Battle of Cunaxa: Royal Persian Forces Defeat Rebel Army

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Battle of Cunaxa: Royal Persian Forces Defeat Rebel Army

"Battle of Cunaxa," artist unknown
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 3, 401 BC

For today's foray into military matters, we go back to the fifth century BC, and examine a battle which settled who would sit on the throne of the Persian Empire. It also involved a number of foreign mercenaries, and their actions after the battle.


The Persian Empire was one of the largest empires of ancient times. It encompassed land and peoples in Africa, Asia, and Europe. It grew from a single kingdom located on the Persian Gulf, defeated the Median, Babylonian, and Egyptian kingdoms. The Persians launched raids into the steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas, conquered the Lydian kingdom of western Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and expanded its holding eastward to Indus River. An estimated 50 million people lived under the Persian hegemony by 480 BC.

In the year 404, as Persian ruler Darius II lay dying, his wife pleaded with him to give the throne to his second eldest son – called Cyrus the Younger – but Darius refused. As a result, Artaxerxes II became the new Persian monarch. In revenge, Cyrus plotted to assassinate his brother at the coronation, but was arrested beforehand. However, Cyrus was not executed (as would most likely have occurred) upon the intervention of his mother. Cyrus was instead pardoned and returned to the satrapies (provinces) of Lydia, Phrygia Major, and Cappadocia, essentially being banished from his brother's presence at the imperial capital of Babylon (which had become the administrative capital of the Persian Empire during the reign of Artaxerxes I, the grandfather of Artaxerxes II). Cyrus almost immediately began fomenting his rebellion, using the resources of his governorship to gain the Persian throne.

Achaemenid (First Persian) Empire, c. 490 BC (Map courtesy of
Achaemenid (First Persian) Empire, c. 490 BC
(Map courtesy of

Prelude to the Battle

In the spring of 401, Cyrus had completed his preparations, and left the city of Sardes and marched east. His target was the city of Babylon, and he fully intended to take the Persian throne for himself. His army was rather small, but Cyrus had a plan, a simple, thoroughly mad scheme of a plan, for taking the Persian throne for his own. He marched his army through southern Asia Minor, across Syria, and into Mesopotamia. In late August, as his force approached the Persian capital, Cyrus received reports that his brother's army was marching to meet him. Cyrus's army was near the town of Cunaxa on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River and 50 miles north of Babylon. A large plain nearby was the perfect place for a pitched battle.

Royal Persian Army

The royal Persian army could be divided into two components: the standing army, which consisted of small units of highly trained infantrymen and some cavalry contingents which acted as police forces in the Persian capital; and, the imperial army, which was used on campaign and consisted of native levies from nearly all parts of the empire, and all types of troops, even camel-riders and chariots. The imperial Achaemenid army was well-organized, equipped, supplied and supported and could call upon vast resources in terms of man-power and finances. It was also undoubtedly well-suited to the type of warfare common in the eastern world, dominated by light troop types, archery and cavalry.

After the Graeco-Persian Wars of 499-479, the Persian military began recruiting large numbers of Greek hoplite mercenaries, as most of the Persian subject peoples had little experience with heavily-armed or –armored infantry (one reason the Persians came out second best at Marathon in 490 and Plataea eleven years later). There was, however, no mention of Greeks in the imperial army at Cunaxa.

The primary chronicler for this battle was a Greek mercenary soldier named Xenophon, who participated in the fighting on the side of Cyrus the Younger. He stated that Artaxerxes's army contained 1.2 million troops – an obvious exaggeration. A more likely figure, according to modern historians, is 40,000 to 50,000 (more on this later). It probably contained mostly Persians, Medes, Elamites, Hyrcanians, Parthians, and Scythians; these peoples were the nearest provinces to the Persian capital. In addition, there were likely some subject contingents from other parts of the empire represented (Xenophon specifically named a unit of Egyptians in the royal Persian force).

The mounted portion of the army contained heavy and light cavalry (mainly armed with javelins) and horse archers. The king was in personal command of a heavy cavalry bodyguard unit composed of Persian nobility. The infantry were mostly lightly armed infantry, carrying wicker-and-leather shields and almost no body armor, and variously armed with short stabbing swords, hand axes, spears or javelins, and bows. In addition, scythed chariots are mentioned by Xenophon.

