The Destructive Trek Of The ‘Ten Thousand’ Mercenaries Along The Black Sea Coast


In late 401 BCE, an army of over 10,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries fought on the side of the rebel, Cyrus the Younger, against King Artaxerxes II of Persia at the Battle of Cunaxa, which took place somewhere in Babylonia. The rebel leader, Cyrus, was slain during the battle, but the Greek mercenaries survived remarkably intact. With their employer dead and the rebellion crushed, the Greek mercenaries found themselves in an incredibly precarious situation—they were deep in foreign territory beside an army of the king they had just tried to kill. Nevertheless, the two sides maintained peace for a time.

A truce was brokered and Artaxerxes II entrusted the handling of the Greek problem to several governing satraps, including Tissaphernes, a Persian noble who was often entangled in Greco-Persian issues. The mercenaries and the watchful Persians coexisted as the Greeks marched past several villages and cities, yet at a place along what was called the Zapatas River, the situation changed drastically. Both sides blamed the other for the breakdown in relations. Greeks accused the Persians of treachery, while Persians decried the mercenaries for looting. Both sides were partially right—it appears that Tissaphernes provided the Greeks too little food at too high a price, and the mercenaries scavenged for food out of necessity. Whatever the case, the Persians arrested twenty-five of the highest-ranking mercenary officers and executed them, some immediately, and others at a later date.

After the arrest of the mercenary commanders, a group of around one hundred surviving field officers gathered to elect new leadership. The two most important of these newly elected mercenary generals were Chirisophus (a Spartan who would command the front) and Xenophon, an Athenian who took command of the rear guard. That same Xenophon would later write down the experiences of these mercenaries, remembered as the Ten Thousand, in his Anabasis Kyrou (The Upcountry March/Expedition of Cyrus).

Under the leadership of the likes of Chirisophus and Xenophon, the mercenaries began the next phase of their journey. Persians forces were now openly hostile to the Greek mercenaries, and the stranded warriors-for-hire were often stalked and harassed. Yet, the Greeks were not the only people endangered because of the breakdown in relations. As the Greeks were no longer provided with a supply line by the Persians satraps, local villages and cities (with their food, shelter and wealth) became more and more tempting to the army of hungry mercenaries. In consequence of their foraging and looting, the Greek mercenaries made many enemies during their journey through Mesopotamia and Armenia, and finally the shores of the Black Sea.

Around 400 BCE, the mercenaries reached the Greek-populated city of Trapezus, located on the southeast end of the Black Sea. By this point, the discipline that had allowed the mercenaries to survive Persian armies and local militias in multiple roadblocks, mountain ambushes, and full-scale battles began to diminish. Upon reaching the coast of the Black Sea, more and more mercenaries began to seek loot to the point of insubordination against their commanders. To keep the troops happy (and fed), the mercenary generals were now always on the lookout for places to pillage.

The city of Trapezus was spared, but the region surrounding it was foraged to the extent that scavengers sent out by the mercenaries were gone for more than a day before returning with supplies. Meanwhile, the mercenaries received one or two ships from the Trapezuntians, with which the mercenaries tried their hand at piracy and commandeered several unlucky merchant vessels. Eventually, the people of Trapezus thought of a way to gain a respite from their rowdy guests—they sent the mercenaries off to raid a rival people, called the Drilae. Half of the mercenary army accepted the plan and invaded the Drilae lands, where they besieged and broke into a stronghold and gathered as much loot as they could before being forced out by local opposition.

After the raiders returned from the territory of the Drilae, the mercenaries decided to resume their travels. They had not commandeered enough ships to carry the reported 8,600 mercenaries who were still fit to fight, but some of the camp followers and injured were able to sail alongside the marching adventurers. Departing from Trapezus, the mercenaries and their rag-tag fleet of commandeered ships reached the nearby city of Cerasus. This city, too, was mainly populated by Greeks. Yet, the rowdiness of the mercenaries was increasing and they showed this city less respect than they did Trapezus.

According to Xenophon, a certain Clearetus and a band of warriors went rogue and attacked some villages that were under the protection of Cerasus. Three elders from the afflicted villages traveled to Cerasus to report the incident. They delivered their message, but were soon after murdered by some of the guilty mercenaries. The mercenaries also caused trouble for the Greek inhabitants of Cerasus—Xenophon claimed that a mob of angry mercenaries tried to stone an unfortunate market official named Zelarchus to death.

From Cerasus, the mercenaries bumbled their way into the midst of a civil war among a group of people known as the Mossynoecians, which roughly translates to ‘those who live in wooden towers.’ The mercenaries joined the rebel side of the conflict and besieged what the Greeks thought was the capital city of the region. The mercenaries captured the city for the rebels, but not before looting the buildings and setting fire to its wooden structures.

After helping the rebel Mossynoecians win their war, the mercenaries continued their march westward along the coast of the Black sea. They then reached the Chalybian people, who were likely spared maltreatment because they were subjects or allies of the Mossynoecian regime that the mercenaries had just helped. After the Chalybians, the Greeks encountered a group called the Tibarenians. The appraising eye of the mercenaries recognized that the land would be easy for an army to maneuver over and that the Tibarenian settlements were poorly defended. It was a tempting target for even the most pacifistic of the mercenary leaders. The Tibarenians, who likely had heard tales of the devastation left behind in the wake of this mercenary army, sent out delegates to offer the foreigners friendship and military access. Xenophon (in third person perspective) gave a blunt account of the his and his comrades’ response to these delegates: “The generals wanted to attack the villages, to give the men a little something by way of profit, so they refused to accept the tokens of friendship which arrived from the Tibarenians, but told them to wait until they had decided what to do” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book V, section 5).

After delivering this eerie response, the mercenary generals called for animal sacrifices to be performed and had diviners read omens to determine if the gods were in favor of the Greeks attacking the Tibarenians. As stated earlier, the mercenary commanders were eager to attack, so when the first sacrifice and omen reading produced a disappointing outcome, they sacrificed a second time…and a third time, so on and so forth. Xenophon described their battle with the will of the gods: “They performed sacrifices, and eventually, after many victims had been sacrificed, the diviners unanimously declared that the gods were absolutely opposed to war” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book V, section 5). With no divine support for the planned raids, the mercenaries accepted the friendship of the Tibarenian people and marched peacefully through their land to reach the Greek-inhabited city of Cotyora.

The Tibarenians were lucky, for when the mercenaries reached Cotyora, they quickly began to cause drama. Although the city and the mercenaries initially exchanged cheerful greetings, held religious processions and competed in athletic contests, the warriors-for-hire soon began to cause tension by scavenging from the local villages. The mercenaries caused such a stir that delegates from the powerful city of Sinope (the colonizer of Trapezus, Cerasus and Cotyora) arrived on the scene and told the mercenaries to behave themselves or face dire consequences.

The army, however, did not change their ways. They went on to threaten Sinope to send a fleet of transport ships for the mercenaries to use, and later attempted to extort money from the city of Heraclea. Even after the mercenaries reached Byzantium—the seat of Spartan power in the region—the roaming army remained chaotic. The mercenaries momentarily occupied Byzantium, forcing the Spartan officials to seek shelter in a stronghold. Yet, there were smooth-talkers in the ranks of the mercenaries who were able to miraculously talk the Spartans out of imposing any drastic consequences. Instead, the army left the city and offered their services to Prince Seuthes of Thrace.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Sketch of the Ten Thousand reaching the Black Sea, by Bernard Granville Baker (1870-1957), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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