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by B. K. Bass
“Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.”
—Frederick the Great, Prussian King (1712-1786)
Everybody has likely heard the phrase “the world’s oldest profession” associated with prostitution. However, that phrase originates from the 1889 short story “On the City Wall” by Rudyard Kipling. While there are ancient references to the occupation of prostitution, such as brothels in ancient Rome and biblical references like King Solomon’s “three hundred concubines,” there are even older references to another profession: the mercenary soldier.
What if prostitution isn’t the world’s oldest profession? One could assume that as far back as the paleolithic era, individuals would engage in violence not to ensure their own survival, but rather for a share of the spoils resulting from said actions. The same could be said for trading intimate favors for food, shelter, or other gains. So, the mystery of the world’s oldest profession may be lost in the shroud of the past. What one cannot deny is that as long as mankind has existed, we have been killing each other for a variety of reasons; be they the protection of our own property and communities or some sort of personal gain.
Some may argue that killing for personal gain is nothing more than murder. While this is an interesting question to explore, we’ll leave that aspect to the philosophers. Rather, we will be exploring the history of the profession, and how it evolved from an ad hoc phenomenon in the bronze age to an international establishment by the fourteenth century CE. We will establish what defines a mercenary, explore the history of the occupation in Western cultures throughout the ages, and identify some landmark trends from the history of this profession. Then, we will look at how we can apply what we learn in our worldbuilding.
What is a Mercenary?
From the rogue sellsword to companies of trained soldiers fighting to fill their pockets, the term mercenary can bring a lot of images to mind both from our own history and the fictional worlds we enjoy spending time in. What is the line in the sand that separates the greedy scoundrel from the professional soldier? According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, a mercenary is a “hired professional soldier who fights for any state or nation without regard to political interests or issues.”
From this, we can say that our lone sellsword is as much a mercenary as a member of an organization specializing in warfare-for-hire. There are quite a few synonyms for mercenary in the English language that would apply to the individual: gun for hire, soldier of fortune, and so on. When it comes to organizations, the term mercenary company comes to mind. Another common term from history is free company, used from the 12th to the 14th centuries CE for private armies who sold their services to various entities. The word free in the name refers to the fact that they were free of any political allegiances. No matter what they are called though, a mercenary can be considered any entity which fights for profit rather than allegiances or ideals.
Ancient Spears from Eastern Lands
The earliest recorded references of mercenaries come from the Amarna Letters, a series of three hundred and fifty tablets dating as far back as 2500 BCE. The first of these were discovered in 1887 CE in the ancient Egyptian city of Akhetaten. Archaeologists discovered the letters were correspondences between leaders of Egypt, Babylon, Hatti, Mitanni, and Assyria; among others. These cultures controlled the eastern Mediterranean, ranging from modern day Egypt to Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. In the Amarna Letters, a group of mysterious nomads from the far east are described by various individuals from across the region. There are numerous references to them ranging throughout the area.
These people were referred to as the Apiru by the Egyptians, the SA. GAZ (one who smashes sinew) by the Sumerians, and the Habiru by the Akkadians. The word Habiru is closely related in Akkadian to terms for plunderer (habbatu) and murderer (saggasu). The Akkadian saggasu is derivative of the Sumerian SA. GAZ, and typically referred to small bands of men who would sell their services as warriors. This connection may be circumstantial at best, but a word is a powerful thing. In a time where organized languages were still developing and people were trying to make sense of the world around them, naming an entire culture of nomads wandering into your land would not have been done without some thought behind it.
We can also assume from the other monikers associated with the Apiru (plunderer, murderer) that their arrival in the Middle East was not a pleasant event for anybody. Likely, instead of suffering these warlike nomads to wreak havoc on their own lands, rulers would have sought out opportunities to direct the aggressions of these nomadic marauders towards an enemy state in exchange for the promise of reaping the spoils of war. The first documented account of such an occurrence dates to 2350 BCE. King Sargon of Akkad hired upwards of five thousand men from the borders of his kingdom to police his own lands. He did not wish to quell uprisings with his own troops, which would have led to his own people fighting amongst themselves. Rather, he chose to task outsiders with the grim work. Likewise, Egyptian kings hired Medjay Numidians for the same purpose, and by the time of the New Kingdom from the fifteenth to eleventh centuries BCE, the Medjay had become the police force of Egypt.
