Mercenaries Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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.MercenariesMercenaries

Today, mercenaries face legal restrictions under international law: United Nations Resolution 44/34U.N. Resolution 44/34 prohibits the recruitment, training, and employment of mercenaries for purposes of overthrowing a government. Unlike the soldiers of the nation’s own army, mercenaries are not guaranteed protection under the Geneva Conventions;mercenariesGeneva Conventions. Despite this, mercenaries can still be found on the battlefields of Africa and other areas where national political authority is in question and international scrutiny is limited or nonexistent.


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.

History of MercenariesAncient World

The Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II(Egyptian Pharaoh)Ramses II[Ramses 02](Egyptian Pharaoh)Ramses II is the first ruler known to have hired mercenaries. He used some eleven thousand paid Auxiliaries;Egypt“auxiliaries” during his military campaigns in the fourteenth century b.c.e. Indeed, Egypt first started employing mercenaries as scouts and light infantry during the Old Kingdom and continued the practice through the New Kingdom period. Nubian, Syrian, and Canaanite light troops supported most of the Egyptian campaigns in the Levant, even serving as the Pharaoh’s personal security detachment.

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. Alexander the GreatAlexander the Great;use of mercenaries[mercenaries]Alexander the Great included mercenary archers and Thracian infantry in his army. He also employed Greek mercenaries hired to remain with him for his Bactria and India campaigns after he sent the city-state contingents home. The Balearic Islands provided another source of mercenaries, primarily slingers, and the Nubian kingdom provided mercenary light cavalry units to the Egyptian and Carthaginian empires. Gauls;as mercenaries[mercenaries]Gallic tribesmen also hired out as mercenaries, constituting the bulk of Hannibal Barca;use of mercenaries[mercenaries]Hannibal’s army when he invaded the Italian peninsula.

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 Varangian GuardVarangian Guard of NorsemenNorsemen. Rome’s employment of German tribes to man its army contributed to the empire’s fall when the tribal contingents’ leaders turned on Rome. Mercenary contingents followed leaders who could deliver pay or plunder.

Medieval World

The so-called Dark Ages;mercenaries duringDark Ages probably saw mercenaries serving under the more aggressive local leaders, who paid with plunder. William the Conqueror included Flemish mercenariesFlemish mercenary archers among his troops when he invaded England in 1066. Crusades;mercenariesCrusading armies included mercenaries among their infantry and auxiliary forces. Virtually every kingdom in Europe and North Africa employed mercenaries from the eleventh to the nineteenth century.

Elsewhere, pre-shogunate Japan;mercenariesJapan’s fighting clans and the kingdoms of Southeast Asia;mercenariesSoutheast Asia employed mercenaries to reinforce their armies. The NungsNungs, an ethnic Chinese group spread across Indochina, served Annamese, Laotian, and Khmai kingdoms of Indochina. India’s kingdoms also used mercenaries, and China’s Ming Dynasty;mercenariesMing Dynasty hired contingents of Manchu and central Asian horsemen to support its armies.

Lacking the resources to train and maintain standing armies, kings and emperors hired mercenaries as required. In Europe, this gave rise to Free companies“free companies,” or military companies led by Captains of fortune“captains of fortune,” who hired out their troops for specific contractual periods and often to the highest bidder. Typically, the fighting was ritualized and tightly controlled, with troops fleeing when the battle’s momentum turned against them. Trained soldiers were difficult and expensive to replace. Their captains often withdrew their units from the battle lines if they thought the risks were too great or their casualty rates became excessive. Despite this, mercenary companies prospered across Europe.

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 LandsknechtsLandsknechts. Specially trained musketeers supported the pikemen as armies tried to balance the ratio of “firepower” and “shock” components of their forces. It was the combination of mercenary musketeers and pikemen that ended the mounted knights’ reign over Europe’s battlefields. However, musket and pike drill required great skill and intense discipline, something feudal levies and few royalist officers had the time, patience, or motivation to achieve.

