Contrary to Popular Lore, Ancient Greek Armies Relied on Foreign Mercenaries

Scientists studying fifth-century B.C. soldiers’ teeth found evidence of military support from faraway lands

Temple of Victory in Himera, Sicily
The defeated Carthaginians constructed this Temple of Victory at Himera, Sicily, following the first Battle of Himera in 480 B.C. Katherine Reinberger

Ancient Greek historians loved to write about the heroism of their countrymen in battle. Homer, Herodotus and their peers often described the valiant actions of Greek warriors engaged in combat and conquest.

But did warfare really play out that way? Teeth found in fifth-century B.C. mass graves in Sicily suggest otherwise. As University of Georgia anthropologist Katherine Reinberger, lead author of a new study published in the journal PLOS One, writes for the Conversation, Greek armies used mercenary forces from other lands more extensively than previously thought.

For the study, Reinberger and her colleagues analyzed isotopes present in the teeth of 62 soldiers killed in battle at the city of Himera in 480 B.C. and 409 B.C. The interdisciplinary team’s findings indicate that two-thirds of the soldiers buried in 480 were not of Greek origin, while one-fourth of those buried in 409 were “non-local.”

“We realized that it was possible that many of the soldiers from 480 were coming from outside of Sicily, and maybe even outside of the Mediterranean,” Reinberger tells Live Science’s Laura Geggel.

Per Krista Charles of New Scientist, these mercenaries may have hailed from the Catalan coast, the Iberian Peninsula, mainland Greece or the Black Sea coast.

Carthaginian forces attacked Himera both times, losing the first battle and winning the second. Herodotus wrote that Greeks from across Sicily joined together to meet these threats—but as the researchers found, the historian’s account appears to have missed the mark.

“These soldiers had such high strontium values and low oxygen values compared to what we’d expect in a Himera native that my colleagues and I think they were from even more distant places than just other parts of Sicily,” notes Reinberger in the Conversation. “Based on their teeth’s elemental isotope ratios, the soldiers likely had diverse geographic origins ranging through the Mediterranean and probably beyond.”

A romanticized depiction of the Battle of Himera
A romanticized depiction of the 480 B.C. Battle of Himera Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists use strontium levels to identify where people grew up. The isotope acts as a geographical marker showing what individuals consumed and where.

“Researchers know that the type of strontium in your body reflects the underlying geology or bedrock where the plants and animals you ate grew,” the anthropologist writes. “The oxygen isotopes come from your water source. These elements become a physical record of your origins.”

The higher number of non-local soldiers present at the first battle shows how foreign mercenaries helped the Greeks defeat the Carthaginians, reports Sarah Wells for Inverse. The team posits that the lower total of non-local deaths at the second battle indicates how Himera may have been cut off from protecting forces and doomed to a deadly end.

“This study suggests that ancient communities were more diverse than previously thought,” Reinberger tells Inverse. “The recruitment of foreign mercenaries may have provided pathways to citizenship that are not often discussed in Greek history.”

Speaking with Live Science, Reinberger points out that “ancient Greek historians had an interest in keeping the armies fully Greek.”

She adds, “The Greeks were obsessed with being Greeks,” considering all those who didn’t speak the language “barbarians.”

As Mario Novak, a researcher at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Croatia who was not involved in the study, tells New Scientist, the findings suggest that “these ‘barbarians’ were much more incorporated into the everyday lives of the proper Greeks than previously thought.”

Reinberger says further study of isotopes from ancient teeth could lead to more discoveries about Greek history and how it might differ from written accounts.

“It would be amazing to have this type of information from other battles from the ancient historical record,” she tells Inverse. “It would be interesting to see if there are similar levels of geographic diversity in other Greek armies or if it is unique to Greek colonies who may have already been in contact with more groups than the mainland.”

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