The Persian Expedition

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The Persian Expedition

by Xenophon


A nonfiction narrative set in Greece and Persia in 401-399 bce; written in Greek c, 370 bce arid commonly known as the Anabasis (Journey Upcountry).


Cyrus the Younger, a son of the deceased Persian king Darius II, hires a large contingent of Greek mercenary soldiers {the “Ten Thousand”} to help him wrest the throne from his older brother, Artaxerxes II When Cyrus is killed in battle, the Greeks undertake a dangerous march through more than 1,000 miles of hostile territory back to Greece,

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Takes Place

The Narrative in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written

For More Information

Xenophon (c. 430-c. 350 bce), an Athenian aristocrat, was born in Athens near the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, Athens’ long, disastrous conflict with Sparta (431-404 bce). Reportedly very handsome, he grew up to become a student of the philosopher Socrates and to serve in the Athenian cavalry during this war. After Athens lost, Xenophon left the city for political reasons. He capitalized on his cavalry experience by joining, in 401 bce, the expeditionary force of Greek mercenaries hired by Cyrus the Younger to help overthrow his older brother Artaxerxes II, the king of Persia. Xenophon emerged as one of the expedition’s leaders, which made him famous after the soldiers’ return to Greece. He proceeded to serve Sparta, or more exactly the Spartan king Agesilaus, on campaigns in Greece. Exiled from Athens, he was rewarded by Agesilaus with a comfortable estate at Scillus, in northern Greece. After Spartan power was shattered by Thebes in 371 bce Xenophon was forced to move to Corinth, where he may have written The Persian Expedition. A cultivated man of conservative political views, Xenophon was a remarkably versa-tile author who would remain widely read in later periods. His surviving works include a history of his times (Hellenica), two books about Socrates (Memorabilia and Apology), and treatises on such diverse subjects as economics, estate management, hunting, and horsemanship. However, The Persian Expedition has always been his most popular work. Prized for its action-packed narrative, the work offers valuable insights into Greek warfare and customs, as well as Greek attitudes toward other cultures.

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Takes Place

Greece and Persia in the fifth century bce

Greece’s complex relationship with the vast Persian Empire, its powerful neighbor to the east, played a central role in the development of Greek civilization throughout the Classical period of Greek history (480-323 bce). Indeed, Greece’s Classical period of history started and ended in confrontation with Persia. The period began with two Persian invasions of Greece (490 and 480 bce) that saw the Greeks emerge victorious and that sparked a newly self-confident expansion of Greek culture. And the period ended a century and a half later with the death of the conqueror Alexander the Great (356-323 bce), who had realized the longstanding dream of conquering Persia in Greece’s name. The Greek incursion that Xenophon chronicles in The Persian Expedition stands in the exact middle of this timespan and has been seen as planting the seed that Alexander brought to fruition.

The Persian Empire had been founded in the mid-sixth century bce by Cyrus the Great (ruled 559-530 bce). Among other conquests, Cyrus incorporated Greek cities of Ionian (coastal Asia Minor) into Persia’s growing domains. In 499 bce, with the help of Athens, the Ionian Greeks revolted against Persian rule. Within six years Darius I (ruled 522-486 bce) had crushed the Ionian revolt, and four years later he launched the first Persian invasion of mainland Greece, in-tending to punish Athens for aiding the rebels. Instead, the Athenians defeated the larger Persian force at the battle of Marathon (490 bce). Ten years after that, Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes, himself accompanied a far greater Persian invasion force. Whereas Darius had meant merely to punish Athens, Xerxes aimed to occupy Greece and turn it into a Persian province. Putting aside their differences, the Greek city-states united under Spartan leadership and defeated this invasion in several battles, including a naval engagement at Salamis (480 bce), in which the Athenian navy destroyed the Persian fleet. The Athenians then chased the retreating Persians back across the Aegean Sea, winning several more battles and in time freeing the Ionian city-states from Persian rule.

The Persian Wars were followed by a long power struggle between the two leading Greek city-states, Sparta and Athens. From 431 to 404 bce, these two rivals fought the Peloponnesian War, which embroiled most of Greece on one side or the other. At first it seemed like an even match. Both sides had many allies. Sparta, with a large and disciplined army, dominated on the mainland, while Athens, with its formidable navy, ruled the islands and coastal areas. For two decades, neither side could prevail.

At some point, probably in the early 410s, Athens made what turned out to be a fatal mistake: the Athenians aided two Persian satraps (governors) of western Asia Minor, who had rebelled against the Persian king Darius II (ruled 423-404 bce). Angered by the participation of the Athenians in this failed revolt, Darius II decided to punish them by supporting Sparta. In drawn-out negotiations, the Spartan and Persian representatives struck a deal. Persia would make large payments of cash to Sparta, while Sparta would recognize Persia’s rule over the Ionian Greek city-states. The Persian funds enabled Sparta to build a navy that could challenge the Athenian fleet, breaking the deadlock in Sparta’s favor.

