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Anabasis, Eye witness report, written early -4th century by the Athenian Xenophon, of a 100,000 head rebellious Persian military campaign, marching from the Aegean East coast all the way to the Persian Capital Babylon, and the return of 10,000 Greek mercenaries after defeat.

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A Military Campaign

What misery it must have been for those people living 2400 years ago along the route of Persian prince Cyrus’ monster army, marching from the East Aegean Sea coast to Babylon in order to oust Cyrus’ brother, king Artaxerxes.

The start of a new section of the eye-witness report I am reading typically goes like this: “and then we travelled 20 parasangs [5.3 km, an hour’s march] and reached a good area with many inhabited villages and much cattle”. Provision need for Cyrus’ army per day should have been roughly 50 tons of meat, 50 tons of grain, 50 tons of onions, 15 tons of garlic, or its caloric equivalent. I would rather not go into graphic detail about the state this army would leave such an area behind. Let me just do the calculation and leave the rest to you imagination: suppose the “good area” harboured a tribe of 5,000 and the army would stay there for four days only. The stock consumed of such a tribe would amount to

4 * 100,000 / 5,000 = 80 days

That is an amount of food that was planned to maintain that tribe for 80 days or almost a quarter of a year.  And those would be winter days, because from mid winter to late summer harvest time, such stocks would not be available. An 80 days food stock would only be there right after harvest time, when the tribe has prepared its winter stocks, so armies typically marched in autumn, as they did until well after Napoleon’s time.

So after the army is gone the tribe is left with winter coming and no food.

Great Men of History, like Cyrus, Alcibiades, Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon and what have you, were worse than winter itself, even worse than overexigent feudal lords. Any passing of such Great Heroes meant winter death of all except who would be taken (virgins, boys, the latter far from only popular with the Greek) or accepted by the army. That is also why we see my eye-witness reporter, when showing himself satisfied with what appeared at the horizon, employ the expression “inhabited villages”. They were not the first army passing.

It was undoable to collect in stealth an army of 100,000, even if the build-up happened scattered. Cyrus handsomely tried but failed. His brother Artaxerxes, who already once was about to kill Cyrus, but got prevented by their mother, got air of it in Babylon and understood the purpose.

Cyrus’ army included 10,000 Greek mercenaries, in good mood, led to expect few worries and good booty, by being left, like the rest of the army, in limbo about the aim of the march. And our dear esteemed reporter, a “guest” of Proxenus, a Greek general. Tourist! Enjoying the landscape and dining with his host, prince and the rest of the general staff. The name’s Xenophon, in his thirties,  rumoured to have been one of Socrates’ boyfriends when a minor, at least having shown by some of his writing to have profoundly internalized Socrates’ teachings. Later he writes even to have taken Socrates’ advice when embarking on the trip.

Such reading, nowadays prohibited at schools I hope, was given to me on my gymnasium for its lofty display the Greek Roots of Our Civilization – and now, in the end, I have restarted thinking they were right after all. (Let me honestly add that our teacher rightly thought of Xenophon’s Anabasis as a nice, clear and simple first reader in Greek.)

Also, they tore out nails and teeth, and cut arms, legs and balls: when the army would kidnap you, as a local, to show the way through some area, you knew you were lost, since sooner or later you would cease to know the road, which your captors would not be ready to believe until after decent torture that would leave you dead.

Shortly after, few would remember exactly where those virgins, boys and new soldiers had entered the army. Sucked into the Eastward moving monster-machine they liked to forget it themselves: the hostage syndrome, another brilliant ruse of nature, refined in Darwinian evolution to become a boost of mankind’s competitiveness in Nature. Who would not be ready to forget his family facing this awesome food security and formidable protection? Follow our leader, here we go!

