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When a historian both informs and inspires

....the songs that I have sung

Echo in the distance
Like the sound
Of a windmill goin' 'round
I guess I'll always be
A soldier of fortune
”  - rockers Deep Purple in their 1974 hit song written by D.Coverdale and R.Blackmore use the phrase `soldier of fortune' here more in the sense of an adventurer than to refer to a mercenary.

Think of a team of mercenary soldiers, and popular films like “The Wild Geese” and “The Dogs of War” come to mind. But those are tiny squads ... unlike a certain sizeable mercenary force whose description has come down to us from ancient Sparta.

The battle of Cunaxa took place in September, 431 B.C. It was fought between Artaxerxes II and his younger brother Cyros. Cyros's ambition was to  occupy the Persian throne. Fighting on his side were nearly 13000 Hellenic mercenaries assembled from various Greek states – Ionia, Sparta, Attica, Thessaly, Arcadia etc. While these troops gave a good account of themselves in battle, Cyros himself was killed as he charged forward to engage his brother, the king in single combat. As a result, the Hellenes had no further mission or mandate.

What does that account of very nearly two and a half millennia ago, by a historian tell us – of their travails, their fate, and about what was considered admirable or despicable in those times?

Besides containing information, such accounts point us towards human values that emerge from the turmoil of events. And that's where they provide the most justification for the historian's authorial effort. There is more value in the lesson to the future than in according due credit and blame to an earlier generation.

About 400 B.C., Xenophon put together his account of the March of the Ten Thousand     ( The Expedition or the Anabasis) about these mercenaries, and he did this without embellishments. He simply provides a description of the facts and tactical considerations surrounding the journey to Persia and return to Hellas by a large band of soldiers.

The expression “lived to tell the tale” is very apt to describe this recording of a set of military events by one of its prominent participants.  Xenophon offers no personal explanation of how he came to be with this force ( he was invited by his friend Proxenos who was a commander) or why he chose to chronicle the entire expedition later. He writes of himself in the third person and there is no discernible difference in the narrative style or tone as we get to the pages where he increasingly has a pivotal role as a leader of the marching troops. And yet, there are a number of conversations quoted in detail. As much as it describes skirmishes and battles, the book also reports the parleys between emissaries at length. It recounts speeches delivered to the troops. The persuasive skill and well-founded appeals of the commanders become apparent to the reader.

Xenophon is focussed on the action itself, the long march and its daily, even hourly challenges and how these were resolved. Through the narration, one can actually feel the marching momentum of the troops and their drive to reach friendly Hellenic soil. It's a pacy account. There are no digressions to recount the history or mythology of a place or a tribe along the way. Only a few references from Greek epics, and those receive very brief mention.

Hostilities between armed groups were commonplace in the 4th century B.C., and for a very long time since then.  The toll it took on ordinary community life can well be imagined. While there is a similarity in the dangers that lurk today, it is undeniable that despite the many exceptions that can be pointed out, history has recorded progress. Today a greater percentage of the world's population leads a safer life and there is more regard for human life per se. With so many battles and unrestrained brutality, the common people in the villages were quite hapless as they could not save their possessions, their liberty, or their lives.

Those were perilous times in which armed raids by kings and governors were common. It was how they sought to expand their holding, and they enslaved and plundered  the vanquished province. 

Against this backdrop, Xenophon finds these words to write about Cyros the Younger,  “...if ever he made a truce or bargain or promise he never broke it. Indeed the cities put into his care all trusted him, and the men trusted him; and if anyone was an enemy, truce once made he trusted that nothing would be done to him contrary to that truce. Cyros's province a man might travel fearlessly where he would, whether Hellene or Asiatic, and carry whatever suited him, so long as he did no wrong.... In justice and honesty, if anyone showed himself glad to display these virtues, he took good care to make these richer than those who were greedy for unjust advantage.” This informs us not only about the temperament and character of Cyros, but shows us how Xenophon had an enlightened outlook and appreciated certain values wherever and in  whomever he saw them.

This is a book that shows that power was obtained by wielding arms, it was retained by the same means, and skill or fairness in governance were a bonus wherever they could be found. There was no basis really to expect a good regime or a welfare orientation. It would appear that a considerable section of the male populace was combat-trained and could serve either full-time or occasionally as soldiers. Might of arms was the most frequent way to establish a right and to stay in governance. Such might had several uses. Conspirators needed it to usurp thrones. Career soldiers used it to demonstrate valour and success for personal promotion, and to annex territories for plundering them. It was required by kingdoms to repulse hostile tribes and to recover land and wealth from them, and to create and maintain profitable trade routes and port cities. A king or governor's influence was decided by his ability to maintain an army and his capacity to hire mercenary troops and manage their loyalty during the mission.


