March of the Ten Thousand

The March of the Ten Thousand was a failed military expedition against Persia, but it confirmed the superiority of Greek hoplites over Asian infantry and revealed the growing importance of mercenaries in Greek warfare.

Summary of Event

The March of the Ten Thousand refers to the 1,500-mile (2,400-kilometer) journey of a Greek mercenary army into the heart of the Persian Empire, its valorous but vain combat near Babylon (now in central Iraq), and its arduous trek back to Greek territory more than a year later. The story is vividly recounted in the Kurou anabasis (between 394 and 371 b.c.e.; Anabasis, also known as Expedition of Cyrus and March Up Country, 1623) by Xenophon, an Athenian officer who participated in the expedition. This adventure made a huge impression on contemporary Greeks, who took it as an indication of the vulnerability of the Persian Empire, and the campaign greatly influenced relations between Persia and Sparta. Nevertheless, the expedition arose out of Persian dynastic strife and is best understood in that context. Xenophon
Cyrus the Younger
Artaxerxes II

Xenophon and the Ten Thousand at the sea’s edge.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The ambitious Persian prince, Cyrus the Younger, organized this expedition in order to depose his older brother, Artaxerxes II, who had recently assumed the Persian throne on the death of their father, Darius II, in 404 b.c.e. Under Darius II, Persia had played a key role in the later phase of the Peloponnesian War (431-404) between Athens and Sparta, when it intervened on the side of the Spartans by subsidizing the fleet that brought about the defeat of Athens. In return for this Persian support, the Spartans agreed to allow the Persians to reassert their control of the Ionian Greek cities, which had been part of the Athenian Empire. Sent out to Asia Minor in 407 b.c.e. to implement this pro-Spartan policy and given an extraordinary command at the age of sixteen, Cyrus quickly displayed his regal ambitions. Among those he offended were the Ionian satrap, Tissaphernes, whose authority and policies Cyrus largely displaced, and two of Cyrus’s royal cousins, whom he later had executed for refusing to go along with his kingly ceremonial pretensions. When Artaxerxes assumed the throne in 404 b.c.e., Cyrus immediately plotted to dethrone him but was denounced by Tissaphernes and placed under arrest at the imperial capital. He escaped execution thanks to the intercession of his mother and was allowed to return to Ionia, although with drastically reduced authority. There, he immediately began preparations for a military challenge to Artaxerxes. To augment his sizable force of Asian troops, Cyrus recruited approximately thirteen thousand mercenary soldiers from many areas of Greece. Most were heavily armored infantry, or hoplites, whose superiority to Asian infantry had been demonstrated in earlier conflicts. By sending a company of soldiers under a Spartan general and providing naval support, the Spartans became the only Greeks to participate as a city-state.

Cyrus the Younger attempted to disguise his treasonous objective by saying that the army would be used against rebellious tribes in Asia Minor, but he did not fool Tissaphernes, who dashed to alert Artaxerxes as soon as Cyrus’s army left Sardis in the spring of 401 b.c.e. As the march progressed, the Greeks became suspicious of their destination and mutinied twice. Only the exhortations of the Spartan general, Clearchus, and promises of huge increases in pay induced the mercenaries to continue the march and cross the Euphrates River into Mesopotamia. By turning south toward Babylon instead of proceeding east against the northern capital city of Ecbatana (now Hamadān, Iran), Cyrus may have surprised Artaxerxes, who had to defend Babylon without his full army. In the Battle of Cunaxa during September, 401 b.c.e., the Greeks acquitted themselves well, routing the more numerous Asian troops opposite them and beating off a counterattack organized by Tissaphernes. Not until the next day did they learn that Cyrus’s Asian troops had been defeated and that Cyrus himself had died leading a cavalry charge against the king.

Demoralized by the death of Cyrus the Younger and aware of their precarious position, the Greeks nevertheless refused to surrender their weapons and acknowledged Clearchus as their leader. Clearchus entered into an uneasy truce with Tissaphernes, who promised the Greeks safe conduct on their return home and began to escort them out of Mesopotamia by way of the Tigris Valley. Either out of pure treacherous impulse, as Xenophon would have it, or because he had learned that Clearchus was plotting to kill him, Tissaphernes surprised the Greeks by calling a parley at which he arrested their generals and executed the officers attending them. Clearchus and the other generals were put on display in Babylon before being put to death.