What first amazed me in the Cyrus-Xenophon landscape, but generally in that of Antiquity is that, technically, there is no necessity at all for war (defined as struggle between groups of the same species): there was plenty arable land everywhere. For thousands of years, people could have continued farming in peace by extending over good “virgin” land. Yet, the smarter guys shun the farming career, train themselves as fighters and warlords, inviting themselves and their armies for dinner at the homesteads of peasants. That in turn prompts a competition in that parasitic trade, triggering heroic battles of some warlords against others, and all that. Hundreds of thousands of people die while the earth’s crust, then so much more beautiful than it is now, had more than plenty to feed everybody peacefully, in a way that would not overstretch anybody’s energy.

But leave those errand thoughts: who has them only sees his own incapability of understanding human nature as codified in the human genome and consistently revealed in the gruesome history of jewry, christianity and islam. We are not built to deal with each other as peaceful cows.

Warlords consume people, their wheat and their cattle. The vacated arable developed land will soon be discovered by others and taken into use. Then after a year or two you can come back to “harvest”.

Have you heard that argument in political land ownership disagreements: “We were here first?”. Then now you know the answer: “If that is so you are lucky you’re still alive”.

The rhetoric is that of heroism, bravery and nobility, rewarding good with good and bad with deserved demise. From Homer’s Iliad till well after Napoleon’s Russia campaign.

Just in case any anger pops up in you, it helps when we just face it: you and me are just two specimens of the species. Its scientific name is Homo sapiens sapiens.

Resignation hence is appropriate. And detached observation. And independent thinking.

Truth Revealed, Battle Lost

When half way the army learns the true mission, that makes for a crisis: among the Greek soldiers the mood is to go home. Clearchus, pretending to keep their side, thus to be in conflict with Cyrus, cunningly reconciles them, though that needs a wage rise.

More distressing news trickles through about Babylonian army build up and neighbouring armies joining. Cyrus in problems sustaining the bravery of his soldiers. And a row in the army between the Thessalians and the Spartans, almost leading to a small Greek battle, barely controlled by Cyrus. Then still far from Babylon, trails of some 1000 enemy horses explain why henceforth al fields and villages passed are burnt. A warlord at Cyrus’ side, starting to feel the enemy party now was better to be part of, offers to grab the enemy platoon, got sent, planned to defect, gets betrayed, arrested, returned home, court-martialed, sentenced to death and killed, though Xenophon feels unsure: the last time seen he was still alive and nobody ever saw him again.

Now, if Xenophon is right, we sense the reason for the hesitation of the soldiers: Xenophon quotes a million for the enemy army! But we should simply not believe this, for we go into:


A Cyrus piercing the enemy lines towards his brother, wounding him before getting killed himself also has the distinctive smell of a Homeric rat.

So, we shall never know how, but the “noble” prince Cyrus died. At Babylon, the highest civilization of the time. The Greek suffered only few casualties. The aftermath cat-and-mouse end game of the following days is in the river estuary where, like in Dutch history, the military defense makes use of highly controlled local inundations.

There the able, cunning and, Xenophon holds, treacherous generals of Artaxerxes manage to divide the remnants of Cyrus’ army and murder the complete army-top of the Greek, invited for a cordial dinner, one escaping on horse-back, holding his entrails to prevent them from dangling behind him, to home the message. The dead include Xenophon’s host Proxenus and the brilliant and charismatic Spartan commander Clearchus.

The Greeks end up at the far side of both big Mesopotamian rivers, that is, on the left (East) bank of the Tigris.

Xenophon Takes Return Trip Leadership

Xenophon takes over, but not after a decent dream sent by Zeus the God of gods, that he manages – to the modern reader’s surprise – to interpret in this vein.

There he is, philosopher’s boyfriend with 10,000 Greek desperadoes. An impressive army, enough to, say, conquer Egypt (in post battle negotiations, Artaxerxes declined their serious offer to do so). But the monster needs food. Every day 5 tons of meat, 5 tons of grain, 5 tons of onions, 1.5 tons of garlic, or its caloric equivalent.

Fortunately for Xenophon, also some experienced generals with insufficient rank, leverage or naivety to join the fatal dinner, survived. No wage, no booty. Home. But how? They decide to go North (NOT the same way back of course: scorched earth, no food).