By the fourteenth century BCE, the Habiru once again appear in the historical records. By this time, they had established themselves as recognized mercenaries and fought for many kingdoms in the Middle East. Even the renowned biblical general David was said to be a member of the Habiru tribe. By 1050 BCE, mention of these people ceased and they seemed to have disappeared. However, some believe that the Habiru did not disappear from the face of the earth, but rather these plunderers and mercenaries settled into an agrarian existence in the region of Jerusalem. The similarities between the names “Habiru” and “Hebrew” are remarkable, and there are other aspects to consider as well. The settlement of the Hebrew is thought to have occurred around 1200 BCE, which would coincide with the last mention of the Habiru just fifty years later. Also, there are several references to the Habiru as being fugitive slaves, a narrative that is strikingly similar to the Exodus story of the Hebrew people. Many do not wish to consider the origin of the Israelites to be a marauding band of nomads pillaging their way through the ancient world for over a thousand years before settling down, but the evidence to support this theory can not be discarded out of hand.
Swords and Sandals
For anybody developing a setting with a bronze age society, there are a few key take-aways here that can help us consider mercenaries in a swords and sandals setting. They can also give us some insight into the interactions of political entities during this era.
First of all, we see more than one example of leaders not wishing to set their own people against each other. Hiring foreign mercenaries to put down rebellions, or even simply to act as a police force, makes sense in a lot of ways. Preventing infighting among the populace is one advantage to this, and the impartiality of a policing body that is not interacting with their own neighbors and families would be another.
Secondly, one might take the example of the Habiru as the birth of a mercenary society being one born out of the need to divert a hostile force. Faced with the encroachment of violent nomads into his lands, a leader may see the only way to preserve the peace in his own kingdom may be directing these people against another political body. Perhaps he will even provide them with the means to victory, or simply promise greater spoils in other lands.
We also see more of the political landscape from the example of the Amarna Letters. Despite being small, remote cultures that have been newly established and that speak different languages; there is a historical precedent for diplomatic discourse between them. Not only did these leaders engender peaceful relationships between one another, but they also used these letters to spread news across their growing domains and share information with their neighbors.
Finally, the possible evolution of the Habiru people into the Hebrew culture is an example where an entire nomadic warrior culture might undergo a dramatic transformation and settle down into a more sedentary existence. Perhaps they might be tasked to deposing the enemy of their patron and find themselves suddenly occupying a space in which they feel they can make better lives for themselves. On the other hand, they could simply wander into a land that is unsettled and which provides the necessary resources for them to support themselves without pillaging others. This cultural shift in itself would make for a fascinating narrative.
Phalanx for Sale
As ancient history gave way to classical antiquity, kingdoms grew and their borders began to press upon one another. Warfare became a more common part of life, and the need for professional soldiers increased. Nowhere was this truer than in classical Hellas (modern-day Greece), where the various city-states were at almost constant war with one another.
Indeed, it is said that every man in the Hellenic world was required to be either a soldier or a sailor in addition to his primary occupation. Even the famed poet Homer bore a pike at the Battle of Delium in 424 BCE. This resulted in an entire populace that had a secondary occupation to fall back upon should times become tough, and so they did for the ancient Hellenes. First inspired by economic pressure and agricultural hardships, and later from the political ramifications following the First Peloponnesian War, many fled their homeland in search of opportunities abroad. Hellenic men sold their services as warriors in lands as widespread as Persia, Egypt, and even Syracuse.
