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Ancient Greeks Used Mercenaries From Distant Lands, DNA Analysis Reveals

ancient Greek helmets
Ancient Greeks Used Mercenaries from Distant Lands, DNA Analysis Reveal. Image: Ancient Greek helmets. Credit: Ghost of Kuji / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

A recent DNA analysis published by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that ancient Greeks did not fight all their battles alone. Instead, they were assisted by mercenaries from lands as far as the Caucasus mountains and central Asia.

This surprising information comes from genetic analysis of human remains found at a mass grave in the necropolis of western Himera, an ancient Greek colony on the northern coast of Sicily.

The findings, published on October 3rd, implicate that the genetic makeup of the mercenaries who defended the city was not one hundred percent Hellenic (Greek). DNA analysis of sixty-two of those fallen near the battlefield showed their origin to be from far-flung places such as Central Asia, the Caucasus mountains, Central Europe, and even the eastern Baltic near what is today Lithuania.

As it turns out, only one-third of those who fought in the first war were actually local. In comparison, three quarters of those who died in the second battle the Greeks lost were from afar.

Chemical isotopes in their bones confirmed they were born in distant parts of the world. The importance of such findings is that it now rules any possibility that they were second or third generation immigrants. In addition, their good health proves that they were not slaves.

The unveiling of the genetic identity of the Himera mercenaries came about through the work of Katherine Reinberger, bioarcheologist at the University of Georgia.

Ancient Greeks Hired Mercenaries

Guns for hire is nothing new in the modern world. Mercenaries receive their pay specifically to help win a war. That, however, was a fact Ancient Greeks apparently did not wish to speak of. Hence the lack of credit in recounting the story of the Carthaginians’ defeat at the hands of the Greek forces.

Perhaps that is why ancient sources like Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus chose not to mention those who aided their compatriots. According to popular history, for example, the markedly inferior number of Greek warriors trounced the great Carthaginian army.

“Being a wage earner had some negative connotations—avarice, corruption, shifting allegiance, the downfall of civilized society,” Laurie Reitsema explained.

“In this light, it is unsurprising [that] ancient authors would choose to embellish the Greeks for Greeks aspect of the battles, rather than admitting they had to pay for it,” Reitsema said.

Most Himerians, archaeologists have noted, buried those deceased individually. Yet, the 2,500 year old grave held the remains of nearly ten thousand, a marker of its being for mercenaries.

“Most likely, mercenaries would not have been known to the people cleaning up the battlefield and burying the casualties,” said Dr. Reitsema, anthropologist at the University of Georgia.

“As a result, mercenaries would have been more likely than citizen-soldiers to wind up in anonymous mass graves and become archaeologically invisible, or less visible,” Reitsema added.

The results are “mind-blowing,” stated Carrie Sulosky Weaver, an archaeologist at the University of Pittsburgh. “It’s amazing how much we can tell about ancient episodes like this with this kind of data.”

Temple of Olympian Zeus Agrigento, Sicily
Temple of Olympian Zeus, Agrigento, Sicily, 1998 built to celebrate the Greek victory over Carthage at the battle of Himera (480 BC). Photo Credit: Michael Gunther. CC-BY-SA-4.0/ Wikimedia

A question of hubris or civic pride?

If mercenaries did help win battles, why then did historians attribute their military success solely to Sicily’s Greek army? Apparently, the reason was pride and the desire to attribute their success to their own cunning.

Angelos Chaniotis, Greek historian and Classics Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey confirms “the general picture we had from ancient sources, highlighting at the same time the role of mercenaries.”

“Mercenaries,” he continues, “are mentioned in our evidence, but they are often hiding in plain sight.”

Others, such as David Reich, a Harvard geneticist, go even further. “Greeks [minimized] a role for mercenaries, potentially because they wanted to project an image of their homelands being defended by heroic Greek armies of citizens and the armored spearmen known as hoplites.”

According to La Trobe University archaeologist Gillian Shepherd, “The Greeks were probably not keen to give any credit for their military success to a bunch of mercenaries.”

The Battle of Himera

The Battle of Himera began in 483 BCE when citizens deposed their tyrannical ruler, Terillus. Outraged at losing his seat of power, he called on the Carthaginians to help him regain it. Prior to his ousting, Greeks who had colonized Italy and Carthaginians had lived together amicably, benefitting equally from the strategic location and rich resources.

Three years later, Carthaginian general Hamilcar Mago sailed north to the city with a military force of three hundred thousand. In response, Greeks from Syracuse and Agrigento, two neighboring Hellenic enclaves, sent military support to ward off the attack. Historical accounts maintain that the local army single-handedly staved off Mago’s invasion by burning his ships and rerouting his troops. Success, therefore, was due purely to their own bravery and ingenious strategizing in war.

Twenty-one years later, however, in 409 B.C.E. when the general’s grandson Hannibal Mago came to avenge his relative, the Greeks tragically lost, and their city was torn down.

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