The army of Greek mercenaries was armed now and ready to march. Xenophon had been thinking about its formation.
“We’ve always marched ahead of our baggage train,” he told the officers, “and it holds us back. Sometimes the vanguard goes ahead so fast it separates from the column. Very dangerous. Why don’t we march in a hollow column, our provisions and camp servants in the middle and armed soldiers all around them? That way they will be well-protected and we will all march together.”
This seemed sensible and everyone agreed. “In any case,” said Xenophon, “the enemy is going to attack our rear. I’ll take charge of it unless another captain has a preference.”
So at dawn they told the Persian general’s emissary, who had come with the order for them to lay down their arms, that they were leaving.
A short distance after they had started out, the Persians attacked their rear.
Here Xenophon made his first mistake.
The enemy emissary with four hundred horsemen and slingers approached the Greek rear as though he wanted to do more parleying. When he was near his soldiers started shooting and wounded many Greeks, who could do little to repel them.
Remember that the Greeks had no calvary and only a few Cretan archers with short bows. The Persian slingers and bowmen stayed outside their range.
Xenophon impulsively ordered his men to charge them and they ran after the Persians until they were out of breath.
Then they were dangerously exposed. They had to return to their column for protection and the Persians wounded many as they retreated, even sometimes getting between them and their column.
The other Greek generals afterwards rightly criticized Xenophon for his order, which cost many casualties. “You could do little harm to the enemy and you exposed your soldiers dangerously,” they told him.
“I had to do something,” Xenophon answered. “We were getting badly shot up just standing there.”
But he knew he was wrong and it is to his credit that he put the error in his book. It shows that he really meant to teach his readers the lessons he had learned and was not merely writing in praise of himself.
Now the army was underway. It was a long, desperate march through Armenia (part of the Iraq of today), Paphlogonia, Bithynia (part of the Turkey of today), and along the coast of the Black Sea with Artaxerxes’s army or that of a local ruler always on their heels and sometimes waiting to ambush them.
Map showing Xenophon’s route to the Black Sea
Once the army came to a wide, swift river. Now what?
“Great perplexity,” says Xenophon. “For on one side were mountains, exceedingly high, and on the other side the river so great in depth that not even the spears of those who were testing the depth protruded from the water.” Behind them was the enemy calvary.
A “certain man from Rhodes” stepped forward. “I know how to get your army across,” he told Xenophon.
Sure, thought Xenophon and his generals. “We’re listening,” he told the man.
“You must provide me with everything I require, and give me a talent [a hundred thousand dollars?].”
“Well, what do you require?” asked Xenophon.
“Two thousand skins. See all the sheep and goats and oxen and asses around us? Skin them and inflate the skins. Those will support a bridge. With the ropes you use for your pack mules I’ll tie the skins to each other and to the banks. I’ll anchor them in the water with stones. On top of the skins I’ll put wood planks and dirt. Every skin will keep two men from sinking and the wood and earth will keep them from slipping.”
Xenophon says the generals rather liked the idea but figured it wouldn’t work because the enemy cavalry would prevent the engineers from reaching the far bank. He doesn’t say what they thought of killing their pack animals and destroying their food supply.
See Your Time to be a Hero 5 and read about the most famous episode of the book: the day they reached the sea.
Back to Your Time to be a Hero 3