounded by enemies, blocked up by deep rivers and almost impassable mountains, without guides, without provisions, without cavalry, without generals to give orders, what were they to do? A stupor of helplessness seized upon them. Few came to the evening muster; few lighted fires to cook their suppers; every man lay down to rest where he was; yet fear, anguish, and yearning for home drove sleep from every eye. The expectation of the Persians that they would now surrender seemed likely to be realized, for without a guiding head and hand there seemed to many of the disheartened host nothing else to do.

Yet they were not all in that mood. One among them, a volunteer, with no rank in the army, but with ample courage, brought back by brave words hope to their souls. This man, an Athenian, Xenophon by name, and one of the disciples of Socrates the philosopher, had an encouraging dream in the night, and at once rose, called into council the captains of the host, and advised them to select new generals to take the place of the four who had been seized. This was done, Xenophon being one of the new leaders. At daybreak the soldiers were called together, told what had been done in the night, and asked to confirm the action of their captains. This they did.

Xenophon, the orator of the army, now made them a stirring speech. He told them that they need not fear the Persians, who were cowards and traitors, as they knew. If provisions were no longer furnished them, they could take them for themselves. If rivers were to be crossed, they could march up their course and wade them where not deep. "Let us burn our baggage-wagons and tents, and carry only what is strictly needful. Above all, let us maintain discipline and obedience to commanders. Now is the time for action. If any man has anything better to suggest, let him state it. We all have but one object,—the common safety."

No one had anything better to suggest; the soldiers enthusiastically accepted Xenophon's plan of action, and soon were on the march again, with Tissaphernes, their late guide, now their open foe. They marched in a hollow oblong body, with the baggage in the centre. Here also walked the women, whom many had accompanied the army through all its career.

Crossing the Great Zab River, the Greeks continued their march, though surrounded by enemies, many of them horsemen, who cast javelins and arrows into their ranks, and fled when pursued. That night they reached some villages, bearing their wounded, who were many, and deeply discouraged. During the night the Greeks organized a small body of cavalry and two hundred Rhodian slingers, who threw leaden bullets instead of stones. The next day they were attacked by a body of four thousand confident Persians, who expected an easy victory. Yet when the few horsemen and slingers of the Greeks attacked them they fled in dismay, and many of them were killed in a ravine which they were forced to traverse.

On went the fugitives, day by day, still assailed, still repelling their foes. On the fifth day they saw a palace, around which lay many villages. To reach it they had high hills to pass, and here their enemies appeared on the summits, showering down arrows, darts, and stones. The Greeks finally dislodged them by mounting to higher points, and by night had fought their way to the villages, where they found abundance of food and wine, and where they rested for three days.

On starting again the troops of Tissaphernes annoyed them as before. They now adopted a new plan. Whenever the enemy came up they halted at some village and fought them from their camp. Each night the Persians withdrew about ten miles, lest they might be surprised when their horses were shackled and they unarmed. This custom the Greeks now took advantage of. As soon as the enemy had withdrawn to their nightly camp the march was resumed and continued for some ten miles. The distance gained gave the Greeks two days of peaceful progress before their foes came up again.

On the fourth day the Greeks saw before them a lofty hill, which must be passed, and which their enemies occupied, having got past them in the night. Their march seemed at an end, for the path that must be taken was completely commanded by the weapons of the foe. What was to be done? A conference took place between Xenophon and the Spartan Cheirisophus, his principal colleague. Xenophon perceived that from the top of a mountain near the army the hill held by the enemy might be reached.

"The best thing we can do is to gain the top of this mountain with all haste," he said; "if we are once masters of that the enemy cannot maintain themselves on the hill. You stay with the army, if you think fit, and I will go up the hill. Or you go, if you desire, and I will stay here."

"I give you your choice," answered Cheirisophus.

"Then I will go, as I am the younger man," said Xenophon.

Taking a strong force from the van of the army, Xenophon at once began to climb the hill. The enemy, seeing this movement, hastily detached a force for the same purpose. Both sides shouted encouragement to their men, and Xenophon, riding beside his troop spurred them to exertion by reminding them of their wives and children at home. And here took place one of those occurrences which gave this leader so much influence over his men.

"We are not upon equal terms, Xenophon," said Soteridas, a soldier from Sicyon, "for you are on horse-back, while I am weary from carrying my shield."

Instantly Xenophon sprang from his horse, took the man's shield from his arm, and thrust him out of the ranks, taking his place. The horseman's corselet which he wore, added to by the weight of the shield, gave him much annoyance. But he called out bravely to the men to hasten their pace.

On this the other soldiers began to abuse and stone Soteridas, making it so unpleasant for him that he was glad to ask for his shield again. Xenophon now remounted and rode as far as his horse could go, then sprang down and hastened onward on foot. Such was the speed made that they reached the summit before the foe, whereupon the enemy fled, leaving the road open to the Greeks. That evening they reached the plain beyond, where they found a village abounding in food; and in this plain, near the Tigris, many other villages were found, well filled with all sorts of provisions.

