Mercenaries are soldiers who serve not their own country, city-state, tribe, or clan but rather another group, purely for financial gain or other benefits.
Mercenaries are soldiers who serve not their own country, city-state, tribe, or clan but rather another group, purely for financial gain or other benefits. Most often (but not always), mercenaries are recruited and employed during wars and other conflicts. They can be found among the armies of organizations that lack the military manpower, popular support, or military technology to maintain a sufficiently powerful force drawn from the nation’s own citizenry or the group’s own members. The use of mercenaries is well documented in many wars throughout history.
Today, mercenaries face legal restrictions under international law:
Typically, the use of mercenaries rises during a period of constant warfare or during the declining years of a kingdom, empire, or country, when they are seen as a ready source of trained military manpower, but falls out of favor during periods of strong governments. Their employment carries political and operational risks, since their only loyalty is to money or plunder and thus that loyalty cannot be ensured when their compensation becomes unreliable during periods of hardship or in the face of heavy losses. Thus, mercenaries have thrived during periods of limited warfare and political instability but have suffered when those conflicts are settled or the political situation has stabilized to a point where concerns about the presence of these armed foreigners with uncertain loyalty outweighs that of potential defeat.
The Egyptian Pharaoh
However, the best-known mercenaries of the pre-Roman era were those of Greece. Greek hoplites and Cretan archers served in the armies of Persia, Egypt, and even Carthage throughout the classical period.
The Roman Republic and early Roman Empire employed few mercenaries; even their auxiliary troops were considered part of the Roman Army and were recruited from among the empire’s population, if not its citizens, although auxiliaries could earn citizenship through their service. However, manpower shortages and political considerations drove the later Roman Empire and its Byzantine successor to recruit entire foreign mercenary contingents into their forces, the best known of which is Byzantium’s
Lacking the resources to train and maintain standing armies, kings and emperors hired mercenaries as required. In Europe, this gave rise to
Leonardo da Vinci’s 1480 drawing of a condottiero (literally, “contractor”), a mercenary soldier contracted by Italian city-states and the Papacy between the late Middle Ages and the mid-sixteenth century.
By the fifteenth century, some ethnic groups, cantons, and regions became known for their specialized mercenary forces. For example, the Flemish and Genoese were noted as crossbowmen, while England and Wales provided archers. Switzerland’s pikemen were perhaps the most famous and popular mercenaries, dominating Europe’s battlefields from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. German principalities recruited and trained competing pikemen companies called
By 1750, up to two-thirds of Imperial France’s army consisted of foreign mercenary contingents and as much as 20 percent of Britain’s army was such. The German musketeers and riflemen were the most feared of those contingents, but their use in suppressing civil disorder generally proved counterproductive. In fact, British
The World War II group known as the Flying Tigers were sometimes called mercenaries because they were private contractors fighting for a combination of monthly pay and a bounty for every Japanese plane they shot down. The fronts of their airplanes were painted to resemble sharks, as seen in the middleground.
The rise of
The post-World War II breakup of Europe’s
The 1990’s saw a resurgence in mercenary activity.
The day of mercenaries does not appear to be over, although the bulk of their service today is related more to training and maintenance than to direct combat roles.
Griffith, G. T. Mercenaries of the Hellenistic World. New York: Arno Press, 1984. Discusses the presence of mercenaries in Greek armies going back to Mycenaean times, who contributed to the development of Greek warfare by bringing with them different styles of fighting. Lee, Michael Lanning. Soldiers of Fortune from Ancient Greece to Today. New York: Presidio Press, 2005. Looks at the history of mercenaries from ancient Egypt to the American use of private military companies in the modern Iraq War. Percy, Sarah. Mercenaries: The History of a Norm in International Relations. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2007. Argues that the use of mercenary armies by nations, although with a long and illustrious history, has been gradually frowned upon in modern international relations. Scahill, Jeremy. Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. New York: Nation Books, 2007. Traces the history of one particular private military company, its use both in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and in the Iraq War, and the controversies that have surrounded the organization. Thompson, Janice R. Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Takes on the idea that modern states are the source of violence by tracing the histories of irregular armies throughout modern conflicts. Ventner, Al. War Dog: Fighting Other People’s Wars. Havertown, Pa.: Casemate Publishers, 2006. Looks at the use of mercenary forces in the modern world through an examination of a South African private military company, Executive Outcomes.
Collaboration in War
Peace Movements and Conscientious Objection to War
Prisoners and War
War Crimes and Military Justice