Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

XENOPHON,
AND THE RETREAT OF THE TEN THOUSAND.

If Xenophon had no other merit than that of being the friend of the martyr Socrates, he would be interesting; but he was a warrior, philosopher, poet, historian, agriculturist, and amiable in society. There were many Greeks who united these qualities.

But why had this free man a Greek company in the pay of the young Chosroes, named Cyrus by the Greeks? This Cyrus was the younger brother and subject of the emperor of Persia, Artaxerxes Mnemon, of whom it was said that he never forgot anything but injuries. Cyrus had already attempted to assassinate his brother, even in the temple in which the ceremony of his consecration took place — for the kings of Persia were the first who were consecrated. Artaxerxes had not only the clemency to pardon this villain, but he had the weakness to allow him the absolute government of a great part of Asia Minor, which he held from their father, and of which he at least deserved to be despoiled.

As a return for such surprising mercy, as soon as he could excite his satrapy to revolt against his brother, Cyrus added this second crime to the first. He declared by a manifesto, “that he was more worthy of the throne of Persian than his brother, because he was a better magus, and drank more wine.” I do not believe that these were the reasons which gained him the Greeks as allies. He took thirteen thousand into his pay, among whom was the young Xenophon, who was then only an adventurer. Each soldier had a daric a month for pay. The daric is equal to about a guinea or a louis d’or of our time, as the Chevalier de Jaucourt very well observes, and not ten francs, as Rollin says.

When Cyrus proposed to march them with his other troops to fight his brother towards the Euphrates, they demanded a daric and a half, which he was obliged to grant them. This was thirty-six livres a month, and consequently the highest pay which was ever given. The soldiers of Cæsar and Pompey had but twenty sous per day in the civil wars. Besides this exorbitant pay, of which they obliged him to pay four months in advance, Cyrus furnished them four hundred chariots, laden with wine and meal.

The Greeks were then precisely what the Swiss are at present, who hire their service and courage to neighboring princes, but for a pay three times less than was that of the Greeks. It is evident, though they say the contrary, that they did not inform themselves whether the cause for which they fought was just; it was sufficient that Cyrus paid well.

The greatest part of these troops was composed of Lacedæmonians, by which they violated their solemn treaties with the king of Persia. What was become of the ancient aversion of the Spartans for gold and silver? Where was their sincerity in treaties? Where was their high and incorruptible virtue? Clearchus, a Spartan, commanded the principal body of these brave mercenaries.

I understand not the military manœuvres of Artaxerxes and Cyrus; I see not why Artaxerxes, who came to his enemy with twelve hundred thousand soldiers, should begin by causing lines of twelve leagues in extent to be drawn between Cyrus and himself; and I comprehend nothing of the order of battle. I understand still less how Cyrus, followed only by six hundred horse, broke into the midst of six thousand horse-guards of the emperor, followed by an innumerable army. Finally, he was killed by the hand of Artaxerxes, who, having apparently drunk less wine than the rebel, fought with more coolness and address than this drunkard. It is clear that he completely gained the battle, notwithstanding the valor and resistance of thirteen thousand Greeks — since Greek vanity is obliged to confess that Artaxerxes told them to put down their arms. They replied that they would do nothing of the kind; but that if the emperor would pay them they would enter his service. It was very indifferent to them for whom they fought, so long as they were paid; in fact, they were only hired murderers.

Besides the Swiss, there are some provinces of Germany which follow this custom. It signifies not to these good Christians whether they are paid to kill English, French, or Dutch, or to be killed by them. You see them say their prayers, and go to the carnage like laborers to their workshop. As to myself, I confess I would rather observe those who go into Pennsylvania, to cultivate the land with the simple and equitable Quakers, and form colonies in the retreat of peace and industry. There is no great skill in killing and being killed for six sous per day, but there is much in causing the republic of Dunkers to flourish — these new Therapeutæ on the frontier of a country the most savage.

Artaxerxes regarded the Greeks only as accomplices in the revolt of his brother, and indeed they were nothing else. He betrayed himself to be betrayed by them, and he betrayed them, as Xenophon pretends; for after one of his captains had sworn in his name to allow them a free retreat, and to furnish them with food, after Clearchus and five other commanders of the Greeks were put into his hands, to regulate the march, he caused their heads to be cut off, and slew all the Greeks who accompanied them in this interview, if we may trust Xenophon’s account.

This royal act shows us that Machiavellism is not new; but is it true that Artaxerxes promised not to make an example of the chief mercenaries who sold themselves to his brother? Was it not permitted him to punish those whom he thought so guilty? It is here that the famous retreat of the ten thousand commences. If I comprehend nothing of the battle, I understand no more of the retreat.

The emperor, before he cut off the heads of six Greek generals and their suite, had sworn to allow the little army, reduced to ten thousand men, to return to Greece. The battle was fought on the road to the Euphrates; he must therefore have caused the Greeks to return by Western Mesopotamia, Syria, Asia Minor, and Ionia. Not at all; they were made to pass by the East; they were obliged to traverse the Tigris in boats which were furnished to them; they returned afterwards by the Armenian roads, while their commanders were punished. If any person comprehends this march, in which they turn their backs on Greece, they will oblige me much by explaining it to me.

One of two things: either the Greeks chose their route themselves — and in this case they neither knew where they went, or what they wished — or Artaxerxes made them march against their will — which is much more probable — and in this case, why did he not exterminate them?

