It seems commonly accepted that Xenophon saw the ruins of Nineveh during the Ten Thousand Retreat.

In the days of the Greek historians Ctesias and Herodotus, 400 BC, Nineveh had become a thing of the past; and when Xenophon the historian passed the place in the Retreat of the Ten Thousand the very memory of its name had been lost. It was buried out of sight (Wiki)

But why is it assumed that what he saw was Nineveh specifically? Is it really that unambiguous from Xenophon's text?

From this place they marched one stage, six parasangs, to a great stronghold, deserted and lying in ruins. The name of this city was Mespila and it was once inhabited by the Medes. The foundation of its wall was made of polished stone full of shells, and was fifty feet in breadth and fifty in height. Upon this foundation was built a wall of brick, fifty feet in breadth and a hundred in height; and the circuit of the wall was six parasangs. Here, as the story goes, Medea, the king's wife, took refuge at the time when the Medes were deprived of their empire by the Persians. To this city also the king of the Persians laid siege, but he was unable to capture it either by length of siege or by storm; Zeus, however, terrified the inhabitants with thunder, and thus the city was taken.

  • The question came while listening to "History on Fire" podcast. – DVK Feb 6 '16 at 15:07
  • It's only a (weak) assumption that mentioned "Mespila" was actually Nineveh. Not a "commonly accepted fact". – Matt Feb 6 '16 at 16:09
  • @Matt - It says that he saw it in Wikipedia, a bunch of Google hits when I researched this, and at least 2 distinct pop history sources I'm aware of. Seems to be enough to judge "common acceptance" :) – DVK Feb 6 '16 at 17:57

The identity of Xenophon’s Mespila is actually debated. Whereas early researchers took for granted that it was the same place as Nineveh, more recent studies have suggested that it is more likely to have been located in or near Mosul, and it has even been suggested that the modern name Mosul (al-Mawṣil) derives from the name Mespila. Xenophon’s actual description of the place (which you have quoted) does not contain anything that compels us to identify it with Nineveh.

There is some discussion here: http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/jhs/article/viewFile/5690/4743

  • Best current research places Nineveh across the river from ancient Mosul, and within the city boundaries of modern Mosul. ISIL threatens to destroy the walls if Iraqi forces attempt to retake Mosul. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 7 '16 at 6:29
  • @PieterGeerkens. I am not sure what you mean by "ancient Mosul". The name "Mosul" does not occur until the mediaeval period. – fdb Feb 7 '16 at 11:00
  • The old part of the city. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 7 '16 at 12:25
  • @PieterGeerkens. So you are using "ancient" to mean "mediaeval"? – fdb Feb 7 '16 at 12:30

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