The Two Great Retreats Of History by D.H.M. (1889)

Prefatory Note

The two following selections contain, first, Grote's account of the Retreat of the Ten Thousand Greeks, taken from his "History of Greece," and, secondly, an abridgment of Count Ségur's narrative of Napoleon's retreat from Russia.

Grote's History, based on Xenophon's, is given entire, with the exception that, in a very few instances, some slight verbal change has been made in order to better adapt the work to school use. Two maps are furnished, an introduction is prefixed to each selection, and all needed notes subjoined.
D. H. M.

Sketch Of Cyrus The Younger

Introductory To The Retreat Of The Ten Thousand Greeks

In the year 423 B.C. Darius Nothus ascended the throne of Persia. That country was then the greatest empire in the world, and had an area nearly equal to that of the United States. The capital of this seemingly powerful realm was the ancient city of Babylon on the lower Euphrates. Here the Great King, as he was styled, had his principal palace, from which he issued orders to his twenty or more satraps or governors whose provinces extended in name at least from the shores of the Mediterranean to the banks of the Indus, and from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea.

Darius had married his half-sister Parysatis, a high-spirited but unscrupulous woman, by whom he had two sons, destined to be known in history. The eldest was Artaxerxês, a youth of but little character; and the second, Cyrus, who inherited the decided qualities of his mother. In order to distinguish him from Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, who died more than a hundred years earlier, he is commonly called Cyrus the Younger.

He was his mother's favorite, and as he was born after Darius assumed the crown, while Artaxerxês was born before that date, Parysatis seems to have encouraged Cyrus to consider himself the true heir to the throne, since he was in fact the king's eldest son. Through her influence he was appointed satrap of Lydia and the adjacent provinces of western Asia Minor when he was but sixteen. This position, since it made him the military ruler of that populous and wealthy section of country, was one of great importance, and doubtless had no small influence in shaping the young man's future career.

In 404 Cyrus was summoned from Sardis, the capital of Lydia, to Babylon, and shortly after, his father died, leaving his crown to Artaxerxês, who, from his remarkable memory which appears to have been his chief characteristic, got the title of Artaxerxês Mnemon. But Cyrus certainly was not deficient in this mental quality, for he seems to have remembered his mother's suggestions about his being the rightful heir to the throne so well, that at the coronation of Artaxerxês he plotted his assassination; or at least, Tissaphernês, a neighboring satrap,1 accused him of it. Cyrus, who appears to have had no adequate defence to make, was forthwith arrested and would probably have been summarily put to death—for in Persia the law's delays were unknown—had not Parysatis interfered. Realizing her son's imminent peril, she rushed forward and, clasping him in her arms, wound her long flowing hair about him, and pressed his neck to hers in such a way that the executioner must have beheaded her with the same stroke with which he decapitated Cyrus.

But the million did not make their appearance, and so Cyrus decided to keep on until he should encounter them. The next day the invading army reached a trench which had evidently been recently dug to obstruct their advance. It stretched across the plain between the Euphrates and the Tigris, in connection with the ruins of the old Median Wall, built probably in the days of Nebuchadnezzar as one of the defences of Babylon. This trench was eighteen feet deep, thirty feet wide, and upwards of forty miles in length; it stopped short of the Euphrates by only twenty feet. Over that narrow strip of ground, which the Persian king might easily have held with a small number of resolute men, the Cyreian forces passed, with no one to hinder them. The great trench, on which so much labor had been expended, was, therefore, not only useless as a defence to Artaxerxês, but it was a positive encouragement to Cyrus and his men, for it revealed the inefficiency and the cowardice of the Persians. The whole army now moved rapidly forward, confident of an easy victory, many even supposing that Artaxerxês would make no stand at all, but abandon his capital to them. The Great King, however, was not so hopelessly pusillanimous as that; for, when Cyrus reached Kunaxa, scouts brought word that the enemy's hosts were not far behind. This time the intelligence was correct. That very afternoon a great cloud of white dust rolled up from the plain, and as it kept advancing the invaders caught sight of the flash of brazen armor and a forest of spears.

When all was ready for the battle to begin, the Greeks, not waiting to be attacked, charged on the run against the Persian left wing. The Persians, who seem to have thought that on such an occasion absence of body was a good deal better than presence of mind, waited just long enough to hear the Greeks give a fierce shout to Mars, accompanied by a significant clatter of spears and shields. That satisfied them, and, turning like a flock of frightened sheep, they ran for their lives.

Cyrus, who had refused to put on a helmet, now dashed into the fight with uncovered head, making straight for King Artaxerxês, who occupied the centre of his army. "I see the man!" he cried, and, hurling his lance, he struck and slightly wounded the Great King; but that fratricidal blow was the last, for just then a javelin pierced Cyrus under the eye, and he fell from his horse and was slain. His head and right hand were then cut off to serve as a warning to traitors. The native or Asiatic troops, seeing the disaster, fled, and did not stop till they had reached a former camp eight miles away.

