The Disastrous Launching Of A Mercenary Army From Byzantium in 399 BCE


A band of Greek mercenaries known as the ‘Ten Thousand’ joined the rebel army of Cyrus the Younger in 401 BCE against King Artaxerxes II of Persia. Before the year was over, the rebellion was crushed at the Battle of Cunaxa in Babylonia and Cyrus was dead. The band of Ten Thousand that was serving with the rebellion, however, remained virtually unscathed. From 401-400 BCE, the mercenary army traveled through the hostile lands of Mesopotamia and Armenia, all the while fending off ambushes and skirmishes by Persian satraps and local militias. The mercenary army finally arrived on the Black Sea coast around 400 BCE, where they were glad to find Greek-populated cities, such as Trapezus, Cerasus, Cotyora, Sinope and Heraclea. By this point, the mercenaries had more room to breathe, and, with the threat of the Persian army reduced, the mercenaries became increasingly more undisciplined and rowdy. The Greek cities on the coast of the Black Sea quickly became annoyed with the mercenaries’ antics—they tried their hand at piracy near Trapezus, murdered some elders in Cerasus, raided the villages of Cotyora, threatened Sinope for ships, and attempted to extort money from Heraclea. Yet, to the relief of the cities, the mercenary army kept traveling and eventually camped at Calpe Harbor, where they fended off one last attack from the Persians. The mercenaries then traveled to the city of Chrysopolis, where they were ferried across the Bosporus to Byzantium, the seat of power for the local Spartan governors.

It was around 399 BCE when the Ten Thousand (now reduced to a little over 7,000) reached Byzantium. Evidently, the wearied troops were in need of a break from campaigning, and were in favor of returning to their homes in Greece proper or resting in Byzantium. The Spartan naval commander of the region, Anaxibius, however, was in no way eager to see the mercenary company stay in Byzantium—rightly so, after the trouble the mercenaries had given the other Greek cities along the Black Sea coast. Anaxabius reportedly hoped that the mercenaries would disband, but, when that did not happen, the next best option was to promptly send the army away from the city. If the Spartan commander could push them into Thracian lands in Europe, all the better—for it would be a show of good will toward the irritated Persians. Therefore, Anaxibius quickly shooed the mercenaries from Byzantium and gave the generals of the company orders to march the troops to the Thracian Chersonese, where the local Spartan authorities would buy their services. As a final measure, once the mercenaries were herded outside of the city walls, Anaxabius had a veteran Spartan general, Eteonicus, bar the gates of Byzantium shut.

Although the plan of marching to the Chersonese was known to the mercenary company’s generals (including Xenophon, the most famous source for these events), the average spear-for-hire in the army was not privy to that information. Perhaps, the bulk of the army thought they would be marching back to their homelands in Attica or the Peloponnesus. Nevertheless, word soon spread to the common footmen that they were not heading home, but marching toward a new campaign in Thracian land. When this news was disseminated, the men were not happy at all—in fact, the army broke into complete chaos.

According to Xenophon, he and the shocked mercenary generals faced a complete mutiny. The troops refused to march and instead grabbed their weapons and rushed back to the gates of Byzantium. The aforementioned Spartan general, Eteonicus, had by now shut the gates and the mercenaries could only bang on the doors in vain. Yet, the stubborn warriors were not to be stopped, for they traced their way along the walls all the way to the shore of the sea, where they crossed the breakwater into the city. With enraged mercenaries now inside and outside of the city, the Spartan garrison of Byzantium (including Anaxibius and Eteonicus) withdrew to a defensible acropolis. The mercenaries inside the city then broke open the gate for the rest of the army still outside. Xenophon described the chaos inside Byzantium as the mercenaries poured in: “The sight of the troops forcing their way into the city made the people of Byzantium evacuate the marketplace and run for their ships or their homes, while those who were indoors ran out into the streets and others set about launching the city’s war fleet, trusting the triremes to keep them safe” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book 7, section 1). Before long, the mercenaries had control of all Byzantium except the acropolis. Just as the Spartan commander, Anaxibius, was considering calling in the garrison of Chalcedon, the mercenary generals finally brought their wild troops to order and quarantined themselves in a field within the city.

The mercenary generals were miraculously able to talk their way out of their army’s bizarre occupation of Byzantium without any immediate consequences from Sparta. The calmed mercenaries once more withdrew from the city and allowed the Spartan governor and naval commander of Byzantium to warily leave their acropolis stronghold. To the relief of Byzantium, the mercenaries marched off into Thracian land and set up a camp near some villages. Yet, not all of the mercenaries had left Byzantium. According to Xenophon, 400 mercenary stragglers who refused to leave Byzantium were arrested and sold into slavery by the Spartan authorities.

Written By C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Metellus raises the siege, painted by Armand-Charles Caraffe (1762–1822), [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.

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