Athens surrendered in 404 bce, ending the war and ushering in a period known as the Spartan hegemony, in which Sparta dominated the Greek world. The events that Xenophon describes in The Persian Expedition took place near the beginning of the Spartan hegemony; the narrative itself was probably written around the time it ended in 371 bce.

Cyrus, Tissaphernes, and Artaxerxes II

One of Darius II’s main representatives in Persia’s initial dealings with Sparta was the regional governor Tissaphernes, who was satrap of southwestern Asia Minor. Tissaphernes offered Sparta less support than Darius wished, thereby angering Darius. In 407 bce Darius removed Tissaphernes and appointed instead Darius’ own second son Cyrus (called Cyrus the Younger to distinguish him from Cyrus the Great) as satrap of southwestern Asia Minor. Darius II also made Cyrus the supreme commander of all Persian forces in Asia Minor. Thus, Cyrus, who was a close friend of the Spartan naval commander Lysimachus, became responsible for supplying the crucial aid to Sparta. Tissaphernes, mean-while, whose authority Darius II had curtailed in Cyrus’ favor, resented the new governor. If the long-term relationship between Persia and Greece comprises the general background of The Persian Expedition, the enmity between Cyrus and Tissaphernes—who continued as a satrap of lands further east—provides the specific context in which the story begins to unfold.

Cyrus had won his influential appointment partly at the behest of his mother, the powerful Persian queen Parysatis. Cyrus, her favorite son, had an older brother. When Darius II died in 404 bce, this older brother inherited the throne as Artaxerxes II.

In the opening pages of The Persian Expedition, Xenophon recounts what happened next:

When Artaxerxes was established on the throne, Tissaphernes maligned Cyrus to his brother and accused him of plotting against him. Artaxerxes believed the story and arrested Cyrus with the intention of putting him to death; but his mother by her entreaties secured his life and his recall to his province. Still, after the danger and disgrace from which he had escaped, Cyrus took measures to ensure that he should never again be in his brother’s power; instead, if he could manage it, he would become king in his brother’s place.

(Xenophon, The Persian Expedition, book 1, chapter 1)

In assessing his situation, Cyrus thus found himself in a position characterized by strong ties to the Spartans, good reasons to challenge his brother, and—perhaps most important—a large pool of experienced Greek soldiers on hand, men who needed a way to support themselves now that the Spartans had emerged victorious.

In the spring of 401 bce, Cyrus put out the word to his Greek friends that he was looking for mercenary soldiers to make up an army, although he kept his intention of overthrowing his brother a secret for the time being. Cyrus also hired a number of Greeks to recruit and lead the force, one of whom was a Theban named Proxenus. It was Proxenus who invited his friend Xenophon to join the mercenaries.

Warfare in Greek society

Warfare was considered an honorable pursuit by the Greeks, who placed high social value on individual military prowess. This is clearly reflected in the earliest Greek literature, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Epic poems, the two works celebrate the deeds of great warriors such as Achilles and Odysseus in the Greeks’ legendary war against Troy. Originally oral, these epics are thought to have first been put in written form in the eighth century bce. Greek society changed profoundly over the next few centuries. By Xenophon’s time, Greek war-fare had evolved, too—although some aspects of war had remained remarkably similar to those described by Homer.

Scholars believe that Homer describes Greek warfare as it existed around the year 700 bce (although the poems purport to recount a far earlier time). By the late fifth century bce, Homeric


Greece’s confrontation with Persia inspired the first work of historical writing, the Histories (c. 430 BCE), in which the Creek author Herodotus (c. 484-c 425 bce) sought to explain the Persian Wars. In The Peloponnesian War, Herodotus’ successor, the Athenian historian Thucydides (c 455-c 395 bce}, wrote about the war between Athens and Sparta that followed; his narrative breaks off in the year 411 bce. (These two histories are also featured in Classical literature and Its Times) Xenophon, who may have known Thucydides, continued his history down to 362 bce in the Hellenics, Xenophon’s own history. Thus, Xenophon is called the third of the Creek historians,

fighting techniques had been not so much re-placed as refined and supplemented. For example, Homer’s heroes fight on foot, with spears and shields, just as most soldiers still did in Xenophon’s time. Horses were used in Homeric epic for transportation rather than as fighting platforms. Once on the battlefield, the aristocratic warrior would dismount and fight on his two feet. Xenophon, a foot soldier, uses his horse in precisely this way in The Persian Expedition. He was part of the infantry, though wealthier than most. Unlike the relatively rich Xenophon, infantrymen of his day generally traveled on foot. While foot soldiers still comprised the bulk of a Greek land force, cavalry—mounted soldiers who fought from horseback—had emerged to


