Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.50

Stephen English, Mercenaries in the Classical World: To the Death of Alexander.   Barnsley:  Pen and Sword Military, 2012.  Pp. 212.  ISBN 9781848843301.  £19.99.  

Reviewed by Nino Luraghi, Princeton University (

This is a book on Greek mercenaries, from the archaic period to the threshold of the Hellenistic age. By and large, it consists of short narratives of the main wars or campaigns of the fifth and fourth centuries, with (mostly sparse) comments on the role of mercenaries. In some cases (e.g. Brasidas’ campaigns in Northern Greece during the Archidamian War), the choice is dictated by the presence and/or importance of mercenaries, in other cases (e.g. the Persian Wars) apparently not. The narrative is backed by references to the main Greek historians, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Diodorus (often quoted in the text, in the translations available on-line through the Perseus Project), and occasionally to works of synthesis on Greek mercenaries such as Parke’s old classic and Yalichev’s. The bibliography covers six pages, with only one title in a language other than English, but the number of works actually used appears to be closer to half a dozen.

After a short introduction devoted mostly to the problem of defining a mercenary, the book opens with a chapter on the problem of payment, surely a key component of any definition, and of the identity of Greek mercenaries in particular. The remaining six chapters follow in chronological order, with the typical exception of fourth-century Sicily, which is relegated to a chapter of its own at the end of the sequence.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the archaic period and divided into three parts, one for each of the main employers of Greek mercenaries during this period: the Pharaohs of the 26th dynasty, the tyrants of mainland Greece during the 7th and 6th centuries, and those of Sicily in the last years of the 6th century and in the first decades of the 5th. There are a few odd things in this chapter. The Carians, whose presence in Egypt is much better documented than that of the Greeks, are mentioned only in passing, and one even suspects that English thinks they were Greek (see n. 4 on p. 190). At least in some cases the ancient evidence appears to have been quoted through the filter of a modern scholar. As an example, the reader may consider the discussion of how Pharaoh Psammetichus came to hire Greek mercenaries; English implies that Herodotus (2.152, not 2.52 as in n. 3 and 4) said that Psammetichus was preparing revolt against the Assyrian domination, when in fact Herodotus does not mention the Assyrian domination of Egypt at all. Similarly, of Cambyses’ victory over Psammenithus, English writes (p. 23), “Herodotus tells us nothing that would allow us an attempt at a reconstruction of the battle, save that the Greeks fighting for Psammetichus were slaughtered by their counterparts in Persian service.” Again, the innocent reader might think that this is more or less a paraphrase of Herodotus, but it is not: Herodotus does not say a word about the participation in the battle of Greeks on the Persian side; he does say that Cambyses recruited troops among the Ionians and Aeolians (3.1.1), but the romantic image of the Greeks killing other Greeks is an invention of English’s (or another scholar? See n. 14). Similarly, on the war between Croesus and Cyrus, English states that Cyrus had Greek mercenaries, without any reference to a source – he actually takes it for granted, saying that Greek mercenaries were not the sole cause of Cyrus’ victory. Examples of this sort of problem could be multiplied: most of the narrative parts of this chapter include speculative and/or careless readings of the evidence. On the other hand, well-established facts, like the employment of Arcadian mercenaries by Hippocrates of Gela and by Gelo, have totally escaped English; likewise the employment of mercenaries by Polycrates of Samos.

