How did the Pharaohs of the Saite Period deploy and use Greek mercenaries? What evidence is available?

Essay, 2003
15 Pages, Grade: 66 %


How did the Pharaohs of the Saite Period deploy and use Greek mercenaries? What evidence is available?

Early Saite Pharaohs possibly employed Greek mercenaries, but there is no validated confirmation[1] of this. Moreover, in the 26th dynasty, Egypt entered a period of unquestionable artistic brilliance and prosperity and became a powerful state. The primary resource for this period is Herodotus, Book Two. There is no evidence that a link between Egypt and Greece existed, but it is a possibility which might go back to the “Mycenaean period”[2] or even the “third millennium BC”[3]. If there was a link it broke down and became non-existent or even became hostile[4] in the “Dark Ages”[5]. Apart from those early contacts, the first time we hear of Greeks, especially as mercenaries in Egypt, is under Psammetichos I, when “Greeks had access to the country”[6]. Traders followed the mercenaries and commerce between the Greek and Egyptian worlds which prospered once again. Before the Peloponnesian War, the Greek cities had no significant skill in extended[7] campaigns or distant expeditions. Their fighting consisted of mainly small struggles on a medium to small scale. In any battle citizens might be called in to fight according to their standing in their city as cavalry, infantry or skirmishers. So, nearly everybody was familiar with warfare but only some of those who chose to develop into experts became mercenaries. Generally, these mercenary activities were accepted as sources “of profits and were practised for that reason”[8]. These soldiers barely existed aside from in foreign armies. In the Greek tradition, the Carians were seen as the first[9] mercenaries, “who originated wearing crests on their helmets and devices on their shields, and who first made grips for their shields”[10]. In spite of this elementary character of Greek warfare, the soldiers were often superior to those of the known world and this created a demand for their service abroad. The Carians and the Asiatic Greeks held the “monopoly”[11] of the mercenaries’ service. The Greek word for tool or weapon is hoplon, and so a Hoplite was literally a ‘man at arms’. Their equipment[12] was first seen in 700 BC. The Hoplite proved a formidable force for several centuries in Mediterranean and Near Eastern history. The main reason being the heavy armour of the Hoplite which represented an improvement. Tactics[13] in these days mainly only consisted of banal things, often no more than determining the ratio between the breadth and the width of a phalanx and some flanking movements. The Hoplite tactics “of fighting in a phalanx”[14] could be seen soon after 675 BC, so much so that warriors and warfare are the most common subjects of Greek literature, sculptures and vases, such as the “Chigi vase”[15].

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The Chigi vase,

with a phalanx of hoplites.

From the evidence of Greek art it is clear that this style of fighting was adopted early in the seventh century BC, or in some places, late in the eighth century. The characteristic style of Greek warfare was close hand-to-hand combat and tight formations of heavy infantry called a phalanx; however there were also mounted[16] hoplites. These heavily armed fighters, known as Hoplites, were the ones who fought either in the armies of their own cities or as mercenaries in foreign service.

At first sight it is surprising that the steep mountains of Greece should have produced warriors who were only fully effective in formation on relatively level ground, but the level corn plain was vital to a city’s existence, with the purpose of these armies was to dominate that territory, and either protect or devastate it. Before that, it seems that a looser and more individual style prevailed, more like the single combat of the heroes in the Iliad, though they, of course, are stylised and romanticised. The basic difference is that a Hoplite was armed in such a way that he could only fight effectively in formation, with his shield firmly fixed on his left forearm to protect his own left side and his neighbour’s right.

All this required adequate training, less focus on individual prowess and large numbers of men. Accordingly, the Hoplite army included all who could afford to fit themselves out with the appropriate armour and weapons. It was, so far as the term is applicable, an army of the wealthier members of society. Training together in such an army, the Hoplite class acquired a feeling of solidarity, and the nobles’ grasp of power was weakened when they were no longer the primary defenders of the city’s freedom. The citizen-soldier was less easy to exclude from public life, it was the class which now provided the dominant force on the battlefield. The Hoplites suffered small losses, as their armour was heavy. Those who broke the ranks, were vulnerable to counterattacks. The objective of the Hoplite phalanx was to shatter the enemy's cohesion, by breaking the enemy's ranks and exposing their back and sides to attack as they fled.