One aspect of Greek warfare that emerges clearly from The Persian Expedition is the crucial place of religious ritual. Success in war was thought to reflect the favor of the gods, and Xenophon repeatedly shows the Greeks seeking to secure divine approval before a critical operation. They did so primarily by carrying out a sacrifice, in which an animal such as a goat or sheep was butchered and parts of it were burnt as an offering. The rest was eaten in a ceremonial feast. The sacrifice’s success might be discerned by a soothsayer, who would examine the animal or its entrails, the appearance of which was thought to be an omen (sign) of divine approval or disapproval

In one passage, Xenophon describes how the Greeks urgently needed to break camp and march out in search of food, but the sacrifices showed unfavorable omens. “The soldiers were upset at this,” he writes, “since the provisions which they had brought with them were running short and there was no possibility of buying food in the neighborhood” (The Persian Expedition, 6.4), Despite their growing hunger they stayed in camp for several days as repeated sacrifices continued to show unfavorable omens. When they finally marched out—still against the omens—Xenophon tells us that they took heavy casualties. In this passage and many others, Xenophon’s narrative reflects his strong religious piety.

take on an important if still supplementary role. In contrast to foot soldiers, who were generally expected to supply their own equipment, a cavalryman’s horses were supplied by the state. The usefulness of cavalry was limited in the ancient world, however, because stirrups, essential for truly effective horseback fighting, had not yet been invented.

The growth of the Greek city-state in the sixth and fifth centuries bce meant that warfare became less “personal” and more “public.” That is, from disputes between aristocratic warriors and their fellows, in which personal loyalties were paramount, wars changed into disputes between city-states, in which men fought largely as citizen soldiers in a spirit of public service.

Yet in some significant ways warfare remained more “personal” than in modern times. For example, in addition to supplying their own weapons and equipment, soldiers were also responsible for their own food and drink. While traveling on ex-tended missions, most of their time was spent for-aging, as The Persian Expedition vividly shows. An enemy would do its best to despoil the land of available crops. Above all, perhaps, commanders relied on the goodwill of soldiers, who might easily refuse orders they found objectionable. Discipline was very difficult to maintain, as Xenophon’s ac-count also demonstrates. At one point, Xenophon defends himself to the other commanders for beating a disobedient soldier with the argument that in this case the soldier’s disobedience endangered the whole army.

Historians have also noted a trend toward closer and closer formation in the deployment of infantry units, as the loose organization of Homeric epic gave way to the so-called hoplite phalanx. Heavily armed footsoldiers (called “hoplites”) arranged themselves in close formation (the “phalanx”), using their shields to make a wall and thrusting rather than throwing their spears. Homeric heroes had both thrusted and thrown. The hoplite preference for thrusting resulted in their spears being longer and heavier. Sometimes swords were also carried for hand-to-hand combat, and groups of archers harassed the enemy from a distance.

The hoplite phalanx proved highly effective. It was in fact the fearsome charge of massed hoplites that had allowed the Greeks to prevail over a much larger Persian force at Marathon in 490 bce. In general, battles in fifth century bce Greece were fought largely by citizen hoplites. Citizen forces, however, were limited in their range and mobility. Most men, especially farmers, could not afford to spend much time away from their other obligations. Except in highly militarized Sparta, training for combat was for centuries nonexistent. By the fourth century bce, however, these amateur citizen warriors were being replaced more and more by professionally trained full-time soldiers.


Agesilaus, king of Sparta Mentioned in passing in the narrative, Agesilaus will later be-come Xenophon’s ally and protector.

Artaxerxes II, king of Persia Cyrus the Younger’s older brother.

Chirisophus, a Spartan commander Chirtsophus becomes the expedition’s supreme leader. Although Xenophon presents himself as getting along well with Chirisophus, some modern scholars suggest that Xenophon minimizes the leadership of the Spartan commander while exaggerating his own contributions.

Clearchus, a second Spartan commander Clearchus is among the Greek leaders murdered by the Persians after the battle of Cunaxa.

Cyrus the Younger, a Persian prince Cyrus the Younger hires the Greek soldiers of Xenophon’s narrative.

Darius II, king of Persia Darius is the father of Cyrus the Younger and Artaxerxes II.

Parysatls, the wife of Darius II Parysatis is the mother of Cyrus the Younger and Artaxerxes.

