Peter Jones

The mercenaries of IS and ancient Greece

Jihadi warriors boast that they don’t fear death... but what when the money to pay them runs out?

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.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in