“So—is this the end?” Xenophon asked himself. “You asked for it and now you got it.”
He was lying in a tent in the middle of the Persian Empire. He was with a batallion of Greek mercenaries, though he was no soldier, just a rich kid from Athens. Tomorrow the whole bunch of them, soldiers and rich kid, would probably all be killed, and not very humanely.
“How did you get yourself into such a mess?”
Rhetorical question. He knew. It was his buddy Proxenos’ idea. Proxenos was a general and he had asked Xenophon to join the mercenaries. “We’re going to go over to Asia and help Prince Cyrus take the throne from his brother Artaxerxes,” he explained. “It shouldn’t be too hard. Cyrus says he will reward us all very liberally too, so there’s good money to be had.
I hope you weren’t planning to sit around all your life here in Athens, inventing puzzles with your friend Socrates. It’s time to do something you can tell your grandchildren about.”
So Xenophon had signed on. He went along for the ride, for good old adventure.
The first part of the expedition had been fun. The batallion of mercenaries had crossed over from Greece to Turkey, joined Cyrus’s army, and marched into the Persian Empire without opposition. Xenophon kept a diary and wrote down everything he saw. He admired the brave Prince Cyrus. He sat in on the meetings of the Greek generals and learned a lot about an army and leading men.
But then the day of the great battle came. Cyrus’ forces met Artaxerxes’ royal army in a fierce battle and the intrepid Prince Cyrus got killed. That was the end of his revolt. His army fell apart. The little Greek batallion had fought well for him but now they were in a very ugly situation. They were 1500 miles from home, without food and without money.
Artaxerxes told them to lay down their arms but they decided it would be better to die fighting him than to become his slaves, and they refused. For a few days while Artaxerxes made up his mind what to do with them, nothing happened. Finally he agreed to a truce and asked the Greek generals to come and parley. As soon as they got to his camp he murdered them all. One was Xenophon’s friend Proxenos.
The king then sent a messenger to the Greeks. He ordered them one last time to lay down their weapons and serve him. Xenophon stepped forward as a spokesman for the batallion and told the messenger to go to hell. “And remind your boss that by killing our generals he has broken his oath and made himself despicable to the gods.” The messenger galloped away. That was last night before bed.
Now it was the middle of the night and Xenophon had just had a terrible dream where he saw his Athenian house on fire, struck by lightning.
“Is there really no way out of this?” he asked himself. “Artaxerxes will come to get us first thing in the morning—that’s sure. Are we going to keep lying here doing nothing the rest of the night?
The thing was, the soldiers had no leaders anymore. All the generals were dead. No one was preparing the army to fight or do anything at all.
“SOMEBODY has to do something!” Xenophon declared to himself. “And you?”
“Me? I’m not a soldier. And I’m not old enough to take charge.”
“Oh–you’re waiting until you grow old enough. Well, buddy, if the enemy comes tomorrow you won’t get any older.
Everything points to you and to NOW.”
And in this world by Bruegel, where the great happenings of history and myth happen like only one more common event in a corner of the picture while great inscrutable Nature stirs the earth and simple, ignorant people carry on, there were no drums, no hero music while Xenophon stood up from his sleeping bag and hurried over to the tent where his dead friend Proxenos’ officers lay, to rouse them. “Listen,” he told them. “I have a plan. We’re going to save ourselves…”
Read Your Time to Be a Hero 2 and learn how he got that little Greek army home.
The full story is in Xenophon’s famous classic The March Up Country or The Persian Expedition.