Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Privatised War: Greek Style

copywrite Karl Kopinski
So Greece took the blue pill, accepted the bailout and has embarked on a wholesale privatisation of its state sector. Ah well, such is the way of the world now.

Not that everything's going to be sold. The military, for instance, will still control its own tanks. For anyone who remembers 1967 this might be a bit ominous.

War is certainly privatised these days in other ways. The second largest contingent in the Iraq War, after the US Army, was the foreign mercenaries, but at least they came a long way second behind the state funded Grunts. 

Surely nobody would be daft enough to let the sell off the whole of their armed forces?

Well, yes. The ancient Greeks did.

What's a Greek Earn?

The Greek hoplite was the Main Battle Tank of the Classical Era. Heavily armed infantry in armour with big shields, their drill and discipline made them invincible in a frontal attack on level ground. Unlike the pouting hunks of the film 300, they fought with the spear rather than the sword and were probably a bit chubby, as a fat cushion helps with wounds.

The hoplite had to buy his own armour and equipment, but was then paid for the time he served defending his city. They were given a food allowance and wage on top of this. By the fourth century BCE this worked out at about 130 grams of silver a month, which in modern money would be about fifty quid. It was worth a bit more than that then, but a glut of trained soldiers after the Peloponnesian war meant mercenary pay was no more than that of a typical skilled worker.

This made the hoplites solidly Middle Class. The aristocratic cavalry of the Upper Class had trembled before its spear points whilst the humble slinger and javelin men of the Working Class had had to accept supporting roles and a third of the salary. Only in Athens, where the plebeian oarsmen of the navy held the balance of power, was the Middle Class hoplite not supreme.

The fought off the Persians, then they fought each other.

Finally, with not a lot else to do, they fought
for the highest bidder. By fourth century BCE there were probably fifty thousand mercenary hoplites knocking about. For comparison Athens, past its prime but still the leading city state, could just about muster ten thousand citizen hoplites and Sparta, the top land power, no more six thousand spearmen, although they these were hard as nails.

There was even a place you went to to buy mercenaries all to sell your services. This was Cape Matapan, at the bottom of the Peloponnese. A nearby cave was reputed to be the entrance to Hades. There, presumably, men in togas and red braces bought and sold hoplite futures which, if you were unlucky, could be a trip down the cave.

If you had the money you could head south and raise an army that would make the greatest cities in Greece quail. The Persians had the dosh, but they seemed to have given up on the quarrelsome Greeks and preferred to spend their time freeing their slaves, developing the Arts and the postal service and spreading peace and good government across the Known World. For some reason history has written them as the Bad Guys in this story.

An example of the sort of military might money could buy occurred in 401BCE. A force of 10,400 mercenary Greeks was employed by the Persian usurper Cyrus the Younger. His private army did the job and soundly thrashed his brother's royal troops, but unfortunately Cyrus lost his head during the battle. Literally.

The Ten Thousand then found themselves unemployed and a long way from home. The Persians managed to separate the officers from the men and then bump them off, but the democratic Greeks just elected some more. They then spent the next two years fighting their way home again.

The story has been read by generations of British Public School boys as a tale of daring-do under difficult circumstances. What has not been recorded is the Persian's opinion of what was effectively a rogue armoured division pillaging its territory for a couple of years, upsetting the freed slaves and no doubt messing up the postal service.

So with so much fighting power available for those able to pay, where could the cash come from? The city states could only just afford to pay their own citizen soldiers. In Athens at this time economic reform had made the rich richer but everyone else poorer. (Plus ça change, but lets move on.)

Phocians Rock

Where there was money was though was at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Here an elderly peasant
woman sat on tripod breathing in hallucinogenic gases. Her ranting were then turned into cryptic advice by the resident priests to be given out to anyone who paid enough tribute. Allegedly the priests were also open to a little persuasion from other interested sources if they could match said tribute. The priests were therefore sitting on a pretty packet.

Unfortunately for them Delphi was located in Phocis, a rural backwater of a place that was in 356BCE being threatened by neighbouring Thebes with dire consequences if it didn't make amends for numerous alleged religious offences. Delphi was one of the holiest sites in Greece, but, alas, temptation got the better of the Phocians and they nicked Apollo's gold and went shopping at Cape Matapan.

Using money looted from the gods caused some problems. The Phocian had to pay their men time-and-a-half and ended up with "the worst naves, and those who despised the gods". However they assembled 20,000 of these desperados and soon started kicking ass.

