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The Mercenary, the Polis, and an Athenian Inscription from the Fourth Century BC

Jake Nabel

This paper uses a close reading of an Athenian inscription (“Athens Aids Eretria” = Tod 154 = IG II2 125) to challenge long-held assumptions about Greek mercenary service and its relationship to the “decline” of the fourth century polis. Its first goal is to show (following Toogood 1997) that this decree refers to a group of Athenian mercenaries serving in the Theban army during its invasion of Euboea in 357 BC, and that it documents one of the few exceptional instances when the polis attempted to legislate against the mercenary service of its citizens in foreign armies. I substantiate this reading against conflicting interpretations of the inscription (Knoepfler 1984; Dreher 1995; Rhodes and Osborne 2003).

I then employ the conclusions reached in this discussion to challenge part of the traditional scholarly narrative about Greek mercenaries in the fourth century BC. The usual view is that a socio-economic crisis at the end of the fifth century triggered an “explosion” in the number of Greeks who turned to mercenary service to make a living (Miller 1984; cf. Bettalli 1995). These soldiers are supposed to have violated the Classical ideal of the warrior-citizen, and to have cut the important bonds between the soldier and political life (Aymard 1967; Vernant 1980: 30-34). The growing prevalence of mercenaries in fourth century warfare had a drastic effect on the social foundations of the polis (Mossé 1973: 25-27), and this in turn played an important part in bringing about the end of the Classical period (Parke 1933; Trundle 2004: 9).

Parts of this narrative have come into question in recent years (Van Wees 2004; Luraghi 2006), and I wish to challenge it from another angle. If mercenaries really were so detrimental to the interests and values of the Greek polis, why – as my reading of “Athens Aids Eretria” suggests – did the polis take only limited, temporary, and occasional measures against the mercenary service of its citizens? My answer is that the polis actually benefitted in important ways as both a supplier and an employer of mercenaries; accordingly, it had no interest in categorically legislating against their use. I examine these benefits at two different levels. At an elite level, serving as generals-for-hire provided polis commanders with opportunities to earn fortunes, gain valuable military experience, and conduct campaigns at minimal cost to their homelands. At the level of the rank and file soldier, mercenary service was not a mere symptom of the polis’ economic and demographic problems – it actually offered a means of alleviating them. This suggests a relationship between the mercenary and the polis that is far more complex than previous scholarship has assumed. “Athens Aids Eretria” serves as a starting point for reexamining the traditional view. 

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Arms, Secrecy, Citizenship, and the Law: State Security in the Ancient World

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