Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Ten Thousand

The Ten Thousand is a not very original name for a group of Greek mercenaries. Before Alexander’s father conceived of a plan to invade Persia and Alexander implemented it, there was a civil war in Persia. Cyrus, a younger brother and would-be Great King, collected allies within Persia and hired Greek mercenaries, of whom there were ten thousand(ish).

The Ten Thousand went with Cyrus and fought a battle against the forces of Artaxerxes II, Great King of Persia. Unfortunately Cyrus, whilst brave, lacked an Alexander-like fortune and got killed almost immediately. The Persian forces who had allied with him were mostly forgiven by his brother and defected wholesale to Artarxerxes.

This was bad news for the Greeks. They now had no allies, had little food or water, and were in the middle of a hostile empire. They tried to get hired by Artaxerxes or his satraps (a satrap was an important fellow who ran a satrapy, in the same way a Medieval duke might run a duchy but be ultimately responsible to the king), to no avail.

However, when prompted to surrender their response was not dissimilar to that of Leonidas at Thermopylae.

Tissaphernes was the name of the satrap they had hoped would hire them, who demanded their surrender and who then employed guile and deception. He hosted a big feast for the Greek leaders at which they were arrested, led to Artaxerxes and then had their heads lopped off. The Greeks then elected new leaders and set off marching home (which was thousands of miles away).

Xenophon was one of the men elected to lead the Ten Thousand, and he rather helpfully wrote a history about the march. I must admit that whilst the story itself is fascinating, I found the book a bit of a slog. But more on that (and it’s implications for the time it was written) later.

What followed was an incredibly impressive and prolonged rear-guard action/lengthy march home. Although fewer in number by far than the Persian forces, the Ten Thousand were all skilled warriors, and had no intention of surrendering meekly. Xenophon and the other new leaders were talented men, enabling the army to negotiate tricky situations such as narrow, snowy mountain passes, surviving arid deserts and foraging for food despite their lack of cavalry (a military wing the Persians were skilled in).

Greek cities not only dotted the western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), they also existed on the coast of the Black Sea, which is where the Ten Thousand ended up (although, by then, they’d lost around 40% of their numbers).

The tale of the Ten Thousand, the Anabasis, might well have been seen and considered by Philip II of Macedon, creator of the greatest army in the world and father to Alexander the Great. Although Alexander did brilliant work in annihilating the Persian Empire it was his father, not himself, who conceived of the plan and built the army capable of achieving his son’s stunning victories.

The Anabasis included lots of useful information for a would-be invader. Asia Minor would be relatively well-known due to the Greek cities on its western and northern fringes, but the Ten Thousand went far deeper than that and Xenophon wrote much that would be of use. Perhaps even more importantly, ten thousand Greeks had defied the military might of a sprawling empire, granting hope that Persia might not be capable of destroying a strong Hellenistic force that was well-led.

In the introduction to the Anabasis there was an interesting note that the Ten Thousand used to be a tale told regularly in classrooms, but that this has now ceased to be the case. I never learnt about it at school, and that’s rather a shame as it’s a worthy story in itself and acts as a natural precursor to the exploits of Philip and Alexander.

In unrelated news (unless, of course, he’s 2,400 years old and saw action at the Battle of Cunaxa) I’d like to thank All Seeing Eye ( for adding me to his links, but if he’d let me know I would’ve added him to mine at the same time. I shall rectify this now. [I think I might start sorting them a bit as well].



  1. An interesting post, Mr Thaddeus - especially as this is an era I am keen to learn more about.

    I've been following and reading your blog since its inception but it was after our brief exchange of comments on PB the other day that I realised you weren't on my list of links as well. Something I was delighted to fix.

  2. Thanks :)

    Ancient Greek and Roman history is my favourite period, and I do have one or two other things to write about this era, so watch this space.

  3. Excellent little precis there, Thad. Have you also read Paul Kearney's take on the tale (also titled The Ten Thousand)?

  4. Thanks :)

    No, I haven't. My historical reading has been almost exclusively the gargantuan Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon for the last few months (I've just started volume 4 of 6).

    Just had a quick look on Amazon and it sounds like a historical meets fantasy account. When the Heraclean task of finishing off Gibbon's done I'll try and remember to give it a go.