Tissaphernes, satrap in the West, neighbour of the Greek, leading his men, taken East to help Artaxerxes vanquish his brother, back home, is erroneously, in my view, not instructed to chase the 10,000, obviously on the same route, before him as fast as he can, thus minimizing damage, but instead harassing and blocking them. Pushed on the back foot in this operation Tissaphernes even starts burning villages to avoid Greek acquisition of provisions. A smart idea? Knowing both armies in the same boat, the Greek consider to do some burning of their own and compete a bit in empty stomach fighting to bring Tissaphernes to reason.

Simply halting should do it as well, I would think, though nobody considers it: Tissaphernes’ boys want home, and for want of provisions no army can stay on the same place. But whatever, this is the last time we hear of Tissaphernes. Up-mountain towards the water shed we face a local tribes defending themselves by cunningly doing the wrong thing: obstructing the Greeks, who had no option but to march on at any cost, even if few would survive.

Command seems to require rhetorical persuasion, at least Xenophon loves it. Since he got in charge he could report his own speeches instead of others’. Brilliant, well composed treatises about which option will be the one to acquire provisions, security against the enemy and good progress towards the motherland. Proud of his professional persuasion, proudly revealing to us readers that in private he often entertains motives different from the ones ornamenting his speeches.

Another absolutely required leadership skill in those times was the dissection of entrails. Their colours contain the messages of the gods: attack or evade? Make the alliance or shun it? Sometimes an oral colour report is mistrusted by the soldiers, and the whole thing had to be publicly redone, invariably with resounding consistent results.

Xenophon depicts himself as a humble but born leader, well able to steer 10,000 scary desperadoes. What man he wants to be seen to be is read in all necrologies he unfortunately already had to write thus far in the book – we have been dying like rats. The necrology of Cyrus is the loftiest, though at our multi-millennium distance it can’t prevent us from judging Cyrus – like all others – the thug he should be to be capable of doing what he did: elsewhere in the book Xenophon shows himself perfectly aware of what is the real supreme quality of any top leader: to be able to display intentions, make promises and even take oaths with the total body language of someone who is serious, and be able to reassume such trust generating body language whenever in the company of anyone who not (yet) operationally needs the knowledge of his well-designed intentions of breach; and the ability to fathom any counterpart in agreements trying to do the same. But this is nowhere to be found in his ridiculous necrologies. O! Those human front lobes!

Fighting left and right, climbing Northward, out of the basin of the Euphrates and Tigris the Greeks get well above the 2000 m level, bare legged through blinding snow, towards the water shed. Not a small high mountain section: 120 km or so, mountains there really only start going over in downslopes at 50 km from the Black Sea. We’re still far from there.

Kurds and Armenians already there (Turks will need another small millennium to arrive). Another enemy pass-block. Now it has become routine. Calmly Xenophon proposes to circumvent the pass by “stealing a march”, playfully challenging general Cheirisophus, whom he claims, being a Spartan should be the best thief of them two. Cheirisophus, with equally playful force, argues, from his good knowledge of Athenian life, that Xenophon, since he is Athenian, no doubt has that honour.

A number of hostile and less hostile tribe encounters later they approach the coast of the Black Sea, were the climate is bearable again. And there it is! “Thalassa! Thalassa!” (“The sea! The sea”), is a famous string of the book. Right there is Trapezus, the first Greek colony.

Back in The Greek World

In Trapezus Cheirisophus sails off to get transport ships from his fellow-Spartan, the Spartan high admiral Anaxibius, who happened to be at Byzantium.

Meanwhile Xenophon waits with the rest, organizing systematic looting expeditions to non-Greek settlements in the vicinity for provisions and capturing trade ships at sea, an backup-source for sea transport of the troops, using war ships borrowed from the Trapezians. One borrowed ship sneaked out with its crew, another captured quite some ships which they use to earn some money by entering the business of local sea transport.

Here Xenophon and the 10,000 have to thoroughly rethink themselves, for the rules of bounty and danger change: though still only approaching along the Asian coast, we are no longer simply surviving, this is trickier: we enter Greek politics. The Greek are dangerous to extort, and many of the non-Greek tribes they now pass on the way are Spartan allies or at least allies of Spartan allies. We deal with officials knowing wide areas, having smooth communication and capable, by lie or truth, to remotely set in motion against you invincible chunks of military power. But worst of all: they rule the place where you’re heading with all means: home.