Pharnabazus, Persian satrap (governor) Pharnabazus wields authority over northwestern Asia Minor.

Proxenus, a Theban commander Proxenus invites Xenophon to accompany the expedition.

Thibron, a Spartan commander Arriving after the expedition returns, Thibron hires the soldiers to make war on Persian forces in Asia Minor.

Tissaphernes, a second Persian satrap A governor in Asia Minor and a rival of Cyrus the Younger, Tissaphernes pursues the Greek soldiers after Cyrus’ death.

Xenophon An Athenian gentleman who accompanies the expedition, and the author of The Persian Expedition. His initial status—was he a soldier or an observer at first?—is unclear.

Often such soldiers hired themselves out as mercenaries to the city-state that was the highest bidder. At the same time, lighter armed, more mobile troops called “peltasts” were superseding the heavier, less mobile hoplites. Peltast shields were lighter and smaller, allowing denser formation in the phalanx (the name “peltast” came from the light-weight wicker or leather shield, the pelta). By the end of the Classical period, the highly trained professional peltast phalanx had emerged as the force that would allow Alexander the Great to conquer much of the known world, including the Persian Empire.

While Xenophon’s “Ten Thousand” are hardly the first mercenaries in Greek history, they were the first mercenary force large enough to take on the entire army of another state by themselves. And although their number included both hoplites and peltasts, their mission deep into hostile territory clearly demonstrated the advantages of traveling light and striking from afar. Historians have thus seen The Persian Expedition as reflecting a critical stage in the transition from hoplite to peltast, and from amateur to professional, that marked the Greek soldier’s evolution during the Classical period.

The Narrative in Focus

Contents summary

Although Xenophon himself was present during many of the events he describes in The Persian Expedition, he tells the story in the third person. Even when referring to himself—which, as commentators note, he does frequently and flatteringly—he does so in the third person, as “Xenophon” rather than “I.” Nowhere does he explicitly say that he is the author of the work, although his increasing prominence in the narrative might suggest it to the reader. At the beginning, the story is about Cyrus and his Greek mercenaries; by the end, it is primarily about Xenophon. The narrative is conventionally divided into 9 books (actually sections), each with 5-10 chapters (subsections).

The story opens with a summary of the circumstances that led Cyrus to attempt to over-throw his older brother, Artaxerxes II, the reigning king of Persia (explained above). Cyrus begins gathering an army of Greek mercenaries. He conceals his true motives from both Artaxerxes and the Greek soldiers themselves, under the pretext of making war on Tissaphernes, Cyrus’ Persian rival, who was contesting Cyrus’ control of Ionia. Among the Greek commanders who help Cyrus build up his army are Clearchus the Spartan and Proxenus the Theban (the Greek commanders are aware of Cyrus’ real aims, which they help conceal from the soldiers). Cyrus gives each commander large sums of money to attract the best soldiers. After reporting to Cyrus at Sardis, the seat of Persian power in western Asia Minor, the Greek commanders and their troops set out with Cyrus on the long march into Persia. They number 11,000 hoplites and 2,000 peltasts, 13,000 in all.

Meanwhile, Tissaphernes warns Artaxerxes that Cyrus is marching against him, and Artaxerxes begins preparing his own army for battle. By the time they reach Tarsus, near the Syrian border, the soldiers suspect that they are really marching against the Persian king and threaten to mutiny. Clearchus and Cyrus (who raises the soldiers’ pay) deftly defuse their complaints, without addressing their suspicions. Soon afterward the expedition is joined by Chirisophus, a junior Spartan commander who will later take a leading role. Only when they reach the city of Thapsacus, on the Euphrates River, does Cyrus openly reveal to the Greeks that they are marching against his brother, the king. The soldiers react angrily, but most are assuaged when Cyrus promises them a bonus worth about four months’ pay.

By now the Greeks are crossing “Arabia,” as they call the vast desert of today’s Syria and Iraq. Cyrus and the Greek commanders deal with several disciplinary problems during the harsh desert crossing. The army makes it across the desert and begins marching through Babylonia. Artaxerxes, aided by Tissaphernes, has gathered his forces, which are far larger than Cyrus’ army, even though the Greeks are now supplemented by some Persian troops loyal to Cyrus. When Artaxerxes retreats instead of giving battle, Cyrus becomes less cautious and moves forward quickly. At the town of Cunaxa (the exact site of Cunaxa remains controversial), Artaxerxes turns to attack. Although the Greeks break through the opposing Persian lines in many places, Cyrus himself is killed in the fighting.