We may extricate ourselves from these difficulties, by supposing that the Persian emperor only half revenged himself; that he contented himself with punishing the principal mercenary chiefs who sold the Greek troops to Cyrus; that having made a treaty with the fugitive troops, he would not descend to the meanness of violating it; that being sure that a third of these wandering Greeks would perish on the road, he abandoned them to their fate. I see no other manner of enlightening the mind of the reader on the obscurities of this march.

We are astonished at the retreat of the ten thousand; but we should be much more so, if Artaxerxes, a conqueror, at the head of a hundred thousand men — at least it is said so — had allowed ten thousand fugitives to travel in the north of his vast states, whom he could crush in every village, every bridge, every defile, or whom he could have made perish with hunger and misery.

However, they were furnished, as we have seen, with twenty-seven great boats, to enable them to pass the Tigris, as if they were conducted to the Indies. Thence they were escorted towards the North for several days, into the desert in which Bagdad is now situated. They further passed the river Zabata, and it was there that the emperor sent his orders to punish the chiefs. It is clear that they could have exterminated the army as easily as they inflicted punishment on the generals. It is therefore very likely that they did not choose to do so. We should, therefore, rather regard the Greek wanderers in these savage countries as wayward travellers, whom the bounty of the emperor allowed to finish their journey as they could.

We may make another observation, which appears not very honorable to the Persian government. It was impossible for the Greeks not to have continual quarrels for food with the people whom they met. Pillages, desolations, and murders, were the inevitable consequence of these disorders; and that is so true, that in a road of six hundred leagues, during which the Greeks always marched irregularly, being neither escorted nor pursued by any great body of Persian troops, they lost four thousand men, either killed by peasants or by sickness. How did it happen, therefore, that Artaxerxes did not cause them to be escorted from their passage of the river Zabata, as he had done from the field of battle to the river?

How could so wise and good a sovereign commit so great a fault? Perhaps he did command the escort; perhaps Xenophon, who exaggerates a little elsewhere, passes it over in silence, not to diminish the wonder of the “retreat of the ten thousand”; perhaps the escort was always obliged to march at a great distance from the Greek troop, on account of the difficulty of procuring provisions. However it might be, it appears certain that Artaxerxes used extreme indulgence, and that the Greeks owed their lives to him, since they were not exterminated.

In the article on “Retreat,” in the “Encyclopædical Dictionary,” it is said that the retreat of the ten thousand took place under the command of Xenophon. This is a mistake; he never commanded; he was merely at the head of a division of fourteen hundred men, at the end of the march.

I see that these heroes scarcely arrived, after so many fatigues, on the borders of the Pontus Euxinus, before they indifferently pillaged friends and enemies to re-establish themselves. Xenophon embarked his little troop at Heraclea, and went to make a new bargain with a king of Thrace, to whom he was a stranger. This Athenian, instead of succoring his country, then overcome by the Spartans, sold himself once more to a petty foreign despot. He was ill paid, I confess, which is another reason why we may conclude that he would have done better in assisting his country.

The sum of all this, we have already remarked, is that the Athenian Xenophon, being only a young volunteer, enlisted himself under a Lacedæmonian captain, one of the tyrants of Athens, in the service of a rebel and an assassin; and that, becoming chief of fourteen hundred men, he put himself into the pay of a barbarian.

What is worse, necessity did not constrain him to this servitude. He says himself that he deposited a great part of the gold gained in the service of Cyrus in the temple of the famous Diana of Ephesus.

Let us remark, that in receiving the pay of a king, he exposed himself to be condemned to death, if the foreigner was not contented with him, which happened to Major-General Doxat, a man born free. He sold himself to the emperor Charles VI., who commanded his head to be cut off, for having given up to the Turks a place which he could not defend.

Rollin, in speaking of the return of the ten thousand, says, “that this fortunate retreat filled the people of Greece with contempt for Artaxerxes, by showing them that gold, silver, delicacies, luxury, and a numerous seraglio, composed all the merit of a great king.”

Rollin should consider that the Greeks ought not to despise a sovereign who had gained a complete battle; who, having pardoned as a brother, conquered as a hero; who, having the power of exterminating ten thousand Greeks, suffered them to live and to return to their country; and who, being able to have them in his pay, disdained to make use of them. Add, that this prince afterwards conquered the Lacedæmonians and their allies, and imposed on them humiliating laws; add also that in a war with the Scythians, called Caducians, towards the Caspian Sea, he supported all fatigues and dangers like the lowest soldier. He lived and died full of glory; it is true that he had a seraglio, but his courage was only the more estimable. We must be careful of college declamations.

If I dared to attack prejudice I would venture to prefer the retreat of Marshal Belle-Isle to that of the ten thousand. He was blocked up in Prague by sixty thousand men, when he had not thirteen thousand. He took his measures with so much ability that he got out of Prague, in the most severe cold, with his army, provisions, baggage, and thirty pieces of cannon, without the besiegers having the least idea of it. He gained two days’ march without their perceiving it. An army of thirteen thousand men pursued him for the space of thirty leagues. He faced them everywhere — he was never cast down; but sick as he was, he braved the season, scarcity and his enemies. He only lost those soldiers who could not resist the extreme rigor of the season. What more was wanting? A longer course and Grecian exaggeration.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25