Battle of Cunaxa, 401 BC

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Cyrus the Younger versus Artaxerxes II: A Rebel army under Cyrus attempts to use Greek mercenaries to smash through a Royalist army under Artaxerxes. Will the Greek hoplite phalanx live up to its reputation and win Cyrus the Persian throne or does Artaxerxes have a way of neutralizing it?


Oddly enough, Cunaxa was likely more significant for what happened after the battle than during. The retreat of the Greek mercenaries became immortalized in the West as the March of the Ten Thousand in Xenophon’s writings. Both the battle and the march contributed to the Greeks’ prejudiced view of easterners as “arrogant, decadent, soft, irrational and servile” (Waterfield, 2006: 199). Ancient historians emphasized that easterners had to be whipped into battle out of fear and that they had to bow flat on the floor in front of their king (Waterfield, 2006: 201). It is not difficult to trace the continuity of these Western prejudices of easterners, from the March of the Ten Thousand, to the Roman-Parthian Wars, to the unending wars with the Ottoman Empire, to the Orientalism described by Edward Said, even to the popular film, 300. These prejudices are and always have been simplistic conceptions of an entire region’s populations. Even in the ancient sources these prejudices of Greece and the West as superior do not hold up well:

The Greeks may have successfully invaded the Persian empire, but they were not alone and unaided they endured horrific hardship and lost almost half their force; they quarreled among themselves and demonstrated their thuggishness and greed to all the Greek settlers of the southern Black Sea; Xenophon himself became disillusioned and wanted to leave. At one point Xenophon has Cyrus, a Persian, lament Persian servitude and praise Greek freedom and the courage it affords the mercenaries; but these panhellenistic sentiments are marred by what immediately follows. Greek officers approach Cyrus to extract promises from him about how much they will be paid. There freedom is tainted by greed, their courage for sale. (Waterfield, 2006: 207)

Regardless of the existence of these prejudices beforehand, and their over-generalized, inaccurate nature, Cunaxa and the March of the Ten Thousand appeared to be proof of Persian weakness, inspiring generals from Aegisalius to Alexander to invade the east (Waterfield, 2006: 197).

This battle may also be significant for complex chain of events it started, much more significant than just relatives fighting for their own personal claim to a throne. How much did it really matter to the vast majority of people living within the empire who sat on the throne after all? Modern historians remind us that only a few generations later it mattered very much who happened to sit on the Persian throne. The winner of Cunaxa, Artaxerxes II, died of natural causes in 359 BC and was succeeded by Artaxerxes III, described as “a ruthless and experienced field commander” (Waterfield, 2006: 209). However, Artaxerxes III and most of his family was murdered in 338 BC, leaving the only surviving son to become a puppet king, who in turn was quickly replaced by a cousin. This cousin took the throne as Darius III, unfortunately just before Alexander the Great turned his gaze to the east:

Darius was a competent strategist, but it would have taken more than mere competence to match Alexander the Great, and [Darius] has gone down in history as the man who lost the Persian empire to the Macedonians. (Whitfield, 2006: 209)

It is interesting to ponder how successful Alexander would have been had Artaxerxes III still ruled the Persian empire, only a slight difference in succession.


It is not hard to explain why Cyrus lost this battle. For starters, Cyrus viewed the battle as “little more than single combat, massively multiplied, between him and his brother” (Waterfield, 2006: 15). This resulted in Cyrus insisting on personally fighting in the front line without a helmet, recklessly leading his small royal guard cavalry unit against Artaxerxes’ more numerous royal guard cavalry in the center.