Modern World

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 American Revolution (1775-1783);mercenariesFrench Revolution (1789-1793);mercenariesuse of German mercenaries in the American Revolution turned many colonists against the Crown. Revolutionary France’s use of mass levies of troops and Napoleon’s adroit use of those forces all but ended Europe’s large-scale employment of mercenaries. By 1830, France and Spain were the only countries utilizing foreign mercenaries in their armies, although Britain’s British East India Company;mercenariesEast India Company employed mercenaries across what became colonial India;colonialIndia. That practice, too, ended when India became a crown colony and the East India Company’s military components were disbanded.

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.

(U.S. Air Force)

The rise of Nationalism;impact on use of mercenaries[mercenaries]nationalism accelerated the decline of mercenaries in Europe, but civil wars in China, Central America, and South America inspired hundreds to hire out to political factions and in some cases try to become local warlords and rulers in their own right. Typically, mercenaries were hired for their technical expertise with specific weapons, such as machine guns and artillery. Mercenary pilots hired themselves out to China;mercenariesChina’s warlords during the post-Republic civil war era, and both Ethiopia;mercenariesEthiopia and China hired mercenary pilots to fight the Italians and Japanese, respectively, in the 1930’s. In fact, General Chennault, Claire LeeChennault, Claire LeeClaire Lee Chennault’s famous Flying TigersFlying Tigers were mercenaries fighting for a combination of monthly pay and a bounty for every Japanese plane they shot down.

The post-World War II breakup of Europe’s Postcolonial AfricaAfrica;mercenariescolonial empires provided many opportunities for mercenary employment as newly formed nations sought immediate military expertise either to suppress competing political movements or to secure disputed border areas. “White” mercenaries, so called because they were primarily Caucasian, fought in Civil wars;Africacivil wars across Africa throughout the 1950’s and into the 1980’s. In some cases, they were successful in ending conflicts without excessive bloodshed, such as in the Congo in 1964, where South African mercenary Hoare, MichaelHoare, MichaelMichael Hoare led a mercenary unit that worked in concert with Belgian paratroopers to rescue more than one thousand Europeans threatened by a rebel group called the SimbaSimba that had become notorious for murdering civilians. Separatist BiafraBiafra hired mercenary soldiers and pilots during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970)Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), as did Southern Sudan when it tried to break away from the Arab-led regime in Khartoum during Sudanese Civil War, First (1955-1972)the first Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972). Postcolonial AngolaAngola saw one of its factions employ mercenaries during the struggle for power after the Portuguese withdrawal in 1974. Funded by the United States through its Central Intelligence AgencyCentral Intelligence Agency (CIA), the operation was a dismal failure, and six of the captured mercenaries were executed in 1976. This was followed later by the aborted mercenary coup in the Seychelles and two mercenary coups in the Comoros Islands, which were overthrown by the French military. The 1980’s saw little mercenary activity in Africa, although several Middle Eastern countries hired foreigners for oil-field security and to maintain their high-technology military equipment.

The 1990’s saw a resurgence in mercenary activity. Sierra LeoneSierra Leone employed a private security firm, Executive OutcomesExecutive Outcomes, to train its troops and suppress several insurgent groups. Although this effort was successful, political pressure from its African neighbors and concerns about the return of mercenary armies to the continent led Sierra Leone to cancel the contract in 1997. More recently and more controversially, in 2004 ZimbabweZimbabwe arrested a group of sixty-seven mercenaries en route to Equatorial Guinea, where they reputedly were destined to support a coup attempt. Funded by unknown benefactors who allegedly included former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s son Sir Thatcher, MarkThatcher, MarkMark Thatcher, the former South African soldiers were supposed to link up with local regime opponents and place opposition leader Severo Moto in power. Most were sent to prison, where they would await trial on various charges.

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. Private security companiesPrivate security, or military, companies (PMCs), such as BlackwaterBlackwater, DynCorp InternationalDynCorp International, Executive Outcomes, and Sandline InternationalSandline International, have deployed military specialists and security personnel to Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia, Croatia, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Sierra Leone, and Somalia. Although their industry is considered unsavory, as long as there is a need for specialized military expertise, mercenaries will find employment in areas were political sovereignty is unsettled and the outcome of a conflict is considered critical to someone willing to pay.Mercenaries

Books and Articles
  • 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.

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Categories: History