Cyrus the Younger was the ambitious son of King Darius II (r. 423-404 BCE) and a younger brother of King Artaxerxes II (r. 404-358 BCE). Cyrus and Artaxerxes II were both born from Queen Parysatis, but she reportedly showed clear favoritism for Cyrus. With the help of his doting mother, Cyrus the Younger was appointed by his father as the political and military ruler of Lydia, Cappadocia and Phrygia in Anatolia. As governor of those regions, Cyrus helped the Peloponnesians win the Peloponnesian War (ended 404 BCE) against the Athenian Empire, earning the Persian prince many powerful friends in Greece. In 401 BCE, after Darius II had died and was succeeded by Artaxerxes II, Cyrus the Younger hired around 14,000 Greek mercenaries, and mobilized a greater number of additional forces from his own domains. With his army, estimated to be between 70,000-100,000 men by ancient sources, but reduced to 20,000-30,000 warriors by modern estimates, Cyrus marched out of Anatolia, through Syria and trekked into Babylonia, hoping to overthrow his brother and seize the Persian throne.
Somewhere along the Euphrates River, at a site called Cunaxa, Cyrus the Younger was intercepted by the royal army of King Artaxerxes II, a force claimed by the ancients to have been between 400,000-900,000 strong, yet modern estimates have reduced the number to about 60,000. Whatever the case, Cyrus’ army was greatly outnumbered—Xenophon, a mercenary in the rebel army, wrote that Artaxerxes’ battle line extended so far beyond that of Cyrus that the rebel left flank was in danger of being surrounded from the get-go. Nevertheless, the Greek mercenaries (on the rebel right wing) charged forward against their opponents. Cyrus, too, in a scene that would make the future Alexander the Great proud, led a cavalry charge straight for his brother, Artaxerxes. According to sources on both sides of the conflict, Cyrus’ charge succeeded in breaking through rows of Persian warriors and he triumphantly reached his foe. The brothers exchanged blows, but Cyrus was the first to draw blood. He struck Artaxerxes on the chest with his spear, leaving a wound that the king’s doctor, Ctesias, reported was five centimeters deep. King Artaxerxes II was reportedly knocked off his horse by the impact of the blow and he was promptly carried away for medical treatment.
With the Greeks making progress on the right wing, and Cyrus victorious in the duel against his brother, the rebel army was poised for greatness. Yet, Cyrus the Younger had failed to heed the advice given to all children who pedal bicycles and leather-clad adults who ride motorcycles—the prince had tragically forgotten to wear his helmet. Xenophon (on Cyrus’ side) wrote that the prince simply chose not to wear any protective headgear into battle, whereas Ctesias (on Artaxerxes’ side) claimed that Cyrus rode into battle wearing only a poorly-fitted royal tiara that fell from his head early on during the battle. Consequently, at the climax of the battle, just after unhorsing Artaxerxes, Cyrus the Younger had no protection against a javelin or dart that came flying toward his head. Xenophon and Ctesias agreed that the projectile slammed into Cyrus’ head, hitting somewhere near the level of the prince’s eyes, although they disagreed on whether the weapon flew in from the front or the side. Despite the horrific wound, Cyrus continued to cling to life for some time after the blow, but he eventually succumbed to his injury and fell from his horse, dying not long after. When news of his death spread, Cyrus’ Persian followers fled the battlefield, leaving the Greek mercenaries alone in Babylonia with an angry Persian king, but the march home of these so-called Ten Thousand is a story for another day.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Battle of Cunaxa and the retreat of the 10,000, painted by Adrien Guignet (1816–1854), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Anabasis Kyrou (The Expedition/ Upcountry March of Cyrus) by Xenophon and translated by Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.