Soldiers for hire throwing their hats into the ring of the highest bidder is something that is as old as war itself. For as long as various kingdoms, nations, and empires have waged war, there have always been those soldiers of fortune looking to make a living off of conflict. The prevalence of mercenaries waxes and wains throughout human history, but it came to the forefront at the height of the Greek Classical Period between roughly 500 BC and 150 BC. This was when Greek civilization emerged from the Bronze Age Collapse and began its near-mythical climb to the heights of art, culture, science, and philosophy.
Aside from achieving at the highest levels of academia, the Greeks were still very much warlike people. Wars against foreign armies and invaders were by no means unheard of, and conflict between the various Greek City States was a near-everyday occurrence. Greek soldiers and their unique fighting style quickly became the envy of the Classical World and were sought after by just about every military commander who could enlist them. By the 4th century BC, Greek soldiers became a staple of almost every war and battle in Antiquity.
Who Were These Mercenaries?
Most of Greece did not rely on professional-standing militaries like countries do today, but rather a collection of citizen soldiers called up to fight in times of war. These soldiers would vary wildly in terms of training and equipment. Things like weapons and armor were something that the soldiers had to source themselves rather than having equipment provided to them by the state they represented.
The most common citizen soldiers, called Hoplites, had an enormous shield that they carried along with a long thrusting spear. They would form close and compact ranks and position their shields together to form a near-impenetrable wall. These formations, called phalanx's, were the cutting edge of military technology at the time.
They would march forward toward the often lightly armored and poorly trained enemy force and grind them down in a brutal fashion. If one Hoplite was killed, the man behind him took his place to fill the gap and maintain formation. This kind of fighting style was effective and inspired the famous tactics later used by the Roman Legions. These legions, ironically, went on to defeat and subjugate the Greeks in centuries to come.
What Was Their Motivation?
In the early years of the golden age of Greek mercenaries, the average mercenary would have likely been a man from a poor background who had little in the way of economic prospects. This person may have been a veteran of a war or conflict between one of the city-states. As mercenaries became more commonplace and city-states began to rely less on their armies comprised of citizens, Greek men from all walks of life began to try their hand at mercenary work.
Being a mercenary brought a certain level of security with it, especially during times of turmoil and war. While the rest of the economy might have collapsed due to conflict, the demand and payment for these mercenary bands quickly rose, and it soon became lucrative to sell your sword to those who were in dire need of soldiers and willing to pay large sums of money for assistance. As various groups of mercenaries started to grow their reputation, they could justify their high wages and compensation. It was not long before the more rich and powerful city-states were hiring armies made up almost entirely of soldiers bought and paid for.
The Greek Mercenary Legacy
Early on, many Greek leaders and aristocrats looked down on mercenaries. They thought it was improper and low of a man to fight for something like money rather than a sense of personal honor or civic duty to one's homeland. However, once their effectiveness became common knowledge among generals, this disdain was quick to fade.
The most famous instance of Greek mercenaries were those employed by the Persian king, Cyrus the Younger. Greek historians claim that he hired 10,000 Greek mercenaries to help him defeat his own brother in a brutal civil war to determine who would sit on the throne of the Persian Empire. Cyrus was killed in battle, and the Greek mercenaries suddenly found themselves in the middle of hostile territory. The 10,000 Greeks fought their way back to friendly territory and managed to inflict unimaginable losses on their enemy while only suffering minimal casualties. From that point on, the Greek mercenary would cement himself as one of the best soldiers the Classical World had to offer.
What Happened to Them?
The heyday of mercenary work never went away fully but began to fade in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. While it was undeniable that they were an effective fighting force, they were often unreliable and could turn on their original employer by a cunning adversary who was willing to pay more for their services. Paying mercenaries was a challenge in itself. As the wages of the mercenary groups soared, many leaders of states or military generals would hire them through some form of credit or with the promise of immense war plunder.
If these payments were not met for whatever reason, it was not uncommon for the mercenary group to either turn on their employer or desert the army entirely. This uneasy relationship between general and mercenary was something that many commanders thought was too much of a risk with little reward. Greek mercenaries would stick around the Ancient World even past the time of the Roman conquest in 146 BC but would never again reach the level of prominence and fame that they once enjoyed in the Greek Golden Age.
Much like piracy, mercenary work is something that has always been a part of the human story but is something that comes and goes with time. The Greek example is no different. At one point, they were some of the most feared and respected soldiers in the known world. However, over time, their prominence faded and was superseded by professional armies introduced by the Romans. Regardless, today the image of the Greek Hoplite is one of the most easily recognizable symbols of Greek civilization's military prowess.