Case Study: Two Leaders, One Strategy, Centuries Apart

The Colloseum, Rome, Italy

The Colloseum in Rome, Italy. (Photo: jonrawlinson on flickr)

Gods, epic myths, heroes, and damsels in distress. The history of ancient times fascinates me.

Below is one of my favorite stories from Greek history. The story of Xenophon’s mission to return 10,000 Greek mercenaries to their homeland.

And for entertainment’s sake—and to display a fantastic parallel in strategy—I compare Xenophon’s tactics with those of the infamous abolitionist, John Brown.


Xenophon was not a mercenary. He was a philosopher with a need for adventure. In the spring of 401 B.C., a friend invited him to join Cyrus’ army on a mission to quiet a few rebellious cities within the Persian Empire. Some 10,000 Greek soldiers had signed up for the expedition, and Xenophon decided to join them as a historian. Perhaps he could write a book about the march afterwards.

After traveling deep into Persia, Cyrus told the army his true purpose: to march on Babylon, dethrone his brother Ataxerxes, and take the crown. It took some extra pay to quiet the mercenaries, but the Greeks complied. Then, early into the civil war, Cyrus was killed, leaving the Greek commander Clearchus in control. The Greeks found themselves in a parlous situation: fifteen hundred miles from home and surrounded by rancorous Persians after fighting on the wrong side of a civil war. Fortunately, Ataxerxes had no quarrel with the Greeks and actually sent an envoy, the Persian commander Tissaphernes, to lead them out of Persian land as quickly as possible.

But the Greeks soon grew skeptical of Tissaphernes. The supplies he had brought were insufficient and the route he had chosen was problematic. Cyrus and a few of his captains voiced their concerns to Tissaphernes. A meeting was arranged in a neutral site so that the two sides could continue with one accord. When the Greek commanders showed up at the decided time and place, Persian infantry surrounded them and they were beheaded.

That night, Xenophon dreamt that Zeus’ lightning bolt struck his father’s house on fire. A revelation. With their commanders gone, the Greeks were facing sure death, yet they lay around arguing and complaining. He decided to take action—a polarizing strategy was warranted. Turn the Greeks’ focus toward survival, with the Persians as the enemy, and in fighting for their lives, in fighting for a tangible cause, they will be the stronger contestant. Xenophon addressed his fellows:

“Gentlemen, I cannot sleep and I don’t think you can; and I can’t lie here when I see what a plight we are in. It is clear that the enemy did not show us open war until they thought they had everything well prepared; and no-one among us takes the pains to make the best possible resistance.

“Yet, if we give way, and fall into the king’s power, what do we expect our fate will be? When his own half-brother was dead, the man cut off his head and cut off his hand and stuck them up on a pole. We have no-one to plead for us, and we marched here to make the king a slave or to kill him if we could, and what do you think our fate will be? Would he not go to all extremes of torture to make the whole world afraid of making war on him? Why, we must do anything to keep out of his power! While the truce lasted, I never ceased pitying ourselves, I never ceased congratulating the king and his army. What a vast country I saw, how large, what endless provisions, what crowds of servants, how many cattle and sheep, what gold, what raiment! But when I thought of these our soldiers—we had no share in all these good things unless we bought them, and few had anything left to buy with; and to procure anything without buying was debarred by our oaths. While I reasoned like this, I sometimes feared the truce more than the war now.

“However, now they have broken the truce, there is an end both to their insolence and to our suspicion. There lie all these good things before us, prizes for whichever side prove the better men; the gods are the judges of the contest, and they will be with us, naturally…

“When you have appointed as many commanders as are wanted, assemble all the other soldiers and encourage them; that will be just what they want now. Perhaps you have noticed yourselves how crestfallen they were when they came into camp, how crestfallen they went on guard; in such a state I don’t know what you could do with them…But if someone could turn their minds from wondering what will happen to them, and make them wonder what they could do, they will be much more cheerful. You know I am sure, that not numbers or strength brings victory in war; but whichever army goes into battle stronger in soul, their enemies generally cannot withstand them.”

And so the Greeks marched on. They quickly learned how to avoid battle, to move at night and elude the Persians. It took several years, but, under the guidance of Xenophon, almost all of them made it home alive.

In the face of death, the Greek mercenaries lost all hope. Xenophon saw this and knew the prescription: a definite enemy, one to act and react against. A polarizing entity was necessary to motivate the Greeks to action. A catalyst was required to spark their fire, just as Zeus set fire to the house of Xenophon’s father.

The United States in 1859 verged on conflict. The violence of Bleeding Kansas three years prior planted the thought of civil war in every American’s worried mind. John Brown’s increasingly public attacks served to dangle the carrot of slave rebellion in front of the horse—ever present in the slave owners’ minds, yet always just around the corner.

To be sure, Brown had grandiose plans for his raid on Harpers Ferry. He imagined that “thousands of slaves would swarm to his side” and “all the free Negroes in the Northern states” would join him in the fight against the slave masters. He likened himself to Leonides in the struggle with Xerxes during the Persian Wars. Brown declared that he was “God’s instrument for such an expedition, and it was God’s will that slavery be eradicated with the blood of slaveholders.” As he revealed his Harpers Ferry plan, he talked of establishing a new free state in the Appalachians where slaves could escape to. He talked of seizing a federal arsenal with which he would supply firearms to rebel slaves. His talking was met with incredulity, but his powers of persuasion quickly quieted any questions.

When his raid failed, though, he told reporters that his plan was only beginning:

We came to free the slaves, and only that. You had better—all you people of the south—prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question… You may dispose of me very easily—I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled—this negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet.

John Brown was a strategist in the sense that he saw the situation from the perspective of a realist. He surely knew that some event was necessary to catalyze the freeing of the slaves—it was only a matter of time. Brown tested the waters of the polarity strategy early on when he began publicizing his revolutionary ideas on the eradication of slavery; any press is good press, and by polarizing the people then his true followers and his true haters would argue and stir up more publicity.

The role of his attacks was to find the threshold for tolerance of violence. Each attack compounded the fears of slaveholders until his grand plan unfolded, leaving only two possible outcomes: slave rebellion or civil war. Although he tried to preserve his own life, he knew that sacrifices had to be made. His rather delusional notion that God had sent him to catalyze the slave rebellion, whether right or wrong, served to inspire him to action and justify—in his mind—the loss of his life.

His final plan was just that: an exit strategy, a do-or-die tactic. He saw no other way, for it was either free the slaves or die trying. In Osawatomie in June and August of 1856, a force of 250 men killed Brown’s son Frederick and burned the free-state town to the ground. In the flickering light of the flames, John Brown swore, “God sees it. I have only a short time to live—only one death to die, and I will die fighting this cause. There will be no more peace in this land until slavery is done for. I will give them something else to do than to extend slave territory. I will carry the war into Africa.” Brown’s next attack would be where slavery already existed, the South—Harpers Ferry.

The polarizing strategy served both Xenophon and John Brown the same. Xenophon’s army needed a negative influence, a force that would serve to drive the Greeks in the right direction. John Brown’s army, that is, abolitionists and slaves, needed a cataclysmal event, a force that would unite the free states against the slave states and procure enough inertia that either a slave rebellion or a civil war would break out. Such a plan carried incredible risk, namely the life of Brown and his sons, but Brown’s gamble paid off and his goal was realized—the civil war began.

Further Reading

John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry by Jonathan Earle

Anabasis by Xenophon

33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene





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