Mercenaries Were More Common in Greek Warfare Than Ancient Historians Let on

New research finds that many soldiers who fought in the fifth-century B.C.E. battles at Himera were born outside of the empire

archaeological site at Himera
The archaeological site at Himera in Sicily Photo by DeAgostini / Getty Images

In 480 B.C.E., Greek and Carthaginian soldiers clashed outside of Himera, an ancient Greek city in Sicily. According to Greek historians and authors, including Diodorus Siculus and Herodotus, Greek citizens traveled from nearby cities to help successfully defend against the Carthaginian attackers. Then, in 409 B.C.E., the Carthaginian invaders came back to Himera. This time, they left the colony in ruins.

But were the battles truly between just Greeks and Carthaginians? Not likely. New research adds to the growing body of evidence that Greek armies relied more heavily on foreign mercenaries than ancient historians let on.

After analyzing DNA from 54 skeletons unearthed in mass graves near Himera, researchers found that many of the soldiers were born far away, in places like the eastern Baltic, Central Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains. The researchers shared their findings in a new paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The new study supports the results of an earlier chemical analysis of the soldiers’ teeth. Published last year in the journal PLOS One, the paper found that roughly two-thirds of soldiers who died during the 480 battle were not of Greek origin and that one-fourth of troops who died in 409 were not local to the area.

As Andrew Curry writes for Science magazine, the Greeks apparently “weren’t above paying for help in a pinch,” though Greek authors failed to mention this aspect of the battles in their writings.

That’s likely because paying soldiers to fight did not fit the prevailing narrative of “heroic Greek armies of citizens and the armored spearmen known as hoplites” rising up to defend Himera that Greek writers wanted to portray, study co-author David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard University, tells the New York Times’ Franz Lidz.

Hoplites fighting
A depiction of Greek citizen soldiers, known as hoplites, fighting Grant Mitchell via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

The Greeks were also “obsessed with being Greek” and considered anyone who did not speak the language to be a “barbarian,” as Katherine Reinberger, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Georgia who was involved in the 2021 study, told Live Science’s Laura Geggel last year.

As such, the researchers say it’s unsurprising that ancient writers were reluctant to admit Greek troops had to pay for help.

“The Greeks were probably not keen to give any credit for their military success to a bunch of mercenaries,” Gillian Shepherd, an archaeologist at La Trobe University in Australia who was not involved in the study, tells Science.

Researchers have been studying the necropolises near Himera since the early 1990s. Most Himerans were buried in individual graves, so when archaeologists came upon mass graves, they had a hunch that some of the people buried in them were soldiers for hire. Along with the remains of otherwise healthy men between the ages of 18 and 50, researchers also discovered swords, arrowheads and other weapons in the graves.

The Himerans gave the mercenaries “respectful but impersonal” burials in mass graves in their cemetery, per Science. They appear to have taken greater care with the bodies of Greek soldiers, placing them in smaller group graves along with burial objects, according to the researchers. The surviving Carthaginians, meanwhile, would’ve likely retrieved the bodies of their fallen comrades and taken them elsewhere for burial. So, while the research reveals new information about the genetic backgrounds of soldiers who fought at Himera, it also offers a window into how ancient Greeks saw themselves and others.

“Too many studies of ancient DNA focus only on genetic results without fully exploring the biocultural background to contextualize their findings,” study co-author Britney Kyle, an anthropologist at the University of Northern Colorado, tells the New York Times. “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.”