After defeating Xerxes’ mighty invasion in 479 BCE the Greeks enjoyed a fearsome reputation as powerful warriors, able to defeat armies many times their size. After the Greeks established their reputation and pushed the Persians even farther back they turned on each other during the Peloponnesian Wars. Though the various city-states of Greece tore themselves apart, the soldiers gained a great deal of experience and many sought service as mercenaries.
Greek hoplite mercenaries were highly prized as they stood far above any other types of warriors in the period. As the Peloponnesian Wars were dying down around 404 BCE a large force of Greek mercenaries was hired by a Persian prince, Cyrus the Younger, as a force for “border security” of the satrap (province) he governed.
The Greek mercenaries, numbering slightly over 10,000 hoplites with a few thousand light infantry and skirmishers, were brought into modern day turkey and sent east to supposedly guard the borders. As they got closer to the satrap’s border with the Euphrates they suspected that Cyrus intended to fight a civil war against his king brother Artaxerxes. To dissuade the Greeks from turning back Cyrus greatly increased their pay and a full Persian army was raised by Cyrus to strike at the heart of Persia with hopes to win a single battle near Babylon and win the throne.
Cyrus was a passionate leader who felt that he should be king and Xenophon, an officer among the Greek mercenaries and our literary source, has nothing but praise for Cyrus. His charisma and leadership helped him to raise a large army to confront Artaxerxes and spirits were bolstered by the presence of the Greeks. Artaxerxes raised a royal Persian army of about 40,000 to confront Cyrus’ slightly smaller army at Cunaxa.
The Greeks under Cyrus aligned next to the Euphrates River on their right with the remaining Persians filling out the center and left. The Greeks charged to start the battle and Artaxerxes’ men were so terrified at the sight of the fully armored and charging Greeks that they broke and ran before fighting even began. While the Greeks pushed Artaxerxes’ left flank off the field, Cyrus was trying to push directly into Artaxerxes’ bodyguards. Cyrus intended to kill Artaxerxes himself to secure the throne outright. His attempt was bold and Cyrus may have reached Artaxerxes but was killed before he could reach his brother, slain by a javelin thrown by a bodyguard, Mithridates.
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