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Ancient Battle Bones Reveal Greeks Hired Mercenaries to Fight

Typical depictions of battles in ancient Greece tend to show the glory of Greeks fending off legions of enemies, the scenes that movies love to show because it’s so heroic but an analysis of bones from the Battle of Himera in Greek Sicily in 480 BC show they needed some help.

DNA taken from some 54 corpses of men killed fighting almost 2,500 years ago – in he same year that the 300 Spartans died at Thermopylae and Greeks rallied to beat back the Persians – show they were hired fighters from as far away as what today is Latvia and Ukraine.

In a feature, the New York Times reported on the significance of the findings that dispel the notion of Greeks fighting on their own and the curious background of this battle in which the tyrant leader of Himera, Terillus, who was forced out three years earlier, called on Carthaginian allies to help him retake the city.

Three years later, the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Mago sailed from North Africa to Himera with an expeditionary force of at least some 20,000 soldiers, but cavalry and foot soldiers from two neighboring Greek Sicilian city-states, Syracuse and Agrigento, came to Himera’s aid, and Hamilcar’s troops were routed and his ships set ablaze, the report noted.

In 409 BC, Hamilcar’s grandson, Hannibal Mago, returned and faced a Greek army with few reinforcements, defeating them and razing the city in a furious act of revenge.

The graves and the western necropolis at Himera were discovered in 2009, during the construction of a rail line connecting Palermo and Messina, showing the remains of 10,000 who died.

But it’s the evidence from the 54 that showed an unexpected page in history, indicating that Greek historians preferred to show praise on their own without mentioning they were fighting side-by-side with foreigners.

Laurie Reitsema, an anthropologist at the University of Georgia told the paper that, “it is unsurprising if ancient authors would choose to embellish the Greeks for Greeks aspect of the battles, rather than admitting they had to pay for it.”

Angelos Chaniotis, a Greek historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, said the new study cast new light on the composition of the battles at Himera, if not on their outcomes, the report added.

“It confirms the general picture that we had from ancient sources, highlighting at the same time the role of mercenaries,” he said. “Mercenaries are mentioned in our evidence, but they are often hiding in plain sight,” he added – or underground, the clues to what happened at Himera and the need for a foreign legion finally found.

The finding backed up research published in 2021 which Katherine Reinberger, a bio-archaeologist at the University of Georgia, and her colleagues performed a chemical analysis of the tooth enamel of 62 fallen fighters buried near Himera’s ancient battlefield, the paper said.

David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard whose lab generated the data, noted that their paper “suggests that Greeks minimized a role for mercenaries, potentially because they wanted to project an image of their homelands being defended by heroic Greek armies of citizens and the armored spearmen known as hoplites.”

Alissa Mittnik, a Harvard geneticist responsible for the genomic analysis, said the deliberate burial of the fallen within the necropolis denoted that they were part of the Himeran army rather than the enemy.

She added: “We know that many of the young men in the mass graves likely grew up outside of the Mediterranean but might have come to Sicily for the promise of citizenship or monetary rewards.” Not for the glory of Greece.

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