John Prevas’ historical account of Xenophon’s March is not only the best book I’ve read this year but has quickly become one of my top favorite books of all time. The author does a fantastic job engaging the reader in reliving Xenophon’s courageous military retreat from the most hostile forces and circumstances imaginable. John Prevas’ book reminded me of an important historical lesson that as people we must continue to learn from the past in order to make more informed and educated decisions in the future.
Xenophon was a student of Socrates, and was born in Athens around 430 B.C. to a wealthy family. He was convinced by his friend Pronexus to participate in the military expedition led by Cyrus the younger against his older brother, Artaxerxes. Xenophon was a philosopher, historian, solder, and mercenary.
After a bitter civil war between Sparta and the Greek city-states, including Athens, Greece was politically and economically devastated. Professional warriors chose to contract themselves out as mercenaries in order to maintain a living. Artaxerxes II was the king of the Persian Empire which was the dominant ruling institution at the time and had engaged in several conflicts with the Greeks in the years prior. Cyrus was the younger brother of Artaxerxes and wanted to kill his brother in an attempt to take his throne. Cyrus recruited approximately 14,000 Greek mercenaries known as the “Ten Thousand” in search of employment in addition to a number of loyal Persian forces. Lured by the promise of a decent wage, a new home, and provisions from victory, the mercenaries participated in the Campaign in 401 B.C. However, when word broke out that Cyrus was attempting to take the throne for himself, the Greeks refused to continue. They would eventually be persuaded by the Spartan general Clearchus to proceed with the expedition.
When Cyrus died in battle the Persian general and statesmen, Tissaphernes, attempted to make a truce with the Greek mercenaries and invited General Clearchus among three other generals and many captains to a peace conference involving a lavish dinner. Once the officers arrived, the doors closed, and all were slaughtered.
The mercenaries then found themselves afraid and leaderless in a hostile territory 1200 miles away from home. The cries and desperation of the mercenaries were answered when Xenophon emerged and agreed to become their leader and take them back home to the Greek mainland. What happened next became one of the most grueling and terrifying journeys back home across the Armenian mountains in the cold of winter. Under constant threat from the Persians and barbaric tribes along the way, Xenophon utilized his intellect, experience, and wisdom to protect his army, negotiate treatise, and deal with betrayal. Additionally, Xenophon and the mercenaries had to endure the constant depletion of resources and provisions. Under constant scrutiny by his fellow soldiers who would not hesitate to vote and have him executed for lack of leadership, Xenophon endured a leadership crusade to bring hope in the midst of chaos, despair, and uncertainty.
After his retirement from military service, Xenophon lived in peace with his family for two and a half decades before political tensions forced him to relocate to Corinth where he died at the approximate age of 76. During his retirement, Xenophon wrote many works of literature, history, philosophy, biographical accounts, as well as manuals on horsemanship and hunting.
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