The narrator inevitably shapes, consciously or unconsciously, what an audience may be able to make of a certain story. In the Anabasis, it's a unique situation ( Thucydides, a historian somewhat his senior also described a war in which he himself had fought ) because not only is the narrator a first-hand witness, along the way, he plays a central role himself and takes charge of leading the action. Now this can be seen as a vantage point for looking at the expedition as a whole. And in Xenophon, we have an interesting man.

W.H.D.Rouse, the translator in his preface says : “Meanwhile Xenophon had been eagerly sharing in the intellectual life of the wonderful century (about 500-400 B.C.) that saw the production of the great harvest of dramatists and poets, historians and philosophers, in which were the best specimens of all the arts, including dancing and music, which ever appeared in the world. For Xenophon its chief charm was the spirit of free debate embodied in the person of Socrates.”

An educated man and a good friend of Socrates, he comes across as someone with strong reasoning abilities. He was a practical problem-solver.  A good communicator. Besides his many capabilities, he was a modest and straight-forward man. Not greedy or self-seeking, Xenophon did not hanker after power, authority or influence. When he had to exercise these, he did so judiciously and as the situation warranted. He was not carried away by dizziness that can be caused by an elevated position.

There are no frills in Xenophon's style, it is direct and the reader is gripped by the sequence of difficulties and how they are surmounted. So virtually with the turn of every page, it’s the clash of arms and the use of deceiving or desperate tactics and that's how the winner is decided in every round. The prevailing mores and cultural values of the Greeks are reflected, and there is no peculiarly individual take or slant on the part of the historian.

There is no theorising offered on infantry tactics. No judgements about cultures or customs. No passages bestowing praise on a certain landscape or a local tradition or produce. No likes or aversions are dwelt upon.

Xenophon's words on the march with Cyros through Arabia, could ironically apply later to the army itself on their return journey, in their status of the pursued : “There was no tree, but all sorts of animals, troops of wild asses, plenty of ostriches, bustards also and gazelles; and the horsemen often chased these. The asses, if they were chased, ran ahead and stood still, for they ran much faster than horses; again when the horses came near they ran as before, and they could not be caught unless the horsemen placed themselves at intervals and hunted in relays. The meat of those caught was like venison but more tender. No-one caught an ostrich; horsemen in chase soon gave up, for she got far away before them, running on her feet and flying too, using her wings like a sail.”

At the same time, the narrative shows a commitment to piety, invocation of the gods as per Hellenic custom, and values such as keeping one's word, honouring friendship, adherence to an oath or treaty, respect for valour and the martial virtues – these chords are struck across the pages, both overtly and in the background. Xenophon emphasises the rule of principle to his men, “ shall we make solemn sacrifice when we gladly do impious deeds? How shall we fight our enemies if we kill each other off? What city will receive us in friendship when it sees lawlessness like this among us?”


The pages of this account are full of activities and incidents along the route. Of how various types of infantry – light and heavy armed, archers and slingers, and cavalry were deployed in different circumstances. Storming of defences. Warding off attacks while on the move. Braving snow and crossing ravines and rivers. Fighting cavalry while on foot. Shielding from long-range archers. Encountering different types of weapons and fortifications. Clocking miles steadily each day and pushing on across strange lands. Finding allies. Arranging terms of truce and honourable agreements with various powerful or influential parties en-route. Then, of course, since any army marches on its stomach, there's the perennial question of arranging or stocking up on provisions. During the journey, the answers to this range from buying them in a market, capturing from the enemy, plunder from villages, hunting, or receiving them from an ally in an exchange of favours.

Augury is very important. No significant decision is taken without its aid. Commanders handsomely reward soothsayers for guidance that helps to avert danger or in choosing between possible tactics. While troop captains themselves know how to examine the entrails of sacrificed animals, the soothsayers also observe other omens.

Xenophon's work is said to have made a big impact on Alexander's father, Philip of Macedon and on the English soldier, Lawrence of Arabia. Part of the reason could be that it demonstrates the extent of success that can be achieved by sound management. This account is clearly not about sheer belligerence or brute strength. It brings out the core strengths of the Hellenic troop organisation. Their discipline of acting in a concerted way along with the platoon. Their endurance and fitness. Skill of arms. Their self-confidence in being under smarter command and and in their use of better fighting methods. And their recognition of the importance of strategy.