Yes, Hellenic men fought for Persia despite generations of conflict between the two cultures. Even in the fifth century BCE, when all the Hellenic world lived under the shadow of encroaching Persian aggression, there are records of Hellenes serving with their cultural rivals. Aesop, Herodotus, and Aristotle have all written of these warriors who fought for the enemy. The result of this situation varied for the participants. Oft times the profession of the mercenary was respected, and those who survived battle could return to their old homes with their newfound fortunes. Other times, such as with the case of the mercenary general Xenophon, those who fought for the enemy would be exiled from their homes.
We can see from these disparate receptions that the profession of the mercenary during the classical period was not universally recognized or respected in the Hellenic world. Indeed, it was not until the campaigns of Alexander the Great from 334 to 323 BCE that both the armies of Alexander and the Persians used organized units of mercenaries in great numbers. Even then, there was still not a specific word to represent the profession. A common term used was mithophoros, which simply means “one who serves.” Other terms used were epikouros (guardian) and xenos (foreigner).
If the mercenary was not a recognized profession, why did so many Hellenic men choose to take up the spear abroad rather than simply settling new lands? Many argue the only thing needed to create an environment for mercenaries is the threat of war, men desperate to better their situation, and someone willing to pay them to fight. The Hellenic region is one of rough terrain that is not ideally suited to widespread agriculture, and during the classical age bred a population that the land was unable to sustain. This led to an abundance of wage-earners who were unable to support themselves and their families. Perhaps more than this, the constant state of war both from within and without the region created a need for professional soldiers. None were considered more professional or desirable than the Hellenic hoplite phalanx. This demand created opportunity for the desperate to better themselves not only through daily wages, but through plunder. Indeed, a man who survived several years of service as a mercenary might find himself enriched enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life.
Born of Necessity
In studying the classical Hellenic world, we can see a situation that was ripe for the development of the mercenary profession. In our own worlds, perhaps the profession of the mercenary is likewise not a widespread or recognized establishment. Drawing inspiration from the stories of the Hellenes, we can see that there are two primary factors that can give birth of the mercenary occupation: desperate people and a need for more soldiers.
For some, throwing their lives into danger in return for the promise of coin might—by itself—be a worthwhile prospect. For most however, self-preservation is a very powerful motivator. For farmers and herders to suddenly leave their homes and fight in distant lands for a foreign army, there must be a motivating factor more powerful than simply the accumulation of wealth. The threat of starvation, political ostracization, or simply the lack of no other options would all be more plausible reasons for an individual to willingly face the hardships of warfare and put their lives in danger.
Also, and potentially more importantly, there needs to be a demand for these men. While desperation might be the catalyst to drive men to sell their services as soldiers, war is the environment which provides the opportunity for professional warriors to attempt to better their situation. Constant war, more so, causes situations where populations have been depleted and armies cannot be reinforced from their own citizenry. What other reasons might there be for a state to hire mercenaries in your world? This could be a great way to flesh out a culture or create an interesting narrative element. Are the people a pacifist culture, and therefore unable or unwilling to fight? Is the location of the war unsuited to the citizenry of the state, such as some sort of off-world crusade in a science fiction setting?
Combining these two factors, a perfect storm of supply and demand created the first professional soldiers for hire in classical Hellas. In our own worlds, should we wish to birth the profession of the mercenary, a similar combination of desperation and necessity would be an ideal environment to breed our own fledgling mercenaries.
The New City
While the Hellenic poleis were fighting amongst themselves and staving off repeated incursions by the Persian Empire during the Peloponnesian Wars, another culture was growing in northern Africa. Called Qrt-ḥdšt by its Phoenician founders in Tyre, the name translates to “new city.” From this name, we can assume this far flung colony was likely seen as a new Tyre in the west.
Romans knew the new city as Carthāgō, and today we refer to it as Carthage. Contemporary historians place the founding of Carthage in the late ninth century BCE, around 814 BCE according to Timaeus of Tauromenium (a city in Sicily) and 825 BCE according to Marcus Junianus Justinus Frontinus of Rome. The city grew into a central hub of trade for the western colonies of the Phoenician Empire over the next two and a half centuries. After the fall of Tyre to Babylon in 575 BCE, the colonies were cut off and Carthage became the center of the empire’s western holdings; the heart of a new empire in practice, if not in name. Over the next three hundred years Carthage would support the former colonies, and what began as a disparate collection of isolated settlements grew into a de facto empire. While the city remained focused on mercantile endeavors, they fought wars over the years against the likes of Syracuse, Sparta, and Epirus.
