What was Clearchus’ tragic flaw?

By: | Post date: 2017-04-26 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Literature

Desmond, I have the highest of regard for you who have A2A’d me, and you have the highest of regard to me to have A2A’d me.

The problem is, I don’t even know who Clearchus is. Yes, I am actually an impostor.

But Wikipedia remedies that!

So. Clearchus of Sparta – Wikipedia, and Battle of Cunaxa – Wikipedia. I’m going to go throw in the flaws I can discern in his biography, and then identify what Classicists would zero in on as his big lesson of a tragic flaw. And I’ll pose the question to my betters: was it actually a flaw?

Born about the middle of the 5th century BC, Clearchus was sent with a fleet to the Hellespont in 411 and became governor of Byzantium, of which town he was proxenus. His severity, however, made him unpopular, and in his absence the gates were opened to the Athenian besieging army under Alcibiades (409).

Flaw 1. Being too much of a hardass in a situation that called for more common sense: being military governor of an occupied town that could easily turn itself over to a more lenient enemy. Not a tragic flaw, but certainly bad judgement.

[Recalled to Sparta, sent back to Byzantium]. When the ephors [of Sparta] learned that the citizens of Byzantium considered him a tyrant, they recalled him through a messenger that reached Clearchus while he was still in the Isthmus of Corinth. Clearchus ignored the messenger and proceeded to Byzantium, and thus he was instantly declared an outlaw by the ephors.

Flaw 2. Disobeying the orders of your superiors. Being an outlaw is well and good—if you have the means to get back on top. He didn’t, so more bad judgement.

He fought the Thracian tribes successfully, in the process gaining the unofficial support of the Greek cities that were thus relieved. Clearchus, counting on his successes to gain him back the Spartan ephors’ good graces, was ultimately disappointed in this expectation.

Flaw 3. He actually won back the favour of Byzantium and/or the neighbouring Greek colonies—but not, as he expected, the favour of Sparta. More bad judgement.

[Recruited as a mercenary by Cyrus the Younger]. Clearchus accepted not because of the money but because he knew that sooner or later he would have to face his fellow Spartans since he was still considered an outlaw by the ephors.

Not a flaw, but an outcome of Flaw 2: he didn’t have the means to get back on top, so his options were limited.

Clearchus tricking his men into staying on to fight for Cyrus in Anabasis 1.3 is not a flaw; it’s good management of an army. Sun Tzu would approve.

The infighting between Clearchus and Menon’s troops in Anabasis 1.5, when Clearchus lost his shit, I don’t count as a flaw more than usual in any headstrong commander.

(Some cutting and pasting of Wikipedia)

Cyrus then approached Clearchus, the leader of the Greeks, who was commanding the phalanx stationed on the right, and ordered him to move into the center so as to go after Artaxerxes. … Artaxerxes was in the center of his line, with 6,000 units of Persian cavalry (which were some of the finest in the world and by far superior to anything Cyrus or the Greeks could field).

So Cyrus is ordering Clearchus, commanding Cyrus’ elite mercenaries, to go after Artaxerxes’ even more elite troops. Which makes sense for Cyrus.

Clearchus refused this owing to the insecurity that the Greeks had for their right flank, which tended to drift and was undefended, as the shields were held in the left hand.

Which is a rational military precaution, I guess; but:

Clearchus, not desiring to do this – for fear of his right flank – refused, and promised Cyrus, according to Xenophon, that he would “take care that all would be well”.

Flaw 4. Fobbing off your superiors. He’s a mercenary of course, so that’s not outright treason, but it’s not going to get you rehired.

That Clearchus did not obey this order is a sign of the level of control that Cyrus had over his army, as a couple of other occasions throughout this campaign prior to the battle reveal also. This is inconsistent with military discipline, even in this day.

Flaw 5. Disobeying the orders of your superiors. Which Sun Tzu (again) explicitly approves of, if your superior is a militarily clueless king and you are a clueful general.

