The Persian Expedition

By Xenophon, Rex Warner, George Cawkwell, Xenophon, Rex Warner, George Cawkwell

6,813 ratings - 4.09* vote

In The Persian Expedition, Xenophon, a young Athenian noble who sought his destiny abroad, provides an enthralling eyewitness account of the attempt by a Greek mercenary army - the Ten Thousand - to help Prince Cyrus overthrow his brother and take the Persian throne. When the Greeks were then betrayed by their Persian employers, they were forced to march home through hundr In The Persian Expedition, Xenophon, a young Athenian noble who sought his destiny abroad, provides an enthralling

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Book details

Paperback, 375 pages
January 29th 2004 by Penguin Classics

(first published -390)

Original Title
0140440070 (ISBN13: 9780140440072)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


The Persian Expedition (or The Anabasis, or The March Up Country) tells the story of an army of Greek mercenaries who ended up fighting for the losing side of a Persian civil war and must travel through hostile territory to return home. And this isn't a metter of just dialing up 10,000 Uber rides (besides, the surge fee would be enormous), they have to march through hundreds of miles of hostile territory with both natives and the Persian army seeking to block their way. They are completely on their own with no help on the way. It is, at the very least, a compelling story and has the benefit of actually happening.

This was certainly an interesting reading experience. The writing style was definitely not of the modern world. A good chunk of it was devoted to explaining the movements of the Greek forces through hostile territory. As in They marched X leagues to this new area and chilled for a bit. then marched another Y leagues to a new area. There was much food and supplies to be acquired. There were also some extended paragraphs of people (not characters mind you, all these people actually existed) giving speeches, there was little to no dialogue and everything was stated in a very matter of fact manner. While similar to other period books I read in terms of the structure, however I thought the prose didn't reach the same elevated level History of the Peloponnesian War reached.

One must keep in mind that this account comes to us from Xenophon, a Greek and eventual leader of the expedition. So we run the risk of leaning on this account too much since the source is rather biased. Xenophon comes off as a perfectly selfless and noble leader among men, almost too perfect. Everyone who opposes him is often shown as conniving and devious. Clearly salt should be taken when reading this account.

It is also important to remember the people on the other side of the story. Here is this 10,000 man strong mercenary force traveling through a hostile land and basically living off of it and any stored supplies they can capture. They are basically heavily armed locusts with a lot of military experience and no compunction against harming "barbarian" people. I imagine the story from their victims gives a very different account.

All in all this was an interesting read in so far as it gives a contemporary account of Greek culture and world view (for instance: the Greeks love sacrificing stuff to figure out the best course of action. there are even professional seers that travel with the army to interpret the results of the sacrifice. IT was like every other page it was time for another sacrifice). It was also a good illustration of just how decentralized everything was compared to modern nation states. Greek cities basically did their own thing even if they were bound (loosely) by a common culture. The Persian Empire was more a collection of kingdoms held in line by the central Persian authority's ability to punish or reward them, much different from even the Roman Empire. The past truly is a foreign country in many respects.

So while I wouldn't recommend this book in terms a pure entertainment, it was an illuminating look into the time and is worthwhile on that account.

Henry Avila

Xenophon is an ambitious 20ish man from a prominent family in Athens that doesn't have money anymore because of the war with Sparta, which they lost. He agrees to his friend's Proxenus plee , urging him to fight for the treacherous Prince Cyrus, younger brother of Artaxerxes II , the Persian king in 401 B.C. With the end of the Peloponnesian War and Sparta's victory over dejected Athens, the glory has vanished . The impoverished Greeks look to the Persian Empire for any loot they can get there hands on. Cyrus doesn't tell his foreign mercenaries, the 10,000 that he wants to replace his brother as king.
The Greeks were ostensibly recruited to defeat local enemies and receive coins. When Cyrus is slain at the battle of Cunaxa, the foreigners have lost their reason for being in Persia, in a hostile nation which despises the invaders. After the Greek generals are killed by treachery, a meeting that was a bloodbath , no leaders either. Can they survive unfriendly tribes , get passed wide rivers , over high mountains, overcome snowy weather and get back to their native, wonderful Greece alive? New leaders are chosen and Xenophon becomes a general, a dubious honor in these bleak conditions. The long march continues, day after endless day, week after week , month after month, step after tired step always forward never looking back until they reach their native land with 6,000 left. But having little plunder , the mercenaries return to the Persian Empire, get rich they hope and fight in a local war, after all they're soldiers! A tremendous book that tells not only about brutal battles but even better the way the ancients lived , worked, and hated, a little love too, fought wars, not a pleasant subject yet necessary for our understanding of them, culture changes, however the human spirit remains the same...that is the problem...For those interested in history this can't be beat, written by a man who experience the horrific adventure and lived...


