The Persian Expedition, by Xenophon

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It was now midday and the enemy had not yet come into sight. But in the early afternoon, dust appeared, like a white cloud, and after some time a sort of blackness extending a long way over the plain. When they got near, then suddenly there were flashes of bronze, and the spear points and the enemy formations became visible. There were cavalry with white armour on the enemy’s left and Tissapherenes was said to be in command of them. Next to them were soldiers with wicker shields, and the came hoplites with wooden shields reaching to the feet. They were said to be Egyptians. Then there were more cavalry and archers. These all marched in tribes, each tribe in a dense oblong formation. In front of them, and at a considerable distance apart from each other, were what they called scythed chariots. These had thin scythes extending at an angle from the axles, and also under the driver’s seat, turned toward the ground, so as to cut through everything in their way. The idea was to drive them into the Greek ranks and cut through them.

But Cyrus was wrong in what he said at the time when he called together the Greeks and told them to stand their ground against the shouting of the natives. So far from shouting., they came on silently as they could, calmly, in a slow, steady march.

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Anabasis (The Persian Exhibition, also known as An Ascent or Going Up Country) is the most famous work, in seven books, of the Greek professional soldier and writer Xenophon. The journey it narrates is his best known accomplishment and one of the great adventures in human history. Although the content of the book is lively, written in the style of someone who has participated in the adventures he describes, the story recounted in the Anabasis is completely uncorroborated. Xenophon accompanied the Ten Thousand, a large army of Greek mercenaries hired by Cyrus the Younger, who intended to seize the throne of Persia from his brother, Artaxerxes II. Though Cyrus’ mixed army fought to a tactical victory at Cunaxa in Babylon (401 BC), Cyrus was killed, rendering the actions of the Greeks irrelevant and the expedition a failure. Stranded deep in Persia, the Spartan general Clearchus and the other Greek senior officers were then killed or captured by treachery on the part of the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. Xenophon, one of three remaining leaders elected by the soldiers, played an instrumental role in encouraging the 10,000 to march north across foodless deserts and snow-filled mountain passes, towards the Black Sea and the comparative security of its Greek shoreline cities

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. calmgrove says:

    I have long been wanting to revisit Xenophon after a haze of impressions of studying it in school all of half a century ago, so this quote is timely in spurring me to get on with it! Great intro, thanks.


    1. Yes, it’s a thrilling read, and the language is very accessible. The generals have just been betrayed by Tissaphernes in shocking style in my reading. Time to flee!


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