Meanwhile the victorious Ten Thousand, knowing nothing of what had happened to Cyrus, pursued the Persians as long as light lasted; then when the sun had set they returned to find that their camp had been plundered by the enemy, and that they must go to bed supperless. It was not until sunrise of the next day that they learned that Cyrus was dead; that their companions in arms had fled; and that they were left a mere handful of men without a leader, and without provisions, in the heart of the enemy's country.

How to retreat from such a position was the supreme question. They could not return the way they came, for that road led them through the desert, where it would be impossible to get food. If they were to get back alive they must take the northern route to the shores of the Black Sea. This would lead them through a fertile but rough country, in which they would have to find their way as best they could across rivers and over mountains, harassed by the Persians in the rear, and encountering savage tribes who would dispute their progress. At the shortest such a march would be about six hundred miles even in an air line, with prospect of something like six hundred more before they reached the Mediterranean.

After many delays, this latter course was the one they finally resolved to take, and owing to Xenophon's courage and resolution it turned out successfully.

After eight months of wandering, hardships, and peril, they all came in sight of the Euxine, and perhaps no shipwrecked sailors clinging to a raft ever cried "Land!" "Land!" with more joy than those Greeks who had climbed a hill-top shouted "The Sea!" "The Sea!"

Thanks to their own bravery, to their able leader, and finally to Persian vacillation and cowardice, this little army had now reached a place of safety. It was long, however, before they got back to their native country, and when they did, they were not to arrive at its shores asleep, on shipboard, as the much wandering and storm-tossed Ulysses came to his beloved Ithaca.

It is doubtful, indeed, how many of them ever got back to their Spartan or Athenian homes, for we know that most of them could not make up their minds to live quiet lives of peace again; but preferred fighting in behalf of the independence of the Ionian cities which Greece had planted on the coast of Asia Minor.

Such was the Retreat of the Ten Thousand. If we may accept the judgment of Rollin, a once noted historian, it has never had a parallel in history. If we consider its results, it certainly merits all that Rollin claims for it, for it convinced the Greek people that the apparent power of the Persian empire was utterly unreal. They saw that, as Cyrus had said, its only strength was in "numbers and noise." This conviction grew, and two generations after Xenophon's return, it led to that grand invasion of Persia by Alexander the Great which was to revolutionize the ancient world.

What, then, had the retreat of the Greeks accomplished? First, it proved that ten thousand men not afraid to die are worth more than a million who lack that courage; and next, though it was a retreat, yet it suggested that advance which eventually spread the Greek language, Greek culture and Greek civilization in countries where they were before unknown.
D. H. M.

Sketch of Napoleon

Introductory To The Retreat of Moscow

Napoleon Bonaparte was born at Ajaccio, Corsica (then recently ceded to France), in 1769. He was of Italian descent, and up to the age of ten could speak no French. In 1779 he was sent to the military school of Brienne, in France, and there began his education for the army. As a lieutenant of artillery he did good service in behalf of the French revolutionary government at the siege of Toulon, which had revolted in 1793.

Two years later that government was threatened by the rising of the people of Paris, headed by the National Guard. General Barras gave Napoleon an opportunity of showing his military skill in defence of the authorities, and the young officer, with his well-directed volleys of grape-shot, speedily quelled the insurrection. From that time Napoleon's name became familiar to the French people.

In 1796 he married Madame Josephine Beauharnais, a West Indian lady, whose husband had been guillotined during the Revolution. About the same time Napoleon received the command of the French army of Italy, and with his successful Italian campaign against Austria his reputation as a general began.

From that date until his final abdication in 1815, he was almost constantly engaged in active war, or in preparations for it. During that period of twenty years he fought nearly the whole of Europe; and up to his fatal Russian campaign in 1812, he was victorious in every great battle which he personally directed in the open field. This constant success inspired him with the belief that he was invincible. As one of his friends said, "He appeared like a man walking in a halo of glory"; and as an eminent statesman declared, "France gave herself to him, absorbed herself in him, and seemed, at one time, no longer to think, except through him." From a simple artillery officer Napoleon had risen to be the greatest military commander in the world. His adopted country had placed him at the head of the government, and ended by making him Emperor. By his conquests he had enlarged France so that his imperial dominions extended to the Baltic on the north, and beyond Rome on the southeast.

To increase his glory and strengthen his power, he established a circle of dependent thrones and principalities, occupied by his brothers and his favorites, who were bound to obey his will and extend his sway.

Of all the nations of Europe, England alone had been able to withstand him; and in 1812 London, Moscow, and St. Petersburg were the only leading capitals whose streets his triumphant armies had not entered.

It was when he was at the apparent summit of his power that Napoleon divorced his faithful Josephine, in order that he might marry the Princess Maria Louisa, daughter of the emperor of Austria. His object was to found a reigning family allied by blood with one of the oldest and proudest dynasties of Europe. In this, as in all other things, he seemed to accomplish his purpose, for from this union a son was born who, under the title of the "King of Rome," promised to perpetuate his father's name and power.

Having secured an heir to his crown Napoleon now determined to rigorously carry out his "continental policy" of humbling England by shutting out her trade from every port of Europe. If this could be done effectually, as he believed was possible, he might hope to starve his old enemy into submission.