Chapter 3, devoted to the fifth century, opens with a narrative summary of the Persian Wars, based on Herodotus. English acknowledges the limited role of mercenaries in Darius’ and Xerxes’ invasions, although he may still be overestimating: the Saka fighting for the Persians are identified by English as mercenaries without further discussion, in spite of the fact that they show up in the list of Darius’ satrapies (Hdt. 3.93), which would suggest that they, too, like the rest of Xerxes’ army, were serving as subjects of the Achaemenid Empire. In any case, only a few lines of this portion of the book treat mercenaries at all, and one is left to wonder about the utility of this very imprecise narrative of campaigns and battles. The same is true of the second part of the chapter, devoted to the Peloponnesian War. Here again one finds superficial arguments which betray lack of familiarity with the historical circumstances. English speculates that Athens did not hire mercenaries in large numbers in the first part of the war because the Athenians had no easy access to the main recruiting areas of Arcadia and Achaea, and one wonders what “easy access” means here, especially considering that the Deinomenids of Syracuse had hired mercenaries from Arcadia; on the other hand, there is no mention of the position of both regions with regard to the Peloponnesian League, which may be thought to have more relevance when it comes to Arcadians and Achaeans serving, or not, for the Athenians. On page 50, English quotes Thuc. 6.24.3 in the course of discussing the motivations of allies and mercenaries who joined the second Athenian expedition to Sicily, without apparently noticing that Thucydides in that passage is talking about the Athenians (and once again one wonders if English is reading Thucydides or Parke, see n. 35).

Chapter 4 is devoted to the Ten Thousand, whose story is narrated by Xenophon in the Anabasis. Even here, at times the source appears to be read somewhat superficially. English quote Xenophon’s description of Cyrus’ battle order at Cunaxa (Anab. 1.8.4-7), with the Greek mercenaries on the right, Cyrus and his elite cavalry in the center, and Cyrus’ Asian troops on the left; he then characterizes this arrangement as “native Persian infantry in the centre with the detachments of Greek mercenaries to either side.” But this is not what Xenophon wrote. English is persuaded that Clearchus’ decision not to follow Cyrus’ order at Cunaxa was wrong, and in any case, his depiction of the rudimentary Spartan infantry tactics, consisting in charging towards the enemy, is directly belied by Thucydides’ description of the complicated maneuvers of the Spartan army at the battle of Mantinea – in that case, too, officers refused to follow the orders of the king, much as Clearchus did at Cunaxa (Thuc. 5.71-2).

Chapter 5 is devoted to the fourth century up to and including the Sacred War and consists, up to the battle of Mantinea, of a paraphrase of the relevant passages of Xenophon’s Hellenica interspersed with the occasional quote from Diodorus and comments by the author. The first part of the chapter follows the fate of the 10,000 and the course of the Corinthian War up to the King’s Peace, followed by Artaxerxes’ campaign against Cyprus, the campaign of the Spartans against the Chalcidian League, the wars between Sparta and Thebes, the Corcyra campaign, etc., down to the Sacred War. Of special interest to the history of mercenaries is a short discussion of Iphicrates’ reforms (p. 99-100). Here as elsewhere, the narrative often strays from the book’s topic, and the author seems to be aware of this fact (p. 104) (“In terms of mercenary activity, there were, in reality, relatively few at Leuctra…”; in fact the defeat forced the Spartans to recruit mercenaries).

Chapter 6 concludes the chronological sequence, dealing with the period from the Peace of Philocrates to the Lamian War. After a few pages on Philip, mostly devoted to the battle of Chaeronea, some 24 pages are devoted to Alexander. Here, English builds on his 2009 book The Army of Alexander the Great, and the texture of these pages is markedly different from the rest of the book: gone is the narrative of wars and battles, and the focus is really on the mercenaries, their numbers, their functions, their role in the Macedonian and Persian armies.

In Chapter 7, Sicily comes in as an afterthought of sorts. After a few lines devoted to the age of the Deinomenids, the chapter again proceeds as a narrative of battles and wars summarized from Diodorus and Plutarch, from the Carthaginian invasion of 410 to the end of Timoleon’s campaigns, with Dionysius the 1st getting the lion’s share.

In the preface, the author writes that this book “is not an exhaustive academic examination of every reference to mercenary soldiers in the surviving sources.” This is quite an understatement. In fact, the book has remarkably little to say about Greek mercenaries, apart from providing potted stories of battles and wars in which (usually) mercenaries were involved. The total lack of engagement with scholarship – and not only with works in arcane languages like French, German, and Italian – makes it of little use for the layperson and the professional alike. Surely between an “exhaustive academic examination” and this book there were various possible gradations.

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