Of all of the characters in the first section of the Anabasis, Clearchus is among the most important, and perhaps the most intriguing.
In Clearchus’s obituary, Xenophon describes a ruthless officer who is feared by all, respected by all, and liked by none(II,6). Clearchus was also the only Greek general who knew from the outset what Cyrus intended to do with the army he was raising(III, 1 (10)). Two questions are very much worth contemplating:
For whom was Clearchus working? And: who is responsible for his death?
The simple answer to the first is that Clearchus was working for Cyrus, as the narrative recounts. The narrative also allows the following interpretation: that Clearchus was using Cyrus to obtain sufficient treasure and military power to install himself as a King somewhere in the Hellenic world. There is a third possibility however: that Clearchus was in the employ of Artaxerxes, charged with tempting Cyrus to attempt a coup, and, if successful, delivering him to Persia and his death. If you imagine that this was his mission, he succeeded in this as well.
At Tarsus and then Thapsacus, the Greeks assembled by Clearchus finally realize that they (I,3 and I,4) are on expedition to overthrow the king of Persia, not to raid his westernmost Satraps. At this juncture, the disaster that has befallen them is evident to most of them, but not laid out in detail for the reader. It’s worthy of some reflection. First, you cannot, as a mercenary, withdraw from employment without badly damaging your subsequent prospects. The rulers of Greece would never have allowed a large number of Greeks to participate in such an expedition, for fear of punitive war from the Persians should it fail. If the expedition failed, the Greek troops were likely to perish en masse in Mesopotamia or Persia proper. Orderly retreat from such a disaster over such an immense distance through hostile territory is highly improbable. In defeat, few or none of the Greeks would return home. If Cyrus had prevailed, he would have required the Greeks to remain in Persia, to help solidify his control of his empire. In this instance, the Greeks are stuck in Persia indefinitely, and Clearchus is the power behind the throne. Worse, the Greek generals are likely to become caught up in Persian palace intrigues, and divided and slaughtered over time. It is certain that Cyrus will honor his promises of rich compensation for his Greek mercenaries; his survival in the short term depends upon them. If and when the Greeks were released from Cyrus’s service, the Spartans would not welcome an army of such power back into Greece. Rather, they would destroy it so that it did not destabilize the balance of power and initiate a downward spiral into another civil war. Clearchus played his fellow Greeks, and put them in a situation where it was very unlikely that they would ever return to Greece.
Fast forward to the end of the day at Cunaxa. Cyrus is dead. Clearchus is still the leader of the Greeks, but is much a dead man as his patron Cyrus. If Clearchus was in fact an agent of Artaxerxes, then Artaxerxes would want him dead ASAP to prevent him from leveraging this knowledge with other Persian nobility. If you are Artaxerxes and you regard Clearchus as the genius behind Cyrus’s campaign and his most trusted confidant, then you want him dead for the role he played in attempting to overthrow you. As the narrative suggests, the slaughter of Clearchus and the other senior leaders would appear to make the subsequent destruction of the remaining leaderless Greek forces much less problematic. There are no upsides for Artaxerxes to allow Clearchus to live. If you are any of the Greeks, you hearken back to Tarsus and Thapsacus, and realize that Clearchus’s treachery is responsible for the disastrous position you are now in. You want him dead, and everyone he identifies as a trustworthy lieutenant too. You have no doubt that he will sell any or all of you out to anyone to preserve his hide or advance his fortunes, as he has already done so once. It makes one wonder: did any of the surviving Greek leaders have anything to do with the death of Clearchus?
When Cyrus dies at Cunaxa, the destruction of Clearchus becomes a certainty.
4 thoughts on “Xenophon Roundtable: Clearchus Delenda Est!”
My own reading concerning Clearchus is different. He is decidedly a transition character . . . true, the only Greek general who knew Cyrus’s true intention, but also a lover of war. As Xenonphon tells us Clearchust prefered war to peace. His lust for battle is at the same time tempered by his more practical instincts as a military leader, and example for Xenophon. Clearchus is ever mindful of geographical, logistic and tactical shortcomings of the Greek position after Cyrus’s death. His actions against the Great King betray no hidden motives in my reading, he guides the army as competently as Xenonphon himself could have up to the point where he attemtps to lay aside all suspicions with Tissaphernes. This was obviously a mistake, but one made by a Greek gentleman, an aristocrat . . . to which Clearchus, Xenonphon and all the Greek officers belonged except for Menon.
Still struggling with my own post. There is indeed a lot to this book . . .
I agree fairly much with Seylidtz89 insofar as he points out the general mindset of the Greek officers of that generation. Given their background, education, training and outlook, certain courses of action seem to be almost pre-ordained as being “intuitively obvious” to one of their mind-set.
I wouldn’t go as far as Fringe and accuse Clearchus of being a double agent of the Great King. You would think that Artaxerxes II would try less risky ways of entrapping his brother than creating a situation where his own fate hung on a single battle in the heart of his empire against spear-wielding Greek hoplites. Emperor Palpatine did follow the strategy Fringe proposes and found his fate and that of his Evil Empire resting the outcome of one battle against spear-wielding Ewoks. See where that got him.
That being said, Clearchus had a history of treachery. He betrayed his polis in the name of power when he tried to set himself up as tyrant of Byzantium and he lied to the Eleven Thousand about their ultimate destination. Spartan youth were taught to steal in a cunning fashion as part of their training and Clearchus is representative of the tradition of such Spartan luminaries as Brasidas and Lysandar, who spake with the forked tongue. Xenophon’s account of the conduct of Clearchus and the other generals in the lead up to their demise clearly contrasts their folly in believing the Great King against his own sensible doubts of Persian good faith. Clearchus was not only treacherous and deceitful but, in the end, he was a fool.
“It’s worthy of some reflection. First, you cannot, as a mercenary, withdraw from employment without badly damaging your subsequent prospects. The rulers of Greece would never have allowed a large number of Greeks to participate in such an expedition, for fear of punitive war from the Persians should it fail. If the expedition failed, the Greek troops were likely to perish en masse in Mesopotamia or Persia proper. Orderly retreat from such a disaster over such an immense distance through hostile territory is highly improbable”
First of all, an interesting take. I also agree with you that Clearchus is an important figure or foil for Xenophon. Like the whole mercenary perspective you used. Very nice. Also like the counterfactual you employed.
Not sure if I agree with you that the orderly retreat was improbable. The Persians never really had an optimal defense against the Greek phalanx except to hurl other Greek mercenaries in a phalanx against it. The Great King did not dare move all his forces against them because the Ten Thousand would have been like a bronze-clad lawnmower cutting down grass ( assuming the Greeks kept their heads).
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