Xenophon Writes the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In his landmark memoirs and travelogue, Xenophon recounted a two-year-long retreat by Greek mercenaries after fighting in the failed attempt of Cyrus the Younger to wrest control of the Persian Empire from his brother, King Artaxerxes II.

Summary of Event

While in retirement, the Athenian aristocrat Xenophon wrote his memoirs about a military campaign that made him famous in the world of ancient Greece. The book, which later became known as Kurou anabasis (Anabasis, also known as Expedition of Cyrus and March Up Country, 1623), describes one of the longest, most grueling tactical retreats in all military history. For modern historians, the book reveals a distinct evolution in Golden Age Greek military tactics and politics. Xenophon Cyrus the Younger Tissaphernes Artaxerxes II


(Library of Congress)

In 401 b.c.e., Xenophon, a student of Socrates, found himself under suspicion in Athens for his earlier support of the rule of the Thirty Tyrants. His home city no longer congenial, he gladly accepted an offer to become a member of a Greek mercenary force hired by the Achaemenid prince Cyrus the Younger. Cyrus was a powerful satrap (regional governor) in the northwestern Persian Empire. Apparently the victim of false accusations of treason by another leading satrap, Tissaphernes, Cyrus had been arrested by his brother, King Artaxerxes II, and nearly executed. Through his mother’s intercession, Cyrus was freed and restored to his satrapy, but according to Xenophon, the incident so angered him that he resolved to overthrow Artaxerxes.

Cyrus had financed Sparta’s naval campaign in the Peloponnesian War, and in return, Sparta helped Cyrus form a corps of Greek hoplites (heavy infantry) and peltasts (lighter, more mobile auxiliary troops). He brought together as many as thirteen thousand soldiers drawn from city-states throughout Greece, although the largest groups came from Sparta, Elis, and Arcadia. They were to be the spearhead in Cyrus’s larger army of Persian troops.

Under the pretext of quelling rebellious tribes near his satrapy, Cyrus assembled his army at Sardis (now in western Turkey) and marched south to capture the Persian capital at Babylon (now in central Iraq). Artaxerxes led a massive army north to stop him, with Tissaphernes, his most able general, at his side. The two armies met at Cunaxa, just north of Babylon, in the summer of 401. A Greek attack was on the verge of routing the royal forces when Cyrus was killed. Artaxerxes counterattacked, and Cyrus’s Persian troops fled.

The Greeks remained a coherent fighting force, and it was not until the day after the battle that they realized their side had lost. The Greek commander, Clearchus of Sparta, concluded an uneasy truce with the Tissaphernes on behalf of the king, but soon afterward, Tissaphernes lured many of the Greek leaders to a conference and killed or imprisoned them. He then demanded that the rest of the Greek soldiers surrender. The Greeks were understandably downhearted. They were nearly surrounded by a much larger army in the center of a hostile nation, hundreds of miles from the nearest Greek city.

However, at a late-night meeting, several prominent captains argued against surrender and convinced nearly all the Greeks to abandon the bulk of their gear and force-march northward in one unit toward the Black Sea, where they would follow the coast west to Byzantium (now Istanbul, Turkey). According to his own account, Xenophon was one of these speakers and, because of it, was elected commander of the rear guard. Those Greeks that participated in the retreat became known as the March of the Ten Thousand.

The Greek departure caught Tissaphernes by surprise, and his unwieldy army could not catch up to the Ten Thousand. Although he managed to attack several times with his swiftest forces, the Greeks countered his advantage in horsemen by hastily creating a small cavalry of their own and fought off his archers with a detachment of slingers. Tissaphernes was thereafter content to press the Ten Thousand northward until they climbed over a mountain pass into a region dominated by fierce, semi-independent tribes in what is now eastern Turkey.

There their hardships began in earnest. They endured cold that killed anyone who rested too long on the ground, fought through ambushes by tribe after tribe, and nearly ran out of supplies several times. In fact, procuring food, by whatever means necessary, was the army’s chief concern. In the many pitched battles that the Ten Thousand fought, the force won by quick, aggressive assaults, then confiscated provisions and outran their pursuers with relentless, united movement forward.

