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401 B.C.E.: Clearchus of Sparta

December 15th, 2007 Headsman

Around this time in the late autumn or early winter some weeks following the Battle of Cunaxa, the general of a Greek mercenary army — along with most of its other commanders — was treacherously seized by a Persian satrap and summarily beheaded.

In the train of the Peloponnesian War‘s devastation, sturdy Greek hoplites with bills to pay found a lucrative gig backing a Persian prince‘s bid to seize the throne.

The prince marched the Hellenes deep into Persia before falling in battle at Cunaxa in Mesopotamia, a discomfiting scenario alike for the stranded but still-potent invading army and the somewhat outclassed Persians.

The seizure around this day of the veteran soldier and former tyrant of Byzantium Clearchus — lured under color of friendship — aimed to crush the Greeks’ morale, but instead feathered the laurels of “the Ten Thousand”. This “marching Republic” hastily self-organized and proceeded upon an astonishing escape, intrepidly fighting its way north over the ensuing year to the Black Sea, and thence to hearth and home.

The Greeks’ perseverance offers one of classical antiquity’s stock testimonies to the resilient polis — and at this stage, practically the last breath of that dying spirit. More to the immediate point, it illustrated strikingly the Persian army’s vulnerability to the phalanx, exploited to decisive effect in the century to come by Alexander the Great.

One of the replacement generals, Xenophon, immortalized the Greeks’ march in the Anabasis.

After the generals had been seized, and the captains and soldiers who formed their escort had been killed, the Hellenes lay in deep perplexity — a prey to painful reflections. Here were they at the king’s gates, and on every side environing them were many hostile cities and tribes of men. Who was there now to furnish them with a market? Separated from Hellas by more than a thousand miles, they had not even a guide to point the way. Impassable rivers lay athwart their homeward route, and hemmed them in. Betrayed even by the Asiatics, at whose side they had marched with Cyrus to the attack, they were left in isolation. Without a single mounted trooper to aid them in pursuit: was it not perfectly plain that if they won a battle, their enemies would escape to a man, but if they were beaten themselves, not one soul of them would survive?

Haunted by such thoughts, and with hearts full of despair, but few of them tasted food that evening; but few of them kindled even a fire, and many never came into camp at all that night, but took their rest where each chanced to be. They could not close their eyes for very pain and yearning after their fatherlands or their parents, the wife or child whom they never expected to look upon again. Such was the plight in which each and all tried to seek repose.

The tale’s motif was borrowed for a 1965 novel of a New York gang struck leaderless making its way out of hostile territory, later adapted for a cult 1970’s film:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Greece,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Mercenaries,No Formal Charge,Persia,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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