The book is an account of Prince Cyrus's attempt in 401 BCE to replace his brother Ataxerxes II on the Persian throne. The narrative moves at a nice clip though at the expense of detail. The Ten Thousand, as the Greek mercenaries are known, advance a thousand miles from Greek Sardis in Asia Minor to Babylon only to have Cyrus die in battle and leave them stranded. I am not a big reader of military histories. This subject interested me because I had liked Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War so much. This account is not as good as that. Thucydides sought something like journalistic objectivity in his account and he had a gift for detail. Xenophon lacks any such narrative balance or descriptive acumen. In fact, much of the last half of the book might be regarded as auto-hagiography (if there is such a thing) since Xenophon was (or considered himself to be) a major player in the action. After Cyrus's death the Greeks have to fight their way back home along a much longer route. Understandably, very few native peoples are happy to let an army of this size pass unmolested through their lands, especially when plunder is a necessary means of survival for the Greeks. Xenophon proceeds by way of travelogue interrupted now and then by biographies of those significant persons, usually generals, who are killed in action. Here you will find all the elements of a spirited adventure narrative: heroism, military battle, treachery, megalomania, sacking of villages, taking of prisoners, sacrifices to the gods and so on. Especially interesting too is the soothsaying by way of animal entrails. Chapter 1 Book 6 of this translation features a fascinating account of the various dances done during a respite by the soldiers who represent all regions of Greece. My favorite passage however comes late in the book when Xenophon has to control his unruly soldiers at Byzantium. The way he assuages their anger and then talks them out of sacking the Spartan-run city is a joy to read. Highly recommended.


A bit dry in parts perhaps but a necessary read for any student or aficionado of Greek history. The story of Xenophon and his march with his fellow Greeks across the deserts and wilderness of places like modern day Iraq and Turkey is a fascinating and timeless one.

I think my biggest takeaway in reading this book was just how alien the ancient world really is to us. For all the ways we like to compare ourselves to the Ancient Greeks - their ideals of freedom of thought, democratic principles, and philosophies - the ancient world would be a completely foreign and crazy world to any modern person.

Take the amount of times the Greeks have to make a sacrifice to the gods, for instance, before a major or even minor decision. If I had played a drinking game and taken a shot every time the Greeks sacrificed to the gods in this book, I would have been dead by page 10.

Paul Christensen

When you're set upon
- read Xenophon.


Xenophon has become a bit of a fascination of mine at the moment. I’ve started reading his Socratic Conversations – which I’ll review when I finish, but am finding remarkable – and then I found this as a talking book under the title The March of the Ten Thousand. I’ve just finished listening to this. Amazing story. A group of Greek mercenaries go off to raid, rape and pillage their way through Persia, when things go awry – seriously awry. All of the leaders are killed – one after being tortured for a year – and the army of ten thousand are left with the Euphrates on one side and the king’s army on the other – and a very long way from home.

This is in part a tale of privations – but only in part. There are interesting bits where he discusses the local customs of the peoples he comes across. Also interesting were the bits where he discusses, in a remarkably off-hand manner, torturing prisoners. The homosexuality of some of the soldiers made me think of all that trouble there was in the US army a while ago over just this issue. There is a point in this book where they decide they have to get rid of all superfluous baggage, but Xenophon notes that some soldiers still hid away some pretty boys and even some women. Even women? Who'd have thought!

What I found most interesting though, was the discussions of sacrifices to see if the time was auspicious to take a particular action. It would be good to be able to think that people really didn’t believe in this nonsense, but it is utterly clear that people did believe. At the start he goes over to see his good friend Socrates to find out if he ought to go off to war and Socrates advises him to consult the Delphic Oracle – I mean, imagine! Socrates then criticises him for not asking the right question of the Oracle – and if anyone knows anything about questions, it is Socrates.

What was perhaps most human about this was that the army was united under attack throughout its journey, but became fragmented once back on Greek soil (I mean territory). And the cause of the fragmentation? Well, naturally that other great divider of humanity – Nationality. If only one could wrap all of the world's holy books in all of the world's flags and drop them somewhere out of harms way – imagine!

This was quite a boy’s own romp – not at all what I was expecting from a mate of Socrates’s. It perhaps suffers a little by being written by Xenophon and so he tends to give himself a remarkably good rap – but there are times when he goes on about his men only remembering the beatings and not remembering the praise … you know, it is funny how people are like that, totally lacking in gratitude.


