Fighting for the Enemy: Greek Mercenaries in Persian Service.

By Pat Lowinger

An old man on the point of death summoned his sons around him to give them some parting advice.  He ordered his servants to bring in a bundle of sticks, and said to his eldest son: “Break it.”  The son strained and strained, but with all of his efforts was unable to break the bundle.  The other sons also tried, but none of them was successful.  “Untie the bundle,” said the father, “and each of you take a stick.”  When they had done so, he called out to them: “Now break and each stick was easily broken.  “You see my meaning,” said their father, “unity gives strength.”- Aesop [1]


Depiction of Greek hoplite attacking (and presumably killing) a Persian soldier on a kylix (bowl) c. 5th century BCE on display at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

Herodotus and Aristotle record few details regarding of the life of the Aesop (620-564 BCE), we do know that among the Greeks of 5th thru 3rd Centuries BCE, the fables attributed to him were commonplace among Greek culture.   No doubt stories such as these were used as inspiration among the Greek City-States when confronting the threat of the Persian Invasion of Greece in 492 BCE.  Herodotus offers a similar theme of unity against the Persians, attributed to Themistocles prior to the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE.  Greece had watched as the Kingdom of Lydia and the Greek cities of Ionia had been systematically conquered and subjugated by the Persians.  In fact, by the beginning in the early 5th Century BCE, virtually every independent Greek polis lived under the ever present threat of war and conquest by Persian forces.  In The Histories, Herodotus frames this struggle with the Greeks as the defenders of liberty against the despotic and tyrannical rule of Persian Kings.  While Herodotus’ narrative undoubtedly oversimplifies the complex history and politics of this Greco-Persian conflict, it remains the basis for analysis by many of those who study this fascinating period of ancient history.

Why then, were so many men of Greece drawn into the service of the armies of Persia?  Whether its Xenophon’s account in the Anabasis, or other historians such as Herodotus and Plutarch, we know that men young and old, common and noble, Spartan and Athenian were drawn into services as mercenaries for various Persian rulers.  How did these men reconcile the generally negative ‘cultural attitude’ of Greeks towards xeno or non-Greeks, particularly the Persians, who they had been in bitter conflict with for generations?

War, Power and Gold

The mercenary soldier is to be found in almost every society and still exists in our modern age.  To produce him three conditions are necessary: first, a war, or the prospect of a war; second, a person (or a community) willing and able to pay for somebody else to fight for him; third, a man who is either so poor, or so desperate, or so adventurous, that he is willing to risk his life for a livelihood in a cause that means nothing to him.  For Greek and Hellenistic history in general the first condition may be regarded as a constant. [2]


Illustration of typical hoplite weapons and armor c. 480 BCE.  From John Warry’s Warfare in the Classical World.

By use of this formula leading to the existence appears to be rather simplistic.  You only need a war, someone with money and someone willing to fight for profit.  Numerous historical sources do tell us that the life of a mercenary could be very profitable and financially rewarding.  If fact, depending upon the length of his service, a mercenary could amass a sum of money which could secure him financially for the rest of his life. [3] The risks were great.  Continued employment and payment were normally contingent upon victory in battle, or upon the overall success of a military campaign.  The mercenary of a defeated employer could expect no pay, and it was not uncommon if captured, to be enslaved or executed.  The vast wealth of Persia was well known- as what that of the former Lydian King, Croesus – whose conquered kingdom remained as a Persian Satrapy.   While money does appear to have been a key motivation to inspire a career as a mercenary, was it the only one?   

But what about the desire for adventure?  A test of one’s ability not unlike Homer’s Odysseus.  Xenophon attributes his own motivation(s) for entering employment with the armies of Cyrus the Younger, was result of the prods by his friend Proxenus and his assurance that their knowledge of warfare would be tested.  As a member of the Athenian Equestrian class, we can assume Xenophon’s primary motivation was not money, but a sense of adventure.  Ultimately, Xenophon would come be ranked among the top generals of the Greek mercenaries of which he was a part, and his military exploits would become a model for future military leaders, such as Philip II of Macedonia, but his early motivation appears to have arisen out of boredom and a desire to ‘see the world from the tip of a spear.’

Herodotus wrote, “Themselves [Persians] they consider in every way superior to everyone else in the world, and allow other nations a shore of good qualities decreasing accordingly to distance, the further off being in their view the worst.” [4] Herodotus also details the thinness of a Persian skull and tells how it can be shattered by merely being struck by a pebble, which was by no means complimentary. [5] We know that many Greeks were ethnocentric, and commonly referred to non-Greeks as ‘barbarians’.  It is apparent that both cultures were in competition with each other, economically as well as militarily- which naturally produced stereotypes and biases against the other.

