They had been marching for days, and their bodies were tired and hungry. Thousands of miles from home, in a country unfamiliar to them, betrayed by their friends, their commanders murdered, a sense of hopelessness began to descend upon them. Their thoughts were increasingly being haunted by doubt. Were they going to see their families and their home country ever again?
It was dark and it was cold. Many of the men did not have a fire to warm themselves up with. Several of them did not even make it to camp, instead sleeping wherever they could. Deep sleep was out of the question, for the enemy was near and could strike at any time.
However they were not done for. This bleak moment was also the start of an amazing journey that went down in history, their tale a lesson in the strength of character that has been retold countless times ever since. These were the famous Ten Thousand and their story was made immortal in the “Anabasis”.
These men originated from many of the city states and regions of Ancient Greece. They were from Athens and Sparta, Megara, Arcadia, Crete, Thessaly, even Syracuse in Sicily. What brought them together was their skill in warfare and the need to earn a paycheck.
They were mercenaries, but also bound by honor: to their homeland, to their employer and to each other. They were recruited by Cyrus the Younger, a Persian prince who wanted to overthrow his brother Artaxerxes II and become the King of Persia, thus rule over the biggest empire in the world at that time.
When they had gathered together for the first time, they were not disclosed the true purpose of their journey. They were marched deep into Syria and only there were they told their true mission. Only then did they realize that they were to aid Cyrus to overthrow his brother.
They understood this challenge and accepted it. The Greeks continued on and marched into Mesopotamia in order to confront the armies of Artaxerxes. Finally, they met his forces at the Battle of Cunaxa.
The battle did not last long. The Ten Thousand crushed the troops of Artaxerxes while suffering minimal loses themselves, but the victory came to nothing.
Cyrus the Younger was killed in battle as he tried to charge against his brother’s position. Undefeated in battle, but losing their employer, the Greek mercenaries did not know what to do. They offered to make their Persian ally, Ariaeus, the new King, but he refused.
They tried to negotiate with Tissapharnes, the leading satrap of Artaxerxes, but he told them that they needed to lay down their arms. This they refused.
Tissapharnes was a cunning fellow and he managed to win Ariaeus over to his side. The Greeks had no Persian allies left. They were still a force to be reckoned with and the Persians knew that they needed to negotiate.
Deep into the negotiations, the Greek commanders were invited to a feast thrown by Tissapharnes. Trusting that their host would be bound by honor and the sacred rights of the guest, they accepted.
A delegation consisting of most of the leading commanders and their guards came over to the camp of Tissapharnes late in the evening, thinking that they were going to discuss a deal between the two sides. Instead, the leading generals were taken prisoner and later beheaded, while the remainder of the delegation was slaughtered on the spot.
This left the rest of the Ten Thousand without commanders.
Yet at this moment, the lowest point in their journey, they also showed their greatest strength. Being without commanders did not mean that they were without leaders.
In traditional Greek fashion, they held an election and chose several men to replace their murdered commanders, with Xenophon (the man who would go on to later author the “Anabasis”) being among those elected. They showed their resolve not to give up, but instead to push on. The pull of their homes and their loved ones was too powerful.
Their courage was strong, and their drive even stronger. They were going to fight their way out, no matter what it took, no matter how long it took.
Hemmed in by the rivers and in unknown terrain, they decided to march north. Harassed by their enemies led by Tissapharnes along the way, their arms and legs knew no rest. A lesser band of men would have descended into chaos, but they kept their discipline throughout.
They knew their priorities. The most important thing was to secure food and water and this they always managed to do.
As they continued further, their path crossed the lands of many different peoples, some more dangerous than others. They were attacked by numerous tribes and engaged in many skirmishes along the way. They passed through Mesopotamia, Assyria, Armenia and countless other lands until finally one day, a resounding shout thundered through their ranks: “Thalatta! Thalatta! The Sea! The Sea!”
This cry became famous in history, one of the classic quotes of antiquity. Many of the men could not hold back their tears. These were the tears of joy. They were happy not because their journey was at its end, it was far from over, but because they finally reached the shores of the sea and whenever there is a sea, there are other Greeks. They were close to home.
This extraordinary journey demonstrated the strength of character, resolve and courage of this remarkable group of men. Out of the original ten thousand men, only around 60% finally made it home, but the sacrifice of their fallen comrades and the enormous determination of those who survived has served as a source of inspiration throughout history.
When the going got tough, these men did not waver and fall apart, but instead showed what they were made of. It was as if they had been forged out of hard steel and driven by an unstoppable fire in their belly. They did not fold under pressure and stayed disciplined until the end. Even today we can learn a lot from them and other Ancient Greeks in turn.
When faced with a challenge, they laughed. When faced with adversity, they joked.
When in a rut and trying to decide on a course of action, the men lightened up the mood with some banter. One time after a long series of marches they came up to a mountain range which was blocking their passage. The entire area was manned by a troop of enemy tribes, who were intent on not letting the Greeks pass through their territory. The Greek commanders met to decide on the next course of action.
Xenophon came up with two suggestions, either taking over the mountain above the enemy or going on a quick march. In both cases he used the word “steal”, to steal the mountain or to steal the march. Who was going to do it?
After he finished his speech, Xenophon the Athenian then turned to his Spartan colleague, Cheirisophus, and said:
“But what right have I to be drawing conclusions about stealing in your presence, Cheirisophus? For you Lacedaemonians (Spartans), as I have often been told, you who belong to the ‘peers,’ practise stealing from your boyhood up; and it is no disgrace but honorable rather to steal, except such things as the law forbids; and in order, I presume, to stimulate your sense of secretiveness, and to make you master thieves, it is lawful for you further to get a whipping if you are caught. Now then you have a fine opportunity of displaying your training. But take care we are not caught stealing over the mountain, or we shall catch it ourselves.“
Cheirisophus, a master of banter brought up in a tradition of laconic speech, replied:
“I have heard that you Athenians are clever hands at stealing the public moneys; and that too though there is a fearful risk for the person so employed; but, I am told, it is your best men who are addicted to it; if it is your best men who are thought worthy to rule. So it is a fine opportunity for yourself also, Xenophon, to exhibit your education.“
This is how badass they were. Faced with a deadly danger, they started bantering with each other. That is in fact the best way to face down a tough challenge. When in a dangerous situation, lighten down the tone. Do not show your fear.
The legend of their deeds, their courage and their determination has withstood the test of time. Their bodies might have long turned to dust, but their story lives on. Their example will no doubt continue on inspiring countless generations of men to come, in the same way as it has inspired many of the great men of history.