The Greeks, deployed on Cyrus’s right and outnumbered, charged the left flank of Artaxerxes’ army, which broke ranks and fled before they came within arrowshot.

Which means Clearchus’ gamble paid off for the Greeks.

the Greek mercenaries, who […] were heavily armed, stood firm. Clearchus advanced against the much larger right wing of Artaxerxes’ army and sent it into retreat.

Bonus! They defeated the left wing, and they defeated the right wing. That just leaves the elite centre wing, which Cyrus was to fight on his own.


However, on the Persian right the fight between Artaxerxes’ army and Cyrus was far more difficult and protracted. Cyrus personally charged his brother’s bodyguard and was killed by a javelin, which sent the rebels into retreat.

Well, that was stupid of Cyrus, and it’s not clear the Greeks could have defeated the cavalry. But Cyrus certainly didn’t.

Only the Greek mercenaries, who had not heard of Cyrus’s death and were heavily armed, stood firm. […] Meanwhile, Artaxerxes’ troops took the Greek encampment and destroyed their food supplies. Only after the battle did they hear that Cyrus himself had been killed, making their victory irrelevant and the expedition a failure.

So they defeated the left and right wings, but not the wing that mattered.

They offered their services to Tissaphernes, a leading satrap of Artaxerxes, but he refused them, and they refused to surrender to him.

Not having options. Again, a bad situation to find yourself in.

The Greek senior officers foolishly accepted the invitation of Tissaphernes to a feast. There they were made prisoner, taken up to the king and there decapitated.

Flaw 6. Accepting the proffered hand of yesterday’s enemy, who is still your enemy today. It’s what happens when you’ve run out of options though. The Greek senior officers decapitated included Clearchus, their commander. It did not include Xenophon, who took command of the mercenaries and led them back to the Black Sea.

Six flaws. Which is the tragic one?

Flaw 4–5 is the moment Clearchus is famous for: it’s why Xenophon ends up having to lead the march that is the focus of his Anabasis. And people would have sought to explain such a military failure as a character flaw in Clearchus.

Cyrus the Younger – Wikipedia characterises Clearchus’ disobeying Cyrus in terms of the character flaw we all expect in hamartia:

Clearchus, out of arrogance, disobeyed.

This random LaRouchist tract I found pinpoints a different character flaw, fear:

Clearchus had made the fatal mistake of worrying more about his own survival than about achieving victory. Had he obeyed Cyrus, and led the assault, instead of allowing Cyrus to lead the Greek forces into battle, Cyrus would have survived to become King of Persia!

All we actually know is what Xenophon says (or speculates) Clearchus did:

Clearchus, though he could see the compact body at the centre, and had been told by Cyrus that the king lay outside the Hellenic left (for, owing to numerical superiority, the king, while holding his own centre, could well overlap Cyrus’s extreme left), still hesitated to draw off his right wing from the river, for fear of being turned on both flanks; and he simply replied, assuring Cyrus that he would take care all went well.

The fobbing off could be arrogance, and the hesitancy could be genuine fear; and both of them would be tragic flaws. In the end, Clearchus’ gamble paid off tactically, and success overrules all flaws—but it did not pay off strategically, because Artaxerxes actually won (and left Clearchus with no way out). Clearchus not going after the centre flank looks like yet another error in judgement—a panicked caution to complement his wonted rashness. Bad judgement to me sounds like a flaw more consistent with Clearchus’ earlier career.

But I have to say, I’m not ruling out that Clearchus’ decision was militarily sensible— especially if he was more interested in keeping his Greek army alive than his employer. Wikipedia gives a tactical constraint which Xenophon knew, but did not make explicit: “the insecurity that the Greeks had for their right flank, which tended to drift and was undefended, as the shields were held in the left hand.”

So this question should go to someone who knows both their Xenophon, and their military tactics.

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