These were very tough troops and they needed a very tough sort of leader to follow. Their original leader, until he was treacherously put to an end by a satrap called Tissiphernes, was Clearchos. Xenophon writes at some length about this Spartan who was their chief commander and his passion for war. “When he could have kept at peace without shame or damage, he chose war; when could have been idle, he wished for hard work that he might have war; when he could have kept wealth without danger, he chose to make it less by making war....  He was able to think out ways to get provisions for his forces, and then to get them; and he was able to fix firmly in their minds that Clearchos must be obeyed. This he did by being severe; he was grim to look at and harsh in voice, he punished heavily and sometimes in anger, so that now and again he was sorry for it. And he punished on principle, for he thought an unpunished army was good for nothing; indeed he used to say that a soldier ought to fear his commander more than the enemy, if he was to keep guard, or keep his hands off friends, or attack the enemy without excuses. In  danger, however, the soldiers wished absolutely to obey him and chose no other; at such times his grimness appeared brightness, they said, his severity seemed strength against the enemy, so that they thought it salvation rather than severity”.

We can draw some inferences about the common soldier from the type of leadership that was most admired and accepted. It wasn't just about the kinds of competency that a commander could show. In the course of leading this march, its commanders are seized with the immediate tasks of maintaining order and leading the force in combat. Their skills are put to the test in obtaining local permissions to cross territory or enter a friendly city.  Dry plains, deep river crossings, and steep mountain passes are not just terrain challenges for them, each type brings a particular kind of vulnerability to enemy attacks. But beyond his personal capacity to find answers, the best kind of commander had to control the beast within his own men that could, from time to time, be a threat to themselves.

Soldiering of those times involved a lot of savagery, and it isn't as though it has all sublimated, as the record of even the last century or so shows. No other restricting ethic was enforced so the bloodthirsty could kill, and other cruelties and crimes were perpetrated on villagers and communities by soldiers. Mercenaries, at the first opportunity, sought booty and this simply got the better of their judgement. The power of rumour was very high and they were particularly vulnerable during adversity to misdirect their emotions.

While Xenophon did what he had to, for leading them back from northern Mesopotamia through Kurdish country, Georgia and Armenia to the coast of the Black Sea, he was an intellectual and a man of refinement. Proxenos (who had studied under the famous sophist Gorgias) had been his great friend, and it was on Proxenos's invitation that he had joined the expedition. Proxenos also died along with Clearchos due to treachery by a governor called Tissiphernes. Xenophon tells us how Proxenos was different - from others including Clearchos. “Although he longed so much for these great things, all the same it was quite clear that he did not wish to get any of them by injustice; with justice and honour he thought these things ought to be got, but not without. To rule gentlemen he was well able, but still he could not put fear or respect for himself into his soldiers. Indeed, he had rather respect for the soldiers than they had for him, and he obviously feared rather to be disliked by the soldiers than the soldiers feared to disobey him. He thought that to praise one who did well, and not to praise the offender, was enough to make a ruler and the reputation of a ruler. Therefore the gentlemen among his associates liked him and wished him well, but common men schemed against him and thought him easy game.”


The captains were typically veterans. They had seen many battles. Ordered many troops. As the origin of the word `strategy' indicates (from strategia "office or command of a general”, from stratos –`that which is spread out' referring to an expedition or army, and “agos” for leader), complex reasoning is involved in making decisions that can mean life or death, success or costly failure.  The ability to formulate a judicious approach is not the same as the ability to execute it competently. In the former, the ability to consider various factors and pick out a prudent path is critical. A few commanders  ( and notably the historian Xenophon himself ) showed the knack for avoiding hardship and casualties where they could; and skirmishing and battling when it had to be done. They showed the capacity to foresee the prospects for replenishing provisions on the way ahead, or to gauge the opportunities to collect such provisions in advance. Most importantly, they had to understand the value of trust and how to create and maintain it. Obtaining trust was not done through an appeal to blind belief. By means of transparency and honourable actions, leaders could command the trust of their troops.

Because they were traversing unfamiliar lands, they had to be able to chalk out courses of action despite a high level of uncertainty, by choosing between risks. Xenophon himself shows this practical ability to devise tactics, improvise under pressure, lead from the front, and motivate, goad or prod people in extreme situations.