What may have lead to the prominent use of mercenaries by Carthage? It was likely caused by the dichotomy of a mercantile city focused on trade finding itself at the heart of an empire constantly at war. By the time of the First Punic War with Rome in 241 BCE, the Carthaginian armies consisted of large numbers of hired soldiers representing a broad variety of cultures, languages, and backgrounds. The system for hiring, training, and controlling the mercenary forces was all handled by the Carthaginian generals; leading to a generally hands-off approach and little direct supervision of the hired soldiers. Their loyalty was ensured in part by the promise of plunder from successful battles, and by retaining hostages in the form of family members of the mercenaries themselves. This informal system of control failed in 240 BCE and lead to a mercenary uprising that would last three years, conquer much of North Africa, and nearly threaten the security of the city of Carthage itself.
The conflict that ensued would come to be considered one of the most brutal of its era. An army of 20,000 mercenaries had been victorious in Sicily against the Romans, but returned to Carthage after the treaty was signed to end the First Punic War. The coffers of the city were already strained at this point, and after paying war reparations to the Romans, the Carthaginian senate found that it could not pay what was due to the mercenaries. The army openly attacked the holdings of the empire, and over time other malcontents joined their ranks. The rebel army swelled to 50,000 men by the height of the war. Although there were a number of atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict, the one that ended the war illustrates the reason why the Romans would later call it the Truceless War—a moniker given to the conflict because there was no desire by either side to negotiate a peace. Hamilcar Barca, father of the famed Hannibal Barca who would later march his own mercenary army over the Alps to invade the Roman heartland, trapped 40,000 men of the rebel army in a canyon called “The Saw” in 239 BCE. Here, he starved out the rebels until they surrendered. Following this, he had every last man executed; then defeated the remainder of the turncoat mercenaries at Tunis.
After the end of the Truceless War, Hamilcar Barca set about reforming Carthage’s system of recruiting, training, and overseeing their mercenary forces. Rather than administrating solely through the central government and generalship, Hamilcar established a Carthaginian officer corps to decentralize these tasks. Each group of mercenaries would be assigned a commander who would not only lead them on campaign, but also oversee distributing their pay; which would help to solidify their loyalty to their commander. He also ensured that they were occupied with constant battle far from the center of the empire thanks to his conquest of Iberia. Through these reforms, Hamilcar ensured the mercenary armies of Carthage were well organized, loyal, and had their aggression directed away from the Carthaginian heartland by the outbreak of the Second Punic War in 201 BCE.
Coin, Allegiance, and Pacification
There are a few lessons to be learned from the Carthaginian’s early experiences in fielding a large mercenary force. It may not be enough to simply say our fictional culture employs mercenaries. Rather, we should consider how they are paid, how their loyalty is ensured, and what the consequences may be should the system break down.
While it is obvious that paying mercenaries is important, the type and manner of payment is an important topic to consider. The promise of plunder was not original to the Carthaginians. Looking back at the Habiru and Hellenic mercenaries, we see that this was a common method of remuneration for military service. The mercenaries were also due a salary, however, and it was when this could not be paid that the army rebelled. Will our cultures rely more on payment of a set salary or the promise of plunder? Will men willingly risk their lives on the chance of fortune, or would they be more likely to serve for a steady income?
This branches out into another factor to consider: what is the economy of the employing state like? Carthage was a mercantile empire focused on trade, and therefore had at its disposal a healthy economy from which to hire foreign soldiers. Looking back again to Hellas, where the economy was so poor that many citizens hired themselves out to the enemy of their homeland, we see a need to rely upon the native population rather than mercenaries. If we’re to say our fictional state is hiring mercenaries, we need to ensure their economic situation enables them to compensate those that fight for them.