Herodotus might have been the Father of History, but Xenophon was the cool, older brother. This one-time pupil of Socrates is one of those soldier/scholars who makes both intellectuals and warriors feel inadequate. 'The Persian Expedition' or 'March of the Ten Thousand' or 'Anabasis' (all depending on your version or translation) relates the story told by Xenophon of his experiences fighting with and leading the 10,000 Hellene mercenaries hired by Cyrus the Younger and the army's 3000+ mile march into Persian.

This experience, which Will Durrant once called "one of the great adventures in human history," can be read as history, adventure story, leadership manual, or a real-life application of Socratic philosophy.

Todd N

Picked up at Moe’s on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley and read as a little break from Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and as a diversion from last week's various news stories that were bumming me out. Them nutty ancient Greeks have a way of cheering me up.

Xenophon’s Anabasis was supposed to be one of the upcoming editions in the excellent Landmark Ancient Histories series, but there hasn’t been a new one of those in years.

So when I saw a used Penguin edition for $6 I figured I could probably slum my way through with only one janky map, some footnotes, and an introduction written in stilted prose with dumb Penguin-edition-introduction-esque words like ‘otiose.’

The Anabasis is sort like Kurdistan On Five Staters A Day mixed with Pulp Fiction. The plot is pretty simple, and I’m not going to consider these spoilers since they happened 2,000 years ago: Cyrus wants to kill his brother, the King of Persia, so he raises a secret army, including about 10,000 Greek mercenaries. Cyrus leads his army deep into Persia and manages to get himself killed in the first battle. After that the Persian part of the army sort of melts away, and the Greeks are left stranded deep in the heart of hostile Persian territory.

This all happens fairly quickly, so most of the book is about The Ten Thousand (as they are called, even though that number starts to go down pretty quickly) hacking their way back to Greece, even though none are actually “home” by the time the book ends. In fact, the majority of the remaining part of the army are preparing to set sail to go fight the Persians again at the end.

Because it's the Greeks, there is lots of warring followed by plenty of speechifying. Occasionally there is diplomacy. It's always interesting when Greeks meet up with non-Greeks, because you always learn something new about the Greeks, even if it's that they feel that some boys are just too darn pretty to put to death or that they don't care for dolphin fat unless it's mixed with water.

When the Ten Thousand finally reach the Hellespont, things get a little confusing (at least for me they did).

Sparta -- recently having won the Peloponnesian Wars -- was in control of the area, and wasn't super thrilled about having thousands upon thousands of hungry, horny, and battle-hardened troops idling around near an important city and port. Also, these same soldiers just tried to overthrow a huge, powerful Empire right next door, so even receiving them caused all kinds of diplomatic problems for Sparta.

So the Ten Thousand, led by Xenophon, hang out in Thrace and spend the winter propping up a two-bit King. More warring; more speechifying.

Finally Sparta decided (and I can't imagine it turned out well for them) to re-attack Persia. Xenophon wisely sells what meager possessions he has and scoots off to Greece.

The book works on so many levels. I'm always up for a good battle description, and the sly Greeks and Persian tricks are always interesting to me. The way Xenophon maintains command and slips his way out of various situations is amusing, but one has to remember that he's the one telling the tale (and about 30 years after it happened I'm guessing).

Xenophon is praised for his "unadorned style," but it is a bit jarring to read stuff like "some Greeks lost their noses and toes from frostbite" tossed off like an aside. That might be just a little too unadorned.


The marched and fought their way right round Turkey! And a good chunk of Iraq, too! All the way from the Ionian coast to Mesopotamia — they got within fighting distance of Babylon – and then all the way back to the Bosporus (here's a map). They fought the Persians, the Kurds, the Armenians, the Thracians and anyone else who got in their way. And all they were doing was trying to get home.

It took them fifteen months. There were ten thousand of them to begin with and eight thousand left at the end. Some were killed in battle, some perished from cold in the high mountain passes, some died of treachery. And when they reached the relative safety of the Black Sea coast, they took to quarrelling amongst themselves.

An absolutely amazing story—a combination of traveller's tale, adventure story, manual of military tactics and meditation on man's ingratitude. One of the great literary works of civilisation, the Anabasis is also a rattling good read.


The story Xenophon tells has been called the world's first great novel...a gripping narrative that builds up a single episode from the past into an exploration of the struggles and the values that shape human destiny." —Preface by Theodore K. Rabb

I really enjoyed this. Exciting, suspenseful, lots of action, an undertone of seriousness with examples of Socratic Reasoning from Xenophon. A great story.

I think it would be a great for anyone who is looking for an entry into Greek History or before diving into Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon's Hellenica.

Thanks Mark for getting me to read this much, much sooner than I would have otherwise.