Believing they have won the battle, the Greeks do not learn that Cyrus is dead until the next morning. At first amazed, they quickly grow despondent. The king sends heralds to negotiate with the Greek commanders, and the two sides agree to a temporary truce, to remain in force as long as the Greeks stay where they are. Clearchus and Tissaphernes then sign a treaty that promises the Greeks safe conduct through Persian terri-tory; in exchange, the Greeks agree to buy their provisions rather than plunder the land, and to march as though they are “in a friendly country” (The Persian Expedition, 2.3).

The Greeks head north, to the southern shore of the Black Sea, setting out for the Greek colonies there. After several weeks’ march, they arrive at the river Zapatas (today’s Greater Zab), a tributary of the Tigris River. Followed by a large Per-sian force, the Greeks are tense and suspect that the Persians mean to attack. Tissaphernes allays their suspicions, making a show of friendship to-ward Clearchus and inviting him and the other Greek leaders to dinner. Tissaphernes’ friendliness, however, is part of a ruse. Once he has the Greek commanders in his tent, he arrests them and soon afterward the king has them executed.

The Greeks are now thrown into turmoil and depression. Surrounded by the enemy, they have lost most of their best leaders, including Clearchus and Proxenus. They are still at least 500 miles from Trapezus, the nearest Greek city on the Black Sea. To get there, they face rugged, mountainous terrain, wide rivers, and hostile peoples. First, though, they must avoid destruction by the Persians.

That night Xenophon assists in gathering the remaining Greek officers. As they meet, he urges them to rise to the occasion:

I think that first of all you could do a great service to the army by appointing generals and captains as quickly as possible to take the places of those whom we have lost. For where there is no one in control nothing useful or distinguished can ever get done. This is roughly true of all departments of life, and is entirely true where soldiering is concerned. Here it is discipline that makes one feel safe, while lack of discipline has destroyed many people before now.

(The Persian Expedition, 3.1)

He advises the officers to call a meeting of the whole army, to let the soldiers know that the commanders have been replaced and to raise their morale. “You are well aware,” he continues, “that it is not numbers or strength that bring the victories in war. No, it is when one side goes against the enemy with the gods’ gift of a stronger morale that their enemies, as a rule, cannot with-stand them” (The Persian Expedition, 3.1). After this stirring speech, Xenophon’s recommendations are followed; he himself is chosen as one of the new commanders.

At the general meeting that follows, the new commanders address the soldiers. Xenophon gives several lengthy speeches, encouraging the troops and making tactical suggestions that are immediately adopted. For example, he advises traveling in a hollow square formation, with baggage carriers, servants, and others inside, protected by hoplites making up the square. He also suggests that they burn their wagons and tents and get rid of other inessentials, “only keeping what we have for the purpose of fighting and eating or drinking” (The Persian Expedition, 3.2). Chirisophus the Spartan, who has also been chosen as a commander, backs Xenophon’s suggestions. On Xenophon’s further advice, the experienced Chirisophus is chosen to lead the hoplite square, while Xenophon himself, as one of the youngest, is put in charge of the rear.

On this basis, the Greeks begin the journey, modifying the formation somewhat as circumstances demand but generally sticking to the basic square. They improvise weapons and tactics as they go, adapting to the changing terrain and varying peoples whom they meet along the way. Lacking cavalry and archers, at first they are harried by mounted Persian bowmen. In response, the Greeks create a small cavalry force using some of the baggage horses; they also deploy foot soldiers with slings, or leather pouches that they whirl to shoot small lead balls against the enemy. Resourcefully, they also pick up the Persians’ spent arrows and make bows to shoot the arrows back. Tissaphernes follows the Greeks with a large army, and the two sides skirmish continu-ally. Both sides send out advance parties to capture summits and other high ground over the route that the Greeks will take, and they fight several pitched battles.

Evading Tissaphernes once and for all, the Greeks cross into the rugged land of the Carduchi, a warlike people who have repelled Per-sian attempts to conquer them. It takes the Greeks seven days to battle their way through the land of the Carduchi, days of constant warfare in which they “had suffered more than they had suffered in all their engagements with the King and Tissaphernes” (The Persian Expedition, 4.3).

Still under attack, they cross a large river into Armenia, a province of Persia. There they are pursued by a Persian army under Tiribazus, the governor of Armenia. They march through days of heavy snow, bitter cold, and mountainous terrain:

It was a relief to the eyes against snow-blindness if one held something black in front of the eyes while marching; and it was a help to the feet if one kept on the move and never stopped still, and took off one’s shoes at night. If one slept with one’s shoes on, the straps sank into the flesh and the soles of the shoes froze to the feet.

(The Persian Expedition, 4.5)

After weeks of hard winter marching, the Greeks emerge from mountainous Armenia, crossing through the lands of the Phasians, Taochi, Chalybes, and Scytheni. Finally from the summit of a high mountain, the men in front catch sight of the Black Sea and let out a shout. Xenophon and the others in the rear assume they are being attacked.

