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At the battle of Cunaxa, two claimants to the Persian throne lined up their armies. One of them had a large force of Greek infantry, and both kings had men in their armies who went on to become famous writers. One of those aristocratic camp followers, Xenophon, tells a story which has puzzled many readers (Anabasis 1.8.19 from the Loeb). When the armies were about 600 or 800 yards apart, the Greek mercenaries ran forward:

And before an arrow reached them, the barbarians broke and fled. Thereupon the Greeks pursued with all their might, but shouted meanwhile to one another not to run at a headlong pace, but to keep their ranks in the pursuit.

It was very common in the 5th century BCE for one side to run away as the enemy approached, or after a few moments of fighting hand-to-hand. Combat is terrifying, and most soldiers of the day did not have a lot of practice working as a group. But it is very unusual for an army to run away before the enemy was within bowshot. What happened?

Some readers have imagined that the troops who ran away were engaged in a cunning plan to draw the Greeks away from the rest of the army so it could be defeated before they returned. Supposedly, Xenophon’s enemies knew that Greek hoplites were the best troops in the world, and that the only hope was not to fight them at all. I think I encountered this theory in Ancient Warfare III.6, and from a speaker with a PhD and a teaching job at the conference in Winnipeg, but it seems to come from a book by Robin Waterfield who was retelling an article by C. T. H. R. Ehrhardt in the Ancient History Bulletin from 1994.

The problem with rationalizing this story is that it assumes that Artaxerxes (the king on the other side of the field) and Tissaphernes (one of his governors) knew that their troops were no match for the Greeks. But how could they know that? Troops from the centre of the empire had not fought Greeks for generations, and the last time they had fought they had won. The Athenian invaders had been driven from Cyprus and Egypt and forced to make peace with the king. When the rebel satrap Pisuthnes hired some Greek mercenaries under an Athenian captain, they had accepted a bribe to change sides rather than fight Tissaphernes and the King’s men. So why would Artaxerxes and Tissaphernes have assumed that this squabbling gang of hirelings was so much more formidable that they should not even try to fight them? The French in 1914 hardly marched gloomily into battle because their grandfathers had been defeated by the Prussians. Instead, many of them performed acts of shocking bravery, because they were determined to do better and erase the shame of the previous war. While Xenophon has Cyrus assure the Greeks that they are the strongest part of his army, he does not put those words in Artaxerxes’ mouth, and it was Artaxerxes who gave the orders on the other side of the battlefield.

Rationalization is a heuristic: it assumes that a story consists of a nugget of truth around which fictional details have accreted. A heuristic does not have to be completely right all the time as long as it is close enough most of the time. There is an entire field of research trying to learn about the historical Jesus by rationalizing the Gospels (although even among secular scholars, not everyone believes that this can lead to truth). But its wise to think about when rationalization is likely to fail and not trust it in those situations.

In the case of rationalization, the problem is that sometimes the story is not a mythicized history, but a historicized myth. If the mythical parts are the original ones, then removing them will not get you closer to the original version of the story. People working on the early history of Greece are very sensitive to this problem, because most of their sources for political history are anecdotes written down centuries after the fact. While its tempting to think that stories about the age of the heroes or the Seven Sages have a basis in truth, there are no reliable ways to identify that basis. The story about George Washington and the cherry tree is great fun, but it was invented by Mason Weems after his death. The kernel of truth in the story is not a fact about George Washington but the kind of story which Americans liked to tell about him after his death.

Now, Xenophon is the only eyewitness to the battle whose work survives. But we do have another long account by Diodorus of Sicily, who had spent years in libraries reading different sources and chose to rely on some of those other writers instead of Xenophon. And he has a different take on when the Persians ran away (Diodorus 14.23.1-4):

When the troops with Cyrus approached the King's army, such a multitude of missiles was hurled upon them as one could expect to be discharged from a host of four hundred thousand. Nevertheless, they fought but an altogether short time with javelin and then for the remainder of the battle closed hand to hand. The Lacedaemonians and the rest of the mercenaries at the very first contact struck terror into the opposing barbarians both by the splendour of their arms and by the skill they displayed. … Consequently they straightaway put their opponents to flight, pushed after them in pursuit, and slew many of the barbarians.

He also gives two reason for the outcome of this fight, whereas Xenophon does not say in so many words why Artaxerxes’ men fled. Where Xenophon implies that the Greeks won because a Greek can beat any number of barbarians, Diodorus says that this specific Greek army was so experienced and well-equipped that their particular opponents could not match them.

In the case of Xenophon’s account of Cunaxa, we know that his version differed from that in other contemporary sources (Plutarch shows us this). We know that his was written down years after the battle in response to other versions which were circulating (he cites one of them). And we know that he hated Tissaphernes, was no admirer of Artaxerxes, and had spent time after the battle in the company of Spartans who swore that if the other Greeks just obeyed them they could conquer the whole Persian empire. He is vague on how much of the battle he saw himself and how much he heard from others, and qualifies some of his most vivid descriptions with “they say that …” It is therefore very probable that as he told and retold the story of the battle, Tissaphernes and his men became more and more cowardly, and Cyrus and the Greeks became braver and nobler. Perhaps the Persians in the actual battle fought briefly then ran (that is what Diodorus says, and he had read both Xenophon and many sources which we have lost). Churchill’s history of the Second World War, or the German generals’ memoirs which were vague about that business in Poland but very specific about how they could have beaten the Russians if only Hitler had not held them back, are contemporary accounts by competent soldiers, but that does not mean we should trust them. And citing other stories of cowardly barbarians in the Anabasis to support Xenophon’s story of Cunaxa brings us back to the question of how much he ‘improved’ things in retelling. Different stories in the same book by the same author are not independent sources!

This does not mean that the troops opposite the Greek phalanx fought well. They certainly lost. But we should be open to the possibility that the best way to explain Xenophon’s story is not to imagine how it could have happened, but to ask whether it happened at all.

Further Reading:

  • C.T.H. Ehrhardt, “Two Notes on Xenophon, Anabasis, 1-4,” Ancient History Bulletin, Volume 8 (1994) pp. 1-4 http://ancienthistorybulletin.org/
  • Robin Waterfield, Xenophon’s Retreat: Greece, Persia, and the End of the Golden Age (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2006) p. 18 {probably much more widely read than Ehrhardt’s article}
  • John Shannahan, “Two Notes on the Battle of Cunaxa,” Ancient History Bulletin Volume 28 (2014) Numbers 1-2 pp. 61-81 http://ancienthistorybulletin.org/ {Rebuts “Two Notes on Xenophon” but does not spend long asking how Xenophon’s story about the fighting relates to the reality}