"Scythed chariot in battle," German author unknown; Print from wood engraving, c. 1852-1898 (Image courtesy of the Digital Gallery of the New York Public Library)
"Scythed chariot in battle," German author unknown
Print from wood engraving, c. 1852-1898
(Image courtesy of the Digital Gallery of the New York Public Library)

Rebel Persian Army

It took Cyrus the Younger nearly three years to complete his preparations for his attack on his brother's throne. During that time, he carefully spread around considerable sums of Persian gold to hire large numbers of mercenary heavy infantry from all over Greece (or Hellas, as the Greeks called their homeland). Cyrus hired 10,400 hoplites and 2500 peltasts (slingers, javelineers, and bowmen). He also raised a force of about 1000 Paphlagonian horsemen, and an unknown number – perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 – of Cappadocian, Lydian, Mysian, Phrygian, and Pisidian footmen. The rebel prince also had a mounted retinue of 600 Bactrian and Scythian heavy cavalry. [Xenophon also mentioned that Cyrus has some scythed chariots of his own, but they played no part in the coming battle, if they were even there.]

Typical Greek hoplite, early fourth century BC
Typical Greek hoplite, early fourth century BC

Battle of Cunaxa

Cyrus received scouting reports that the Imperial Persian army was very near. [There was a very large dust cloud sighted that morning to the south, so I'd say that was a dead giveaway.] Cyrus began to arrange his force for battle at about noon. He was unaware of the size of his brother's army, but began making his dispositions anyway. On his right flank he placed the Greek hoplites – his best troops – with their right flank almost resting on the bank of the Euphrates. Cyrus also placed the Greek peltasts and his Paphlagonian horsemen on the far right, to guard the Greek right flank. The Spartan general Clearchus commanded the right flank. In the center, Cyrus placed his 600-man heavy cavalrymen, men from Bactria and Scythia, clad in armor composed of metal plates, armed with lances, axes, and bows. The rebel left flank was troops from western Asia Minor under command of the Persian nobleman Ariaios. Finally, the rebel camp, with its supplies and camp followers, was perhaps a mile in the rear, guarded by a small contingent of Greek soldiers.

As the dust began to dissipate, the Imperial army host began to come into view. Its battle line was twice as long as the rebel's dispositions. On the right and left flanks were large numbers of various levy infantry, most from the central and eastern satrapies of the empire. They were mostly light infantry, with two small bodies of archers placed in the rear of the army, either as a reserve or as a rear security force. Accompanying these bowmen were two units of light horsemen, perhaps house archers. In the center of Imperial army was the King of Kings himself, Artaxerxes I. He commanded a 6000-strong unit of heavy cavalrymen, his personal bodyguards. The king's standard proclaimed his personal presence: a golden eagle (perhaps either a mounted bird or a "graven image"), its wings outspread, attached to a wooden stand raised on a pole. Finally, on the far left flank, there was a small cavalry contingent under the command of Tissaphernes, a successful general and statesman.

[Some modern historians have speculated that the Imperial Persian battle plan was developed by Tissaphernes and not Artaxerxes. The Persian ruler was not well-known as a military commander, while Tissaphernes had commanded troops in a number of conflicts in western Asia Minor.]

Battle of Cunaxa, initial dispositions, 12:00 noon to c. 2:30 p.m. [Map based on those from]
Battle of Cunaxa, initial dispositions, 12:00 noon to c. 2:30 p.m.
[Map based on those from]

First Phase

While the rebel army was organizing it line, Prince Cyrus rode to his left flank and spoke to Clearchus. The prince suggested that the Greek right flank launch itself at the Imperial center, with the objective of taking out the Persian king. Clearchus was no fool, knowing such a maneuver would expose his right flank to envelopment by the Imperial left flank; therefore, he refused his commander's "order." Besides, the hoplites and peltasts were still organizing their formation. Cyrus rode back to his center position. Shortly afterwards, Prince Cyrus rode far to the left of his army, to observe his brother's forces. He noted that the Imperial army line was much longer than his own, and that there was a strong possibility that Artaxerxes's army would try to outflank and envelop his smaller force. Cyrus began to form a desperate plan…

At about 2:30 p.m., the entire Imperial army began a slow forward march. Shortly thereafter, the rebel left division also moved toward the Imperial battle line, with Prince Cyrus's horsemen staying close to the right division. The two armies were about a mile apart.

Second Phase

At 3:00 p.m., the rebel right wing finally began to move forward. Considering that the Greek hoplites carried in excess of 90 lbs. of armor, shields, and weapons, most heavy infantry of this period entered battle at a walk or, at most, a slow trot. [At the battle of Marathon in 490, the Athenian hoplites are recorded as running almost a mile to engage the invading Persians, which is highly unusual for that time.] The Greek mercenaries covered half the distance to advancing Imperial army in a little less than half-an-hour (my thanks to co-workers Shaun Rieley and Dean Stoline for their expert help in this matter).

Seeing the inexorable advance of the enemy hoplites, the entire Imperial infantry – both right and left flanks – turned and ran without striking a single blow, carrying the bow and horse archer units with them. The infantry's panic apparently carried over to the horses of the scythed chariots, as these death machines scattered, many of them going into their own troops. A few of these chariots headed into the hoplite array; fortunately, the Greek officers ordered their men to open ranks, and the chariots penetrated the hoplite formation but inflicted no casualties.