The leaderless army showed its resilience by electing new leaders, including Xenophon, and continued its march up the Tigris River. Leaving Mesopotamia and Persian harassment behind, the mercenaries faced many hardships during the winter of 401-400 b.c.e., as they made their way through the mountains of Kurdistan and Armenia. In the spring of 400 b.c.e., they arrived at Trapezus (now Trabzon, Turkey) on the Black Sea coast, where they rejoiced at the sight of the sea and recuperated before continuing their journey west by land and ship. At one point, Xenophon suggested that they settle and found a new city, but this idea was not well received by his fellow soldiers, who were determined to return to Greece. When they finally reached the Bosporus in the autumn of 400, their number had shrunk to approximately six thousand. After their return, most of the Cyreans, as they were called, did not go back to their home city-states but reentered mercenary service. They first served the Thracian king, Seuthes, and then crossed back to Asia Minor in 399 b.c.e. to fight for the Spartans, who had decided to go to war with the Persians in Ionia.


Xenophon’s straightforward style in the Anabasis makes his account an ideal primer for students of classical Greek, and generations of modern students are familiar with the saga of the Ten Thousand, which reveals much about Greek military practice and the non-Greek peoples encountered by the army.

Contemporary Greeks may have exaggerated the significance of the army’s successful retreat out of Asia as a sign of Persian weakness, for Artaxerxes II certainly could have isolated and destroyed them if he had wished to do so. His primary concern, however, was to get them out of the rich province of Mesopotamia with a minimum of damage. Still, the encounter at Cunaxa confirmed the superiority of the Greek infantry phalanx over Asian troops and would inspire future invaders of the Persian Empire. The ease with which Cyrus the Younger recruited these soldiers, the first large mercenary Greek army, demonstrated the wide appeal of mercenary service among impoverished Greeks with no better means of earning a living. In coming years, such mercenaries would play an important role in Greek warfare.

The expedition also brought about a change in Spartan-Persian relations that had enormous importance for the future of Sparta. Spartan support of Cyrus’s failed attack on Artaxerxes soured relations between the empire and its former allies and led to Sparta’s decision to fight the Persians in Asia. This Asian war weakened Sparta and prompted Artaxerxes to organize a coalition of Greek city-states to fight the bitter Corinthian War (395-386 b.c.e.) against Sparta. To face this conflict at home, Sparta abandoned the contest in Asia and acknowledged Persian overlordship of the Ionian Greeks. Sparta eventually won the war in Greece but emerged with its manpower drained and its prestige among the Greeks badly damaged.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, J. K. Xenophon. Bristol, England: Bristol Classical, 2001. A biography of the general Xenophon, written by a classicist, that examines the evidence regarding his life in his major works. Bibliography and index.
  • Hackett, John, ed. Warfare in the Ancient World. New York: Facts On File, 1989. This excellently illustrated volume contrasts Greek and Persian styles of warfare in two chapters, “Hoplite Warfare” and “The Persians.”
  • Nussbaum, G. B. The Ten Thousand: A Study in Social Organization and Action in Xenophon’s “Anabasis.” Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1967. This study analyzes the decision-making process of the Greeks during their retreat and argues that the army functioned as a mobile city-state.
  • Prevas, John. Xenophon’s March: Into the Lair of the Persian Lion. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2002. An examination of the expedition of Cyprus. Bibliography and index.
  • Stronk, Jan P. The Ten Thousand in Thrace: An Archaeological and Historical Commentary on Xenophon’s “Anabasis.” Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1995. A comparison and contrast of Xenophon’s account and the historical and archaeological evidence. Bibliography and index.
  • Xenophon. The Persian Expedition. Translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin, 1972. An entertaining firsthand record of the expedition. The extended introduction by George Cawkwell alerts the reader to the shortcomings of Xenophon’s account and discusses some of the larger strategic and tactical problems associated with the march.

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