Suggested reading: Hidden in 54 Corpses, a revelation about Ancient Greece

by Franz Lidz

Wherever there is an out-of-the-way war, there will be mercenaries — hired fighters whose only common bond may be a hunger for adventure. Some join foreign armies or rebel forces because they believe in the cause; others sign on because the price is right.

This was true in ancient Greece, although you wouldn’t know it from ancient Greek historians, for whom the polis, or independent Greek city-state, symbolized the demise of kingly oppression and the rise of citizen equality and civic pride. For instance, neither Herodotus nor Diodorus Siculus mentioned mercenaries in their reports of the first Battle of Himera, a fierce struggle in 480 B.C. in which the Greeks from various Sicilian cities united to beat back a Carthaginian invasion. Mercenaries were considered the antithesis of the Homeric hero.

“Being a wage earner had some negative connotations — avarice, corruption, shifting allegiance, the downfall of civilized society,” said Laurie Reitsema, an anthropologist at the University of Georgia. “In this light, it is unsurprising if ancient authors would choose to embellish the Greeks for Greeks aspect of the battles, rather than admitting they had to pay for it.” … (continue at The New York Times)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

3 thoughts on “Suggested reading: Hidden in 54 Corpses, a revelation about Ancient Greece

  1. We’ve made a concerted effort to bring together information from historical accounts, archaeology, bioarchaeology and isotopic analyses to contextualize the genetic data. It’s amazing what we can learn when we weave diverse lines of evidence.

    Yes, indeed. It is only by weaving diverse lines of evidence that we can glimpse the fuller picture. The presence of so many mercenaries does not surprise me. These were agricultural economies where the great majority of manpower was required for husbanding, planting, tilling and reaping. The wealth of the ruling classes depended on extraction from their earnings and so the peasant class could hardly be spared to be conscripted into armies. They could only be spared from this toil briefly in pressing emergencies.

    But here’s the thing, when they were conscripted in times of dire emergency, these were not trained soldiers. These were peasants who knew more about wielding a hoe than wielding a spear. Mercenaries would have been hired by preference because they were trained soldiers and just as importantly, this would have a lower impact on the agricultural economy. Their presence would have injected skills, experience and professionalisation into the army.

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  2. This is also what made the Romans so effective. All Romans had military training and went through periods of military service. With the result that they had a large body of competent soldiers to call upon. This parallels my own military experience. After my initial period of military duty I was placed on the active reserve for ten years. During that time my kit was always packed and ready. My rifle was well oiled and ready. Apart from our yearly military spells of duty and monthly training spells, we could be called up at a moment’s notice to go into action. This was an efficient system that made sure a large body of trained soldiers was always ready to be deployed. We were in effect the mercenaries of earlier times.

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