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Monday, June 1, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

In 401 BC, 10,400 Greek mercenaries joined with the forces of Cyrus the Younger, brother of the Persian Emperor, Artaxerxes II. Cyrus told the Greeks he was going to fight Tissaphernes, a Persian satrap who was claiming jurisdiction over cities loyal to Cyrus. There was only one problem -- Cyrus lied to the Greeks. From the beginning, he planned on marching into the heart of the Persian empire to seize the throne from his brother.

So begins one of the great, true adventure stories of all time. Known as the March of the 10,000, the story of the Greek mercenaries in Persia is one of the best documented stories from ancient history. Under the title Anabasis, the tale of the 10,000 was written by Xenophon, one of the Greek mercenaries and, eventually, one of their leaders. Sadly, this story is relatively unknown these days. Given that my son's sixth grade class was allotted one class period to cover all of Greek history (the teacher was appalled at the schedule she was given), it's hardly surprising.

Back to our story. The longer the Greeks marched with Cyrus's army, the more suspicious they became of his motives. Their leader, Clearchus, asked Cyrus if his actual intent was to attack his brother. Cyrus lied again, claiming his sole aim was to punish Tissaphernes. Cyrus must have been a very poor liar, because the Greeks remained suspicious and continued questioning Cyrus's eventual goal. Eventually, Cyrus admitted the truth and begged the Greek mercenaries, who he viewed as superior warriors to his own Persian troops, to stay with the army. The Greeks put it to a vote and decided to stay with Cyrus provided he increased their pay. Cyrus agreed and the army marched to Cunaxa, in what was ancient Babylon. There Cyrus's army and the Greeks would meet Artaxerex II and his Persian army.

When battle was joined, the Greeks were on the right flank, next to a river. The Greeks met the Persian flank and drove them backward for several miles before routing the Persians entirely. Along the way, the Greeks lost contact with the rest of Cyrus's army; something which was not that uncommon in ancient warfare.

Pleased with the battle, the Greeks marched back to rejoin what they assumed was Cyrus's victorious army. Instead of a hero's welcome, the Greeks found their camp looted, Cyrus dead and his army defeated. Oops.

This is when things started getting interesting for the Greeks. Artaxerxes sent word to the Greeks to lay down their arms and surrender. The Greeks refused, claiming they had won the battle. Artaxerxes pointed out that Cyrus was dead. The Greeks said Cyrus's death didn't change anything and demanded the return of their supplies, promising to return to Greece if Artaxerxes would do this. In return, Artaxerxes invited the Greek leaders to his camp to negotiate the details of their proposal. The Greeks agreed to the meeting.

After all the time Cyrus spent lying to them, you'd think the Greeks would have been less willing to accept another Persian's word. Artaxerxes had no interest in negotiating with the Greeks. The Greek leaders arrived at the Persian camp with an escort of about 200 warriors. Asked to disarm as a show of good faith, the Greek leaders left their weapons outside the meeting tent. Once inside, the Greek leaders were killed and their escort attacked. Few of the 200 man escort survived to return to the Greek camp.

If Artaxerxes thought killing their leaders would make the Greeks surrender, he was in for a surprise. The Greeks quickly elected new leaders, including Xenophon, and awaited orders. Correctly assuming Artaxerxes wasn't going to let them leave peacefully, the Greeks gathered what equipment and supplies they had and started marching back home.

Think about that for a minute. Over one thousand miles inside the world's largest, most powerful empire, with no supplies, camped just a few miles from the Persian Emperor's personal army, with every sword and spear in that empire turned against them, the Greeks just decided to march back home. When news of this reached Artaxerxes, I've got think he laughed at the Greeks' sheer bravado. Once he stopped laughing, he ordered his army into pursuit.

What followed was an amazing tale of courage, determination and brutality as the Greeks marched and fought and sacked their way through hundreds of miles teeming with Persian armies and tribes of savage natives. A big reason the Greeks were able to fight their way through the heart of the Persian Empire was the way the Persian satraps responded to them. Once the Greeks marched out of a province, that province's satrap left them alone. Had any of the satraps along the way been able to put aside their differences and work together, the March of the 10,000 would probably have been a lot shorter.

As it was, the Greeks marched across deserts, though snow-covered mountain passes and all forms of terrain in between those extremes. Xenophon and the other leaders were forced to change their tactics constantly to match ever changing terrain, ever changing opponents and their perpetual shortage of supplies.

Eventually, barely more than 6000 of the Greeks survived to reach the Black Sea and begin the sea voyage back to Greece. While this was not the end of the adventures of the mercenaries, it's where I'm going to stop recounting their tale.

Why did I write all about the March of the 10,000? I wrote about it because it's an excellent example of ancient history inspiring modern science fiction and fantasy. We all know that ideas aren't really that hard to come up with, but writers are also happy to snag the odd story idea that is already developed. Ancient history in a surprisingly good source for this.

Consider the March of the 10,000. What if, instead of stranding 10,000 Greek mercenaries in the middle of a rich and powerful empire, we strand a few hundred marines of the future on a technologically primitive world. Destroy their long range communications equipment and place them half a world away from the only space port on the planet. Toss in a spoiled prince to protect and return to civilization and you've got David Weber and John Ringo's Prince Roger series. The first book of the series is even titled March Up Country, which is one of the English translations of Anabasis, the title of Xenophon's work. If you like military science fiction, this series is a good one. I think Weber and Ringo should have gone for a happy ending after the third book. Instead, they carried their story on beyond simply returning home in triumph. The fourth book, while good, wasn't on par with the first three in the series. Worse, the fourth book leaves you expecting a fifth book which shows no sign of ever being written.

If you prefer to go interstellar, you could trap a lone fleet deep in enemy territory and force them to fight their way back to their home territory one star system at a time. That would give you Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series, planned as a six book series for which five books have already been released. Campbell goes further, mixing in a bit of the Arthurian legend, too. If you like space opera and military science fiction, this is very good series.

I didn't write all of that stuff on the March of the 10,000 just to spend a couple of short paragraphs reviewing a few books based on the story. My main goal was to show how easily ancient history can be used as a spring board for modern stories.

The history of man is brimming with stories such as this. Next time you're stuck for an idea, check the history books. I'm betting you'll find more ideas than you can use in a life time.
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