The Epic Story of the March of the Ten Thousand Greek Hoplites

The march of ten thousand Greek hoplites is an epic story of brave men who, after victory in a lost war, had to travel through hostile territory to reach home.

Mar 31, 2023By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
guignet cunaxa ten thousand hoplites illustration


The march of ten thousand Greek hoplites is one of the most extraordinary adventures not only from the ancient world but the whole of human history. It is an epic tale of ten thousand (mostly) Greek mercenaries who, in the Persian civil war, fought on the side of Cyrus the Younger against his brother and ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, Artaxerxes II.


Unfortunately for those brave men, they won the battle but lost the war. After Cyrus perished in the Battle of Cunaxa, the Greeks lost their paymaster and patron, finding themselves stranded deep in enemy territory. To reach their distant home, these soldiers had to march across barren, waterless steppes and through snow-blocked mountain passes. On their nearly 5, 000 km (3,100 mile) long “Odyssey,” these soldiers had to fight all sorts of enemies, from Persian armies to mountain warbands. Despite everything nature and man threw against them, after two years of arduous traveling (401–399 BCE), the “Ten Thousand” managed to reach their home.


Ten Thousand Greek Hoplites in the Service of the Persian King

nereid monument british museum
Relief from the Nereid monument depicting the fight of two heavily armored Greek hoplites, ca. 390-380 BCE, via the British Museum


The epic tale of the “Ten Thousand” (ancient Greek οἱ Μύριοι, oi Myrioi) begins in 401 BCE. Ancient Greece was just beginning its recovery from the long and devastating Peloponnesian War between Sparta, Athens, and their allies. However, not everyone enjoyed the long-awaited peacetime. For almost three decades, mercenaries all over the Greek world benefited from the war, enriching themselves. When the fighting ceased, those men needed a new outlet to use their martial talents. They required a new paymaster and patron. And they found one. In the most unlikely of places.


Around the time when the Greek world was ending its bloody struggle, another one was about to begin in the East. Following the death of king Darius II in 404 BCE, the Persian throne passed to his older son Artaxerxes II. However, his younger brother, Cyrus the Younger, also coveted the crown. After his plot to assassinate the king failed, Cyrus began secretly building his army.


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Aware that his forces were insufficient to confront the royal military, Cyrus sent out his men to enlist foreign soldiers. Despite centuries of animosity between the Persians and the Greeks, Cyrus admired the discipline and bravery of the battle-hardened Greek hoplites. Tempted by the promises of pay and military adventure, the Greek mercenaries, around 10,000 strong (thus the name), accepted Cyrus’ offer. They were joined by Thracian light troops and Cretan archers, renowned for their skills with bow and arrow. Right on time, Artaxerxes got news of Cyrus’ military buildup and mobilized his own forces. The civil war was about to begin.


“Ten Thousand” Marching to War

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Helmet of the Corinthian Type, early 5th century BCE, via Metropolitan Museum of Arts


After a months-long journey, in the late Summer of 401 BCE, the “Ten Thousand” and their commander — the Spartan general Clearchus — reached the outskirts of Babylon, one of the capitals of the Persian Empire. It was not a peaceful journey. In a desperate attempt to face his brother’s army before it is fully mobilized, Cyrus forced his troops to carry out a swift and arduous march. Thus, his army was plagued by in-fighting, desertions, and constant supply issues. Yet, “The Ten Thousand” made it across Anatolia, and entered Mesopotamia, the heart of the Achaemenid Empire.


By now, it became apparent to the Greeks that Cyrus’ real intentions were not to eradicate the bandit threat but to confront the full might of the Persian army. But it was too late to retreat. So, after Cyrus promised to increase their pay further, the “Ten Thousand” took their places, preparing to confront the 40,000-strong army of the King of Kings Artaxerxes. The long-awaited battle was about to commence…


Lost Victory

guignet cunaxa ten thousand greek hoplites
Retreat of the Ten-Thousand, Jean-Adrien Guignet, 1842, via the Louvre


The Battle of Cunaxa was a bloody and messy affair. Although vastly outnumbered, the Ten Thousand proved their mettle by charging and routing the Persians facing them. However, while the Greeks scored a significant victory, they lost the war. After seeing his brother on the field, Cyrus attempted to win a swift victory by charging directly at Artaxerxes, wounding him in the chest. However, Cyrus’ gamble backfired after a lone javelin hit him in the eye, ending his dreams of power as well as his life. Cyrus the Younger’s death made his army leaderless, resulting in a complete rout. However, while most rebels fled the battlefield or died trying, the Ten Thousand held firm.


Oblivious to the dire events on the front lines, the Greeks continued their pursuit of the Persians. Yet, when they returned to the battlefield to mop up the stragglers, they found their camp plundered. It was only then that the brave Greek hoplites realized the severity of the situation. With Cyrus dead, the expedition was now pointless, and the Ten Thousand were stranded in the middle of Mesopotamia without allies or a purpose.


Far from Home

march of ten thousand
March of the ten thousand, via Wikimedia Commons


The following morning, Artaxerxes’ envoys arrived with an offer of truce. The Persians reminded the Greeks they were far from home and at the king’s mercy. Only after the Persians allowed them to keep their weapons did the mercenaries accept the offer. However, the peace was not to last. For the Persians, a large and well-trained mercenary army in the heart of their Empire presented a huge problem. So, they decided to use the ruse to eliminate the potential threat. When the Persian satrap (governor) called Tissaphernes offered the Greeks supplies and promised to lead them back home, they accepted. But the satrap had a different plan in mind. He invited the Greek senior officers, including the Spartan commander Clearchus, to a feast, where they were taken prisoner, led before the king, and executed.


