Rise of the Greek Mercenaries in the Classical World

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Greek mercenaries were hired in large numbers toward the end of the fifth century B.C. This rise in mercenaries was due to various socio-economic and political circumstances that forced a large number of soldiers to fight for money and not for their country. This was in sharp contrast to the earlier culture and tradition of Greece, which considered serving in the military as a privilege. Read on to find more about the Greek mercenaries in the classical Greek world.

Image showing the battle of Cunaxa that was fought between the Persians and the Greek.
 The Battle of Cunaxa fought between the Persians and ten thousand Greek mercenaries of Cyrus the Young, 401 BC (Image: Adrien Guignet / Public domain)

Mercenary – An Attractive Job Proposition

Until the fifth century, mercenaries were very few in number and mainly employed by tyrants and kings. This was because, until then the city-states were dependent on their citizen militias for protection of their region. The long and complex conflict between Athens and Sparta had financial implications for both sides. The deepening economic crisis at the end of the Peloponnesian War led to an explosion in the number of mercenaries.

Mercenary services thrived in the mountainous terrain of Arcadia in north Peloponnese, mainly emanating from the penury in the region. It also flourished in areas, such as Thrace in the far north, where people were so poor that they sold their children into slavery. Though to begin with, only men from the poorer sections of the society enrolled as mercenaries, with time men from all over Greece, including the leading city-states enrolled. The occupation of a mercenary seemed to be an attractive job proposition for Greek men who were healthy, loved adventure, and could afford to put their life at risk. It provided them with some amount of security in an increasingly insecure society.

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Demands of being a Greek Mercenary

The hoplites were the citizen soldiers of the ancient Greece states. They were armed with spears and shields. (Image: Sammy33/Shutterstock)

The demands of being a mercenary were far more difficult than it was perceived to be. Greek warriors were basically trained as hoplites but as they continued to fight wars far and wide, they faced new circumstances and rough terrains. Hence, their employers expected them to be adept at various techniques, including guerrilla tactics. Prospective employers sent their ambassadors to Cape Taenarum and Cape Malea, the southernmost tips of Peloponnese to hire the Greek mercenaries. The Greek mercenaries who satisfied the conditions of the employer were deployed to fight on a seasonal basis or for a specific campaign. 

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This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

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Turning a Failed Expedition into an Opportunity

These ferocious fighting forces of the world were not aligned to any group or king. They in fact would fight for anyone who would pay them well. In 401 B.C., when the Persian prince Cyrus wanted to dethrone his brother, he hired some 10,000 mercenaries from Greece to fight for him. People from all over Greece signed up as Cyrus was rich and probably paid well. Experienced soldiers from the Peloponnesian war now fought as mercenaries with Cyrus in a clash against his brother’s army.

A painting portraying the meeting between Cyrus the Younger and the Spartan General Lysander.
A painting portraying the meeting between Cyrus the Younger and the Spartan General Lysander. (Image: Francesco Antonio Grue (1618-1673)/Public domain)

While the mercenaries held their ground, Cyrus was killed in the battle. As a result, the mercenaries had to move to a friendly territory from the Persian heartland. The Greek mercenaries embarked on a journey fighting their way out of the enemy territory without much loss. An Athenian general called Xenophon has chronicled this journey in his Anabasis or March Up-Country. The journey turned out to be an opportunity to showcase the superior military prowess of the Greek warriors over the barbarians. And thus, the Greek mercenaries transformed into an important element of every theater of war.

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How was the Greek Mercenary Perceived?

The Athenian orator and essayist Isocrates uses condemnatory references to describe the Greek mercenaries. In his writings in 380 B.C., he describes them as “persons who are refugees, deserters or criminals and who follow anybody so long as he increases their income.” Isocrates goes on to say “Because you were armed to the teeth and owed no allegiance other than to your paymaster, you’d be capable of dealing the deathblow to Greek civilization as we know it.” He fears that these men, who wandered for their livelihood, could assault anyone for money and would soon become a formidable force like the barbarians were in the past. Further, he brands them as dregs of the society and warns his countrymen that these mercenaries would turn out to be a potential threat to the political stability of Greece.

This hysterical hype of Isocrates may be equated to the worst excesses of modern day tabloid journalism. Though Isocrates uses scaremongering tactics for rhetorical effect, Greeks were really worried by the explosion in the number of these mercenaries who had no fixed abode. This shows that in spite of their importance, mercenaries were definitely lowdown on the social scale. The disproportionate increase in the number of the mercenaries had profound implications on women and daily life in Greece. It led to the relocation of a sizable population of the Greek males, who were mostly on the move.

Common Questions about the Legendary Spartan Warrior

Q: What was the classical period in Greece?

The classical period was the golden period in the history of Greece, which started around 480 B.C. and lasted for around two hundred years. The Greeks made important contributions to sculpture, architecture, philosophy and literature during this period. It also saw the capture of Greece by the Persians and the subsequent emergence of democracy.

Q: Who hired the Greek mercenaries?

The Greek mercenaries were mainly hired by the small provinces of Persia for their superior military prowess. The mercenaries from Arcadia fought for Xerxes in 480 B.C., while the ones from Thrace were hired by both sides during the Peloponnesian War. The Greek mercenaries also fought for Cyrus the Younger in his campaign against his brother in 401 B.C.

Q: Did women work as mercenaries in ancient Greece?

No, women could not work as mercenaries in ancient Greece as Greece was a very conservative society. The role of a woman was limited to domestic chores in everyday life. They could not attend amphitheaters or go out in public without male supervision.

Q: Who was Isocrates?

Isocrates was a writer in ancient Greece who was known for his rhetoric and made several contributions to education through his teachings and written work.

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