Over the many miles, dispiritedness and fatigue set in, and quarrels break out. There are times when regional loyalties and rivalries surface between Spartans (Lacedaemonians), Arcadians and Athenians. To check the rising negativism, and to defend himself, he has this to say: “I admit, gentlemen, that I have really beaten certain persons for bad discipline, men who were content to let you save their lives when you kept your places and fought where it was your duty, and then they left their places and ran on to plunder and to cheat you. If we had all done that, we should all have perished …Yes, and I have beaten a man before now for playing the softie, when he would not get up and just threw himself away to the enemy, and I have forced him to march. Another, perhaps, who lingered only to rest somewhere, and hindered both you in front and us behind from marching, I have struck with a fist, that an enemy might not strike him with a spear. Well, now their lives have been saved they can have justice done on me, if I have done them anything contrary to justice... Indeed, doctors even burn and cut for one's good.”

Communicating with the troops and getting them on to the same page was important. It was not simply a matter of passing instructions down the line.  The climate of opinion and camp sentiment had to be reckoned with. After defending himself, he then persuades them to look at the positive things they can look back upon so that a sense of camaraderie could be rebuilt.“But really, I am surprised that you remember every time that I made myself disagreeable to one of you. No silence there, no; but if I sheltered anyone from cold, or saved anyone from an enemy, or found something for a sick man, or someone in a fix, nobody remembers that; and you do not remember if I praised anyone for doing a job well, or honoured a brave man where I could. Yet it is just and holy and pleasant to remember good things rather than bad.”


Xenophon, in the course of commanding the troops, takes the initiative to define a situation. Then, he assesses the available options, and the gains and risks that accompany each option. He then frames the deal that aims at the best possible outcome and presents it clearly and vigorously to the team. His idea is to muster support and get their proper buy-in. This is his leadership model. He doesn't ask for blind obedience. His decision-making process is transparent and he's willing to share it with other commanders and captains. He keeps the rank-and-file as well-informed as situations will permit.

Near the River Phasis (now the Rioni in western Georgia, it flows to the Black Sea) along which they marched after entering Armenia, Xenophon shares his assessment : “My opinion is this. If a fight cannot be avoided, we ought to be ready to fight our strongest. But if we wish to traverse the pass most easily, we should consider how to pass with fewest wounds and smallest loss of men. is much easier to climb a steep place without fighting and then to go along the flat with enemies on each side; without fighting we can see better at night what is in front of our feet than we can by day while fighting; to steal a march does not seem impossible to me, since we can go by night so as not to be seen, and keep far enough away so as not to be heard.”

Faced with a difficult ravine crossing in Bithynia (adjoining the Sea of Marmara), he had to urge:“Without fighting we cannot get out of this; if we do not attack, the enemy will follow wherever we retreat, and fall on us. Think, then, whether it is better to go for the enemy with arms in front, or reverse arms and watch him following behind! I would rather myself attack with half this number than  retreat with double the number! Men, the victims are favourable, the omens are good, the sacrifice excellent   ( the reference is to the usual methods of divination)– let us go for them!”

The journey back towards the Black Sea ( the sighting of the sea from a coastal hillock is a famous and much-quoted scene, where the soldiers shout `the sea, the sea' with joy ) brings the mercenary mind-set of the troops to the fore. This was an expedition where though the commanders, captains and under-officers had higher pay and a few privileges, they also shared in every risk. They were in fact at additional risk in visiting enemy camps for negotiations. Yet they went largely unappreciated by the men under their command.  Again, if it had been a king or a tyrant leading them, that would have been different. But here the leadership at various levels was comprised of professional colleagues with skill and seniority, who weren't going to win territories for their own selves in the end.  These leaders did not get the kind of loyalty from their troops, which could be expected from soldiers of a state or royal army.

How does Xenophon come to be in command?  When the deaths of Clearchos, Proxenos and several senior commanders created a vacuum,  Xenophon addressed the under-officers of his late friend Proxenos, “ is clear they (Tissiphernes and his cohorts) are planning to destroy us if they can. My opinion is that we ought to do anything and everything not to fall into the power of these barbarians, but turn the tables on may say universally that without commanders nothing good or useful could ever be done: good discipline always saves, but disorder has destroyed many. ...if someone could turn their minds from wondering what will happen to them, and make them wonder what they could do, they will be much more cheerful. ...not numbers or strength brings victory in war; but whichever army goes into battle stronger in soul....when men seek nothing in warfare but only life at all costs, they are generally the ones to die, and that with disgrace; but when they recognize that all men must die, for this is their common lot, and strive only to die with honour, these I generally see growing to old age, and while they live, much happier.”

He is chosen to be one of the main commanders after this. A man who faced upto circumstances and figured out what best he could do - Xenophon lived till 76, and gained fame for his writings. He is an additional source, besides Plato, in bringing us the conversations and arguments of Socrates. A speaker of words and a doer of deeds – as Homer described the hero Achilles in the Iliad  – we could say that rightly of Xenophon.