The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Battle of Cunaxa

In 401 BC, king Artaxerxes younger brother, Cyrus the Younger, led a battle against his brother to try and seize the Persian throne. From Cyrus' perspective, Artaxerxes has been unjustly given the kingship upon his father's death, and it was up to him to seize it back by force. Cyrus gathered a large army of Persian native with grievances against Artaxerxes, but he was forced to supplement this army with a large number of Greek mercenaries. The mercenaries were hired in a very secretive manner, believing they were to help the Persians squash a local rebellion. It wasn't until they had arrived in Persia and already marched for several days, when they were told what was going on. They were understandably reluctant, but Cyrus was ultimately able to coax them to continue with more money.

When Cyrus finally met up Artaxerxes troops for battle, the Persian troops were being led by Tissaphernes, who was a very shrewd and able military strategist. Cyrus had his troops arrayed with himself leading in the middle, with Ariaeus, a Persian, leading a number of Persian natives on the left, and with Clearchus, a Spartan, leading the Greek mercenaries on the right.

Xenophon is our best source for this battle, giving the most detail and having the advantage of being there, so we get the most information from the perspective of him and his fellow Greek troops on the right. The battle they saw was a strong Greek victory, with the Greeks driving back and putting into flight the Persian troops that faced them. As far as they saw it, and the way that Xenophon describes it, it looks like a clear victory. But in the middle of the fray, where Tissaphernes and Cyrus were fighting, things didn't quite go the same. Cyrus faced tough opposition. It has been suggested that Tissaphernes deliberately made his left side (facing the Greeks on the right) weak and had them retreat, in order to distract them and essentially remove them from the battle, while Tissaphernes focused on Cyrus who he wanted to defeat and hopefully kill. Whether this was his deliberate strategy or not, Cyrus and Ariaeus were successfully beaten back and Cyrus was ultimately killed in battle.

Since the Greeks thought they were the victors, they believed that Artaxerxes was defeated and must cede his crown. They even nominated Ariaeus, the most senior Persian on their side still living, king, but he sensibly declined.

In fact, saw the situation as an opportunity to win back his favor with Artaxerxes, and started to scheme with Tissaphernes to betray the Greek generals. Meno, the Thessalian general who was the subject of Plato's dialogue (mentioned in the last post) was, according to Xenophon, quite intimate with Ariaeus (perhaps even romantically intimate) and he met and Ariaeus met with Tissaphernes and participated in their scheming. Ariaeus and Meno then arranged for the Greek generals, including Clearchus, along with many officers and soldiers to meet with Tissaphernes, to arrange some sort of agreement on their safe departure out of Persia. Meno, at this point, played a role in persuading the reluctant Greeks that this meeting was legitimate and Tissaphernes could be trusted.

When the main Greek generals with their retinue of officers and soldiers met with Tissaphernes, though, they were completely betrayed. A few soldiers escaped and ran back to the Greek troops to warn them of the betrayal. The rest were all slain, including the Greek generals, except for Meno. At this point our historical sources appear to diverge. Diodorus and Ctesias both simply say that Meno was spared. Xenophon, though, says that Meno was only spared for the time being, and that he was ultimately imprisoned and tortured for a full year before he was finally killed.

Personally, I tend to subscribe to Xenophon's story. The reasons are for one that Diodorus and Ctesias merely say that Meno was spared, which is not necessarily in conflict with the story that he was spared for the time being but killed much later. In fact, the Persians didn't kill any of the Greek generals right away; they were put in chains and sent to Artaxerxes at Babylon. Attempts were even made to save Clearchus' life before it was finally decided to kill him. Perhaps, it simply ended up being the case that they were indecisive about what to do with Meno for a very long time.

It also is wouldn't be entirely implausible if Ariaeus, despite being close to Meno, betrayed him. The only other major story we have of Ariaeus, outside the events surrounding the Battle of Cunaxa, is a time when he betrayed Tissaphernes, the Persian general at the Battle of Cunaxa. Ariaeus, under orders from Tithraustes, invited Tissaphernes to visit. Tissaphernes apparently trusted Ariaeus, since he came without his bodyguards. Ariaeus offered Tissaphernes a bath, and then while he was unarmed in the bath, Ariaeus and his servants rushed him, tied him up and sent him off to Tithraustes. Tithraustes beheaded Tissaphernes under orders from king Artaxerxes and took Tissaphernes' Satrapi. So, Ariaeus may not have been the most trustworthy friend.

Returning to the Greeks at the Battle of Cunaxa, as noted, those left were warned by some survivors of the betrayal of Tissaphernes. For them, problems were only beginning. Now they were in the middle of hostile and unfamiliar territory, already weakened by battle and with their leaders dead. If you've read the Anabasis (or seen The Warriors) you know that they decided not to surrender to the Persians. They fought their way out of Persia on a long march to the sea, which they ultimately reached and from which they could arrange transportation home to Greece.


  1. Hi!

    I just read you blog post on the battle of Cunaxa, and I was wondering if you know anything more on 'the boats' from your research. If you read plutarchs life of artaxerxes, there is a guy called mithridates who is executed this way for something minor. on wikipedia, there is a page for 'scaphism' which is apparantly the same thing, but it seems like mithridates was the only recorded instance of 'the boats'?

  2. Every mention I found of scaphism referenced either Plutarch or Zonaras, if they referenced anybody, who both describe the death of Mithradates. Wikipedia says there are other accounts, but I couldn't find any or have read any.