So Xenophon mounted his horse and, taking Lycus and the cavalry with him, rode forward to give support, and, quite soon, they heard the soldiers shouting out “The sea! The sea!” and passing the word down the column. Then certainly they all began to run, the rearguard and all, and drove on the baggage animals and the horses at full speed; and when they had all got to the top, the soldiers, with tears in their eyes, embraced each other and their generals and captains.

(The Persian Expedition, 4.7)

A few more days’ march brings them to the Greek city of Trapezus on the Black Sea, where they celebrate their arrival in Greek fashion with religious sacrifices and athletic games. The entire force at this point amounts to roughly 10,000, which suggests a loss of about 3,000 troops.

Unable to secure ships to sail home, the expedition marches from Trapezus westward along the southern coast of the Black Sea, towards the region known as Paphlagonia. Along the way, the men stop at other Greek colonies, such as Cerasus, Cotyora, and Sinope. At Cotyora the men find enough ships to hold all of them so they continue by sea. When they arrive in Paphlagonia, the land is so attractive that Xenophon suggests settling there and establishing a colony, but most of the soldiers prefer to continue homeward.

From Paphlagonia they sail to Heraclea, an-other Greek colony. When the Heracleans shut the city’s gates on the arriving expedition, the soldiers travel on but divide into three groups in hopes of having better luck securing food. Xenophon leads one of the groups. They have little success, being attacked by local peoples such as Bithynians and Phrygians, as well as by


Colonies such as those mentioned in The Persian Expedition constituted an important way in which Greeks expanded their presence in lands beyond Greece itself. Colonies were sent out from a “mother city” (metropolis), the purpose often being to secure fertile farmlands for the city’s excess population and to establish profitable trade links. The Greeks had no qualms about driving native inhabitants (whom they called “barbarians”) off the land, often enslaving them and selling them to other Greeks.

Xenophon, who proposed starting a colony in Paphlagonia with the men from the expedition, had earlier brought up the possibility of returning one day to Asia Minor with a colonizing group. In his speech to the soldiers after the new leaders were selected, he tells them: “So I think that it is right and reasonable for us to make it our first endeavor to reach our own folk in Greece and to demonstrate to the Greeks that their poverty is of their own choosing, since they might see people who have a wretched life in their own countries grow rich by coming out here”. (The Persian Expedition, 3.2).

Persian forces under Pharnabazus, the Persian governor of northwestern Asia Minor. Reunited, the expedition then scores a victory over the Persians in a pitched battle. After this the Persians keep their distance, and the soldiers have less trouble finding food. They march on to Chrysopolis, and then cross the Bosporus to Byzantium, where the Spartan admiral Anaxibius has promised to pay them.

However, when they get to Byzantium, Anaxibius orders them out of the city without paying them, treating them as dangerous thugs. Enraged, the soldiers threaten to loot the place, but Xenophon calms them by warning them that if they loot Byzantium they will make enemies of the Spartans. Seuthes, the king of a Thracian people called the Odrysians, then hires the soldiers. (Thrace, the region west of Byzantium, lay between that Greek city and northern Greece and was inhabited by Greeks as well as non-Greek peoples, such as the Odrysians.) They spend the winter serving under Seuthes in Thrace, with Xenophon in command.

Reversing its earlier pro-Persian policy, Sparta now sends word that it “had decided to fight Tissaphernes” (The Persian Expedition, 7.6). The Spartan admiral assigned to lead the fight is named Thibron, and he arrives in the spring of 399 bce. As Xenophon bids the soldiers farewell, Thibron incorporates them into the army he is leading against Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus, the Persian governors of western Asia Minor.

Greeks and “barbarians.”

After Cyrus’ death in the battle of Cunaxa, Xenophon eulogizes the Persian prince at some length before returning to his main narrative. “My own opinion,” Xenophon writes of Cyrus, “…is that there has never been anyone, Greek or foreigner, more generally beloved. And an additional proof of this is in the fact that, although Cyrus was a subject, no one deserted him and went over to the King,” meaning the Persian monarch (The Persian Expedition, 1.9).

In addition to illustrating Cyrus’ popularity, this passage offers valuable insights into Greek attitudes toward the Persians and their absolutist monarchy. The word translated here as “foreigners” is the Greek word barbaroi, literally “barbarians,” which for the Greeks meant anyone who did not speak Greek. (To Greek ears, other languages sounded like the barking of dogs). “Barbarian” did not necessarily imply uncivilized, as it does in English; certainly the Greeks recognized the Persians as a civilized people. Yet they did not recognize the Persians as their equals, as is shown by another term used in the passage above, the word translated as “subject.” Here as elsewhere, Xenophon uses the Greek word doulos, literally “slave,” to mean a subject of the Per-sian king. And since all Persians were subjects of the king, all Persians—even the noble Cyrus, whom Xenophon admires—were routinely referred to by the Greeks as slaves, or douloi.