And of course things were bound to get tight at Trapezus at short notice: provisions went rapidly down, looting targets ever more remote. Hunger. More trouble to keep your hands of nearby tribes friendly to Trapezus that should be spared for diplomatic reasons. And still no Cheirisophus with ships. Then they can’t hold any longer, march, row and sail with the few ships they have, Westward along other Greek coastal colonies, each of them situated isolated between local tribes, lootable, but clients of formidable Persia. If some of them have enough leverage we’re all dead.

Naturally, the Greek harbour towns have no reason whatsoever to be less worried than other towns about the news of the 10,000 approaching. Though your boy and daughter may be (may be) safer, your food gets swallowed just as fast. Some Greek towns shrewdly provision the 10,000 on the condition they massacre some unfriendly neighbouring tribes. That’s done then, with wise company to show our 10,000 the subtle local distinctions between friend and foe. Meanwhile Cheirisophus is back, a good fellow indeed, since he is empty handed. Other smart Greek cities manage to keep most of their provisions by providing fast ships to sail on, on the condition that our numerous murky company boards immediately, al citizens praising the gods for the Easterly winds.

Meanwhile the soldiers see much they desire, could not care less, and must be energetically withheld from looting. Murmuring raises it ugly head. Moreover danger is down, so we have time to come back to the scores we had to settle among each other.

Some soldiers consider to start their own business as independent warlord, conspiracies form agains Xenophon himself. The 10,000 split in ethnic factions. Arcadians and Achaeans, then Spartans under Neon, who gradually takes over from Spartan general Cheirisophus, ill and about to die. And a rest under Xenophon that he wisely refuses to characterize ethnically. As you would guess, the Spartan faction breaks solidly through to Calpe, 100 km from Byzantium. The Arcadian-Achaean faction gets thoroughly beaten while looting, and is rescued by Xenophon – only because he feels he could not survive without them. They swear to have learned their lesson. O, we are intimate friends again, for now a total demise against Bithynians and elite cavalry of Persian satrap Pharnabasus is a real possibility.

Total misery: we ran out of food. Moreover the colour of sacrifice animal intestines is unsuitable for attack. They keep trying until all animals are eaten: no more sacifice, network with the gods down. Chased from at their last meal, if it may be called a meal, by attacking Bithynians. This looks ugly indeed.

But lo and behold! Heraclea, a Greek town they have been firmly ad odds with, brings some emergency aid. Including animals, so we even can sacrifice again! And the colour of intestines is … positive!

Looting goes best with some food in your body. And we need to bury a lot of dead Arcadians and Achaeans. A lot of energy wasted, but yet you do it.

The huge enemy prepares but there is no way back. We beat ourselves through and reach “our” Spartan contingent in Calpe.

There we all wait for Byzantian governor Cleander’s boats.

Cleander appears. With two (yes 2) war ships. No transport ships. His staff includes Dexippus, the deserter who stole one of the two warships borrowed by the 10,000 from the Trapezans to do some piracy, and sailed of to Byzantium. And Dexippus had told Cleander a fine story.

After some frightful expert intrigue from both sides Xenophon is intimate friends with Cleander and we do not hear about Dexippus anymore.

We do a last round of looting and make a market at Chrysopolis, opposite Byzantium at the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus, to sell the booty.

The Byzantium Predicament

Byzantium, Europe at swim distance. And we’ve just finished three quarters of the book.

Byzantium. Later called Constantinople, now Istanbul, controlling the Bosphorus, the small strait connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmora leading to the Dardanelles, another small strait, and then to the Mediterranean. At the European side you see a few little Greek harbour towns (which we would now call villages), but mainly Thracians. At the Asiatic side, where we still are, we see a few Greek village “towns” and a lot of tribes controlled by the Persian satrap Pharnabasus.

