Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

The Retreat of the Ten Thousand

Among the pupils of Socrates was a young man named Xenophon. He went to Sardis and enlisted in the army of Cyrus the Younger. This prince intended to take the throne of Persia from his brother Artaxerxes. He deceived his soldiers by telling them that he was raising his army to fight the Pisidians. He led them against his brother, but was defeated and killed near Cunaxa, a city in the province of Babylon.

Besides his own troops, Cyrus had gathered a force of ten thousand Greeks, who now found themselves nearly fifteen hundred miles from home, in a strange country with enemies all around them.

Artaxerxes sent a messenger who ordered the Greeks to lay down their arms. They answered, "If the king thinks he is strong enough let him come and take them."

Ariaeus had taken command of the army of Cyrus. The Greek leaders wished him to claim the Persian crown and offered to fight for him, but he answered that he meant to retreat and that if the Greeks were going with him they must join him that night. This they did and the retreat of the army began. The next day Artaxerxes sent word that he was willing to make peace on equal terms. Clearchus, the Greek leader, said, "Tell your king that we must first fight with him, for we have had no breakfast and no man can talk about peace to the Greeks until they have been fed." The king sent guides to lead these men to villages where they found plenty of food.

Tissaphernes, a Persian general and friend of Artaxerxes, now came to them and offered to lead them back to Greece. They agreed and began the journey. The Persians under Ariaeus and those led by Tissaphernes were united in one army. They marched three miles ahead of the Greeks, who kept together following their own leaders. After a march of twenty days the armies halted. There had been some trouble between the Greeks and Persians, and Clearchus asked to see Tissaphernes so that an agreement might be reached. The Persian leader declared that he was friendly toward the Greeks and invited Clearchus and four other generals to visit him the next day. When they entered the Persian camp they were seized, put in irons, and sent to the court of Artaxerxes where they were soon afterwards put to death.

The Greeks were left without leaders. Xenophon, though young, was wise and brave. He called the captains together and said, "Do not give up to these barbarians; rather let us trust to our courage and skill in war and try to fight our way home." The soldiers cheered and chose Xenophon and four others to be their generals and to lead them back to Greece. Then they began their march which was to be one long battle.

At first they formed a hollow square of the heavily armed men, and in the center they put the baggage, the cattle, and the lighter armed soldiers, as well as some women and children who were with them.

Before starting they burned most of their wagons all their tents and much of their baggage. Then they ate their breakfast and moved forward.

The enemy followed them with horse soldiers and a large company of men with arrows and slings. The Greeks found their own bows would not shoot far enough to do any harm. They sent soldiers to drive away the Persians, who ran and rode so fast that the Greeks could not come near them.

Xenophon found among the Greeks some Rhodians who could use the sling, and formed them into a company. He took as many horses as could be spared from the baggage carts and put soldiers upon them. In this way he had fifty horsemen and two hundred slingers.

When the enemy attacked on the next day these Greeks blew their trumpets and charged. The Persians ran away. This happened day after day.

Xenophon then divided all his soldiers into companies of a hundred men, each company under a captain. This was better than the hollow Square, which was either broken up or badly crowded in going through narrow places.

Almost every night they camped in villages where they found plenty to eat. The Persians followed them shooting arrows and slinging stones but not doing much harm. When the Greeks reached large villages they rested several days and took care of the wounded.

In one of the marches up a mountain side, Xenophon said, "Forward, men! Up, up!"

A soldier complained, "It is very well for you to say that. You are on horseback but I can hardly drag my shield."

The general jumped down, took the man's shield from him, pushed him out of the ranks, and marched with the soldiers. The grumbler was pelted with stones until he was glad to beg Xenophon to give him the shield and mount his horse again.

They came to rivers so deep that they were forced to march many miles to find a place to cross. Mountains were climbed with the enemy rolling down huge rocks which broke the legs or ribs of those whom they struck.

In the highlands of Armenia a great snowstorm came on and the ground was covered to a depth of six feet. Many cattle and prisoners and thirty soldiers died. Some lost their eyesight; others had their feet frozen so that they could not walk. It was a time of dreadful suffering, but all who were able marched on for that was the only way of escape.

At last they reached a country where the king gave them a guide who promised to show them the sea. Day after day he led them up among the mountains until they reached a very high point. The first who climbed it raised a great shout and officers and men hurried from every side. There far away, sparkling in the sunshine, lay the blue water. "The Sea! The Sea!" they cried. Tears were in their eyes, brave soldiers though they were. They shook hands and hugged each other in their delight.

Return of the 10,000


Marching down from the mountains they reached, after some days, Trebizond, a Greek city on the Black Sea.

They stayed there thirty days, resting and holding games and sacrificing to their gods. They, ran, they wrestled, they boxed, they raced horses down the hills and up again.

They could not find ships enough for all, but on those they did get they put the sick and weak, while the stronger marched by land and at last they reached home.

Eight thousand six hundred were left of the ten thousand. They had been a year and three months on that long journey from distant Babylon to their own land.

War was their trade and they could not be happy at anything else. So most of them enlisted under a general who was making war for Sparta against the Persians. They thus had the satisfaction of again fighting their old enemies.

Xenophon, who lived to be a very old man, wrote the history of the retreat from Persia. He was also the author of other interesting books, in one of which he has given us his recollections of his famous teacher Socrates.