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Ancient Greek Mercenaries in Antiquity

22/10/2013

The word mercenary (misthophoros in Greek) initially meant someone paid with a salary and that included hired labor. But quite early it started describing the professional fighter who did not fought in defense of his clan or his city-state but risked his life for pay or other reward. The usage of professional warriors from the Bronze Age can be safely assumed as the complete retails of the organization and structure of the period armies are not quite clear to us. The employment of mercenaries cannot be excluded in the early Bronze Age but it becomes certain in the later stages. The employment of foreign troops (some of them of Hellenic origin) appears in the Egyptian records. The famous Rameses III had elite troops in his bodyguards from Sea Peoples, which scholars believe contained a large group of Mycaeneans. The collapse of the Bronze Age societies and the following “Dark Ages” are characterized by lack of enough information on military matters but the employment of mercenaries cannot be overruled.

mycaenean spearman

mycaenean spearman with 8-shaped shield by Nikos Panos

The mercenaries appear in the 7th century Lyric Poetry, in the works of Alcaeus and Archilochus. At this period the phalanx tactics had matured in the Greek armies. The spearman was not a static unit simply enduring the enemy missiles just protecting his own missile-using colleagues but advanced vigorously in order to crash the enemy and was also brought o Asia by the Greek colonists. The fame of this peculiar for its time infantry reached as far as Babylon. The Babylonian kings used Greek mercenaries with deadly effectiveness against their hated enemy the Assyrians Perhaps king Nabopolassar put much of his hope on these men when he opposed the Assyrian might.

The Assyrian army neutralized its opponent with a mighty chariot charge against enemies who had first been “softened up” by Assyrian missile troops. Assyrian swordsmen with large shields protect their missile troops from enemy attack and light cavalry threatened the enemy chariots. It seems that the Babylonians kept their chariots in reserve and used the Greek hoplites to drive Assyrian infantry from the field, as the Assyrian swordsmen would not be able to stop the solid pressure of the stampeding mass of Greek spearmen. This in its turn forced the Assyrian charioteers to charge in support of their infantry, but even they failed to break the phalanx and exposed themselves to the countercharges of their Babylonian charioteers. If we trust Alcaeus poems even Homeric style duels took place. The poet says that his brother Antimenidas bested an enemy champion and the mercenaries returned home full of glory and spoils of war.

At the times of the Great Colonization the ambitious colony founders (oikistes) recruited warriors with the promise of land grants and enfranchisement in the new founded cities. But the poems of Archilochus reveal a not so bright side of the lives of the professional soldiers of his era. He himself states clearly that he is a servant of the God of War and drinks fine Thracian wins thanks to his spear. From the same poet we learn that merchants recruited mercenaries in their ships in an attempt to protect them from pirates.

With the appearance of dictatorial despots in the Hellenic World the Greek mercenaries found new chance of employment in the various tyrants guards. Generally the 6th and 7th century BC tyrants hired paid troops as bodyguards or henchmen in their attempt to size power. The case of the brothers Syloson and Polycrates from Samos who recruited Megarean prisoners of war to eliminate their political rivals is a notable. Polycrates also managed to maintain a permanent navy using mercenaries probably Carians. Pseudo-Aristotle mentioned that he “borrowed” troops from his father in law Lygdmes of Naxos for hid personal security (Economics 1346b10)

Initially many tyrants preferred to form guards from their fellow citizens like Peisistratus during his first attempt to size power in Athens. According to Herodotus he staged a “coup d’ etat” using his 50 club bearing bodyguards. Certainly though from the second half of the 6th century BC the personal armed retinues of the tyrants were composed of mercenary troops. But their opponents frequently hired outlanders in order to overthrow them. As Argos was the prime military power in Greece till crushed by the Spartan its not surprising that we hear a lot about Argive mercenaries. The usage of mercenaries as a tool of populace suppression by the tyrants and the chance to be bought off by the enemy contributed to the idea that military service was the duty of the free citizens and directly connected with stability and order maintenance in the city-states. Isocrates speeches on the unreliability of the mercenaries are typical of this belief.