Cyrus seems to have believed he could not lose with his Greek mercenaries fighting in his army (Cawkwell, 1972 in Fox, 2004: 19). This is somewhat understandable considering the quality of Greek hoplites at this time and the ease in which they defeated the Persian infantry and chariots in the battle. However, Cyrus did not really exercise command over the Greeks, with Clearchus refusing an order to attack Artaxerxes in the center once the armies had deployed. Some ancient sources actually blame the Greeks for Cyrus’ death, although modern historians such as Whitby argue that this blame is unjustified (2004: 226-227). Whitby argues that Cyrus knew Artaxerxes would be situated at the Royalist army’s center and planned to attack it with his own troops. Upon seeing the size of Artaxerxes’ army however, Cyrus tried to hastily change the battle plan to have the Greeks attack the Royalist center, a redeployment which would have dangerously exposed the hoplite phalanx’s flanks as Clearchus pointed out (Whitby, 2004: 226-227). Cyrus instead stuck to his plan of having the Greeks defeat the Royalist left and roll up the rest of Artaxerxes’ line. This did not happen due to dust obscuring the battlefield as well as the simple momentum of the Greek advance carrying it straight forward in the pursuit. Regardless of the reasons, Cyrus would have been much more likely to win the battle had the Greeks attacked the Royalist center where Artaxerxes was situated.


I just want to recognize the wargaming community for the excellent research that goes in to constructing wargaming systems and their scenarios, including Cunaxa. One of the basic aims of wargaming is to simulate a historical event in order to better understand it. A wargame seeks to accurately represent the terrain, units, morale, combat system, strategic goals, command and control, fog of war, of the historical event. As the wargame plays out, it helps explain why a certain outcome occurred. Constructing the wargames rules and system is an extremely difficult task that must rely on the historical events for confirmation but still provide a plausible range of outcomes that could have occurred had commanders made different decisions or if random events had gone differently. For example, a wargame in which it is not possible for Alexander to win at Gaugamela by advancing in oblique order and smashing the Persian center with a combined arms attack would not accurately simulate that battle. At the same time though, this scenario might show us that the historical battle must have featured a reduced Persian army than reported by observers or that the majority of the numerous Persian infantry must have been of low quality and morale. Wargame designers are not surprisingly pretty good at recreating battles because they will know right away if something does not make sense in the historical account based on their playtesting.

So first of all, thank you to Mark Herman and Richard Berg for their Great Battles of History series of battle simulations published by GMT Games. Cunaxa can be played in either the Great Battles of Alexander or Hoplite titles. Second, thank you Phil Barker for creating the wargaming miniatures rules, De Bellis Antiqutatis (DBA) and De Bellis Multitudinis (DBM), and Peter Sides for expanding the rules to a ton of historical battles.

Like many ancient battles there are somewhat conflicting estimates for the strength of each army. Ancient sources make obviously gross exaggerations, claiming Cyrus had 100,000 men against Artaxerxes’ 900,000 (Bigwood, 1983: 341-342). Modern estimates range from 20-40,000 for Cyrus and 35-60,000 for Artaxerxes. If you are interested in a detailed analysis of various ancient sources’ descriptions of the battle, which I have definitely not provided, check out Bigwood’s “The Ancient Accounts of the Battle of Cunaxa” (1983).

– Jonathan Webb

Works Consulted

Bigwood, J.M. “The Ancient Accounts of the Battle of Cunaxa.” The American Journal of Philology 104.4 (1983): 340-357.

Delbrück, Hans. History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History: The Germans Vol. 2. Translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.

Prevas, John. Xenophon’s March: Into the Lair of the Persian Lion. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2002.

Salinas, Antonio. “The Battle of Cunaxa Revealed: 401 BC.” Eastern Michigan University. (accessed Apr 2, 2018).

Sides, Peter. Ancient Historical Battles 1479 BC – 378 AD. Upton: Gosling Press, 1992.

Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. London: Salamander, 1980.

Waterfield, Robin. Xenophon’s Retreat: Greece, Persia, and the End of the Golden Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Whitby,Michael. “Xenophon’s Ten Thousand as a Fighting Force.” In The Long March: Xenophon and the Ten Thousand. Edited by Robin Lane Fox. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.


Artaxerxes II:

Greek hoplite:

Greek peltast:

Map of the Persian Empire:

Map of the world:

Persian cavalry:

Persian infantry:

Persian scythed chariot:


If you enjoyed the Battle of Cunaxa 401 BC battle animation, you may also enjoy these other battle animations:

Battle of Gaugamela 331 BC, another battle featuring Persian scythed chariots against a Greek phalanx:

Battle of Hastings 1066, another battle in which the death of a commander resulted in defeat:

Battle of Thymbra 546 BC, another decisive ancient battle involving the Persians:

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