This is a chapter of The Retreat of the Ten Thousand, by C. Witt & F. Younghusband.
From the villages of the Colchians, two marches brought the Hellenes to the city of Trebizond, an ancient Hellene colony on the coast of the Black Sea. Now, at last, they had arrived at the sea, now they could rest awhile among their own countrymen, and forget all the miseries they had endured since taking service under the ill-fated Cyrus.
The people of Trebizond received them with great kindness and made them gifts of cattle, barley, and wine. They also opened a market for them and brought abundance of goods for sale. By this time, however, money had become very scarce among the Hellenes, but they were able to provide themselves with food by making raids into the country of the Colchians.
The march from Sardis to Cunaxa had occupied six months; the return journey from Cunaxa to Trebizond had lasted five months. It was now February, and since December all the other trials of the retreat had been aggravated by the intense cold which had cost many of them their lives.
When reviewed by Cyrus before the battle of Cunaxa, the Hellenes had numbered 13,000, but, by the time they reached Trebizond, they had become reduced to 8,600. Of those who were missing, some had been killed by the enemy, and others had perished in the snow or had been cut off by sickness. In round numbers, they are always spoken of as the famous Ten Thousand.
At the time of their greatest need, when Clearchus and the other officers had been struck down by the treachery of Tissaphernes, the Hellenes had vowed to offer sacrifices to the gods if ever they should again be in a land peopled by men of their own race. When they made the vow, it seemed hardly possible to hope that they would ever be in a position to fulfill it, but now the time had come, for now the deliverance was accomplished.
It would have been a thing unknown for the Hellenes to celebrate any great event without including among the ceremonies some contests of physical strength and skill, which always attracted the presence of a great crowd of spectators. Accordingly, it was agreed that there should be races of this kind on the occasion of the sacrifices offered as thank offerings to the gods for the safe return of the Ten Thousand, and the arrangements were entrusted to a Spartan named Dracontius.
Dracontius could not arrange for races on the grand scale of the celebrated games at Olympia to which all Hellas was accustomed to flock once in every four years, but he was determined that at least there should be no lack of amusement and excitement. Since he could not command a fine level course strewn with sand, he chose instead a rugged hill with a steep slope down to the sea, and, when they asked him how it would be possible to have a wrestling match on such rough ground, he answered laughing, “Those who are thrown will get the hardest knocks.”
In accordance with the ancient custom, the first race was for boys, but, as among the soldiers there were no boys, this race was contested by such of the prisoners as were still youths. Then came a foot race for which more than sixty Cretan soldiers had entered their names, followed by a wrestling match, a boxing match, and the game called by the Hellenes pankration, which combined both wrestling and boxing.
All these games were watched with great enthusiasm by a crowd of spectators, both men and women. Numbers of people had come out from the town, dressed in their gayest apparel, and mingled with the soldiers, lining both sides of the course. The successful combatants were greeted with tremendous applause, and those who were defeated, with shouts of laughter.
Best as well as last of all was the horse race. The riders had to race from the altar at the top of the hill down the slope to the sea, and then turn and climb the hill again. They started off at full gallop, but many of the horses tripped in the uneven ground and rolled over and over, while others who had gone down well enough, came toiling back, unable to get beyond a walk. All this called forth peals of laughter from the spectators, together with many shouts and cheers. The prizes given to the winners were the skins of the animals that had been slaughtered for the sacrifices.
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Not far from the place chosen for the games was the spot where the Argonauts were said to have landed long ago to win the Golden Fleece. The story of Jason and his brave comrades was one of the old tales that the Hellenes loved, of dauntless heroes helped by the gods to accomplish tasks beyond the power of mortal men.
If that old story was remembered by the Hellene soldiers as they took part in the games, they might have reflected with pride that, although there was nothing superhuman in the task which they had just brought to a successful issue, yet it had nevertheless demanded courage and endurance, and by the help of the gods they had triumphed. Many a time there had seemed no possibility of escape, many a time they had been within a hair’s breadth of utter destruction, but at last they had reached the goal. Certainly, there was still a strain of the blood of the heroes in the veins of the brave Ten Thousand.