Finding it impossible to cross the Tigris in the face of the enemy, who lined its western bank, the Greeks were obliged to continue their course up its eastern side. This would bring them to the elevated table land of Armenia, but first they would have to cross the rugged Carduchian Mountains, inhabited by a tribe so fierce that they had hitherto defied all the power of Persia, and had once destroyed a Persian army of one hundred and twenty thousand men. These mountains must be crossed, but the mountaineers proved fiercely hostile. Seven days were occupied in the task, and these were days of constant battle and loss. At one pass the Carduchians rolled down such incessant masses of rocks that progress was impossible, and the Greeks were almost in despair. Fortunately a prisoner showed them a pass by which they could get above these defenders, who, on seeing themselves thus exposed, took to their heels, and left the way open to the main body of the Greek army. Glad enough were the disheartened adventurers to see once more a plain, and find themselves past these dreaded hills and on the banks of an Armenian river.

But they now had the Persians again in their front, with the Carduchians in their rear, and it was with no small difficulty that they reached the north side of this stream. In Armenia they had new perils to encounter. The winter was upon them, and the country covered with snow. Reaching at length the head-waters of the Euphrates, they waded across, and there found themselves in such deep snow and facing such fierce winds that many slaves and draught-horses died of cold, together with about thirty soldiers. Some of the men lost their sight from the snow-glare; others had their feet badly frosted; food was very scarce; the foe was in their rear. It was a miserable and woe-begone army that at length gladly reached, on the summit of some hills, a number of villages well stored with food.

In the country of the Taochians, which the fugitives next reached, the people carried off all their food into mountain strongholds, and starvation threatened the Greeks. One of these strongholds was reached, a lofty place surrounded by precipices, where great numbers of men and women, with their cattle, had assembled. Yet, strong as it was, it must be taken, or the army would be starved.

As they sought to ascend, stones came down in showers, breaking the legs and ribs of the unlucky climbers. By stratagem, however, the Greeks induced the defenders to exhaust their ammunition of stones, the soldiers pretending to advance, and then running back behind trees as the stones came crashing down. Finally several bold men made a dash for the top, others followed, and the place was won. Then came a dreadful scene. The women threw their children down the precipice, and then leaped after them. The men did the same. Æneas, a captain, seeing a richly-dressed barbarian about to throw himself down the height, caught hold of him. It was a fatal impulse of cupidity. The Taochian seized him in a fierce grasp and sprang with him over the brink, both being dashed to pieces below. Very few prisoners were made, but, what was more to the purpose of the Greeks, a large number of oxen, asses, and sheep were obtained.

At another point, where a mountain-pass had to be crossed, which could only be done by ascending the mountain by stealth at night, and so turning the position of the enemy, an amusing piece of badinage took place between Xenophon, the Athenian, and Cheirisophus, the Spartan.

"Stealing a march upon the enemy is more your trade than mine," said Xenophon. "For I understand that you, the full citizens and peers at Sparta, practise stealing from your boyhood upward, and that it is held no way base, but even honorable, to steal such things as the law does not distinctly forbid. And to the end that you may steal with the greatest effect, and take pains to do it in secret, the custom is to flog you if you are found out. Here, then, you have an excellent opportunity to display your training. Take good care that we be not found out in stealing an occupation of the mountain now before us; for if we are  found out, we shall be well beaten."

"Why, as to that," retorted Cheirisophus, good-humoredly, "you Athenians also, as I learn, are capital hands at stealing the public money, and that, too, in spite of prodigious peril to the thief. Nay, your most powerful men steal most of all, at least if it be the most powerful men among you who are raised to official command. So this is a time for you  to exhibit your training, as well as for me to exhibit mine."

Leaving the land of the Taochi, the Greeks entered that of the Chalybes, which they were seven days in passing through. All the food here was carried off, and they had to live on the cattle they had recently won. Then came the country of the Skythini, where they found villages and food. Four days more brought them to a large and flourishing city named Gymnias. They were now evidently drawing near to the sea and civilization.

In fact, the chief of this city told them that the sea was but five days' journey away, and gave them a guide who in that time would conduct them to a hill from which they could see the Euxine's distant waves. On they went, and at length, while Xenophon was driving off some natives that had attacked the rear of the column, he heard loud shouts in front. Thinking that the van had been assailed, he rode hastily forward at the head of his few cavalry, the noise increasing as he approached.

At length the sounds took shape in words. "Thalatta! Thalatta!"  ("The sea! The sea!") cried the Greeks, in tones of exultation and ecstasy. All, excited by the sound, came hurrying up to the summit, and burst into simultaneous shouts of joy as they saw, far in the distance, the gleaming waters of the long-prayed-for sea. Tears, embraces, cries of wild delight, manifested their intense feeling, and for the time being the whole army went mad with joy. The terrors of their march were at an end; they were on the verge of Grecian territory again; and with pride they felt that they had achieved an enterprise such as the world had never known before.

A few words will suffice to complete their tale. Reaching the city of Trebizond, they took ship for home. Fifteen months had passed since they set out with the army of Cyrus. After various further adventures, Xenophon led them on a pillaging expedition against the Persians of Asia Minor, paid them all richly from the plunder, and gained himself sufficient wealth to enrich him for the remainder of his days.