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66. The Extra Mile in Syria during the Persian Empire

JAN. 9, 2023


Pete takes Ryan back to ancient Persia to discover the Levantine nation of Syria. Uncover how ancient Persian roads influenced the US Post Office of today, and follow in the footsteps of a remarkable man who found himself surrounded by enemies, thousands of miles from home and needing to cross a snowy mountain range… in sandals! Also featuring Mad Honey.

This episode brings the show to the Syrian Arab Republic. Found in an area known as the Levant on the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria is situated to the East of Lebanon South of Turkey and West of Iraq.
I’ts 187,000 Sq km or 33.99% the size of France with a population similar to that of France, at 22million people.
The capital city is Damascus, which is generally agreed to be the oldest capital in the world, and may even be the oldest city in the world, although there is some debate about that title.
Geographically, it has a coastal element, with the Syrian Coastal Mountain Range catching the moist winds from the Mediterranean, making it fairly fertile. It’s a different matter inland, the Syrian Desert accounts for over 50% of the area and is, as the name suggests, not so fertile.
Recently it has sadly been a troubled nation –the Syrian Civil War has been going since 2011.
Famous Syrians include Moustapha Al Akkad, a Syrian-American film producer and director, who produced the original series of Halloween films. Also St Peter – the gatekeeper of heaven, born in an area called the Golan Heights.
History of Syria
In 10,000 BCE, Syria was one of the centres of the culture known as Pre-Pottery Neolithic A.
From there, it gets quite busy quite quickly. This area has been inhabited continuously since arguably the start of civilisation – the Tigris and Euphrates area is often regarded as the cradle of civilisation and the Euphrates runs through Syria.
There are literally thousands of years of various arrivals and conquerings, and Syrian cities and Aleppo and Damascus have been continuously inhabited for centuries.
The earliest recorded indigenous civilization in the region was the Kingdom of Ebla in northern Syria, founded around 3500 BCE. They made a good living trading with their neighbours, the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Akkadians.
Eventually the area was absorbed into the Akkadian Empire around 2300BCE.
Then, in 2100 BCE much of the region was taken over by the Amorites, followed by various incursions, invasions and takeovers by peoples, including Hittites, the Mitanni Empire, Egyptians, Middle Assyrians, and Babylonians.
Inland, a group of tribes known as the Arameans gained control and the region became known as Aramea or Aram.
By 900 BCE the area had become part of the Neo Assyrian Empire, and they named the area Eber-Nari, meaning ‘Across the river’. They also introduced Imperial Aramaic as the language of government and getting things done, which was to remain the lingua franca in the region for hundreds of years.
Next to arrive was the Neo-Babylonian Empire which lasted from 605 – 539 BCE, marking the end of Ancient Antiquity – moving us briskly on to … classical antiquity! (There’s a lot of antiquity).
Classical antiquity started with the Persian Empire. In 539 BCE Cyrus the Great of the Persian empire took the area of Syria for his Achaemenid Empire.
This empire lasted about 200 years, but all good empires come to an end, and in this case, it was the arrival of Alexander the Great that did it.
In 330 BCE it became Coele-Syria province of the Greek Seleucid Empire which introduced the name "Syria" to the region.
Then, lots of various empires came and went. The Armenians moved in, then the Romans took over. The Romans become Byzantines and during this whole period Syria remained a wealthy and important province.
In Christianity news, the Apostle Paul took a trip to Damascus in Syria and was converted on the road there in the original Road to Damascus moment.
And in Islamic news, in 626 the prophet Mohammed ordered an invasion in the area, at the start of the Islamic expansion. In fact around 650 CE Damascus was declared the capital of the Islamic empire known as the Umayyad and the Grand Mosque of Damascus was built in 706CE.
As a result of this, Arabic overtook Aramaic as the lingua Franca.
Next up, Crusades!
Around 1100CE, bits of the area were possessed by Christians, known as the Crusader states, especially the Principality of Antioch. And arrayed against the Christians - Sal Ad Din.
Skip to 1300 and the Mongols showed up and took over the area.
Then Tamurlane the Great, the Turkic mongol arrived also from the central Asian plains.
In 1516 eyes turn to the West and the Ottoman Empire makes itself felt and stays in charge, give or take, all the way up to World War 1.
The Ottomans then found themselves on the losing side in WW1 and the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 divided the region into French and British spheres of influence.
Ultimately the French took control of the Syrian area.
Almost immediately this arrangement resulted in 1925 in the Great Syrian revolt against French rule and by 1936 Syria and France had negotiated a treaty of independence.
Unfortunately this never quite got fully underway as World War 2 broke out shortly afterwards and the British and Free French sent a smorgasbord of troops to the area.
