Conn Iggulden’s latest historical novel offers a gripping narrative set in the ancient world. Based on the memoir ‘The Persian Expedition’ written by Athenian historian and philosopher Xenophon, the adventure gives an eyewitness account of the so-called “long-march” documenting the retreat from Persia of the defeated army, once led by Prince Cyrus.
After a brief prologue the novel opens in Persepolis, the magnificent capital of the ancient Persian Empire (today a world heritage site in Iran, 400 miles south of Teheran). Prince Cyrus arrives from military service on the western fringes of the Empire to attend upon his dying father, King Darius II, only to be arrested and humiliated by his elder brother, the arrogant Artaxerxes who is soon to inherit the throne. In revenge, Cyrus determines to raise a huge army in a bold attempt to de-throne his brother.
Part One of Iggulden’s book describes how Cyrus creates this massive force and then marches it through the searing heat of Persia to confront the army of Artaxerxes at the Battle of Cunaxa in 401BC. Cyrus’ army consists of one hundred thousand Persian soldiers, but also includes a mercenary force of around twelve thousand Greeks, the cream of whom are Spartan warriors. In Part Two of his epic tale, Iggulden narrates the fate of the Greeks as they are left leaderless after the Battle of Cunaxa, stranded a thousand miles from home in the centre of the hostile Persian Empire.
Iggulden narrates a tale of treachery and deception, retribution and violence – but also of heroism, endurance and survival – as the Greek soldiers elect a young Spartan nobleman, Xenophon, to lead them out of Persia on an extraordinary escape by following the North Star towards the Black Sea a journey of great travail and hardship which ended with the Greeks’ famous shout of joy – “The sea! The sea!” – when they finally sighted the Black Sea and their deliverance.
It is a stirring tale of bravery in a vast and inhospitable country. We follow the Greek mercenaries as they traverse sweeping plains and swirling rivers, deep canyons and perilous mountains, facing constant attacks from the unforgiving Persians and fearsome hill-tribes as winter approaches. But Xenophon, the “Falcon of Sparta,” manages to lead the Greeks to the Black Sea.
Iggulden’s interpretation of Xenophon’s classic memoir is an expansive tale full of historical and geographical details which feel genuine. He offers, for example, fascinating insights into the characteristics and social rituals of the ancient Persian Empire, and into the nature of the Greek mercenaries as they struggle to survive in ferociously hostile territory.
This book illustrates the bravery and determination of the Greeks, their fortitude and endurance and, ultimately, their capacity for hope, survival and the desire to return home.