Byzantium had been Athenian but was now controlled by the new Greek superpower Sparta.

While the 10,000 were still approaching on the Asian coastline, and had broken through his elite cavalry, Persian satrap Pharnabasus had already asked himself how to deal with the sizeable murky company at minimum cost, and had decided to  send a messenger to Spartan high admiral Anaxibius: “please sail those boys over and I will fulfill your wishes in all respect!”

Now Anaxibius, the Pharnabasus offer in mind, invites the 10,000 leadership over to Byzantium for deliberation. He promises work and money. Xenophon was not at these deliberations. He prepares to head home. But Anaxibius is dead against it. Xenophon should cross with the 10,000; what could he do? He complied.

A Thracian, of the peoples inhabiting the area around the Greek harbour towns at the European side, appears on stage, interested in the 10,000. His late father got knocked off his throne and he wants it back. But Xenophon tells him they will cross anyway, so there’s nothing to negotiate now, the can see later if a deal is useful.

Exactly where to we disembark at the European side? A crucial question in the light of the havoc we shall now witness, but we are ill informed.

For on the next lines of the book the 10,000 are inside Byzantium town. Within the walls. Within the gates. And Anaxibius wants them out. Who for god’s sake let them in?? We shall never know.

While Anaxibius is at his unenviable task, Xenophon prepared to leave and pays his goodbye visit to Byzantium governor Cleander. That was not a smart thing to do. He got ordered to lead the 10,000 out of town first.

The 10,000, expecting roll call, military assignment and food, leave town and head where Anaxibius is preparing his speech.

Anaxibius clears his throat and recommends to head East where the Thracians form good looting prey. No military assignment, no food.

And Anaxibius made two technical errors: 1. he insufficiently strenghtened the town walls’ and gates’ defences against a far from imaginary 10,000 disgruntled mob rule siege. 2. he started his speech too early, so his words propagated backward along the men marching out, and thus reached the last ones who just left the gate where a nervous high officer Eteonicus stood ready with an impressive beam to decently shut it.

When Eteonicus did so, returning soldiers threatened to break it, but another few were still inside, which made things easier. Other soldiers climbed a breakwater to reach a place where the weakly guarded wall could be climbed.

Looting the Thracians? Then let us start here! Citizens fled in their houses, trade ships, war ships.

Xenophon gets, in his own beautiful Greek, “sucked” into town with the masses of “his” men “worried about the fate of Byzantium”.

Anaxibius outside, seeing no use in further addressing the chicken, calls a fisherman to sail him around town to go the defense of last resort, the acropolis. It urgently needed its commander, it was about to fall to 10,000 desperadoes without one!

This looks stupid. Too stupid. Anaxibius’ informers in town may have been shrewdly misled to erroneously report all soldiers were out. Or some had hidden themselves, may be even on Xenophon’s orders. And we ask ourselves who led them in town in the first place. This story stinks.

Does not now everyone want Xenophon dead? One side for treason and the other for its failure? No! This, according to Xenophon, is what the soldiers cry: “Now, Xenophon, is the time to prove yourself a man. You have got a city, you have got triremes, you have got money, you have got men; to-day, if you only chose, you can do us a good turn, and we will make you a great man.”

Ad interim acting governor of Byzantium Xenophon orders the 10,000 into rank and file on Kalumenos Square “to limit the damage to Byzantium”.

Well, there you stand. What do you say? Another fine speech by Xenophon, the longest, it seems, thus far, I summarize: “That was a good idea of you all to conquer Byzantium! I am not surprised you feel cheated and angry! I am sure we are now all in the mood to loot Byzantium. But! Where would that lead? Let us first do some thinking:  we shall be at war with Sparta and all their allies. Remember how the Spartans even subdued Athens! And where could we retreat if overpowered? South at the Persian side everybody is against us: we have been fighting with Cyrus, and on the way back we have looted all we met. My dear men! They will come from all sides to kill us. And from the Greek side you will even see your own relatives attack you! Sure we will never see our homes and die here! What a disastrous and miserable end of our lives! I propose we send a messenger to Anaxibius to say we did not reenter Byzantium to loot, but to kindly ask him for provisions that would allow us to reach home, and if such is not available to show him that at least we do not go because we got tricked but because we obey!”