Phalanx synaspismos, hoplite

Synaspismos reconstructed by Members of Melbourne «Hopliticon»

Wealth Egypt was a magnet for the Greek adventurers of 6th century BC. The country was going through a period of political instability and exposed to Carian pirates. A provincial commander located in Nile Delta recruited Greek mercenaries and after crashing his opponents he proclaimed himself Pharaoh under the name Psamytichus. We can assume that archers and javelineers composing the bulk of troops opposing were no much for the solid mass of hoplite spearmen who advanced and swept them off the field

With the aid of his hoplite infantry Psamytichus advanced to the southern parts of Egypt and overthrew the Nubian dynasty and onquered the old capital of Thebes. After that he crushed the Libyans in the battle of Dakchla oasis as we read in a carved stele now in British Museum. The Pharaoh promoted the Greek settlements, first in Naucratis and the in other areas, probably in the same way the Romans late were establishing their military colonies. They were initially small communities that gradually evolved in big cities. Their inhabitads were mercenary troops and colonists sent from mainland Greece but lived there as part of the Egyptian army. Daphnes (modern Tel Defenneh) were one such community and it is supposed that Greeks serves as far as the Elephantine. A Greek soldier passing from Abu Sibel in Upper Egypt carved his name in the foot of Rameses gigantic statue immortalizing himself to our times.

Black figure pottery depictinh a hoplite probably a mercenary making an offering to an Egyptian god. Vatican Museum.

Black figure pottery depicting a hoplite, probably a mercenary making an offering to an Egyptian god. Vatican Museum.

Around 570 BC Pharaoh Amasis brought his Greek bodyguards to Memphis. Gradually the Greek generals started gaining great influence in the kingdom of the Nile and even undermine pharaonic power. A certain Phanes the Alicarnassian who fell ill with the pharaoh found refuge in the Persian court and sold the Egyptian defense plans to the Persians thus greatly assisting them in overpowering the Egyptians. During the Persian invasion the two armies met at Pelusium.The Egyptians probably still relied on the Greeks despite Phanes desertion. The Persians probably put their subject hoplite force against the mercenaries. With the phalanxes entangled in a bloody draw the Persians made short work of the rest of the Egyptian army. It is uncertain though if they recruited the mercenaries for the Persian army or enslaved them.

Initially the Persians used hoplites from their Asia Minor Greek subjects and were aware of the phalanx tactics. Herodotus writes that king Demaratus told Xerxes not to underestimate the Greeks because he himself uses them to suppress his other rebellious subjects. Greek mercenaries serve again the Persians in large numbers after the end of the Peloponnesian War. Prince Cyrus the younger recruited about 15000 Greeks in his attempt to overthrow his brother Artaxerxes II. But his brother also hired the Greek Phalinus to reorganize his army and attempt to outfight the Greek mercenaries. Its possible that Artaxerxes battle maneuvers was Phalinus own work. The famous retreat of the 10000 mercenaries was immortalized in Xenophon’s work “Anabasis”.

Situation in Greece during the 4th century BC was tragic. The economy was ruined from the wars and the country was full of men who knew nothing but to fight. The archaic ethos had disappeared and opportunism was rife. King Artaxerxes was willing to fund anyone who opposed the Spartans who had supported his brother Cyrus. The Athenians used the Persian gold to hire Acarnanian and Thracian peltasts alongside Cretan archers. Then appeared the Athenian general Iphicrates who improved training and equipment of the light troops thus enabling them to outfight even the famous Spartan at Lechaeon.

Iphicrates was a typical mercenary general of the time who compensated for the lack of money to pay the troops by allowing the to plunder friend and foe alike. His army was instrumental in installing Cotys ads king in Thrace after desertions and betrayals of the Athenian general to his previous employers. When he campaigned in the Ionian Sea he solved his supply problem by doing piracy on Syracusan ships lade with precious votive offerings to Delphi. He then extorted money from the islanders of Cephalonia so as not raid them but he also subjected his troops to forced labor in the fields of the island of Kerkyra. (Corfu)

In the Italiotic colonies, the citizens had abandoned their military duties and relied on hired mercenaries for their defense. They considered the mainland Greeks as simple peasants who paid them to take the war risks but they also suspected them as potential tyrants. Relying heavily on mercenaries Timoleon saved the Greek colonies of Sicily from the Carthaginians but this can be attributed to this man’s extraordinary personality. After his death things turned bad again. The first Epirotan intervention in the West was under the king Alexander Molossus gave the Greek colonists in Italy a respite but the Italiotic Greeks felt no particular worry when he got killed in battle and the hire Epirotans returned home.

In mainland Greece under Macedonian leadership started the Greek expansion eastwards with Greek mercenaries being both in the service of Alexander and the Persian Empire. Greek mercenaries who fought ferociously against Alexander and got captured were sent back in Macedonia as chained slaves as Alexander considered them traitors to the Hellenic Cause. Greeks in Persian service kept opposing Alexander and only after Darius death took service in the Macedonian Army and finally ended into the armies of the Alexander’s Successors

The Hellenistic Era is characterized by marvelous artistic development and intense political strife. The continuous civil wars had sapped the powers of Hellenism. The majority of the population had become landless serfs over which tyrants lorded up with the aid of mercenaries. The disenfranchised people revolted thus creating a situation of almost permanent instability or hired themselves to the armies of the Hellenistic Kingdoms as mercenaries! The Spartan general Xanthippous is a typical case. As leader of Greek mercenaries he helped the Carthaginians beat the Romans in 225 BC and even capture the Roman general Regulus. Fearing Carthaginian jealousy he found refuge in Egypt where he served Ptolemy III the Benefactor.

