Ancient and modern

Ancient and Modern: The mercenaries of IS and ancient Greece

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

Last week we read that Isis was crumbling, but still a force to be reckoned with. That is true, but its army is by definition a mercenary one, fighting for pay, and when that runs out, so will they. Ancient Greeks knew all about mercenaries.

The 6th century bc Cretan mercenary Hybrias proclaimed ‘I have great wealth — a spear, a sword and a fine shield to save my skin. [Ironically] With these I plough, I reap, I tread the sweet grapes and am called master of my serfs. All those that dare not hold athe spear and sword and fine shield to save their skin, all bow and kiss my knee, calling me master and great king.’


In other words, while others toil making an honest living out of the land, he lords it over them by the rewards and reputation he enjoys from fighting for others.

The skill of Greek hoplites was greatly admired across the eastern Mediterranean, and poverty, exile and an eye for booty and adventure drove many of them to look for work as a soldier. With threats from the mighty forces of Macedon and Persia looming in the 4th century bc, peasant citizens could not afford to abandon their smallholdings for months of marching and fighting. Let soldiers with experience, both in the battle-line and training-ground, be paid to do the business for them.

There were alternative views. The orator Isocrates laid into the Athenians for employing these ‘common enemies of mankind’ and ‘rejoicing in the atrocities of such violent, lawless brigands’. Aristotle accepts that mercenaries know what they are doing, but points out that ‘they become cowards when the danger seems too great for them… They are the first to run… while citizen soldiers think flight disgraceful and prefer death to safety achieved at such cost. Mercenaries fear death more than shame.’

The jihadis boast, of course, that they do not fear loss of life. But loss of pay-packets, perks and status? Many of these selfless heroes might well have second thoughts about that — and look for other employers…

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • tigertank

    The problem that IS mercenaries face is that they have the status of rabid rats – to be shot on sight. Where can they run to? Europe is fast closing down. Wise now to the jihadis, young men without wives and children are being turned back at the borders or being deported. Selective refugee selection is now the norm and most jihadis fall out of the parameters. What will be interesting is how Europe will treat young refugee women.

    • whorya

      Well not very well now I hope, as more are getting involved with terrorist atrocities. Whether forced or not. They are as much a danger as any Jihadist….

  • grimm

    Oh dear! One of those scholarly “What we can learn from history…” articles. This is where some journalist with a bit of classical history under his belt treats us to his notion that current disturbing events are nothing new and we should all calm down.

  • Patrick

    the jihadists in Syria were hardly on an Apple executives pay scale( and there’s not much to buy its mostly banned). They lived in cities which were a bit of a dump (compared to western cities) anyway, and became worse when they moved in on mass. They banned all sorts of basic enjoyments i.e most kinds of music, lots of TV channels, bars/clubs etc, mixing between sexes, women/girls leaving the house, anything un-Islamic (yes I know they have nothing to do with Islam, but thats what they did *sarcasm*) They tried to live every moment by the Koran/Haddiths, which must be a pain. Yet still they stayed, because they wish to live in an islamic state. the money means nothing to them, they don’t fight for it. They simply follow their prophet muhammed, nothing more.

  • King Kibbutz

    ISIS is not a mercenary force.

  • Cobbett

    So what do British soldiers fight for then…and all professional soldiers.

Close