The Ancient Dance-Off Of Mercenaries Outside Of Cotyora


A Greek mercenary company known to history as the ‘Ten Thousand’ joined the rebellious Cyrus the Younger in a revolt against the Persian King Artaxerxes II in 401 BCE. Within the year, however, the rebel prince was dead and the mercenaries found themselves stranded near Babylon, with Persian armies and hostile local militias in all directions. Despite the original mercenary leaders being arrested and executed, the Ten Thousand managed to continuously break through roadblocks, mountain ambushes, and guarded river crossings, eventually reaching the eastern end of the Black Sea by 400 BCE. Xenophon—the philosopher, historian and accomplished mercenary—was a leading member of the Ten Thousand, and he later documented their story in his Anabasis Kyrou, translated as Cyrus’ March Up Country or The Expedition of Cyrus.

Upon reaching the Black Sea, the mercenaries gained some more room to breathe. Earlier, in Mesopotamia and the mountains of Armenia, the mercenaries had been constantly pursued by Persian or local armies. On the Black Sea coast, however, the mercenaries were seemingly able to pick and choose their fights. Yet, as the mercenary company was always foraging the countryside for provisions (and loot), there was still plenty of conflict between the warriors-for-hire and the inhabitants of the lands through which they were marching.

The Paphlagonians, an Anatolian people who lived near the Greek colonial city of Sinope, were one of the many regional powers that the mercenaries irritated as they foraged along the Black Sea coast. The mercenary company encountered the Paphlagonians near the city of Cotyora, where, according to Xenophon, the mercenaries stayed for forty-five days. The Ten Thousand (now actually about 8,600) quickly overstayed their welcome, and diplomats from Cotyora’s ally, Sinope, sailed over to keep the mercenaries in line. With a mixture of threats and diplomacy, the mercenaries convinced Sinope and its allies to lend them a fleet of ships so that they could sail back to Greece. Yet, while the mercenaries waited for their transports, the foraging and pillaging continued.

As Xenophon described it, “while they continued to wait, the Greeks supported themselves either by buying food from the market or by plundering the territory of the Paphlagonians” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book 6, section 1). The Paphlagonians, however, did not relinquish their resources without a fight. They repeatedly set up ambushes against the Greek raiders during the day, and at night they attacked any scavenging parties that made the mistake of resting in Paphlagonia. The conflict was tiresome for both sides. Therefore, when the Paphlagonian leader sent diplomats to negotiate a non-aggression pact, the mercenaries eagerly accepted the proposal and held a feast in honor of the Paphlagonian ambassadors.

The feast outside of Cotyora was one of the more charming scenes of life and humanity presented in the Anabasis Kyrou. To start off the revelries, a libation was poured out for the gods, then, between eating and drinking, they sang songs together, accompanied by musicians playing pipes. With wine flowing and music playing, the diverse band of mercenaries decided to have a dance-off of their different cultural dances.

A pair of Thracians were the first to jump to their feet and dance to the sounds of the pipes. According to Xenophon, the Thracians unsheathed their blades and began jumping in time with the music. As they jumped, they took turns jabbing at each other with their swords. The dance ended with one of the two dancers pretending to be stabbed. The ‘wounded’ Thracian put on quite the show, falling to the ground with dramatic flair. When the dancer was done acting out his death scene, his Thracian comrades lifted him up and carried him away, all the while singing battle songs.

Next to dance was a group of Aenianians and Magnesians from the Thessaly region of Greece. They put on a show, called the karpaia, which was even more choreographed than the one performed by the Thracians. Xenophon described the scene as a mock highway robbery where the dancers played the part of a farmer and a thief. Accompanied by the pipe music, the dancers acted out the encounter between assailant and victim, then rhythmically went to battle in time with the tune. The dance apparently had a bit of improvised acting at times, for Xenophon claimed that the victor between the farmer and the thief varied in each performance. Nevertheless, in the dance that Xenophon witnessed, the thief won the battle and stole the farmer’s possessions.

After the dancing thief’s success, an acrobatic Mysian from northwest Anatolia stepped forward to showcase a blend of physical exercise and Persian dance. He carried a shield in each hand and used them in all of his dances. Sometimes, he held the shields out to his sides, as if fending off two attackers. Other times, he had both shields defending a single direction. When the shield shadowboxing was over, the Mysian (still wielding his shields) began rolling around in somersaults. Finally, he began a strenuous dance involving squats and the clashing of shields, all in time with the music, of course.

The Mysian was succeeded by a group of Greek Arcadians—they, along with the Achaeans, were the most populous demographic of the mercenary army. Dressed to impress in their best armor, the Arcadians launched into a religious song and dance that was usually meant to be done in ceremonial processions. As with the other performances, the dancing Arcadians were accompanied by the untiring pipe players. The Arcadians may not have been as imaginative as the others in their choice of dance, but the Paphlagonians nevertheless found it entertaining. This would have been the final dance of the feast if the Arcadians and the Mysian had not plotted one last performance—one that would be the crowd favorite, by far.

One of the Arcadians had with him a professional dancing-girl. The Mysian obtained permission from the Arcadian to dress the dancing-girl in a brilliant set of armor, a shield, and presumably a weapon. The Arcadian agreed and the dancing-girl was equipped in war gear and brought before the feasting mercenaries. With the eyes of the warriors on her, the dancer gracefully threw herself into her own rendition of the famous Pyrrhic dance, one of the most popular war dances of the Greek world. The mercenaries greatly enjoyed watching the dancing-girl’s performance, or perhaps they simply enjoyed watching her. Nevertheless, according to Xenophon, she received the loudest applause of the night. The Paphlagonians, it was said, found her war dance to be so convincing that they were certain that she fought alongside the mercenaries during battles.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A Pyrrhic Dance painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), [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.

Leave a Reply