But now let me come back to the situation in Egypt. Egypt was the only country where the history of the Greek mercenaries can be tracked for almost 150 years. The domains for service overseas were critically decreased by the growth of the Persian Empire. It started when Psammetichos had started its revolt against Assyria. According to Herodotus, the oracle of Buto stated the Pharaoh would receive help from men of bronze appearing from the seas. This oracle statement came true when Ionians and Carians arrived[17] in the Nile Delta in full Hoplite armour. The Egyptians knew bronze armour, but “it was scale armour sewn on to leather, and the Greeks with their plate bronze armour made a striking impression”[18]. The reason was that the heavy armour of the hoplite represented an improved fighter, and it was easier to introduce soldiers accustomed to its use than to train new ones. It is clear that these men were “pirates, forced to land on the Egyptian coast by bad weather”[19], like in the Odyssey[20]. These soldiers – “invaders, who were fighting to take possessions of various pockets of land and everything on them”[21] - were stranded, but Psammetichos requested that they help him and stay in Egypt. With their help he removed his rivals, among them “Pakruru of Per-Seped who was, according to the legend, defeated near the temple of Isis at Memphis or Momemphis, and restored Egyptian unity”[22]. According to Herodotus, it is said; they accidentally landed on Egyptian shores, but is possible that they “were sent by Lydian King Gyges”[23]. An Assyrian inscription notes, that he sent help to Psammetichos. But all those soldiers who landed on the coast were all hoplites is open to question. The armour was expensive and so not many mercenaries would have come to Egypt as hoplites from the beginning. Most mercenaries were of lower status and would not have been able to afford the armour, so the subject is open to speculation, in absence of conclusive evidence. But of course, many mercenaries completed their armour in case of success and thus many mercenaries could have become full Hoplites. We do not know the length of their service, and many may served five years or longer but on the basis of Herodotus´ figure, it would mean that each year thousands of replacements had to be supplied. In view of the considerable organisation needed both for the recruitment and for the transportation of such great numbers of men, a local agent had to be engaged by the Egyptians, and Polykratis qualifies for the job. The Saite pharaohs, also had to be allied with certain maritime “polises” whose ships were needed for the transportation of the mercenaries. Later, they and their successors became the core of the elite corps of Greek mercenaries. Psammetichos I granted his Ionian and Carian mercenaries land[24] lying near the sea below the city of Bubastis on the Pelusiac branch of the Nile. Whether this settlement was Pelusium, however, remains to be seen, as no seventh-century remains have so far been discovered there. The camps, “two stratopeda on either side of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile”[25] may have been divided into several groups. However, the exact location of these camps has not been fixed. This Pelusiac mouth of the Nile had for centuries, functioned as a key point of defence[26] for Egypt against its usual foes. Later, these soldiers were even granted the right to intermarry[27] with Egyptian women. Later there were even marriage treaties[28]. Moeller questions[29] whether the right to intermarry existed. As one can see, the Egyptian Pharaoh did not fully trust the Greeks as he all placed them all as frontier guards in special locations. Although several soldiers returned home after their contract expired, many settled down and became settlers “partially integrated into the Egyptian system”[30]. They were all rewarded with “precious materials, particularly coins; the emergence of coinage … (is) to be connected with the payments of the mercenaries”[31]. A number of “Kydoniate colonists sometimes turned mercenaries”[32]. Other mercenaries, who had come there, were poor[33], so the Egyptians had to fit them out. During the sixth century B.C. the Persians expanded throughout the Near East, eventually threatening Egypt. The mercenaries were „well treated and respected by the King“[34] as there was “no standing army”[35], the soldiers had to be called to arms. There were garrisons at Daphne, Elephantine and Memphis. In Tell Defenneh[36], possibly the Daphne[37] of Herodotus, there is some Carian graffiti and there had been a large fort. The hundreds of Greek vases found there showed that this was a large settlement and it continued until Amasis. Artefacts made of gold, silver, copper, lead and lazuli were found there. In Naukratis there was a second fort and the “similarity (shows us) the same scheme of defence”[38]. Petrie estimated Daphne could hold some 20 000 men. There was also a fort in Sinai “Migdol”, excavated by the Israelis. The area between the Suez Canal and the Gaza Strip was “the most important link between Egypt and Canaan”[39]. Here, there are “no fine wares, but plenty of sixth century Greek amphorae and (…) the first Greek Archaic cremation burials to be found in Egypt”[40]. Moreover, it was “enclosed by a massive fortified compound measuring 450 x 250 m”[41]. Necho´s victory however, is not mentioned in any historic document[42]. The gigantic width of the enclosure walls can be seen as “military architecture”[43]. The best-known camps were at Daphne on the Pelusiac arm of the Nile[44]. This location was chosen to guard the Eastern frontier of the Egyptian sphere of influence and there they trained for the campaigns against Syria and Ethiopia. There is evidence that in the time of Psammetichos I, there was also a garrison at Elephantine[45], “against Ethiopians and at the Pelusian branch Daphne against the Arabians and Syrians and at Marea against Lybia”[46]. The southern guards were not Greek but Egyptians. The defences of the country were well devised by placing a strong fort on each main road. It is very likely, that Psammetichos I obtained assistance from the Greeks as early as 664 BC to help him reunite Egypt. Egypt opened up to the outside world during the fifty-four years of Psammetichos´ reign. He died in 610 BC and Necho II came to power. In 609 BC, Necho II invaded Assyria. He gained various Phoenician coastal cities and for a short time the Egyptians controlled the Levant. But the dream of a new Egyptian Empire never came true. In 605 BC there was the battle of Carchemish between the Babylonians and Egyptians, in which the Egyptians were defeated. A bronze shield[47] and a Greek grave[48] were found there. In 605 BC the Babylonians destroyed Carchemish, the Egyptians, under Necho II, had occupied it. The shield found there is very similar to a shield found at Olympia. In 601 BC the Persian King tried to conquer Egypt, but failed.