The war ended with the French grudgingly leaving and a Syrian republic in place.
It was not a stable government.
In 1958 Syria joined with Egypt to become one country – briefly known as the United Arab Republic, which only lasted for a few years. Then in In 1963, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, staged a coup known as the Ba’ath Revolution.
In 1967 the six day war with Israel ended with Israel controlling the Golan Heights, an area of dispute that continues to this day.
Cut to 1970, when Hafez al-Assad overthrew the leader and became president, and he remained in power for 30 years, until he died in 2000.
Hafez al-Assad passed on to his son Bashar al-Assad who became president, an act which required a change to the constitution because he was only 34 and was supposed to be over 40 in order to take the job.
There was hope that he would be less oppressive than his father, especially after the Arab Spring of protests in Egypt and Tunisia in the 2010s.
That hope was unfounded.
In 2011 rebels formed the Free Syrian Army and by 2012, Syria was in a full-on civil war. This became even more complicated when Islamic State aka ISIS also joined the fight and they briefly controlled chunks of Syria.
The United States stated its opposition to the Asssad regime, Russia and Iran their support for the Assad regime. But both Russia AND the USA both agreed the presence of ISIS was A Bad Thing. Today, ISIS are not much of an influence in terms of territory, but still exist as an insurgency threat.
Which brings us to the other 2 warring factions. 11 years since it started, the war is technically still going, although it has settled into something of a stalemate, with Assad having the upper hand overall.
So it’s quieter, but it’s not actually over, and it’s reported that it could easily flare up again
And unsurprisingly, ongoing war has been a disaster for the nation.
Since 2017 around 11 million Syrians—roughly half the population, have been displaced from their homes. 5.6 million people have fled Syria altogether since the fighting started. More than 90% of the population are now living under poverty.
That said, an end to active fighting is something, and let’s just hope that the conflict can be brought to an end, and reconstruction of the country begin.

The Extra Mile
Going ‘The Extra Mile’ is an expression that means ‘to do more than is expected or required’. Whilst this sounds like a ‘do your best’ message, originally it was rather more than that.
In fact, it comes from Jesus himself, who said it during the Sermon of Mount, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5, Verse 41:
"And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain." (King James Bible) or more modernly "And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."
But why would anyone command you to go a mile in the first place?
It’s believed to refer to the Roman Impressment Law, under which a Roman soldier could order any non Roman citizen to carry his pack for a thousand paces, mille passus in Latin, aka one mile.
So instead of a simple, ‘always do your best’, it’s a message about enduring oppression, a cousin of turning the other cheek.
Over time, though, it came to mean what we know today ‘do more than people expect’ and lost it’s association with carrying your enemy’s bags.
For this episode, though, it may have been more appropriate to say ‘The extra parasang’.
A parasang is a distance mentioned in ancient texts of the time, particularly in Xenophon, the Greek historian.
Herodotus said a parasang was about 30 stadia which is 125 paces, for a total of about 2 or 3 miles, but it’s not an exact measure and, as they say, your mileage may vary.

Syria in the Persian Empire
Whilst Syria was part of the Persian Empire, it is a sadly undocumented place and time. Partly this is due to changes in record keeping from clay tablets in the cuneiform writing system to Aramaic written on less-durable parchments and papyrus, which have not survived to the modern era. The other is that, as far as we know, not a great deal happened in Syria during this period. There were no real battles in the area and Syria was something of a backwater, so what we are left with is a historical black hole.
In fact, Syria only joined the Persian empire as part of the fixtures and fittings of the Babylonian empire. When Cyrus the Great took Babylon, all its holdings came with it, including Syria.
In fact, at first Syria was combined into a single ruled region, known as a Satrap, with Babylonia, although later it was split into it’s own Satrapy known as Eber Nari.
We do know, generally, how the Persians treated their controlled regions, and that was ‘pretty well’. From Cyrus the Great onwards, conquered regions were allowed to continue worshipping their own gods and keeping their own culture, as long as they kept paying their tribute to the empire and were happy to be run by a Persian bureaucrat. In practice, for Syria that meant sending a lot of cedar wood to the empire.
So it is likely that in Syria, the population would continue farming and shepherding and pretty much getting on with their lives with limited bother from the new boss class that came to rule over them.
The Royal Road
The Persian Empire was an empire larger and grander than had been seen in the world at that time. It held from 20 to 50 million people – some estimates have claimed that at its peak it contained half the world’s entire population. And it covered about 2 million square miles of land.
That is an awful lot of extra miles to worry about.
In fact, from Damascus, the capital of the Satrapy of Eber Nari (Syria today), to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of Persia it’s nearly 2,000km 1200 miles.