As the narrative repeatedly makes clear, what separates Greeks from the Persians above all is that Greeks are free while Persians are not. A Persian subject demonstrated his absolute subservience to the king by performing the ritual known in Greek as proskynesis, “bowing down like a dog”—that is, prostrating oneself at the king’s feet. Most Greeks were shocked by such displays, which they reserved for the gods. “For you worship no man as a master, but only the gods,” Xenophon encourages the soldiers in his speech at the war council after the new leaders have been chosen. He furthermore urges the soldiers to live up to “the freedom of the cities in which you have been born and brought up” (The Persian Expedition, 3.2). As Xenophon portrays them, the Greeks elect their own officers, argue among themselves, attempt to persuade others, and make collective decisions.

“Barbarians” was a term also used for peoples other than the Persians, and in such cases it might indeed carry the additional meaning of “uncivilized.” But this was not its primary meaning then. The most dramatic example is the tribe Xenophon calls the Mossynoeci. Although they allied themselves with the soldiers, their customs included having sexual intercourse in public, which shocked the Greeks. “Those who were on the expedition,” Xenophon writes, “used to say that these people were the most barbarous and the furthest removed from Greek ways of all those with whom they came in contact” (The Persian Expedition, 5.4). So the Greeks saw the Persians as civilized and other groups as uncivilized but both sets as barbarians. Barbarism, in other words, did not refer to a lack of civilization but rather to non-Greekness. The “most barbarous” group was “the furthest removed from Greek ways.”

In book 4 the expedition comes upon a “barbarian” tribe called the Macrones, whose language is unintelligible to the Greeks until one of the peltasts offers to act as interpreter. He tells Xenophon that he himself had been a slave in Athens, “and that he knew the language of these people. ‘Indeed,’ he went on, ‘I think that this is my own country’” (The Persian Expedition, 4.8). Greeks routinely captured and enslaved “barbarians” like the Macrones. This man had likely either been enslaved as a child, or born as a slave to parents who still spoke their “barbarian” language. Hence he recognizes the language but not the place.

As a leading historian explains in commenting on this passage, “Because the Greeks in fact got their slaves from barbarian lands, they sup-posed that the barbarians were by nature slavish” (Cawkwell in Xenophon, p. 213, note 8). Along with the civilized Persians, such uncivilized barbarians were thought of by the Greeks in terms that ultimately contrast Greek freedom with barbarian slavishness. From the Greek perspective, at the heart of the “barbarian” lay not a lack of civilization, but a lack of freedom. Conversely, at the heart of what it meant to be Greek lay freedom itself.

Sources and literary context

Xenophon’s main source for The Persian Expedition was his own experience as a member of the group. Scholars have speculated about whether he first recorded his experiences in the form of diaries or notes that he used later, when composing the work. Having such notes at hand would explain Xenophon’s rather exact recounting of distances and times covered by the Greeks in their march homeward, which would hardly have been easy to remember several decades later, when he wrote the work.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that Xenophon used another source for such details: the history of Persia written by his contemporary, the Greek physician Ctesias, who served both Darius II and Artaxerxes. Ctesias was pre-sent at the battle of Cunaxa, but on the Persian side. Returning to Greece in 398 bce, he wrote a history of Persia that included a description of the battle. Xenophon mentions Ctesias by name as a source for his description of Cyrus’ death in The Persian Expedition. Perhaps the earlier work, which no longer survives, also provided Xenophon with a detailed description of Persian geography to supplement his memory in com-posing The Persian Expedition.

A different account of the expedition appears to have been written by one of the original generals, Sophaenetus of Stymphalus. While Sophaenetus’ work itself is lost, it may have been used by another Greek historian, Ephorus (fourth century bce), whose version of the expedition seems to have differed from Xenophon’s in significant details. This interpretation is complicated by the fact that Ephorus’ work also no longer exists. However, he is known to have been a major source for a much later historian, Diodorus Siculus (first century bce), who described the expedition, and whose work we do have. Based on a chain of speculation back from Diodorus, scholars have argued that the account written by Sophaenetus gave Xenophon a far less prominent role than the one he enjoys in The Persian Expedition, and even that this other account disparaged Xenophon. This would have provided Xenophon with a strong motive to write his version. It would also help explain Xenophon’s perhaps exaggerated prominence in that version, and his occasional tone of self-justification.