Once again, the Ten Thousand lost their leader. However, instead of a quick surrender, the Greeks elected new leaders, including an Athenian called Xenophon. It was Xenophon, who proposed to the war council to immediately set off northwards, towards the Black Sea and friendly territories. Xenophon’s fiery speech bolstered the army’s morale and its determination to embark on the perilous march home. After his proposal was answered with the universal support, Xenophon undertook the difficult task of defending the column’s rear, its most vulnerable point.


To the North

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Illustration depicting the soldiers of the “Ten Thousand”, somewhere in the mountains of Western Armenia, by Johnny Shumate, via


It was a long and arduous journey. Soon after the Greeks began marching north, Persian archers and cavalry attacked the rear guard. The Persian mastery of horsemanship and bow and arrow was impossible to match, and it became the bane of all future invaders, including the legions of Rome. Unsurprisingly, the Cretan archers could hardly resist the enemy’s volleys, while the hoplites, although better protected, were much slower than their mobile opponents. Yet, the Greeks remained resilient, organizing ad-hoc units of slingers and small cavalry corps mounted on packhorses. Time and again, the Ten Thousand demonstrated the ingenuity of the best military the Greek world had to offer. To increase their mobility and flexibility, the Greeks changed their order of march, forming smaller units. They also used lightly armed and highly mobile strike forces to attack the pursuer.


After the Greeks entered the northern reaches of the Zagros Mountains, the Persians turned back. But this gave little respite to the beleaguered warriors. In the area of Corduene (present-day southeastern Turkey), the Ten Thousand had to confront the warlike Carduchians, who rebelled against the Persians, but also considered the Greeks a threat. The new enemy cast down boulders and rained down arrows on the exposed columns. Once again, the Greeks adapted, splitting their forces and using the cover of darkness to hide their movements. Advancing hill-to-hill, the smaller elite units hit the isolated enemy formations while the main column slowly snaked through the mountain passes. However, despite all their efforts, the Ten Thousand almost suffered a complete annihilation after entering Armenian territory. Now they confronted two hostile forces: the pursuing Carduchians in their rear and the army of Armenian satrap in front, which denied the Greeks passage over the Centrites River.


Thalatta! Thalatta!

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The Ten Thousand upon reaching the shores of the Black Sea, illustrated by Herman Vogel, 19th-century, via


Once again, Greek ingenuity saved the group from certain defeat. Xenophon’s rear guard made a feint attack against the Armenians downriver, while the army’s main body, led by the Spartan Cheirisophus, moved to cross the upper ford. The Armenians responded by sending most of their forces to confront Xenophon, allowing Cheirisophus to cross the river.


But while the brave Greeks managed to outrun and outmaneuver their enemies, the worst was yet to come: the winter in the Armenian highlands. Here, the Ten Thousand had to confront another treachery, but also fight against the elements — most notably, heavy snowfall and subzero temperatures. Unsurprisingly, the Greeks managed to overcome both and even surprised their duplicitous “ally”, the local governor Tiribazus, with a preemptive attack on his unprepared force, capturing the governor’s own tent and baggage!


After months of trekking through snowy mountains and numerous causalities lost to hostile attacks, starvation, and frostbite, Xenophon managed to bring his army to the Black Sea coast. Upon seeing the waves, the soldiers cried out the immortal words: “Thalatta! Thalatta!”“The sea. The sea!” One can only imagine the joy of the exhausted but still resilient warriors as they ran forward, driving horses and baggage animals at full speed. The surreal nature of the scene became even more potent after the rearguard, assuming that the enemy had attacked the column’s front, rushed forward with cavalry to offer support. But there was no enemy in sight. Instead, the officers could see only a vast expanse of water and stalwart soldiers. The battle-hardened veterans embraced each other, crying tears of joy. Here at the shores of the Black Sea, the Ten Thousand found their road home.


The March of the Ten Thousand Greek Hoplites as Legend

xenophon statue anabasis book
Cover of the English edition of Xenophon’s the Anabasis, via Penguin; with a statue of Xenophon, in front of the Austrian Parliament Building, late 19th century, via Britannica


The Black Sea marked the beginning of Greek-held territory. The Ten Thousand spent a month in the city of Trapezus (modern-day Trebizond), regaining their strength and celebrating their long-sought safety with athletic games. However, the locals lacked the ships to transport all of the warriors home, so most of the army had to continue their march. On the way, they confronted the last threat, the forces of the hostile satrap Pharnabazus. Once again, the Greeks were victorious, and they forced Pharnabazus to provide ships that would carry the army over the Hellespont. Here at last, in the safety of the Greek colony of Byzantion (the future Constantinople), the epic march of the Ten Thousand Greek hoplites came to an end.


Xenophon, the man whose leadership, charisma and ingenuity assured the survival of three-quarters of the army, a remarkable feat on its own, had one last part to play in the tale of the Ten Thousand. After returning back to Athens, Xenophon recorded the epic adventure and extraordinary odyssey, in his work the Anabasis. By doing this, Xenophon immortalized the march of Ten Thousand for posterity. In one of those moments of irony, the Anabasis inspired none other than Alexander the Great to embark on his famous Persian campaign, which led to the destruction of the Achaemenid Empire. Thus, Alexander’s legacy, the Hellenistic World, and its lasting impact on our own world were an indirect result of the ambition of one Persian leader and the bravery and resilience of the Ten Thousand Greeks.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.