Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.04

Matthew Trundle, Greek Mercenaries from the Late Archaic Period to Alexander.   London & New York:  Routledge, 2004.  Pp. xxi, 196.  ISBN 0-415-33812-3.  $87.50.  

Reviewed by Ian Worthington, University of Missouri-Columbia (
Word count: 1358 words

Until now, if one wanted to find out about Greek mercenaries one had to consult H.W. Parke, Greek Mercenary Soldiers from the Earliest Times to the Battle of Ipsus (Oxford: 1933) and G.T. Griffith, The Mercenaries of the Hellenistic World (Cambridge: 1935). Both are political histories of mercenary activity organized chronologically. Both are seventy years old. Mercenaries and mercenary service have attracted attention since these books appeared of course, but usually within the context of broader works on ancient warfare, regional histories, or economic studies. A new treatment of mercenaries is needed, and in less than 170 page of text this is what Trundle (hereafter T.) gives us.

T.'s book does not merely "update" those of Parke and Griffith, for T. gives us more of a social history of Greek mercenary warfare. His differs from previous studies, as he says (p. 3), by treating mercenary service not merely as a military activity but as "a social phenomenon that transcended the societies across the whole Mediterranean." For T., Greek mercenaries were nothing like the modern soldiers of fortune. They formed their own distinct group that was an accepted part of Greek society. Indeed, he questions whether we should use the term "mercenary" for the ancient world given its pejorative modern meaning. Although Greek mercenaries played an integral part in warfare, and indeed in Greek history, and military affairs were central to the life of the polis, the Greeks had no specific word for "mercenary" (see further below). That prompts T. to ask the question what was meant by a mercenary soldier and mercenary activity in the ancient world? By looking at the ancient Greek attitude to mercenaries and by comparing mercenary activity in the ancient world to that in the modern, T. argues that the Greeks' idea of a mercenary was far from what we have today: a soldier available for hire to the highest bidder, who in the process becomes something of an outcast from society. Instead, mercenary activity was as much part of Greek society as accepting gifts was part of diplomatic protocol, and it also played a political and economic role in relations between states. Mercenaries did not operate within the community of their own polis, as did hoplite soldiers for example, and they had their own identity as a group regardless of where they originally came from, but they were not mere soldiers of fortune.

The brief Introduction (pp. 1-9), which sets up what the book is about, outlines the ancient source material, and gives a short historical survey of mercenary service (from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic), is followed by five chapters that make up the bulk of the book. An even briefer Conclusion (pp. 165-167) summarizes mercenary activity. Each chapter describes and discusses in great detail aspects of mercenary life and activity, with copious references to literary as well as epigraphical and numismatic sources. Running throughout each chapter is T.'s exploration of social conditions, ideologies, and economic issues that he uses to re-evaluate the relationship of mercenaries to each other and to those who paid them, and thus their role in society.

The first two chapters, "Images and Sources" (pp. 10-39) and "What motivated Greek mercenary service?" (pp. 40-79), deal with issues such as the definition of a mercenary, the different forms of mercenary activity (from general infantry to more specialized troops to those serving away from Greece), numbers of mercenaries especially after the late fifth century to the end of the Lamian War, and the economic and political reasons for service. There is a sensible discussion (pp. 10-21) of mercenary terminology in the ancient sources and how words and terms changed over the seventh to fourth centuries. The change is linked to the introduction of money, and hence pay (thus, the neutral epikouros, "ally" -- often wrongly translated as "mercenary" --, to the more specific misthophoros "wage-earner" and xenos misthophoros "foreign wage-earner," in the fourth century). An important section discusses the ancient and modern images of mercenaries (pp. 21-24) and the need to divorce the modern concept of mercenary service from the ancient. There is nothing wrong in applying the present to the past in order to gain a better understanding of it, but T. is right to warn us that we should not do so in the case of mercenaries. Some of T's conclusions are hardly startling (for example, "the employers and the commanders were the keys to mercenary service. These men determined the opportunities for service, for rewards and for final settlements", p. 79), but others are challenging. For example, he argues that the increase in the numbers of, and hence in the demand for, mercenaries in the later fifth century needs to be viewed less against the backdrop of the Peloponnesian War and more against events in the western Persian empire (Anatolia) and Dionysian Sicily. Poverty and political reasons did contribute to a man becoming a mercenary, but ultimately the employers chose Greek hoplites as mercenaries because of their fighting skills and training. If they had not done so, argues T., there would have been no "explosion" in the numbers of Greek mercenaries, and the history of mercenary activity would have been vastly different.

Chapters 3, "Paying Greek mercenaries" (pp. 80-103), and 4, "Hiring Greek mercenaries" (pp. 104-131), describe factors such as the rate and types of pay (essentially three "regular" types: food, money for food, and money, and the more irregular war booty), the hiring process, and the provision of equipment. T. argues that pay was not always frequent, and could sometimes take months. Also, pay was not especially high, which was why booty was valued more. War booty meant that employers need not necessarily pay regular wages and the men could often sell it for more than their normal pay. The evidence for pay is slight, and what we have, especially in oratory, is notoriously unreliable. A good example of that concerns the mercenaries whom the Phocians hired over the ten years of the Third Sacred War (356-346 BC). Their estimated cost, depending on how we read the evidence, was either 1,622 talents or 3,244.4 talents (pp. 95-96). These mercenaries were of course paid more (double the rate) because of the dire circumstances the Phocians faced.

The final chapter, "Networks and relationships" (pp. 132-164), argues that the relationship between employer and mercenary was not just one of remuneration. Mercenaries came from every stratum of society and every region. On a microcosmic level, mercenary armies had their own hierarchies based on social status, family links (fathers and sons, for example), home states, and so on, in which there were formal ritualized friendships (xenia and philia). On a macrocosmic level mercenary activity linked different parts of the Mediterranean. States and generals who provided or led mercenary armies for rulers and the like made political and economic connections with them. To T., mercenary service was far more complex than is commonly thought: it was an integral part of Greek society, and it also played a vital role in international relations. T.'s fifth chapter also examines the careers of several individuals (for example, Xenophon, Iphicrates, Chabrias, Chares, and Charidemus), whom we regularly call mercenaries. We can still call them mercenaries, but, as T. shows, not with the modern connotations of the term as is so often the case.

The book has some very nice illustrations (nine in all) of pottery and coins, and a very useful timeline in the preliminary pages (pp. ix-xiii), covering major events in the West, the Aegean, and the East (set up in three columns) from 675 to 322, the end of the Lamian War. The notes (pp. 168-172) are, in my opinion, too brief for a book such as this and are almost completely devoted to secondary literature. The bibliography is comprehensive. There are two indexes, one of Greek terms and one of names, places, and themes.

T.'s book is a mine of information on just about anything to do with mercenaries. His vigorous arguments that mercenary service is a social phenomenon are often compelling, and even if we disagree with him we must take care from now on when we call someone a mercenary.

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