So how did they manage all of this?
A big part of it was roads – particularly The Royal Road network.
Created by Darius the Great (Darius I) in the 5th century BC, this was a network of roads, designed to enable rapid communication across this massive empire.
Herodotus, from whom we get a lot of our information about the Persians, said the approximate distance from the administrative capital Susa to Turkey would take three months on foot, but with this road and the facilities along it, a message could be taken from end to end in seven to nine days.
Dr Luc-Normand Tellier writes that “the Persian Royal Road was the first major land structure conceived to thoroughly exploit horse transportation and relay,”
But it wasn’t just roads. There were also riders, messengers called pirradaziš, and along the road periodic stopping-stations where messengers could rest, get fresh horses or hand over to the next messenger, enabling relays, to travel so far and so fast.
Herodotus says “The first rider delivers his charge to the second, the second to the third, and thence it passes on from hand to hand,” adding, “There is nothing mortal that accomplishes a course more swiftly than do these messengers, by the Persians’ skillful contrivance.”
Of course not everyone was in such a rush, but there was still need for breaks, so a hundred and eleven way-posting stations were put up on the main branch where fresh horses were kept for travellers.
So significant was this network, that the Royal Road and the postal riders who travelled it have echoes even today. Herodotus describes them thus, “ [They] are stopped neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.”
Sound familiar?
That’s right. The slightly amended “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” is today the unofficial motto of the US postal service.
But there was an ultimate down side to this remarkable network. As the Persian empire weakened, a new threat emerged – one Alexander of Macedonia.
In 334BC Alexander and his armies rolled into Persia and, after a few battles, discovered the Royal Road was ideal for effective troop movements. He went on to take full advantage of it during his defeat of the Persian empire.
Xenophon and the March of the 10,000
Around 355BCE a young man was born in Athens, he was named Xenophon. He was a philosopher and a historian, but he was also a soldier.
Lucky for us, he wrote a book about one particularly striking experience, called Anabasis, the story of how Xenophon and 10,000 friends went literally and figuratively, The Extra Mile.
Xenophon found himself in the service of the Satrap of Lydia, , known as Cyrus the Younger.
Cyrus the Younger decided to challenge his brother, Artaxerxes II, for the throne of Persia. To do this, Cyrus recruited ten thousand heavily armed men and heads off.
Crucially, though, he did forget to mention to his men that he is planning a rebellion.
Among these soldiers was our friend Xenophon.
The gang headed off, travelling down through Cilicia, Eastern Turkey and passing into Tarsus, a city in modern day turkey, about 150km, 100miles, from the Syrian border.
Here the army “suddenly” noticed it was an awfully big and heavily armed group for just visiting a relative. Xenophon relates:
“At Tarsus Cyrus and his army halted for twenty days; the soldiers refusing to advance further, since the suspicion ripened in their minds, that the expedition was in reality directed against the king; and as they insisted, they had not engaged their services for that object.”
They threatened to go no further if indeed they are on such a mission. Cyrus denied the suggestion, but also, perhaps more winningly, offered the men a pay rise to keep going. So on they went.
They marched on to “the gates of Cilicia and Syria” and enter Syria, and onto the Phoencian town of Myriandus in ancient Syria, although today it’s actually Turkey, about 25 miles from the border of Modern Syria
The kept going. On to a town called Thapsacus, which is in Modern Syria.
It’s here that Cyrus admitted to his soldiers “We are going to attack my brother actually.”
Outraged at discovering what they had really known all along, the soldiers couldn’t believe they were expected to go this extra mile and rebel against the king. Well, not without more money at any rate.
Cyrus agreed to pay a further bonus, and everyone was happy again. They continued on.
They followed the river Euphrates, passing out of Syria and into modern Iraq, heading towards Babylonia where they expected to meet the forces of Artaxerxes
Yet again, the mercenaries started to get agitated, wondering if they were going to get paid. To this, Cyrus reminded them quite how large, powerful and lucrative the Persian Empire is.
“On the whole my fear is, not that I may not have enough to give to each of my friends, but lest I may not have friends enough on whom to bestow what I have to give, and to each of you Hellenes I will give a crown of gold."
This seems to settle everyone down, which was lucky, because soon enough:
“Pategyas, a Persian, a trusty member of Cyrus's personal staff, came galloping up at full speed on his horse, which was bathed in sweat, and to every one he met he shouted in Greek and Persian, as fast as he could ejaculate the words: "The king is advancing with a large army ready for battle."
Thus the battle commenced and the Greeks soon had the upper hand. The Hoplites as they were known were reputed to be great warriors in heavy their bronze armour– and so they were soon winning the battle.
Unfortunately for them, though, on the other side of the battlefield, Cyrus the Younger was not so lucky.