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written

The Spartan hegemony

As noted above, the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 bce ushered in a period known as the Spartan hegemony, in which Sparta dominated Greece. (“Hegemony” comes from the Greek hegemonia, meaning “leadership” or “supremacy.”) Persia, whose support had helped Sparta win the war, continued to play a central role in Greek affairs. At the same time, a growing pan-Hellenic (Greek unity) movement, espoused most notably by the Athenian orator Isocrates (436-338 bce), urged the Greeks to unite in order to topple the Persian Empire once and for all. Supporters of this pan-Hellenic movement argued that the success of the Greek mercenaries against the Persian forces demonstrated Persian weakness. It was further argued that the Greeks should exploit that weakness more.

The arrival of the Spartan commander Thibron at the end of The Persian Expedition signaled a major change in relations. Sparta no longer tried to identify its interests with those of Persia. Like Sparta, the Ionian Greek cities of Asia Minor had supported Cus against Artaxerxes. After Cyrus’ death the Ionian Greeks, fearing retaliation by Tissaphernes and Artaxerxes for their support of Cyrus, had appealed to Sparta for help. By sending Thibron “to fight Tissaphernes,” Sparta utterly reversed itself, abandoning its earlier recognition of Persian rule in Asia Minor and instead backing the lonians’ ongoing bid for independence.

In 396 bce, the Spartan king Agesilaus re-placed Thibron as Sparta’s top commander in Asia Minor. Xenophon forged a close alliance with Agesilaus, later writing a praiseful biography of him, the Agesilaus. Agesilaus’ dynamic personality stamped itself on Spartan policy throughout the Spartan hegemony. While Agesilaus enjoyed initial success against the Persians in Asia Minor, Persia allied itself with Sparta’s rivals at home in Greece. In the Corinthian War (395-386 bce), a conflict among Greek city-states, Persia backed Thebes, Argos, Corinth, and a resurgent Athens against Sparta. The war was ended by the “King’s Peace,” in which Persia dictated terms to the now exhausted Greek city-states. Alarmed by signs of Athens’ revival, Persia switched sides again and threw its support behind Sparta. The treaty essentially left Sparta in charge of Greece.

Agesilaus and Sparta treated the other city-states with high-handed arrogance, installing a garrison of Spartan soldiers in Thebes (382 bce) and similarly attempting to occupy Athens (379 bce). Thebes and Athens entered a new alliance against Sparta, and in 371 bce the brilliant Theban generals Pelopidas and Epaminondas shattered Spartan power forever at the battle of Leuctra. Victorious, Thebes itself now embarked on a period of dominance known as the Theban hegemony (371-362 bce).

Publication and impact

In the upheaval that followed the end of Spartan power, Xenophon—whose fortunes had been made by his alliance with Agesilaus and Sparta—was evicted from his estate at Scillus. There, not far from Sparta, he had lived the comfortable life of a country gentleman. Now, deprived of his former possessions, he was forced to move to Corinth, where he lived in relatively modest circumstances.

Scholars generally believe that it was around this time—the late 370s or early 360s bce—that Xenophon wrote The Persian Expedition. An alternative theory proposes that the first part of the narrative was written soon after Xenophon moved to Scillus in 386 bce, and that the second part, beginning with the passage from book 5 quoted above, was written later.

Whether or not Xenophon’s Anabasis (as the work is called in Greek) was prompted by an-other written account of the expedition, his graceful style and stirring descriptions ensured that his narrative rapidly became the most widely read version. Its publication strengthened the case for Greek unity and, according to scholars, may have helped inspire the eventual conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great. The work remained popular in later times and, like Xenophon’s other writings, won especially high regard from Roman authors. Once unquestioned, Xenophon’s reputation for historical accuracy and reliability has been irreparably damaged by recent scholarship. Archeologists in the twentieth century discovered papyrus fragments of a lost historical work that indisputably invalidates many of Xenophon’s formerly accepted claims. The unknown author, a fellow writer of Xenophon’s day, is called “the Oxyrhynchus historian,” after the Egyptian town where the fragments were found. Yet Xenophon’s literary reputation has survived intact, owing in large part to the skillfully told narrative of The Persian Expedition.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Boardman, John, et al., eds. The Oxford History of the Classical World: Greece and the HellenisticWorld. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sealey, Raphael. A History of the Greek City States 700-338b.c. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Sharrock, Alison, and Rhiannon Ash. Fifty Key Classical Authors. London: Routledge, 2002.

Van Wees, Hans. Greek Warfare. London: Duckworth, 2004.

Xenophon. The Persian Expedition. Trans. Rex Warner. Introduction and notes by George Cawkwell. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1972.