In the Hellenistic Kingdoms and the principalities that succeeded them Greeks served until the early Roman Period. One such case was the Army of ruler of Galilee Alexander Jannaeus. Alexander who had bad relations with his Jewish subjects that in one case revolted against him during the Feast of Passover. “As he was standing on the altar offering sacrifices he was pelted with the fruits of the palm trees as thy all held palm branches according to the custom. He was in a tight spot until his mercenaries rescued him. After slaying six thousand of the rebels, Alexander campaigned against Arabia” according to Josephus. Greeks also kept serving in the Roman Army like the Cretan Archers for example.

The need for fighters who could serve fulltime any period of the year created the need for professional soldiers. Most of them were coming from mountainous pastoral communities like Arcadia fro example. Ancient Greeks had mixed feelings on the issue of hired soldiers. Public opinion mentions the mercenaries as strangers or auxiliaries but in truth abhors the institution of hiring troops and positions itself on the subject with arguments revealing and characteristic for the Greek Spirit Mercenary motivations or the  “esprit de corps” of some units are subject of various ancient texts. Lysias quotes from the Olympic Panegyricus are typical: «… The bodies of the Greeks belong to whom can pay…” (Lys. 33, 5) But also Isocrates in his speech «About Peace» he says «… these (mercenaries) because of their other crimes they gather up and they will turn against us, whenever our opponents pay them more than we do» (8, 44-45).

Even if the ancient Greeks were not initially overly hostile to other Greeks allied with barbarians or in barbarian service, this started changing after the 5th century BC. Diodorus Siculus mentions that Dionysius I of Syracuse crucified all Greek mercenaries hired by the Carthaginians and that Alexander enslaved all Greeks in Persian service. Only Timoleon persuaded them to serve under him.

Sources

Niemeier, Wolf-Dietrich. “Archaic Greeks in the Orient. Textual and archaeological evidence.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 322 (2001) 11-32.

Campbell, David A. Greek Lyric, Sappho and Alcaeus. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, London: Heinemann 1982.

The Library of Original Sources, Oliver J. Thatcher 1901

K.G. Kourtides in his “Istoria tes Thrakes”/History of Thrace (Κ.Γ.Κουρτίδου, Ιστορία της Θράκης, 1932)

Archilochus, Loeb II, Elegy and Iambus

Frontinus “Stratagems” J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905

Herodotus “Histories” Loeb Classical Library 1914

Thucydides “History” Loeb Classical Library1914

Xenophon “Hellenika”  Classical Library 1914

Pausanias  “Description of Greece” Loeb Classical Library 1920

Strabo “Geography” Loeb Classical Library 1920

Aelianus “Tacticus” E.Shepherd (1793)

Asclepiodotus “Tactics” E.Shepherd (1793)

10th International Egyptology conference (Ρόδος, 22-29 May 2008)

Kevin Pearl «The Lessons of Xenophon and Alexander» American Almanac, May 12, 1997

Montagu, John D. Battles of the Greek and Roman Worlds, Greenhill Books, 2000.

Prevas, John. Xenophon’s March: Into the Lair of the Persian Lion, Da Capo, 2002.

R.Waterfield, Xenophon’s Retreat: Greece, Persia, and the End of the Golden Age, Belknap Press, 2006.

2 σχόλια
  1. Reblogged this on Ακαδημία Ιστορικών Ευρωπαϊκών Πολεμικών Τεχνών and commented:
    The word mercenary (misthophoros in Greek) initially meant some paid with a salary that included hired labor. But quite early it started describing the professional fighter who did not fought in defense of his clan or his city-state but risked his life for pay or other reward. The usage of professional warriors from the Bronze Age can be safely assumed as the complete retails of the organization and structure of the period armies are not quite clear to us. The employment of mercenaries cannot be excluded in the early Bronze Age but it becomes certain in the later stages. The employment of foreign troops (some of them of Hellenic origin) appears in the Egyptian records. The famous Rameses III had elite troops in his bodyguards from Sea Peoples, which scholars believe contained a large group of Mycaeneans. The collapse of the Bronze Age societies and the following “Dark Ages” are characterized by lack of enough information on military matters but the employment of mercenaries cannot be overruled.

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