The Ten Thousand reached the Black Sea at Trapezus (now Trabzon, Turkey) in February, 400 b.c.e., after a five-month trek. The army rested and held sports events in celebration, then continued on its way to Byzantium. However, dissension began to create factions within the ranks. Groups broke off to enrich themselves by plundering villages and taking captives for sale into slavery. The Greek colonies along the way treated the Ten Thousand with suspicion. A prominent leader abandoned them after being sent on a mission to find ships for passage. One large division split off to march on its own and barely escaped annihilation by an indigenous army. Even Xenophon felt the urge to quit the long march: He proposed founding a new colony with the Ten Thousand, an idea most of them rebuffed angrily.

Partly by sea, partly by land, the Ten Thousand finally reached Byzantium, their numbers reduced to between eight thousand and nine thousand. Their troubles were not over, however. Spartan authorities were uneasy about having a large, battle-hardened army with unclear loyalties nearby and tried to starve them into submission and divide them. Xenophon wrote that it was largely through his efforts that the remnant army stayed together. For a while, the Ten Thousand served the Thracian prince Seuthes, an unsatisfactory arrangement that made Xenophon unpopular with both the Thracians and the Greeks.

At that point, during the spring of 399 b.c.e., Xenophon left the Ten Thousand to return to Greece, and the Anabasis ends. Most of the remaining Ten Thousand eventually became part of Sparta’s forces. Such professional mercenary armies afterward grew increasingly prominent in struggles between Greek city-states.


Fragmentary accounts exist by other authors concerning Cyrus’s campaign and the Ten Thousand, and they sometimes contradict Xenophon’s version of events, especially about the importance of his leadership. This fact led scholars, such as Hans R. Breitenbach, to propose that Xenophon wrote the Anabasis to amplify his role and justify his actions. However, this view lost favor, and scholars proposed other motivations for the book. Josef Moor and others think it is basically propaganda that extols Greek political systems and ideals and, in comparison, implies that the Persians were corrupt and weak. William Higgins finds a philosophical theme in the narrative: The story betrays the inevitable self-deception of leaders as they pursue their ambitions. Werner Jaeger believes the book was intended to instruct readers on military tactics and leadership qualities. To Steven W. Hirsch and others, the story reveals the effects of suspicion, deceit, and trust in politics. Scholars generally agree, however, that Xenophon emphasizes one theme throughout the narrative of the retreat: The Ten Thousand—and, by implication, Greece itself—stood the best chance of remaining free through unity.

The Anabasis is credited with encouraging innovations in warfare, such as setting a high standard for military leadership and the use of tactical reserves and the emphasis on auxiliary forces. Certainly, such themes strongly influenced subsequent generations of leaders, including the Romans Julius Caesar and Scipio Africanus. Xenophon’s forthright, lucid prose style found admirers in the writers Cicero and Quintilian and the historian Arrian. In the standard curriculum of Western Europe well into the twentieth century, the Anabasis served as a basic text for beginning students of classical Greek and thereby impressed on young minds the heroic steadfastness of the Ten Thousand.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, J. K. Xenophon. New York: Scribner’s, 1974. Written by a classicist, this biography follows Xenophon’s life on the basis of the evidence in his major works and explains the cultural and political context of Golden Age Greece as it does.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Georges, Pericles. Barbarian Asia and the Greek Experience: From the Archaic Period to the Age of Xenophon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Georges devotes a chapter to Xenophon’s ambivalent attitudes toward the Persians and his idolization of Cyrus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirsch, Steven W. The Friendship of Barbarians: Xenophon and the Persian Empire. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1985. Hirsch examines Xenophon’s writings, including Anabasis, to assess contemporary Greek attitudes to the Persian Empire and how these attitudes affected the clash of the two civilizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunt, Peter. Slaves, Warfare, and Ideology in the Greek Historians. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Hunt argues that slaves and commoners played a greater role in Greek mercenary armies than previously acknowledged, armies that changed warfare and Greek politics. He discusses Xenophon’s account of the Ten Thousand in three chapters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Xenophon. The Persian Expedition. Translated by Rex Warner. London: Penguin Books, 1972. A widely available translation of the Anabasis with a lengthy introduction by George Cawkwell that summarizes the political setting, Xenophon’s life, and Xenophon’s reasons for writing it.
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Categories: History