The Dynamic Nature of Western Arms | Part 1: Xenophon and the Ten Thousand
Hello everyone, this article is the first in a series where I will cover the birth of Western Civilization, its rise to preeminence, and the formula that has allowed Western Nations to dominate their eastern neighbors. This series has been influenced by the work of others and I will do my best to link to their sites whenever possible. Parts of this article are paraphrased from Carnage and Culture. If you are interested in reading about this subject in much greater detail, I recommend that you pick up a copy of Carnage and Culture.
I use the term “Western” in reference to the Greek and Roman culture that arose in classical antiquity; survived the collapse of the Roman Empire; spread to western and northern Europe; then during the great periods of exploration and colonization of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries; expanded to the Americas, Australia, and areas of Asia and Africa; and now exercise global political, economic, cultural, and military power far greater than the size of its territory or population might otherwise suggest.
The Principles of Western Civilization
Throughout this series I will refer to certain principles, I have listed them below for reference, and will explain them in more detail in the next article.
- Constitutional Government
- A rational approach to science
- Civic Militarism
- Land owning citizens
- Decisive shock warfare
I will cover those terms in greater detail, but there is one more thing I want to say before we get started. There can be no doubt in the minds of historians, beyond a very few exceptions, that Western Civilization, and in extension their militaries; have systematically dominated their eastern counterparts. This series of articles is not an assault on the relative worth of other people’s cultures or societies, but is rather a non-emotional and rational dissection of a series of rules that have been proven over and over again. Nor are these articles meant to suggest that the core western principles and traditions have been unchanging over the previous 2500 years. Throughout these articles I will discuss the dynamic nature of western militaries, not the morality of the effects that this military power has created.
Part Two of this series will cover the Principles of a Western Civilization. The parts that follow will be an examination of specific landmark battles that will serve as a timeline to the rise of Western Power and then the continuation of that power into the modern world. There will be examples of Western defeats at the hands of Eastern armies, though these examples of the exceptions to the rule often only re-enforce the rule itself.
The March of the Ten Thousand
When the trumpet sounded, the soldiers took up their arms and went out. As they charged faster and faster, they gave a loud cry, and on their own broke into a run toward the camp. But a great fear took hold of the barbarian hosts; the Cilician queen fled outright in her carriage, and those in the market threw down their wares and also took to flight. At that point, the Greeks in great laughter approached the camp and the Cilician queen was filled with admiration at the brilliant spectacle and order of the phalanx; and Cyrus was delighted to see the abject terror of the barbarians when they saw the Greeks. –Xenophon, Anabasis (1.2.16-18)
Note* If anyone is interested in reading a great historical fiction novel about Xenophon and the Ten Thousand, then I highly recommend “The Ten Thousand: A Novel of Ancient Greece” by Michael Curtis Ford.
In the summer 401 B.C., 10,700 Greek Hoplites—heavy infantry armed with spear, shield, and armor—were contracted by Cyrus the Younger to win him the throne of Persia. These Greek mercenaries were veterans of the prior twenty-seven year Peloponnesian War. These hardened killers mustered from all over the Greek speaking world, and were joined by several privileged students of philosophy. Aristocrats like Xenophon, a student of Socrates, and Proxenus, the Boeotian general, as well as physicians, professional officers, and wealthy Greek friends of Prince Cyrus.
They successfully marched eastward 1,500 miles, destroyed all who stood in their path, and delivered a devastating blow to the Persian army at the Battle of Cunaxa. The price of destroying an entire wing of the Persian army was a single wounded hoplite.
This victory was wasted when their employer, Cyrus, pursued his brother across the lines of battle and was cut down. The Ten Thousand then found themselves surrounded by enemies and hostile former allies, far from home, no money, no supply line, hugely outnumbered, and lacking heavy cavalry and missile support.
These ten thousand Greeks, surrounded and outnumbered, their leaders captured and executed; held an election, chose Xenophon as their leader, and then set off across the contested lands of more than twenty different peoples.
A year and a half after leaving Greece, five out of six Greeks reached the safety of the Black Sea, after having routed every hostile Asian force, and having lost most of their numbers not to battle, but the high snows of Armenia.
What strikes the readers of the Anabasis the most is not just the skill, bravery, and brutality of the Ten Thousand, these were after all men whose only business in Asia was to kill for money, but rather the great cultural divide between the Ten Thousand and their Persian Counterparts. It is often stated in the Anabasis that the Persian infantry had to be whipped forward to face the Greeks, and often fled from the phalanx at first contact.
Where else in the world could one find aristocrats and philosophers marching in the ranks of cutthroats and the destitute—charging together into the enemy ranks? In what other army would every member feel equal to every other member—or at least see himself as equal to all others? And how could such a small force, far from home and outnumbered, navigate its way across thousands of miles of hostile country?
This marching democracy often held assemblies to vote on proposals made by their leaders. In times of emergency they formed ad-hoc boards to solve problems. Where else in the ancient world did the elected generals of an army march alongside and share the hardship of the men they commanded? When the Greeks finally made it to safety, they held judicial inquiries and audits of the performance of their leaders.
What made the Ten Thousand so different from the men on the other side of the battlefield?
