This is a chapter of The Retreat of the Ten Thousand, by C. Witt & F. Younghusband.
The country north of Armenia was inhabited by the Taochians, a warlike and independent tribe, who soon made it clear that they were by no means disposed to welcome the intruding strangers.
On approaching the border of Armenia, the Hellenes saw before them, at a distance of about three miles, a mountain range stretching away both to the left and right. The generals halted and brought up the troops in line, whilst waiting for the return of the spies, who had been sent on in front to find out whether there was any road leading over the ridge. When the spies returned, they reported that the only road led to a narrow pass, already occupied by the Taochians.
It was evident that they would not be suffered to cross the mountains without a struggle, and Cheirisophus gave orders that the men should at once take their dinner, during which time the generals were asked to discuss whether they should attack the pass immediately or wait till the next day. One of the generals, named Cleanor, had quickly made up his mind and was the first to speak.
“It is well,” he said, “that the soldiers should begin by making a good meal, but, this done, we must attack the enemy without delay. If we wait till tomorrow, they will think we are afraid of them, their spirits will rise, and many more of their friends will join them.”
But Xenophon was of a different opinion. “It is of the first importance,” he said, “that we should lose as few men as possible in seizing the pass. The mountains stretch away to a distance of more than six miles, and no part of the range appears to be guarded except the road leading to the pass. It seems to me that it would be better for us to find a way over the unguarded part instead of attacking the enemy in their favorable position.
“For it is more easy to ascend by a steep road, if unhindered, than by a level road that is contested, and more possible to see in the night if there is nothing to distract us than in the daytime if there are enemies all around. Moreover, the rough road is better, if we are left in peace, than the smooth road, if stones are continually falling about our heads. We can steal a way for ourselves under cover of the darkness at such a distance from the enemy that they will not hear us, especially if some of us divert their attention by advancing towards the pass as if we were going to attack it.
“But when I speak of stealing,” he continued in a jesting tone, turning to Cheirisophus, “ye Spartans, as I have heard, are accustomed to steal from your infancy. With you it is considered an honor to steal successfully, but, in order that you may learn to be skillful, he who is caught is scourged. Now you can give proof of the excellent training you have received. Help us to steal our way so cleverly that we shall not be caught and punished.”
Cheirisophus took the jest in good part and replied in the same tone. “You also,” he said, “ye men of Athens, have some experience in stealing, for I hear that, notwithstanding the risk of severe punishment, you know how to steal the treasures of the state, and the greatest robbers are those distinguished persons who hold the highest offices. For you too, therefore, there is now a chance of showing how well you can turn to account the lessons which you have learned at home.”
The plan proposed by Xenophon was adopted, and it was agreed that certain of the troops should climb the mountain and that others should advance along the road to the pass. The Hellenes were happily provided with guides who knew the country, for on the march they had captured some marauders who had followed at a little distance, hoping to find a favorable opportunity for stealing a few cattle. The prisoners had already been questioned and had said that the mountains were not impassable but were used as grazing ground for both goats and cattle and that, if the Hellenes had command of any part of the ridge, they would be able to take the baggage animals over it without difficulty.
Dinner being ended, Cheirisophus led the army towards the pass occupied by the enemy, but halted at the distance of a mile from the mountains. When it was dark, the troops who were to climb over the heights marched away in the utmost silence. All went well, the soldiers met with no hindrance, and, having reached the top of the ridge, kindled a fire according to agreement, as a signal to those below that they had accomplished their task.
The fire was seen also by the Taochians, who now perceived that they were in danger of being assailed on both sides, and they also lighted fires as a signal to their comrades to come to their help.
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In the morning, Cheirisophus pressed forward along the road leading to the pass, and, at the same time, the other troops appeared upon the heights and began to make their way to the same place. The Taochians divided their men into two companies, the greater number remaining at the pass, whilst a smaller band marched out to meet the enemy on the ridge. Here, the first engagement took place, and the Hellenes soon defeated the Taochians and put them to flight. Meanwhile, Cheirisophus was rapidly approaching at the head of the hoplites, having sent on the archers and slingers in advance, and, when the Taochians at the pass saw that their friends had been defeated on the ridge, they also turned and fled, so that the pass was won almost without fighting. As a remembrance of their victory, the Hellenes raised upon the mountain a trophy made of stones piled one upon another and decorated with the shields and arms taken from the Taochians.
From hence they marched for five days through a level country, where they met with no resistance. But now provisions again began to fail. There was no lack of food in the country, but the Taochians had taken care to store everything within their castles, which were strong, fortified places, always perched on the top of some rugged height. The Hellenes did not think it prudent to attack these castles and, in spite of their hunger, were forced to pass them by.
On the sixth day, however, they came to a fortress which they were obliged to attack, for they were quite without food. It was built upon the edge of an overhanging cliff and beneath it was a river and a road running beside the river. In this fortress, all the men, women, and children of the neighborhood had assembled, together with their cattle, and had piled together great heaps of stones to hurl down upon the Hellenes.
Having tried in vain to find some means of taking the place, Cheirisophus called a halt and waited until Xenophon came up. In answer to his question as to why they were at a standstill, Cheirisophus replied, “The only approach to this place is by the road under the cliff, and, the moment we attempt to pass, they hurl down stones upon us from above, of which this is the result,” and he pointed to some poor fellows lying on the ground whose legs and ribs had been broken.
As usual, Xenophon had something to suggest. “It seems to me,” he said, “that there are not many of them up there and that it will not take long to exhaust their supply of stones.” And then, having carefully examined the place, he added, “The dangerous piece of road is about a hundred and fifty feet in length, of which two-thirds is covered with great pine trees, not very far apart. One, or at the most two leaps, will take us from the shelter of one group of pine trees to the next, and then, when the stones begin to fail, we must run as fast as possible over the last fifty feet of open ground.”
About seventy men were entrusted with the task of freeing the approach to the fortress, and one of them hit upon a clever device for bringing down the stones as fast as possible. From beneath the shelter of a pine tree, he ran a step or two forward to attract the attention of the enemy, who at once hurled all their biggest stones at the place, but, before they could touch him, he was back under the shelter of his tree. He did this so often that at last there was quite a heap of stones lying in front of him, but he himself was untouched.
The other men followed his example and made it a sort of game, enjoying the sensation, pleasant alike to old and young, of courting danger for a moment and then quickly escaping it. When the stones were almost exhausted, the soldiers raced one another over the exposed part of the road, each eager to be the first to reach the fortress. The Taochians made no further resistance, but, fearing the vengeance of the Hellenes, men, women, and children flung themselves over the edge of the cliff and were dashed to pieces.
One of the soldiers, seeing a Taochian who appeared to be better dressed than the rest, about to throw himself over the precipice, ran up to him and tried to pull him back, but the Taochian grasped him in his strong arms and dragged him forward with him over the edge, so that both perished together.
The Hellenes took few prisoners, but much spoil, cattle and asses in abundance, and whole flocks of sheep.