The Second Oldest Profession: Mercenaries (Part 1: The Ancient World)

Max Brebner
5 min readJun 17, 2019

What does North Carolina circa 2006 and the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt have in common?

Both have played host to mercenaries, doing largely the same thing, millennia apart. Warfare has been a constant in our society ever since our shift from hunter-gatherers into sedimentary civilization. As long as two people have existed, someone has wanted someone else dead.

Ancient Egypt

Mercenaries played an important role in ancient warfare. Populations of the time period were far less dense than they are today. A single kingdom, even one as powerful as Egypt, just lacked the manpower to go on the offensive. So, leaders would hire outside muscle to bolster their numbers, do things other soldiers couldn’t, provide experienced veterans to an army.

Kings of the late Old Kingdom period (2686 BCE — 2181 BCE) routinely hired men of the Medjay people. More of a blanket term, it referred to peoples from Nubia. Mostly semi-nomadic, largely pastoral, the Medjay were also referred to as the “Pan-Grave Culture” by academia, in reference to their unique burial customs. Records show that many of these Nubian mercenaries were paid well for their service as elite archers and scouts, often being rewarded with political influence and positions within the kingdom’s court. Either as guards or courtiers directly.

Such mercenaries became instrumental during the Second Intermediate period (1800 BCE — 1550 BCE), where Egypt fought a series of endemic wars with the Hyksos Empire, over control of the Sinai peninsula.

A temple relief depicting Medjay mercenary archers.

The practice of hiring Medjay archers continued until the middle of the New Kingdom period (1550 BCE — 1069 BCE), after which there has been no evidence to suggest that Medjay were hired as mercenaries. This could have been because the Medjay were no longer considered separate from Egypt, or the political minutiae shifted.

Nubians were far from the only people Pharaohs hired. Records show they also hired Celtic warbands, Sardinian Sherden raiders, Turkish Canaanite archers, and even Greek hoplites at different points in history.

Ancient Greece

The term “ancient Greece” is actually somewhat misleading. During the Classical era, there was no single entity called “Greece.” Instead, the region of “Hellas,” where the term Hellenistic comes from, was divided between kingdoms, city-states and warlords. Every place had its own culture, ideals and dogmas.

Greek cultures would become prolific mercenaries, working heavily for the Egyptians. During the Greco-Persian Wars, the Persian army hired Greek mercenaries for their attempted invasion of the mainland in 484 BCE.

Even the Greeks themselves hired mercenaries. Dionysus I of Syracuse (432 BCE — 367 BCE) would employ bands of Italian mercenaries known as Sileraioi. A ruthless tyrant, Dionysus I used these for-hire bandits to keep populations in line and quell revolts.

Dionysus I of Syracuse

However, the most famous Greek mercenary in history would have to be Xenophon of Athens. Military commander, writer, philosopher, adventurer, he served under Achaemenian prince Cyrus the Younger as a mercenary.

Xenophon of Athens

His time as a mercenary would take him across Mesopotamia, fighting in a rebellion against Persian king Artaxerxes II. He and his band of mercenaries, the Ten Thousand, marched across Iraq, Armenia and northern Turkey.

Xenophon was also as famous a writer as he was a soldier, being attributed as the writer of over 40 books. His most recognized work, Anabasis, detailed his time in the Near East as a soldier. He also wrote a symposium, and a series of anecdotes about Socrates’ lectures.

Roman Empire

Since its foundation, the Roman Empire had need for fighting power. During their days as a tribe of cattle-rustlers, they would pay off neighboring tribes to support them in battles with the Italics, Samnites and Etruscans.

Typical soldiers of the early Roman army. Outfitted in Greek-derived armor, using Greek weapons and Greek tactics.

During their days of empire, the Roman army hired and maintained vast corps of foreign mercenaries, made up of the very people they conquered. These auxiliary forces were then granted lands and citizenship, provided they served a tour of ten years in the army. After which, they were full Romans, in all legal sense. This policy of naturalizing mercenaries accomplished a few things, namely, it made occupied territories fit into a single homogeneous Roman society. Secondly, it encouraged loyalty in their hired forces, reducing the chance of them switching sides if offered greater pay.

By 9 CE, the Roman army was almost 40% comprised of these mercenary auxiliaries. The army saw troops from England, Wales, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, all being offered citizenship for military service.

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest — Public domain

On a few occasions, this policy would be taken advantage of, as is the case of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. Germanic tribal mercenaries, lead by one Arminius, used the insider knowledge of the Roman war machine to destroy three entire legions and an auxiliary legion over the course of three or four days. It marked the biggest defeat of Roman forces in Europe to date, and secured the Germanic tribes a position of power from which to negotiate.

As time went on, Roman begun hiring more and more mercenaries as its domestic armies were ground down over years of non-stop warfare. By the collapse of the Roman empire, 60% of its army was comprised of hired barbarian tribes. Primarily the Visigoths, a Germanic people who had fled south to escape both a crippling winter and an invasion of the Hunnic Empire.