The attempt to accomplish this design was the chief cause of the campaign against Russia, and of Napoleon's ultimate downfall. The Czar, contrary to the provisions of the treaty of Tilsit, made in 1807, was now opposed to continuing the blockade which excluded English commerce from the Baltic. Not only did the Russian sovereign refuse to yield on this point, but he went so far as to form an alliance with Sweden, in order to resist the French Emperor's demands more effectually.

Napoleon accordingly declared war, and in the spring of 1812 began gathering a force of over 600,000 men for the invasion of Russia. The Grand Army was chiefly French; but the Emperor compelled his allies — Austria, Prussia, Italy, and the German States — to furnish large numbers of troops; and he also received help from Poland. Besides the Imperial Guard, a body of picked men over 50,000 strong, under the command of Marshals Lefebvre, Mortier, and Bessières, there were 13 corps. The French were led by Marshals Davoust, Oudinot, Ney, Murat, King of Naples; the Italians by Prince Eugene; the Poles by Poniatowski; the Austrians by General Schwartzenberg; the Germans and Prussians by St. Cyr, Regnier, Vandamme, Victor, Macdonald, and Augereau.

The Poles fought for Napoleon in the belief that, if successful, he would secure their independence against the power of Russian oppression; the other nations because they dared not refuse.

This enormous force, which was double that of the Czar's, gradually collected on the banks of the Niemen, a river emptying into the Baltic, and forming part of the western boundary of Russia. The army crossed it in three divisions, at a considerable distance from each other.2 All were to meet at Wilna, a Polish city which Russia had seized in the dismemberment of that country, and which was about fifty miles southeast of the Niemen.

Napoleon himself, at the head of one of the three divisions, with a force of over two hundred thousand, crossed the river at Kowno on the 23d of June, and began his march for Wilna.3 The weather was intensely hot, and in the course of a few weeks many thousand men fell out of the ranks through sickness and fatigue, and great numbers of horses died. The French hoped to encounter the Russian forces in a decisive battle before advancing far into the country. But it was the policy of the Czar not to fight, but to keep falling back, destroying all supplies as fast as he retreated, and so compelling the French to depend wholly upon their own resources.

Napoleon himself confessed that the Russians had the advantage. They, he said, would be animated by love of their native land to repel invasion, and all private and public interests would unite them. The French, on the other hand, had nothing to urge them on but the love of conquest and of glory, without even the hope of plunder, for in those desolate regions there was nothing they could seize.

The first real encounter was at Smolensk, a walled city on the Dnieper, about half way between Wilna and the ancient capital of Russia. After a day of hard fighting, the Russians fired the city and abandoned it. The French entered the smoking ruins. They were victors, but such a victory was almost as disheartening as a defeat. From that place a weary seven-days march brought the Grand Army to the village of Borodino, on the banks of the Kologa, a tributary of the Moskwa.4 Here the Russian general, Kutusoff, had determined to make a stand in defence of that holy city of Moscow, not many leagues distant, for which every peasant stood ready to lay down his life. The result of the battle was in favor of Napoleon, but it cost him the lives of thirty thousand men to gain it; and though the Russians lost double that number, they knew that the time was coming when the elements and the great barren spaces of their country would fight for them. This was the 7th of September. From that date the Russians resumed their old tactics and continued to slowly retreat, burning the villages and the crops as they fell back. At length, at noon of the 14th, the French emperor came in sight of "the city of the Czars."

What followed from that time until Napoleon, baffled and beaten, reached Paris, leaving the wreck of the Grand Army behind him, may best be learned from the ensuing narrative of Count Ségur,5 who was one of the generals in that army, an officer of the imperial staff, and an eye-witness of what he describes.6

His faithful history of that terrible disaster must necessarily be painful. It is in most respects the very opposite of Xenophon's account of the Retreat of the Ten Thousand, which precedes it. But the reader should reflect that the dark and sorrowful scenes of history may have lessons as salutary as the brighter ones; and that the story of a great failure, involving the ruin and death of thousands, may be as instructive and as helpful as the story of a great success. In Xenophon's case, we have the spectacle of a man of more than ordinary ability, stimulated by difficulty and peril until he rises to real greatness of achievement. In Napoleon's career we see a naturally "great mind dragged to ruin by its own faults"; but such a man could not fall alone, and it was inevitable that a multitude should suffer with him and for him. D. H. M.


1 Tissaphernês was a satrap of Caria, a province of Asia Minor south of Lydia

2 Namely, at Kowno, Pilony, south of Kowno, and Grodno, still further south. At Kowno a monument bears the following inscription in Russian: "In 1812 Russia was invaded by an army numbering 700,000 men. The army recrossed the frontier numbering 70,000."

3 See map facing p. 1. The upper dotted line represents the advance to Moscow; the lower, the line of retreat from that city

4 Moskwa, Kologa: these and other Russian geographical names are variously spelled

5 Count Ségur was elected a member of the French Academy, and his history of the retreat has not only passed through many editions in France, but it has been translated into all the leading languages of Europe

6 The history of Napoleon after the Russian retreat will form the subject of a note at the close of Count Ségur's narrative

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