Battle of Cunaxa, middle phase, 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. [Map based on those from]
Battle of Cunaxa, middle phase, 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
[Map based on those from]

However, two units in the Imperial army did not join the general rout: the cavalry unit under General Tissaphernes, and the bodyguard unit of King Artaxerxes. As the Imperial infantry began retreating, Tissaphernes kept his horsemen under control, and in fact slipped around the Greek flank. This unit headed for the rear of the rebel army, fought a sharp battle with the Greek peltasts, made a beeline for the rebel camp, and began to loot it.

At the same time, King Artaxerxes ordered his bodyguard cavalry forward, seeing an opportunity to skirt the rebel right flank and attack the Greeks in the rear. At the same moment, Prince Cyrus saw his brother's advance and decided to put a desperate plan into action. Cyrus took his own retinue and charged into the king's personal entourage. Even though Cyrus was outnumbered 10 to 1, he felt his only real chance to win was to personally kill his brother to win the throne. A short, bloody fight ensued. Cyrus's horsemen fought desperately, penetrating the king's bodyguards and giving the prince a chance to kill his brother and his king. During this fight, a member of Artaxerxes's unit named Mithradates mortally wounded Cyrus with a javelin. With the death of their leader, the prince's cavalry scattered and routed to the rear. Rather than follow the fleeing rebels, King Artaxerxes and his cavalry charged into the rebel camp and joined Tissaphernes's horsemen. Shortly after joining the looting of the camp, the Greek camp guards attacked the Imperial horsemen, limiting the looting and temporarily driving the enemy away.

Third Phase

It was now about 4:30 p.m., and King Artaxerxes and his mounted escort began riding back toward the battle. However, the Persian king saw that his army was still in flight, so he ordered his own horsemen and those under his general Tissaphernes to ride back to the fighting. When the Imperial infantry units saw their monarch returning to the fight, they immediately began to reform. The rebel Persian infantry left wing, which had done no fighting to this point, saw the Imperial horsemen headed their way, executed an about face in case the Imperials wanted to attack. Seeing these men prepared to meet his possible attack, the king ignored them and continued back to his own forces.

In addition, seeing that they again had targets of opportunity, the Greek hoplite phalanx continued its forward movement, by this point probably breaking into a faster pace. Very quickly, the Greek heavy infantry impacted the Imperial left division. Quickly overcoming the lightly-armored Persian footmen, the Greeks continued to crush their enemies with short, economical thrusts of their spears, along with crushing blows from their shields. Very soon, all Persian resistance collapsed a second time, with the entire Imperial army fleeing. This included King Artaxerxes and his cavalry.

Battle of Cunaxa, final phase, 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. [Map based on those from]
Battle of Cunaxa, final phase, 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
[Map based on those from]

The Persian monarch and his general Tissaphernes and their men galloped southward, and took temporary refuge on a small hill. Recognizing the Imperial battle standard, Greek commander Clearchus ordered his hoplites to pursue the Persian horsemen. They arrived at the base of the hill, debating on whether to attack the enemy or to try and surround the hill. By this point, it was nearing sundown and most of the Greeks were tired (more from the exertion of advancing than the little bit of fighting in which they had engaged). King Artaxerxes saw his opening, and ordered his cavalrymen to retreat. Shortly afterwards, the sun went down, ending the battle of Cunaxa.


Casualty figures for this conflict are non-existent. The only parts of the rebel army which suffered losses were likely the Greeks and Prince Cyrus's mounted guardsmen. The Imperial army likely suffered equally minimal casualties, considering that most of their infantry ran from the fight – twice!

Footnote #1: Clearchus and the Greek mercenaries were convinced that they had won the battle. It wasn't until the next day that they learned that Prince Cyrus was dead, and the rest of the rebel army scattered. Realizing they were in quite a pickle – without food and other supplies, and stranded deep in enemy territory – the Greek leaders sought to develop a plan of action. Shortly afterwards, Clearchus and his major officers were invited to a feast hosted by Tissaphernes. Thinking that they might be offered either employment with the Persian army or free passage back to Greece, the officers went to the meeting. Unfortunately – to paraphrase Admiral Akbar from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – it was a trap. The Greek officers were seized and executed. This left the mercenaries without their leadership. Upon learning the fate of their superiors, the junior officers – among them Xenophon – decided they would march out of the Persian Empire and take ships to their homes. Their march through deserts and mountains, fighting almost the entire way, from the heart of the Achaemenid lands to the Black Sea was the basis for Xenophon's classic work, Anabasis.

Footnote #2: For the 80+ years, the Persian Empire loomed as the biggest threat to the security of Greece and her colonies in the Aegean and Black seas. It would take the invasion of the Macedonian coalition of Alexander the Great to finally end the Achaemenid Persian Empire in the 330s BC.

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