Campus News

Anthropologist weighs in on ancient Greek history

Laurie Reitsema, associate professor and director of the Bioarchaeology and Biochemistry Laboratory in the department of anthropology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, discussed a recent discovery of corpses in Greece with The New York Times.

In stories of the ancient Greek wars, there were heroes and soldiers defending their land and livelihood. However, the common practice of hiring mercenaries to fight foreign wars was left out from the great Homeric tales.

“Being a wage earner had some negative connotations – avarice, corruption, shifting allegiance, the downfall of civilized society,” said Reitsema. “In this light, it is unsurprising if ancient authors would choose to embellish the Greeks for Greek aspect of the battles, rather than admitting they had to pay for it.”

A recent discovery of corpses from a battle in Himera have revealed that hiring mercenaries may have been more common than historians thought. By performing a chemical analysis on the tooth enamel of the fallen soldiers, the researchers found that only one-third of the fighters were local to the region from early in the battle for Himera.

Mercenaries play a larger part in ancient markets as well.

“The recruitment of mercenaries even spurred the use of coinage in Sicily to pay them,” said Reitsema.

Reitsema also said that the way they were buried made sense as hired fighters.

“Most likely, mercenaries would not have been known to the people cleaning up the battlefield and burying the casualties,” she said. “We didn’t find armor and weapons, apart from those embedded in bones. Those items would have been recovered by the survivors on the battlefield.”

Based on burial location alone, the researchers could tell there was a difference between the local fighters and the hired hands.

“The intentional groupings of foreigners sheds light on the internal logic of the identity constructions of Greek colonists,” said Reitsema.