In 399 BCE, the philosopher, historian and mercenary, Xenophon, was in the last year of his famous adventure with the so-called Ten Thousand. The Ten Thousand, as the name suggests, was a Greek mercenary company of over 10,000 warriors that had joined the rebellion of Cyrus the Younger of Persia in 401 BCE. Unfortunately, the rebellion failed and the mercenaries had to fight their way through hostile territory in Babylonia, Mesopotamia and Armenia until they reached the Greek-populated city of Trapezus on the eastern edge of the Black Sea. Their journey was not over, however, as the army had to keep marching westward along the shore, passing by Cerasus, Cotyora, Sinope and Heraclea as they marched for the city of Chrysopolis on the Bosporus. From there, the army (now reportedly numbering about 7,000 men) crossed over to Byzantium, reaching the city around 399 BCE.
At the start of the expedition, Xenophon was not a leader of the mercenaries. Yet, during the march of the Ten Thousand, he was elected by his peers to a position of leadership, and his influence over the army seemingly only increased as time went on. When the Spartan authorities in Byzantium wanted the mercenaries to do a task, they delivered their messages to Xenophon, and when the mercenary army went into the service of Prince Seuthes of Thrace in 399 BCE, the Thracian nobleman treated Xenophon as its main leader.
The mercenary contract in Thrace did not last long, and before the end of year 399 BCE, Sparta had once more hired the mercenary company and shipped them back over to Anatolia. Due to campaigning with the Thracians and rising rates of desertion, the mercenaries that crossed over to Anatolia now numbered between 5,300 and 6,000 men. Xenophon went with his troops back into Persian territory, but like many of his war-wearied comrades, he was beginning to consider other options outside of the mercenary company. In preparation of this move, he let the Spartans take more direct control of the mercenaries. In his memoir of the events, Xenophon (in third person) wrote, “The Spartans took over the booty and set about raising money by appointing quartermasters to do the selling. They incurred a great deal of criticism for their actions in this matter. Meanwhile, Xenophon stayed away and made no secret of the fact that he was getting ready to go home” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book 7, section 7). Nevertheless, as Xenophon marched with the army toward Pergamum, he kept his eyes and ears open for any last schemes to boost his wealth and prestige.
When the army reached Pergamum, Xenophon learned of some information that piqued his interest. During a conversation with one of the city’s prominent Greek families, Xenophon learned of a wealthy Persian named Asidates who lived nearby. The Persian, and his family, reportedly dwelled in a tall tower that oversaw vast pastures full of livestock that were tended to by hundreds of workers or slaves. Guards were known to watch over the farmstead, but Xenophon was assured by his contacts that a band of 300 stealthy warriors would be able to overpower any guards and capture the wealthy Persian, his livestock, and his workers, without any problem. With this tempting information on his mind, Xenophon had a sacrifice performed and the omens read. After the ceremony, the diviner concluded that the gods were favorable to the plan, and Xenophon was so pleased with the answer that he did not bother to do any more reconnaissance work.
Encouraged by the sacrifice, Xenophon reportedly invited a select few of his friends to join him on the mission and also brought in the most dependable and experienced troops from the company. Friends, however, had told other friends, and before long, many in the mercenary camp knew about Xenophon’s upcoming tower heist. When it came time for the raiders to meet at their rallying point, Xenophon was shocked to find over 600 men awaiting his command. After picking the troops he wanted for the clandestine mission, Xenophon and his raiders set out for the tower of Asidates, guided by two informants.
They forded at least one river and marched through the plains of Mysia, finally reaching their target around midnight. Xenophon, in his usual style, vividly described the scene as he and his troops silently crept toward the tower:
“It was close to midnight when they reached the place. The slaves, who were kept around the outside of the tower, ran away, as did most of the livestock, but the Greeks ignored them because they wanted to capture Asidates himself and his personal belongings. But the tower, which was massive and tall, fortified with battlements, and well defended by large numbers of good fighters, proved impossible to take by direct assault. Instead, they attempted to tunnel into the tower through the wall, which was eight clay bricks thick” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book 7, section 8).
Xenophon did not mention if they had planned on the possibility of having to drill through a wall, or if they had brought the equipment needed to do the job. Whatever the case, the mercenaries were loath to leave empty-handed, so they diligently began chipping away at the brick. As they had to remain quiet enough to not wake the tower guards, Xenophon and his comrades made slow progress on the wall. They continued their work for the rest of the night, and the first sunrays of dawn were already peeking above the horizon when the mercenaries finally completed a hole large enough to squeeze through. Yet, by this time, the awakening residents of the tower had become suspicious. Just as the raiders were beginning to creep through the tunnel, someone on the inside jabbed a spear-like object through the hole, stabbing a thigh of an unlucky mercenary. Unfortunately for Xenophon, things were about to get worse.
As soon as the residents and defenders of the tower discovered that they were under attack, they began shooting arrows at the mercenaries from the battlements and through the tunnel. In addition to the staunch defense posed by the tower, Xenophon and his raiders soon heard the unnerving sounds of feet and hooves coming from another direction. Asidates must have been more important, or more powerful, than Xenophon was originally led to believe, for a force of over 1,000 Persian infantry and horsemen, who were apparently camped or patrolling nearby, came rushing to the tower’s aid as soon as the noise of battle rang out.
Stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Xenophon decided that his only option was to flee. The thwarted mercenary raiders began to run for their lives in the direction of Pergamum. Yet, Xenophon and his companions were still not willing to leave empty-handed, so they captured any workers they could grasp, and herded off all of the animals that were in their path. The mercenaries made a square formation around this last-minute plunder and tried to hold onto their loot while desperately fending off the pursuing Persian horsemen and archers.
Meanwhile, back in Pergamum, some of the people who knew of Xenophon’s plan, but did not go, were now worried about their comrades and marched off with their own force in the direction of Mysia. These reinforcements met Xenophon’s beleaguered band at a river running through the region of Teuthrania. By this point, Xenophon’s raiding party was in a sorry state—half of the warriors in the square formation had been wounded by the still-pursuing Persians. The sight of Greek reinforcements, however, caused the Persian force to finally end its chase. Thankfully for Xenophon, none of his wounded men reportedly died. Better yet, they managed to successfully capture around 200 of Asidates’ workers, as well as enough animals to perform a few sacrifices.
Xenophon took a day to rest after his return from the disastrous raiding attempt. Yet, once that day was done, he rallied his whole mercenary force in an effort to seek revenge against Asidates. Word apparently spread that the mercenaries were bent on revenge, so the Persian fled from his tower and hid near a town called Parthenium. Xenophon described his efforts to capture the elusive Persian, proudly stating of himself, “Xenophon and his men came across him there and captured him, his wife, his children, his horses, and everything he had. And so the omens of the earlier sacrifice turned out to be true” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book 7, section 8).
After capturing Asidates and everything he held dear, Xenophon returned to Pergamum. There, still in the year 399 BCE, Xenophon relinquished control of the mercenary army to a Spartan commander named Thibron and finally parted ways with the mercenary company.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (modified Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526 1530–1569), [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.