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Chemical Analysis Sheds New Light on Ancient Greek Battles of Himera

Ancient wars often hinged on the recruitment of mercenaries, and a new study shows the Battles of Himera were no exception.

(CN) — Foreign mercenaries were omnipresent in ancient battles across the Mediterranean. Greek mercenaries aided the Persians; Persians aided Greeks; and after the introduction of coinage, entire armies of private soldiers went up for sale.

The first battle of Himera in 480 BCE was a resounding Greek Sicilian victory. A later battle in 409 BCE was decidedly not. So, what changed?

By analyzing the teeth of fallen soldiers buried near the ancient battle site of Himera, scientists now have a better understanding about the armies who fought in this famous pair of battles against Carthage.

A team of researchers led by Katherine Reinberger, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, analyzed the chemical composition of tooth enamel scraped from fallen soldiers to determine from where the belligerents hailed. The team published their findings Wednesday in new a study in the journal PLOS One.

“Ancient historians write of alliances that aided the Greek Sicilian colony Himera in victory against a Carthaginian army of hired foreign mercenaries in 480 BCE, and the demise of Himera when it fought Carthage again in 409 BCE, this time unaided,” said the authors in their study. “Archaeological human remains from the Battles of Himera provide unique opportunities to test early written history by geochemically assessing the geographic origins of ancient Greek fighting forces.”

Much of what we know about the Battles of Himera comes from the Greek historians Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus — and much of their accounts are contradictory. Herodotus, for his part, tends to focus on the Greek-barbarian dichotomy, ignoring key players like the armies of professional mercenaries employed by the Greeks to bolster their ranks. Hired blades just don’t fit as neatly into the hero narrative.

Recent excavations at Himera uncovered 132 individual bodies buried in eight mass graves. The bodies in the older grave site appear to have been buried intentionally, well ordered side-by-side in rows, with their heads facing east in line with tradition. The burial site from 409 BCE is far more crowded, less orderly, with bodies laid head-to-foot, revealing the disorder caused by a crushing defeat.

The authors analyzed tooth enamel from 62 of the fallen soldiers, testing for oxygen and strontium isotopes. Differing chemical compositions in their teeth allowed the researchers to pinpoint where the soldiers came from.

“Although historical accounts specifically mention Sicilian Greek allies aiding Himera, isotopic values of many of the 480 BCE non-locals are consistent with geographic regions beyond Sicily, suggesting Greek tyrants hired foreign mercenaries from more distant places,” the authors said in their study. “We describe how the presence of mercenary soldiers confronts prevailing interpretations of traditional Greek values and society.”

Greek hoplites, citizen-soldier volunteers fighting for their homes, were the archetype of Greek valor, while foreigners fighting for coin were the antithesis of that ideal. Greek historians like Herodotus preferred to focus on the mercenaries bought by the other side, in this case by Carthage, but shied away from describing those employed by their own. The first battle of Himera in 480 BCE hinged on these paid recruits, however, as illustrated by the overwhelming defeat in 409 BCE.

The study shows that the bodies buried after the Greek victory in 480 BCE consisted predominately of foreigners, demonstrating that the Greeks received reinforcements from far and wide, and, contrary to written accounts, many were bought and paid for. By contrast, three-fourths of the soldiers buried after the Greek defeat in 409 BCE were from the local area. That led the authors to confirm Herodotus’ account that Himera had been left to face the Carthaginians on their own the second time around, with disastrous results.

“The ethnocentric accounts of ancient authors downplay the true heterogeneous nature of the Greek colonies and armies, likely to align the victory at Himera with other prominent Greek victories across the Mediterranean (e.g. Salamis),” concluded the authors. “Foreign mercenaries played an important role in the military prowess of some Greek armies as early as 480 BCE and reflect the diversity of ancient communities in the western Mediterranean.”

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