“some one struck him with a javelin under the eye severely”
Just like that, the king-pretender was dead.
The Greek mercenaries managed to beat back Artaxerxes’ forces who withdrew for the night.
This left the Greeks in a tricky spot. They won their bit of the battle, but with Cyrus the Younger dead, there’s no way for him to become king. The whole trip was already a failure. And they were thousands of miles from home in enemy territory
The soldiers were approached by an emissary of the king offering a truce. The offer – they march home without pillage or other harm to the land, paying for provisions that the king would gladly provide.
With little choice, they took the deal.
So Tissaphernes, the king’s representatives cames along and they set out to return to Greece.
It was a tense journey though. As they travelled along the Greeks and their Persian escort were on edge. There was talk that the truce is just an opportunity for the Persians to gather a greater force with which to destroy the Greeks.
But, with little option, they keep going, through Opis, a city not far from Baghdad.
Eventually a Spartan named Clearchus decided to trust Tissaphernes, who explains:
“Why, when we had it in our power to destroy you, did we not proceed to do it? Know well that the cause of this was nothing less than my passion to prove myself faithful to the Hellenes,”
To celebrate this new trust, Tisssaphernes suggested a nice dinner. From the Greek forces:
“five generals to go and twenty captains… accompanied by about two hundred of the other soldiers.”
The dinner did not go as the Greeks had hoped.
On a secret signal, all the visiting Greek soldiers were murdered where they stood and the generals were seized and imprisoned, to be sent to the king and subsequently executed.
Meanwhile, in the Greek camp they were wondering what all the noise and fuss was over in the dinner area. Then, in an act that can only be described as ‘going the extra mile’ for his comrades in arms,
“Nicarchus the Arcadian came tearing along for bare life with a wound in the belly, and clutching his protruding entrails in his hands. He told them all that had happened.”
So, now it was really on. The Greeks were not going to get an escort home, and home was still over a thousand miles away. Plus all the leaders had been killed.
Fortunately, one amazing leader stepped forward and gave a brilliantly amazing speech which everyone loved and at the end they made this incredible guy one of the leaders of the group and everyone clapped.
That man’s name - Xenophon, the author of the story. Nothing suspicious there eh?
In fact, a whole set of new leaders was elected, Xenophon among them.
The Greeks burned all their baggage wagons and tents so they could travel light, and set out for home.
Pretty soon they were attacked by a group called the Mithridates, who they escaped. They kept going, past a city named Mespila in Mosul, Iraq.
Then Tissaphernes showed up again with a force which started skirmishing.
Still the Greeks kept going constantly harassed by the slings and arrows of Tissaphernes’ troops. Everywhere they go they are harried by the enemy, but they are also learning. They realise their phalanxes can’t hold position on narrower roads, so they develop new formations. They also realise they have no ranged capability and introduce archers and slingers into their ranks.
And on they went. They followed the river Tigris, then up into the Zagros mountains. It was tough, difficult going, and the weather turned against them when it started to snow.
“If they went to sleep with the sandals on, the thong worked into the feet, and the sandals were frozen fast to them.”
They keep fighting on and make it to Anatolia, now Turkey, still being harried by enemies both on their tail and in the regions they visit, who aren’t too keen on the arrival of ten thousand heavily armed Greeks.
At one point they think they’ve found a delicious treat in the form of some honey.
This causes the Greeks to go “quite off their heads, and suffered from vomiting and diarrhoea, with a total inability to stand steady on their legs. A small dose produced a condition not unlike violent drunkenness, a large one an attack very like a fit of madness, and some dropped down, apparently at death's door.”
This was likely mad honey. A small spoonful has the power to make you feel tingly, light-headed, euphoric and even trigger hallucinations. A lot will lead to vomiting, diarrhea, seizures. This is honey contaminated with grayanotoxins, a type of toxin found in rhododendron plants and picked up by bees and transferred into their honey.
The Greeks recovered from their Honey incident though, and kept marching and fighting, fighting and marching.
Until, finally:
“they could hear the soldiers shouting and passing on the joyful word, "The sea! the sea!"
They kept going further, arriving at Trabzon, a Hellenic city where they lighten things up with an gymnastic contest.
The end was in sight.
In fact, Xenophon’s work is not a novel, so it does not have a neat ‘happy ending’. But it’s true to say Xenophon and his men returned to Greek territory, and in the end Xenophon turns the army over to a new commander.
Xenophon himself, he went on to fight in further campaigns and eventually, retired to an estate in Scillus on the Peloponnese where he lived for more than 20 years. Finally he made one last march - to Corinth where he lived until his death in 354 BC, at around the age of 84 or 85.

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