Thebes had one of the most formidable armies in Greece at this time thanks to the reforms of a rather dislikable character called Epaminondas. The elite of the army was apparently made up of 150 gay couples. They did wear skirts, but whether or not they liked quiche is not recorded. When they eventually died to the last defending Thebes from Alexander the Great's dad, the victorious and somewhat homophobic Macedonian was both impressed and a little grossed out. He ordered the official scribes not to record any allegations of "unseemly" acts by the dead soldiers. As Epaminondas didn't marry or have children you wonder how common such "unseemly" behaviour was in Thebes.

Epaminondas had been dead for six years in 356BCE and so it was someone else who had to take field against Phocis. As the city could only muster 12,000 citizen hoplites of its own they were hard pressed from the start, and it soon got worse as Sparta and Athens soon decided that they disliked the warlike, arts-hating Thebans more than they hated each other and threw in their lot with the temple robbers.

A very messy war then engulfed the region for a decade before the money ran out and the Macedonians stepped in. It was estimated that Phocis had got through 10,000 talents of silver in the course of the war. A talent is 26 kilograms so that's a mountain of silver. To put this into some sort of perspective Athens was taking in no more than 400 talents a year in taxes. The Phocians were made to pay the money back, but being piss poor to start with and devastated by war they were eventually saddled with a thousand years of debt (once again, lets just move on...).

It had all been spectacularly pointless, but that wasn't the end of the Greek Mercenary by any means.

When Philip's son, Alexander the Great, invaded the Persian Empire in 334BCE he found the Persians had bolstered their own cavalry with no less that 48,000 hoplite mercenaries. That meant that Darius actually had seven times as many true Greeks fighting on his side as Alexander did, even though he was supposedly leading a Pan-Hellenic army out to get their own back for the Persian Wars. It seems the Greeks preferred regular pay (and post) to revenge.

They've Got A Lot Of Gaul(s)

All this should have been a dire warning on the perils of privatising war, but it gets worse.

In the northwestern Greece is the city of Phoeniki in Epirus, whose most famous General was Pyrros of the infamous victories. Shortly after he died in a siege, knocked out by a woman armed with roofing slate after an elephant got stuck in a doorway, the citizens decided to save themselves the bother of guarding their own city walls by recruiting a gang of wandering Gauls to do the job instead. It seems they didn't ask for any references.

These Gauls had been serving with Carthage in the Punic Wars but they had pillaged a city they were supposed to be guarding, tried to betray another, gone over to the Romans and sacking a Roman temple before being expelled from Italy.

True to form, their love of money won out over their dedication to the job. A fleet of Ilyrian pirates sailed past and the Gauls discovered they could make more money for less work by selling the citizens into slavery.

From the Black Death to Blackwater.

And that really should have been that for the mercenary army.

copywrite Graham Turner
But after the Black Death called half time on the Hundred Years War, several English armies went rogue, including one that kidnapped the Pope. He offered them a choice of a 5000 crown ransom and his blessing or 10,000 crowns and a solemn curse with bell, book and candle and, just like the hoplites who thumbed their noses at the gods to fight for Phocia, the English opted for the cash and the curse.

The Renaissance perhaps marked the high point of mercenaries in Europe as the Swiss banks were more than prepared to lend wannabe monarchs a sack load of gold to raise an army. The Swiss had also cornered the market in soldiers for hire, so it was really a win-win situation for them. However, as Machiavelli and other noted, that this meant battles were usually fought to the last crown rather than the last man.

March or Die, Columbia Pictures, 1977
Although armies of the Age of Reason often employed non-native soldiers, such as the legions of wandering Scots and Irish, the days of the true mercenary were drawing to an end. After the French Revolution nationalistic fervour became as essential to victory on the battlefield as the musket, and so mercenaries were generally banished from European battlefields and sent to garrison Europe's overseas empires instead.

The wars of the twentieth century saw entire nations in arms, but with the ending of the Cold War the massed conscript armies were replaced by fully professional forces. Perhaps therefore it's inevitable that the mercenary should have returned. Is an American who enlists with Blackwater to defend an Iraqi oil refinery really that much more of a mercenary than a British soldier sent abroad to fight for a cause most of his nation couldn't give a toss for?

However if this the direction of travel in warfare we should perhaps heed the warning words of the ancient historian Polybius "My object, in commenting on the blind folly of the Epirotes, is to point out that it is never wise to introduce a foreign garrison, especially of barbarians, which is too strong to be controlled."

In 2008 69% of the US military in Afghanistan were private contractors.


Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars by Duncan Head
Alexander the Great's Campaigns by Phil Barker

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