[1] Sullivan, p. 177.

[2] Chamoux, p. 87, Sullivan, p. 185 and MacGillivray, p. 81 ff.

[3] Cartledge, p. 48.

[4] Sullivan, p. 185.

[5] Chamoux, p. 87.

[6] Chamoux, p. 87.

[7] Sage, p. 19 f.

[8] Sage, p. xi.

[9] Griffith, p. 236.

[10] Hdt., I.171.

[11] Griffith, p. 236.

[12] Pritchett, p. 31 f.

[13] Pritchett, p. 145.

[14] Pritchett, p. 31.

[15] (09.12.2002)

[16] Greenhalgh, p. 146.

[17] Hdt., II.152 and Diodorus 1.66 – 67.

[18] Sage, p. 150.

[19] Boardman, p. 114.

[20] For example XIV, p. 253.

[21] Rich, p. 83.

[22] (22.11.2002)

[23] Boardman, p. 115, p. 100 and Huxley, p. 72.

[24] (22.11.2002)

[25] Hdt., II.154.

[26] Sullivan, p. 186.

[27] Austin, p. 18 f.

[28] Pomery is a good example.

[29] Moeller, p. 34.

[30] Moeller, p. 33.

[31] Moeller, p. 33.

[32] Jeffrey, p. 314.

[33] McKechine, p. 298.

[34] Boardman, p. 114.

[35] Moeller, p. 33.

[36] Cook, p. 227 f.

[37] Chamoux, p. 88.

[38] Petrie, p. 330.

[39] Oren, p. 7.

[40] Boardman, the Greek overseas, p .134 and Oren, p. 14 – 15 and p. 26 – 30.

[41] Oren, p. 13.

[42] Welck, Ägyptologie, p. 2.

[43] Oren, p. 13.

[44] Hdt., II. 154.

[45] Hdt., II.30.

[46] Hdt., II.30.

[47] Boardman, p. 115 and p. 51.

[48] Moeller, p. 35.

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How did the Pharaohs of the Saite Period deploy and use Greek mercenaries? What evidence is available?
University of Wales, Aberystwyth  (Department of Classics)
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Pharaohs, Saite, Period, Greek, What
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Michael Gärtner (Author), 2003, How did the Pharaohs of the Saite Period deploy and use Greek mercenaries? What evidence is available?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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