As far as securing the loyalty of the troops, one would hope that steady payment might be enough. However, Carthage’s early attempts to ensure this through taking family members of the soldiers as hostages opens a door to considering other options. The short leap from here would be any assortment of threats of reprisal, from the direct family member to even an attack on the mercenaries’ homelands. We might also consider some other form of collateral to be held by the state and returned upon completion of the mercenary contract. This could be an item of value or perhaps even a certain amount of currency.
Finally, we might wish to consider the consequences should the system break down. The story of the Truceless War is an incredible tale of brutal warfare. Exploring a similar idea in our own narratives would make for some gripping storytelling. On the other hand, what might be the consequences should a group of mercenaries fail to carry out their end of the arrangement? Would they then be hunted down by the armies of the state? Also, if the state is relying on a large mercenary force, are they able to field a citizen army large enough to achieve what Hamilcar Barca did? Could the employees become the conquerors instead?
The Glory of Rome
According to legend, Rome was founded by the brothers Romulus and Remus in 753 BCE. The city quickly grew to become an influential force in the central Italian peninsula. Contact with the Etruscans around 600 BCE brought with it cultural influences and advances in trade, and from these Rome would quickly grow from a trading town into a thriving economic powerhouse. In 509 BCE the last Roman king—Tarquin the Proud—was deposed following a tyrannical twenty-six year reign, dominated by constant construction projects that taxed the citizens of Rome both in coin and labor. Following this, Lucius Junius Brutus established the Roman Republic, a political body that would soon change the face of the world.
For most of its early history, the Roman republic relied on a citizen militia for waging its wars of conquest over the other Italic tribes, and even through the Punic Wars. When Gaius Marius was appointed Consul in 107 BCE, however, he reorganized the Roman military in what is known as the Marius Reforms. The military became a force of full-time professional volunteers, who served in exchange for a regular wage. As the territory of the republic expanded, it had to rely more and more upon volunteers from conquered lands to bolster its ranks. These auxiliaries, although drawn from people not of Roman heritage, still served as members of the Roman military and served under the politician-generals of the Republic in the same way as soldiers from Rome did. They came from lands which had been absorbed by the Empire, and the men were taught the Roman ways by their commanders and peers; or Romanized. In essence, these former foreigners were now members of the Roman Empire and were fighting for their new political overlords.
Over the next two hundred years, Rome would continue to enlist foreign warriors into the ranks of the auxiliary, but it would also begin to employ foreign mercenaries. As the Empire reached its extreme northern border with the building of Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia circa 122-128 CE, we see the first evidence of this. There have been archaeological artifacts found across England in Bicester, Burgh-by-Sands, Carrawburgh, Cirencester, Glossop, Hexham, Manchester and Papcastle of Frisian soldiers—natives of the Germanic Rhineland—who fought in and occupied this land. The empire had never successfully conquered lands east of the Rhine River, and the Frisians were known by the Romans as transrhenana gens, or “the people on the other side of the Rhine.” These were foreign fighters who had not be subjugated by Rome, but rather had volunteered to fight for the Empire in exchange for pay and plunder.
As the Roman Empire grew, it became impossible for the citizens of Rome to provide armies sizeable enough to police and defend territory spanning from England to Egypt. During the rise of the empire, Roman citizenry contributed around sixty-five percent of the imperial soldiers. By the fifth century CE, this had been reduced to around one percent. While Romans still lead the armies of Rome, the soldiers consisted of Germans, Goths, and other foreign soldiers. Some were Romanized members of the auxiliary, while others served as mercenaries. This reliance on foreign soldiers became part of the downfall of the empire. When Clermont was besieged by the Goths in 471 CE, there was no Roman army to defend the city. Sidonius Apollinaris, Bishop of Clermont at the time, chronicled the siege and the city’s rescue by the arrival of a small cavalry force lead by Ecdicius. He did not have to ask in his chronicle what had become of the Roman army that was supposed to be defending Clermont, because the Goths were the Roman army.
Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Rome faced a situation similar to that of Carthage during The Truceless War, but on a titanic scale. Eventually, their mercenaries turned on the state. Why even bother, then? Again, the mercenary profession was born of necessity. Rome simply became too large; an empire consisting more of foreigners than actual Romans.
If we want to include a massive empire in our own worldbuilding, we need look no further than the Roman Empire for an important lesson in the building of our imperial army. There’s not going to be enough citizens from the heartland to maintain an effective army across this wide swath of territory. Even if every able-bodied man had been handed a weapon and sent to the frontier, there would have not been enough manpower to effectively secure the borders and police all the land within them. And, this would have effectively gutted the heart of the empire of farmers, craftsmen, theologians, scholars, and politicians.
Let’s take a hypothetical empire and call it the Hykorian Empire. When developing the history of it, we can assume that Hykoria was once a city-state or small kingdom. Let’s say the empire grew by conquering the land around it over a thousand years. Perhaps the people from the early campaigns now consider themselves Hykorian, but what of those recently conquered? Do those in the land of Jurani, subjugated just a hundred years ago, consider themselves Hykorian or Juranian? How are the Juranians viewed by those in the heart of the empire, who can trace their lineage back a thousand years to its founding? Like Rome, Hykoria will need to enlist Juranians into their army. The larger our empire, the more “foreign” troops will be part of the army. Whether they be mercenaries, conscripts, or volunteers is up to us to decide, but the ramifications of a multi-ethnic and multicultural military force must still be considered.
Rise of the Mercenary Company
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was cast into what would become known as the Dark Ages. During this time, tribalism grew to dominance once again and military organization was focused more on local events than the global stage. Individual warlords would rally those who lived near them, and armies consisted primarily of farmers who would trade the pitchfork for the spear in times of need.
This tendency to organize military efforts around local militias rather than professional soldiers continued into the middle-ages, and eventually grew into the feudal system which governed both the economy and military of Europe for nearly a thousand years. Under the feudal system, wealthy landholders were expected to arm themselves with the best equipment they could afford, often including horses, and provide service to whichever lord they swore allegiance to. The peasantry who lived under the rule of these landholders likewise were expected to take up arms when the lord called them to do so. This system created a core force of well-armed and well-trained soldiers consisting of the nobility and their own household guard, supported by a more numerous citizen militia. As there was no central organization for training troops—and each man was armed with what he could afford—the majority of the armies of the early medieval period consisted of poorly-armed men who were more skilled on the fields of a farm than the fields of battle.
This focus on local allegiances changed in the tenth century as state leaders started turning their attention to more global affairs. The Norman invasion of England provides one of the first documented examples of mercenary service since the fall of Rome. Duke William of Normandy hired soldiers from Brittany, Flanders, Champagne, and Italy in preparation for the invasion. His son, William II, would go on to be referred to as “militum mercator et solidator”, or “a great buyer and purveyor of soldiers.” The shift from hiring individual warriors to organized contracting of mercenaries may have first occurred in 1101 CE. Robert of Flanders provided Henry I of England with 1,000 Flemish knights for service in England and Normandy, for which he was paid a fee of five hundred pounds sterling. This likely makes Robert of Flanders one of the first professional mercenary contractors in history.
For over five hundred years, the medieval knight ruled the battlefield. They were armed and armored with the best equipment money can buy, trained their entire lives for battle, and fought astride massive warhorses. In the fourteenth century CE, all of this changed when gunpowder grew to more prominent usage in battle. While the common man could hardly compete toe-to-toe with a knight, a cannon or musket could easily even the odds. No longer was wealth and training the deciding factor on the battlefield. It was now firepower. For the next two hundred years, war would change drastically. By the Military Revolution of the sixteenth century CE, armies had grown from thousands of men to tens of thousands, and cavalry charges had given way to ranks of musket-armed infantry as the primary force on the battlefield. As battle demanded more men, and war transformed from short local affairs to international struggles of attrition, professional mercenary companies were founded in a new market where nations offered contracts for thousands of men at a time. During this age, the Swiss, Germans, and Italians all became purveyors of entire companies of professional soldiers for foreign powers
It’s very appealing to insert companies of thousands of mercenaries into our fantasy worlds, even should they be set in the Bronze, Iron, or Dark Age-inspired societies. The Unsullied and The Golden Company of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series immediately spring to mind as examples of organized mercenary companies and contractors in such a fantasy setting.
