The Ten Thousand by Michael Curtis Ford: review and summary

The Ten Thousand by Michael Curtis Ford is a fictional telling of a true, though very old, story. It is the story of Xenophon told through the eyes of his slave -- Themistogenes of Syracuse or Theo. A man of the same name writes the non-fiction and ancient telling of this story, though this man was mostly likely Xenophon himself. Theo, as he appears in this novel, is a construct of Ford's imagination.

The focus of this novel, which covers the span of Xenophon and Theo's lives, is their inclusion in the "Ten Thousand." This is a true story, aside from Theo's part in it, which rivals the true story of "The 300." In 401 BCE, Xenophon, a student of Socrates, decides to join the army of Cyrus. Cyrus is the younger brother of the Persian king Artaxerxes II. He amasses a mercenary army under the pretext that they will be quelling an unsavory Persian governor, though his real goal is to bring the army against the Persian king himself.

Xenophon and Theo join the army of 10,000 Greeks, including some unsavory Spartans, who have not lost any of their ferocity in the hundred years that have passed since the stand of the 300 against the Persians. When they learn of Cyrus' true intentions, they stay on and do a decent job of embarrassing Artaxerxes' army at the Battle of Cunaxa. However, Cyrus is killed in the battle. To add insult to injury, the very governor whom they initially came to fight breaks a truce with them, kills their leaders and dogs their departure from the Persian Empire. Unfortunately, they have come a long way from home and cannot go back from whence they came, for fear of dying in the desert.

The story of the Ten Thousand thus far would be dramatic enough in itself without the embellishments of Michael Curtis Ford. However, he lends a depth to Xenophon through his friendship with Theo. He even throws in a love story for good measure. He is true to as many historical details as it seems possible and is obviously knowledgeable in the clothing, fighting style, weapons, history and terrain of this ancient confrontation, but this is not even the start of it. Now, the Ten Thousand must go north through mountains filled with hostile "barbarians" and where the lack of food is nothing compared to the freezing, deadly cold weather.

Michael Curtis Ford leaves nothing to the reader's imagination as he drags you through bloody skirmishes, disease and death with these struggling Ten Thousand men. Xenophon becomes one of their leaders, but finds himself a cheerleader against death near the end of it all, encouraging dying men to walk through bitter cold and to fight against all odds to get through these hostile lands. Theo relates horrifying injuries, including those of men whose skin is sloughed off after jumping from the intense cold into the heat of a hot spring without thinking of the consequences. One year after they set out, the men stagger back home with missing fingers, toes, limbs and sanity, in some cases. Ford chose an excellent story to relate in a new light. He certainly would not have needed to add anything to the story to make it interesting, but what he did add was seamlessly woven into the story.

Anyone who enjoys the story of the 300 Spartans and their king Leonidas will enjoy the Ten Thousand. The tale is equally thrilling and filled with equally brave men and equally moving camaraderie. The only difference is the scale and the fact that some of them lived to tell the tale, but I will not say who because I want you to read this book and go back to a time when men marched to war through countries, anticipating the battle for months or even years while walking with other soldiers. It is hard to imagine this intensity of patriotism. Ford can help you with that.

Shelly Barclay

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