Read an Excerpt
Greek Mercenaries in Persia
The Anabasis, 400 B.C.
by William P, Forstchen
When One Considers The Modern History Of Strategic withdrawal, that most difficult of all maneuvers, history quickly points to the famed retreat of 10th Corps in North Korea during the bitter winter of 1950-51, the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, or, most remarkable of all, Manstein's retreat through the Ukraine after the debacle at Stalingrad. Yet these three modem campaigns, famous and heroic in their own rights, must stand in the shadows of the epic withdrawal of Greek mercenaries after the Persian civil war of 400 B.C., as recorded by Xenophon.
After nearly thirty years of bitter strife between the citystates of Greece, both, in home waters and on distant fronts as far away as Sicily, a temporary cessation of hostilities had left tens of thousands of hoplites, the famed heavy infantry of the ancient world, unemployed. Hardened by a war that spanned generations, and knowing no other life, many of these men sought employment elsewhere and thus were recruited by Cyrus of Persia (not to be confused with the famed Cyrus the Great who had lived nearly two hundred years earlier) in an attempt to overthrow the rule of his older brother, Artaxerxes II. Cyrus turned to the Greeks to provide the core of his army and thus hired the famed Spartan general Clearchus.
Though Persia and the Greeks were traditional enemies, military agreements between them were actually rather common. During the Peloponnesian War, the Persians had adroitly played their old enemies againsteach other, lending aid to one side and then the other. Cyrus, as satrap of Lydia, became involved in Greek affairs and helped to turn the tide for Sparta by aiding them in the construction of a fleet that defeated the Athenian navy, forcing Athens to seek peace.
Marshalling an army of fifty thousand, of which thirteen thousand were Greeks serving under Clearchus, Cyrus launched his campaign straight into the heart of the Persian Empire. Leaving the coast of the Aegean Sea, Cyrus maneuvered his army through Anatolia and down into the open plains near Babylon, where his brother waited with a massive force of nearly one hundred thousand men.
Though outnumbered two to one, Cyrus deployed his army with the Greek phalanxes on the right. The Greek heavy infantry, armed with twelve- to fifteen-foot-long spears, formed their traditional battle array of heavy rectangular blocks, twelve to sixteen men deep and a hundred yards across. Advancing at a walk with spears lowered, the famed Greek infantry presented an imposing front. One of the fatal weaknesses of such formations was compression, the men piling close info each other during the heat of battle and thus losing the ability to maneuver. But these men were battlehardened veterans, having fought for their own city-states in the long Greek civil wars, and now, as mercenaries, they knew their business and kept their formations flexible, ready to turn and maneuver as needed.
Crashing into Artaxerxes' left wing, the hoplites began to roll up the left of the Persian line. This was adroit maneuvering on the part of Cyrus and Clearchus, for in ancient warfare the left of any line tended to be weaker and more vulnerable due to the natural human instinct to maneuver to the right. The reason for this was the right-handedness of nearly all warriors; in close combat, men tended to move toward their weapon side and shy away from their shield side. This tendency to maneuver to the right would often result in two armies of equal strength pivoting during a battle, sometimes even finishing the action 180 degrees from their starting position. Thus, as Clearchus and his mercenaries smashed into the enemy's left, Cyrus held his own left of the line and attempted to keep the overwhelming numbers of Artaxerxes at bay.
The superior fighting skills of the Spartan-led Greeks soon told, and the Persian left collapsed into confusion. The Greeks then pivoted to roll up the entire line of Artaxerxes, and the battle was all but won. It was at this moment that Cyrus, caught up in the joy of battle that had carried him to within grasping distance of the imperial throne, charged into the fray. As happens a number of times in history, the random course of an arrow laid low all the plans of men. Cyrus tumbled from his mount...dead.
If ever there was an "oh...damn" moment in history, this was it, at least for the Greeks. Hired to put a rival claimant on the throne, they had carried him to all but certain victory, only to see him die in a reckless charge. Not only had they lost their paymaster; they were also very much alone on that field of action. The thirty thousand or more Persian troops, hearing of this sudden change of fortune, took the quickest route out of there and headed for the hills for, in Persian civil wars, losing armies could rarely expect mercy. The only thing that saved any of them was the fact that Artaxerxes' army was all but defeated and fleeing in panic. For the Greeks, defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory.
The Greeks quickly pulled back from the battlefield and took stock of the situation. The only hope now was to put on the best possible face, argue that they were, after all, merely professionals following orders, and suggest that there were no hard feelings.
To their surprise, Artaxerxes offered to discuss terms, and Clearchus, along with all his senior generals, accepted the flag of truce and went into the camp of the general commanding Artaxerxes' all-but-defeated army. As soon as they were in the camp, Clearchus was seized and killed, his staff and lieutenants overpowered. Dragged before Artaxerxes, all were beheaded. The terms offered the army: slavery or death.
MERCS. Copyright © by Bill Fawcett. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.