It’s 401 BC. The new king of Persia is Artaxerxes. His brother, Cyrus, disputes the throne saying his father had wanted him to have it. Escaping assassination attempts he goes to Greece and raises a mercenary army to help him fight for this throne.
The Greek army holds the right flank in his battles against Artaxerxes and is considered extremely well trained and ruthless. Most of the Persians are afraid of them. But in the key battle at Cunaxa (near ancient Babylon) Cyrus miscalculates his tactics and is killed in battle. Cyrus’s Persian troops go over to Artaxerxes and the Greek army is left alone, surrounded by hostile troops. They have competent generals and the most experience in war so the Persians are afraid of bringing the battle to them.
So the Persians decide to try another way. Under a flag of truce they invite all the generals of the Greek army to come and discuss terms for surrender or going home. Promises are given on both sides. The Greek generals go except one Spartan general and they are all murdered by the Persians.
These murderous events happen at night and when the word gets back to the 14,000 soldiers in the Greek army there is almost universal despair. Some of the men lie down on the ground in their armor and sleep as much as they can. They are all so overcome with fear and guilt that no one can sleep for long and they get up and wander around. They all realize that tomorrow they will all be dead or enslaved and if the latter dead of torture and abuse soon after.
One of these men is Xenophon, an Athenian who was a student of Socrates. He revered Socrates and when the Athenians killed him he left Athens and became a mercenary. He was not an experienced mercenary and wasn’t a commander or captain in the army-just a regular trooper. He lay awake hearing the men complaining around him; understanding their fear. He said to himself, “What can we do to escape our fate?” He decided that someone needed to talk with them and inspire them to stick together and go home.
It was before dawn. He talked to some of the men and sent messengers to all of the commanders who survived. They came together and Xenophon brought them into a tent and spoke to them. “Look we have to bring ourselves together and decide what to do. We must provide leadership to the men, choose new generals, fight off the Persians and head for home. Any other path is doom for all of us.”
One of the captains, Apollonides, stood up and argued against Xenophon saying, “You are fools if you think we can fight against the might of the Persian army. Let’s try to win the king’s mercy by persuasion. Look at how the deck is stacked against us. We can never win or escape.”
Xenophon stood up replying, “Are you crazy? Did you not witness with your own eyes the treachery of the Persians? If we listen to them they will kill all of us like they killed Cleararchus and Proxenus. The only thing the Persians understand is strength. Every time the king has come with his army and we stood armed and ready to fight he has backed off and proposed a truce. The Persians are not good enough to face us if we are ready to die for our freedom.”
Another soldier-captain, Agasias, stood up and supported Xenophon. After some discussion the captains threw Apollonides out of the command tent and Xenophon branded him a disgrace to Greece.
The captains gathered all officers which numbered about a 100. Xenophon was asked to describe his plan. He described the treachery against their generals and assured them that their fate would be the same if they waited on the king. “We must bring new leadership and choose the best among us to be generals. We must bring all the soldiers together and get them out of their despondency. Our only salvation is courage and resolve. It is these things that bring success not numbers. We are resolved to be free or die. All men come to death at the end so better we do so in the cause of our freedom than die miserable. Let us choose our leaders then act like leaders. I am willing to help lead but we must break free of the army before us and choose a route home.”
The captains agreed with him and after a lot of discussion choose a set of generals of which Xenophon was one. One of the few generals not killed, a Spartan, praised Xenophon and his plans and together the captains went back to their units and choose new officers and reorganized the corp.
Then the whole army was brought together and Xenophon was chosen to speak to them. He recounted the treachery of the Persians, told them that they, the Greeks, had kept faith and their oaths so the Persians were in the wrong. They were a strong, disciplined fighting force and with strong leadership and togetherness they could win through. Once home they could raise a massive army and come back and crush the Persians and take their wealth. The soldiers cheered. Then Xenophon told them that the soldiers themselves must take on the burden of getting everyone to follow the new officers. Because unless they worked together it would all fail. The soldiers agreed to this.
Next Xenophon convinced everyone to burn all their tents and baggage, keep their arms and personal gear and enough food for one day. That night they burned everything they couldn’t carry and the next day set off. It was slow at first but they broke free of the Persians for a bit and started north towards Armenia and the sea.
They had much conflict internal and external. The Persians chased them, there were battles which left the Greeks intact and the Persians smarting. They started in October as they went into the mountains and an early, icy winter.
They fought many peoples who would have stopped them. They had conflict inside the army also. Ambitious people, cantankerous people and disagreements. They solved these problems by the usual Greek method; open assembly and discussion. Remember the soldiers gave their word to self police themselves about taking orders. An example that they followed through was again with Xenophon. He was leading a troop of light armored hoplites and they needed to get to the top of a steep mountainous trail to throw off Persian scouts and prevent the Persian army from getting above them. Xenophon was in heavy armor on a horse and he was driving the men to be quicker to save lives. One soldier yelled at Xenophon that he was riding a horse, was lazy and no good soldier and why should they listen. Xenophon jumped off his horse grabbed the man’s shield and started charging up the slope ahead of everyone else. He lead them to the top and they drove the Persian scouts off. The rest of the soldiers started stoning the soldier who had mouthed off to Xenophon and henceforth followed orders.
After lots of trials they came to the sea. Here they headed west towards the Hellespont and Greece. They had to fight against a people that the Persian empire hadn’t been able to conquer for more than 200 years. Eventually they made it home. Not all made it, of course, but most of the army did. Without the cohesiveness of the culture and the leadership of critical people the enterprise would have failed.
It is one of the great stories of the western world. Not a war of conquest or a love story with great deeds but a unit of men who chose their own leaders, who followed their leaders 1200 miles and fought for each other each mile. It wasn’t that they didn’t disagree with their leaders. They did and often but they voted on things when they disagreed and were all dedicated to the vision that Xenophon made clear to them at their most vulnerable. They didn’t do it for glory or wealth but to return to their families and homes.
Xenophon returned home. He wrote this tale called the Anabasis, The March, and later he wrote his Memories of Socrates. The Anabasis has been studied for thousands of years and been the role model for leadership in times of adversity where sacrifice of all is needed.
To Alexander the Great and his father Philip of Macedon, Xenophon was a hero. And 70 years later Alexander returned to Persia and crushed them fulfilling one of Xenophon’s dreams that he talked to the soldiers about at the beginning.
And this whole epic started with Xenophon being clear about one simple question, “How can I stop the despondency of the men and get us out of this mess?” His desired outcomes were clear; restore order, provide leadership and make his dream the dream of the whole army. This great tale is a testament to him laying awake and night and struggling for clarity; a small thing with enormous outcomes.