The Falcon of Sparta (2018), by English author Conn Iggulden, is a fictionalised account of Xenophon’ Anabasis: a story of ten thousand Greek mercenaries stranded in the heart of the Persian Empire and their journey home. It features such characters as Xenophon, Socrates, Artaxerxes of Persia and the rebel prince Cyrus.
The book’s first half deals with the campaign of the charismatic Cyrus the Younger to take the throne from his scholarly elder brother Artaxerxes under a falcon banner. To do so he assembles a Persian army and hires mercenaries from across the Greek cities, including their old enemies the Spartans. Even before the battle, he faces struggles. Dissension, bankruptcy and mutiny plague his campaign. The date is 409 BC, roughly between the Battle of Thermopylae and the conquests of Alexander.
Leaderless in the desert and hopelessly outnumbered, the Greeks must confront the impossible. Iggulden focuses just as much on the logistics of moving an army and the challenges that come with it, as combat itself. The Greeks must assail long deserts and snowy mountains to get to the Black Sea.
The Battle of Cunaxa is described in an epic and near-legendary tone. It is hard to imagine that the greatest armies in the world did clash in such numbers but Iggulden does a good enough job in describing the fight from the perspective of the combatants in as historically accurate terms as possible. Aspects of the second half, such as the Greeks’ battle with the Carduchi mountain tribes, seem a little rushed but are compelling enough.
Prince Cyrus, and his Spartan general Clearchus, are well portrayed as characters. Xenophon, who wrote the story in real life, is somewhat of a self-hating Athenian, associated with the Thirty Tyrants, a Spartan puppet regime and preferring the Spartan system to his own. Beginning the story as an intelligent but resentful young man, it is Socrates who persuades him to head east and make something of himself. Tissaphernes, the conniving former tutor, makes an easy to hate villain.
Though the story is told largely from the Greek perspective, I liked how it begins with the Persians and portrays the Greek culture as alien and strange, rather than the other way around. The story occurs at a time when the Greeks were more busy fighting each other than the Persians, who cooperate with powers like Sparta.
The Sunday Express called The Falcon of Sparta Iggulden’s ‘finest work to date’ and that quote made me buy the book. While better than his Roman series, I still prefer his Conqueror books about the Mongol khans, if only because the murkier history allowed more creative liberties.