BOOK REVIEW: The Falcon of Sparta


The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden (Historical Fiction Novel, 2019).

Conn Iggulden, one of the more popular historical novelists working today, based this novel on the memoir by the warrior Xenophon, published in English translation as The Persian Expedition. This ancient literary classic details his experiences from 401 B.C., also known as the March of the Ten-Thousand.

Cyrus, the embittered commander of the Persian army, assembled a rebel army on the eastern fringes of the empire in order to overthrow his older brother and make himself king. In addition to tens of thousands of his own troops, Cyrus recruited at least 10,000 Greek mercenaries–then considered the world’s finest soldiers-for-hire.

For one thing, there was the history: The Greeks were the only people to successfully beat off the vast Persian Empire’s invading armies in previous decades and centuries.

And the finest, most disciplined and feared Greeks of all were the legendary Spartans.

They were only a small part of this force, with many other Greek city-states supplying fighters, each such unit under the command of a general from their own stubbornly independent locale. There was a great deal of rivalry between these sub-groups, yet the undisputed overall mercenary commander was the veteran Clearchus of Sparta.

The tensely mixed Persian/Greek force embarked on what would be an epic march eastward through Turkish Anatolia and what today is Iraq. In the beginning only a few high ranking officers in this tenuously united army even knew who they were marching against. There was more than a little dismay when the prospect of warring against King Artaxerxes and his vast oncoming hordes of warriors.

Iggulden does a fine job supplying background information leading up to the Battle of Cunaxa. A sharply written Preface some years earlier has King Darius II, the boy’s father advising young Artaxerxes that, upon his death, he must secure the throne by killing off his one possible rival–unsuspecting Cyrus.

Part one of the novel opens with Darius on his deathbed and Artaxerxes dutifully plotting his brother’s demise. Things don’t go exactly as planned, the young men’s shocked mother intervenes and Cyrus escapes to the west. A few years pass, as Cyrus plans a counterattack and raises his army–all the while pretending to forgive his murderous brother and pledging his loyalty. Likewise, Artaxerxes bides his time while plotting for the inevitable clash.

The inside cover blurb of this book’s hardcover edition makes mention of this as a historical Game of Thrones, and while that’s partially a case of trendy cashing-in, some legitimate parallels can be drawn. Civil Wars involving royal succession were, after all, common enough. Court intrigues clashing with, undermining and finally overwhelming things like family love and loyalty were commonplace–and again, the author does a good job presenting the thoughts, attitudes and emotions involved.

At Cunaxa, the Greeks, spearheaded as always by the ultra militaristic Spartans, rout part of the much larger army of the King. But Cyrus is killed and his discouraged Persian force is soundly beaten. The mercenaries find themselves alone and basically surrounded. It only gets worse as the vengeful king uses supposed truce talks to lure Clearchus and the other senior Greek leaders into a deadly trap.

Only now does Xenophon step into a leading role with the isolated 10,000. To this point this young man, a native of Athens (not Sparta) and former pupil of Socrates, has been an important supporting character. He’s not experienced, beyond what he’s learned from the great philosopher and in his months with this ill-fated expedition. But unlike many Athenians he reveres the Spartan’s no-nonsense soldierly ethic. In many ways, he’s more a Spartan than many of that city-state’s citizens.

He assumes command and maintains it by sheer force of will. And thus begins the second part of this quarrelsome and vastly unnumbered Greek army’s monumental fighting journey. Burdened with protecting almost as many camp following civilians as themselves, they turn north and eventually west in search of escape.

They journey through hundreds of more miles of enemy territory in Mesopotamia, Armenia and northeastern Anatolia. Half-starved (sometimes more than half-), they must fight off the pursuing Persians, as well as a fierce mountain tribe that give pause to even their haughty Imperial foes.  And they must somehow overcome their internal divisions, if they are to survive.

In the end, the unlikely fighting retreat brings them to the Black Sea’s southern coast and the safety of a welcoming Greek city-state.

It’s an impressive true war story, ably fictionalized and well-presented by a veteran writer of skill and thoroughness.

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