The ‘Culture’ of Greek Mercenaries

The examination of various mercenary armies in Persian service shows a marked separation from the normal identification of self with the politics of his polis.  While mercenaries were usually accredited with the cities from which they had originated, very often they formed combined units, acting in unison with each other, despite the apparent rivalries that were common among various Greek poleis.  It appears it was common for Greek Mercenaries, when acting as a band of professional mercenaries to see themselves as ‘Greeks’ and share in the common bond of culture and comradeship.  Xenophon himself records his close friendship with men of Thebes, Thessaly, Arcadia and Sparta.  In fact, Xenophon would declare his deep friendship with the Spartan King Agesilaus II, who would later command a mercenary army in which Xenophon would serve as an officer.

There is little evidence to suggest how individual mercenaries were treated when they returned from Persia.  We can note from Xenophon’s writings, that he (and those with him) were accorded no special treatment or punishment- his service was viewed employment.  In contrast, Xenophon, would later be exiled for his service as a mercenary in the army of King Agesilaus, who crushed a combined forces of Thebes, Argos and Athens at the Battle of Coronea in 394 BCE.  The conflicting nature of the Greek warrior ethos, prevailing attitudes of Greeks regarding Persians and the extensive history of Greeks seeking employment as mercenaries in Persia is illustrated in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander.

Our enemies are Medes and Persians, men who for centuries have lived soft and luxurious lives; we of Macedon for generations past have been trained in the hard school of danger and war. Above all, we are free men, and they [Persians] are slaves. There are Greek troops, to be sure, in Persian service — but how different is their cause from ours! They will be fighting for pay — and not much of it at that; we, on the contrary, shall fight for Greece, and our hearts will be in it. As for our foreign troops — Thracians, Paeonians, Illyrians, Agrianes — they are the best and stoutest soldiers in Europe, and they will find as their opponents the slackest and softest of the tribes of Asia. And what, finally, of the two men in supreme command? You have Alexander, they — Darius!  – Alexander the Great (c. 335 BCE).


The nature of the Greek mercenary in Persian service appears to be somewhat unique.  Greek men, from all strata of society throughout Greece sought employment among their traditional rivals.  Often their motivations were as diverse as their backgrounds.   Among the Greeks themselves, long standing rivalries between competing poleis were curtailed, if not suspended entirely, resulting in more inclusive identification of themselves as ‘Greeks’.   It appears that life as a mercenary was accepted among mainland Greeks, as long as said service was not against their home polis or its allies.  These men risked it all and were truly the victims of whatever fate or fortune may have brought to them.

Bibliography & Cited Sources

Aesop, and Fritz Kredel. Aseop’s Fables. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1947.

Arrian of Nicomedia, and Brunt P.A. The Anabasis of Alexander.  London: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers, 2013.

Griffith, G. T. The Mercenaries of the Hellenistic World. Cambridge: University Press, 1935.

Herodotus, and Aubrey De Sélincourt. The Histories: Herodotus. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981.

Trundle, Matthew. Greek Mercenaries: From the Late Archaic Period to Alexander. London: Routledge, 2004.

Warry, John.  Warfare in the Classical World.  London: Salamander Books Unlimited, 1980.

Xenophon and Cawkwell, George. The Persian Expedition. London: Penguin Classics, 1952.


[1] Aesop, 40.

[2] Griffith, 1.

[3] Griffith, 308-316.

[4] Herodotus, 1.134.

[5] Herodotus, 3.12.

About Patrick Lowinger

Patrick Lowinger holds a M.A. in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University (AMU) and B.S. in Microbiology (1993) from California State University, Long Beach.
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3 Responses to Fighting for the Enemy: Greek Mercenaries in Persian Service.

  1. Lance McMillan says:

    Were the Greek mercenaries in Persian service generally individual soldiers who journeyed east seeking employment, private military “companies” who served together as an organized group, contingents of troops hired out by certain municipal governments to generate revenue for their city-state, or a mix of those possibilities?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lance- thanks for your question. The short answer is yes and yes. In some cases bands (companies) of Greek mercenaries were formed from several individual city-states (or allied city-states), but on occasion were formed from entirely (or predominately) one city-state or a particular region. For example, Xenophon’s band would be an example of the former, while in c. 315 BCE, Antigonus I hired a band of Spartan mercenaries- as a culturally (non-allied) distinct force to aid him against Ptolemy and Cassander. So while most bands of Greek mercenaries originated from all corners of the Greek world, there were notable exceptions.


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