However, we should take a moment to reflect on what birthed the formation of such companies in our own history.
Warfare throughout history was dominated by those with skill at arms. Lifetimes of training were required to become a competent warrior, and those with little skill in these matters rarely had a long career at it. Also, what necessitates a large force of mercenaries? Massive battles across an international stage fought by men who could be trained in months rather than years created a shift in military history that birthed the modern mercenary company.
If the kingdoms or states in your world are waging small local wars, there may not be a need for a mercenary contractor to provide an entire army. On the other hand, should a peaceful nation be suddenly invaded they might encounter such a need. Does this happen often enough that the mercenary company already exists, though? Is there a demand for this often enough to keep them in business? While it’s easy to simply say yes, we also need to say why. To say there are free companies readily available for hire in our world requires us to set a political landscape that necessitates their existence in our worldbuilding before we establish the immediate need for them in our narrative.
From Sellswords to Guns for Hire
We can see from this brief history of the mercenary that the profession has evolved slowly over time. At first, there was not even a name for it, and tribes of nomads who pillaged the land to sustain themselves were directed to other realms. Soon, men of the Hellenistic world found themselves in a situation where their only marketable skill was holding a shield and spear. As time moved on, great empires grew and found that their own citizens were not enough to maintain their armies. Eventually, new wars of conquest arose that led to the hiring of mercenaries so that a duke might conquer a kingdom. Finally, the military revolution caused by the prevalence of gunpowder—and even larger global empires during the colonial age—bred an international market for large numbers of professional soldiers.
There’s a common theme permeating all of this: necessity. The Hellenes needed to leave home and work to survive. Carthage was cut off from Phoenicia and needed to rely upon foreign warriors. The Romans needed more men than available to man a growing frontier. William the Conqueror needed more men to invade England. The imperial powers of the colonial age needed thousands of men to further their wars of attrition.`
While one would expect the birth and evolution of any profession to simply rely upon supply and demand or the opportunity for wealth, the profession of the mercenary is another affair entirely. This difference lies in the inherent risk of the profession. Farmers, potters, and cobblers do not face a regular risk of death in the pursuit of their work. Mercenaries do. War is an ugly, exhausting, and dangerous affair. Death in battle is often slow and painful. Worse, death after a battle could result from weeks of suffering from lingering infections. Anybody who sees mercenary work to be “easy money” should consider these things, and we as worldbuilders should also bear them in mind when deciding whether to include mercenaries in our fictional worlds.
There are three sets of questions we need to answer if we want to put believable mercenaries in our worldbuilding:
First, why do these men willingly put their lives on the line? What economic, sociological, or personal situation has propelled them to the most dangerous and unpleasant pursuit of a wage? How often do these circumstances occur?
Second, why does the state have need of them? Is the standing army not large or skilled enough? Or is there simply no standing army? Why are they at war, and what do they stand to protect or gain that justifies the expense of paying the state’s treasure to these independent soldiers?
Finally, what can go wrong? What happens when the mercenaries aren’t paid, or the plunder promised doesn’t live up to their expectations? What if they decide that attacking their employer would be more lucrative than carrying out their contract?
If you answer these questions, rather than simply inserting mercenaries into your world based on the “rule of cool,” you will end up with a more detailed tapestry of a political and economic landscape that justifies them. I advocate that exploring our own history is an essential guidepost to creating believable settings, and I see speculative fiction as a lens through which we might study the human condition. By studying our past, we can better establish living worlds for our readers and/or players to immerse themselves in. And through that immersion into these fictional worlds, we might learn more about our own world and ourselves.
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