Message incoming on Kalumenos Square. Sender: Anaxibius, acropolis. It is read: appreciate the discipline of the 10,000,  will report accordingly. At present engaged studying the situation and considering what to do.

Suddenly out of nowhere a Theban general appears at the square. If that is a purely private initiative the man, from my personal stance, is a magician. He is ready to lead and feed the 10,000.

OK then. The 10,000 leave town again. With Xenophon. Whoever stays inside shall be sold as a slave, Anaxibius shouts. Outside, the general brings food.

Xenophon wants to head back in. Cleander is dead against it but Anaxibius, about to be replaced as high admiral, and preparing his leave himself offers to take Xenophon at once. OK then.

Outside town the Theban general quickly runs out of food and gets chased. Deliberation among the 10,000, while quite some sell or, after a spectacular price fall, even simply drop their weapons and sneak out.

Anaxibius and Xenophon sail out and at once meet Aristarchus on his way to replace Cleander as governor of Byzantium. Anaxibius tells him he ordered all remnants of the 10,000 still roaming in Byzantium to be sold as slaves. On Artistarchus’ arrival Cleander turns out not to have done so. Swiftly, Aristarchus knocks down to the hammer and sells over 400 of them.

Next, Anaxibius and Xenophon pay a visit to Pharnabasus, who mind you, had promised “everything” for the bravery to sail the 10,000 over to the European shore. And hadn’t they succeeded miraculously against all odds?

But Pharnabasus had been informed  about Anaxibius’ replacement as high admiral and told our murky duo that the creditor in this deal now is new Byzantium governor Aristarchus. Anaxibius grabs Xenophon’s throat, tells him to bring the 10,000 back to the Asian side to organize a decent intimidation stand-off in combination with a short instruction to the satrap in clear Persian, and kicks him on a warship to go get them.

What can you do? On arrival at the 10,000 Xenophon is warmly welcomed, since they are, with knifes drawn, in prospectless deliberation with the new Spartan leadership. Xenophon stays far of that, they want him dead there. Seuthes is in the market again. Xenophon lets the 10,000 stop the talk with Aristarchus c.s. and first accepts Seuthes offer to do something  about the hunger: Seuthes knows some well filled villages of vassals of the present king of Thrace, whom he want to kick off his throne. While eating, we continue the talking.

Neon and Aristarchus (do not ask me why) go deep to frustrate a matters, but a deal with Seuthes gets made.

In the subsequent Seuthes campaign the 10,000 do too well: too many Thracians join, the Greek influence at court weakens, pay gets overdue.

But the gods come to the rescue: the Spartans have to fight Tissaphernes again and come to collect the 10,000. With transport ships. Meanwhile anger and distrust among the soldiers about overdue Thracian wages reaches the point where in a plenary meeting it is proposed to stone Xenophon to death.

And Xenophon would not be Xenophon if he did not go for a decent speech. The longest thus far, but I skip it since meanwhile Eurylochus of Lusia smartly whispers to the Spartans: “Why don’t you make Seuthes pay and we go?”. And Seuthes paid, though he was broke: in cattle.

“Well, my boys”, Xenophon said, “it is time for me to g …”, but he had to bring them to their new Spartan commanders first, they felt. (Do not ask me who would have done it had Xenophon been stoned to death.)

At Lampsacus, it seems, but it is not altogether clear, is the transfer to the Spartans. There, Xenophon meets his friend Eucleides, who congratulates him with his safe homecoming and asked what it yielded him. “Upon my word” Xenophon answers, “hardly enough to get home, I will have to sell my horse and all that’s left in my pockets”. I reads like somehow he regarded it as crediting his balance.

And the 10,000, under their Spartan commanders, set out to wreak havoc in the lands of Artaxerxes’ satrap Tissaphernes, giving him ample opportunity, after a full and closed round of 7000 kilometers again to curse the late prince Cyrus.

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