The Greeks waged a style of warfare unfamiliar to the armies that met them during their escape. The men in the ranks sought face-to-face conflict, understood the need for strict discipline, and fought shoulder to shoulder wherever possible. When they went into battle they did so as a single great beast, each man the shining scale of a massive serpent. They each had their individual honor and courage, but the extent of that honor and courage was measured as how well they stood next to their neighbor in the line of battle. There was no greater dishonor than to leave a hole in the phalanx.
To imagine a Persian equivalent of the Ten Thousand is impossible. Imagine the likelihood of the Persian King’s elite infantry—The Immortals, who likewise numbered 10,000—outnumbered ten to one, abandoned in Greece, marching from the Peloponnese to Thessaly, outfighting the numerically superior phalanxes of each Greek City-State that they invaded. Impossible.
In fact, there is a parallel. After the Persian defeat at Platea, few of the retreating Persian army, despite holding numerical superiority, and the lack of organized pursuit, ever made it home again. Why?
Greek technological superiority cannot by itself explain their victorious march to the Black Sea. Though Xenophon did note that the bronze, wood, and iron panoply of the Greek hoplites far outmatched anything that could be found in Asia at the time. The men themselves were not mentally or physically superior than their Asian counterparts. The Greeks were not more warlike or fierce, they were not kinder or morally superior, and they did not possess a superior climate or geography.
What they possessed was a style of warfare that was an effect of the unique Hellenistic culture: a sense of personal freedom, superior discipline, matchless armor and arms, a classless society, individual initiative, tactical and strategic flexibility and adaptability, and a preference for the decisive shock warfare of organized heavy infantry.
Where did these ideas, superior arms, and the preference for decisive shock warfare come from? Why didn’t the Persians wear heavy armor and fight in the close, serried ranks of the phalanx? The answer is both complex and simple at the same time.
This style of warfare grew out of consensual government, equality among the middle class, civilian audit of the military, politics apart of religion, freedom, individualism, and rationalism, as well a higher valuation of the individual soldiers life. That is the simple answer. The question that requires a more complex answer is: Where did those above qualities come from?
There is a distinct tie between the land owning citizen and the decisive shock warfare of organized heavy infantry. The land owning citizen cannot exist without consensual, constitutional government. The equipping, training, and deploying of such infantry to the far parts of the world would be extremely difficult without the funds gained through capitalism. Capitalism cannot exist without a large middle class of free land owning citizens; which itself cannot exist outside the bounds of a constitutional government. The word ‘citizen’ is a term that is distinct to Western Civilization and the concept is completely foreign in governments such as the one found in Persia, where every person is a subject or slave to the King.
Freedom is the glue of Capitalism, a trust that the amoral wisdom of a free market will most efficiently see to the needs of the people.
Capitalism is also impossible without a well maintained banking infrastructure. Such an infrastructure is impossible without some form of constitutional government to foster its creation. In a society where the king owns all, there is no banking system. A perfect example of this, and is in fact one of the landmark battles that we will cover, is the battle of Lepanto.
Ali Pasha brought his vast fortune with him on his flagship, the Sultana. Don Juan, the admiral of the Christian forces, brought none of his personal fortune with him into the battle—trusting in the law to protect the private property of a free citizen. The actions of Ali Pasha, and many other Eastern generals throughout history, is understandable with the realization that there were no banks or other mechanism to store capital and protect it from arbitrary confiscation or taxation.
The armor worn by the Greeks can also be tied to the high value placed on each individual life. That high valuation is a side effect of the idea of citizenship which can be tied back to the principle of consensual government.
In 406 B.C. an Athenian Court executed its most successful admirals after winning the naval battle at Arginusae. A storm rose after the battle, preventing the the ships assigned to rescue the survivors of the 25 disabled or sunken Athenian triremes. These heroic admirals were executed to compensate for the loss of just a few hundred sailors. To us, the citizens of a western nation, the dishonorable discharge or imprisonment of a commander who allowed the negligent deaths of men under his command is normal.
General Patton, arguably one of the most successful generals in American history, was severely reprimanded for striking one of his soldiers. When the Nazi’s learned that Patton had been removed from command they had first thought it a ruse. When they learned that it was true—that the best American general had been sidelined for striking a Private, they had laughed at the stupidity of American’s. It is not a laughing matter though, it is simply an effect of having a nation’s military made up of free land owning citizens.
Examples of this can be found throughout the history of Western Civilization, where successful generals fall to civilian courts for wasting the lives of the men in their command. There are no parallels to this in Eastern militaries. Xerxes lost a quarter of a million soldiers in his attempt to annex Greece. Fifty thousand Persian sailors died at Salamis, forty thousand of them drowned—left by their leaders. Xerxes would not have faced a public inquiry or audit for the loss of so many.
Continuation of the Preeminence of Western Civilization
In the following years, centuries, and millennium, the Greek Ten Thousand would be followed by equally brutal invaders: Agesilaus and his Spartans, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and centuries of legionary dominance, the Crusaders, Hernan Cortes, Portuguese explorers, British Redcoats in the Americas, India, and Africa, French, German, and Dutch colonists in the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
Most Western expeditionary forces were outnumbered, far from home, with perilous supply lines; they still managed to outfight their numerically superior enemies, often taking low casualties, drawing upon the foundations of Western Civilization to mercilessly slaughter their foes.
Read the next article, The Principles of Western Civilization P1.