Fact-check on the history of ancient Greece: teeth recovered from military graves contradict historical beliefs that no mercenaries were deployed in battles
But in 2008, a team of Italian archaeologists began excavating outside the ancient city wall of Himera, a Greek colony on the north-central coast of Sicily, Italy. In the western necropolis, or cemetery, they found several mass graves dating from the beginning of the 5th century BC. All of the individuals in the graves were male, and many had severe trauma or even weapons lodged in their bones.
Evidence strongly suggests that these men could have been soldiers who fought in 480 BC and 409 BC in the Battles of Himera, written about ancient Greek historians. I am part of an interdisciplinary team of anthropologists, archaeologists and geologists who analyzed the teeth of these people who lived over 2,400 years ago to find out who they were and where they came from. It seems that the earliest historians did not pass on the whole story, and our findings may rewrite parts of what is known about Greek military history.
A chance to check out ancient history
Herodotus and another historian, Diodorus Siculus, both wrote about the battles of Himera. They describe the first battle in 480 BC. like the victory of an alliance of Greeks from all over Sicily over a Carthaginian force invading modern Tunisia. Three generations later, the second battle in 409 BC. Historians report that Carthage besieged the city of Himera, which this time had little outside assistance.
These ancient accounts speak of great generals, political alliances, and underhanded military tactics such as the Greek cavalry that claimed to be a friendly aid to enter the Carthaginian camp.
The discovery in the 21st century of what looked like remains of soldiers from the time of those two famous battles provided a rare opportunity. After Italian researchers carried out initial studies of the skeletal remains of 132 individuals, including estimating their age at death and looking for signs of illness, I was able to travel to Sicily with the Bioarchaeology of the project. Mediterranean Colonies, co-led by Laurie Reitsema and Britney Kyle, to collect samples for isotope analysis.
My colleagues and I wanted to know if the remains of the soldiers told the same story as the ancient historians. Historical sources say they were probably all Greeks, with possibly other towns in Sicily, such as Syracuse or Agrigento. Where did these soldiers really come from?
Teeth record your origin story
Fortunately, chemistry helps answer this question.
Different places on Earth have characteristic ratios of elemental isotopes in their land and water. Isotopes are versions of elements that have the standard number of protons but different amounts of neutrons.
The trick is that when you consume these characteristic isotopes in your food and drink, your body incorporates them into your bones and teeth. Researchers know that the type of strontium in your body reflects the underlying geology or bedrock where the plants and animals you’ve eaten grow. Oxygen isotopes come from your water source. These elements become a physical record of your origins.
As bones constantly grow – and incorporate elements of your environment throughout life – tooth enamel is like a time capsule. Scientists can use this outer layer of the tooth to determine where an individual grew up because it forms when you are a child and does not change over time.
The strontium and oxygen isotopes that we measured on 62 of the individuals were incorporated into soldiers’ teeth in their childhood and kept there even after thousands of years in the ground. We used the combination of these elements to determine whether or not these soldiers were from Himera by comparing them to the samples we collected to create a local isotope profile for the city.
Interestingly, when we did these scans, we found that the majority of the soldiers in the First Battle in 480 BC were not local. Remember, this was the fight that would have received Allied support from all over Sicily. These soldiers had such high strontium values and oxygen values so low compared to what one would expect in a native of Himera that my colleagues and I believe they came from places even further away than other regions of Sicily. Based on the elemental isotopic ratios of their teeth, the soldiers likely had diverse geographic origins ranging from the Mediterranean and possibly beyond.
On the other hand, the majority of the soldiers in the subsequent battle in 409 BC were in fact local. This finding confirms ancient sources that the Himerans were mostly left unaided in the second fight, which allowed the Carthaginian force to overpower them.
The unknown role of foreign mercenaries
The case of the soldiers of 480 BC suggests that the Greek armies were more diverse than previously thought. Our results challenge previous interpretations based on historical documents that the soldiers were Greek and point to the omission of foreign mercenaries from historians’ accounts.
Modern historians know that Greek soldiers often served as paid career soldiers, or mercenaries, in foreign armies. But there is little evidence that foreign soldiers fought for the Greek armies.
The Greek armies at this time were mostly classical hoplite soldiers: heavily armed infantrymen. They often fought in groups based on the city they came from, where being a citizen meant serving in the military when needed.
The large variation in isotopic values between the soldiers in our study strongly implies that there may have been foreign soldiers who joined the Greek side. The hiring of foreign mercenaries could have changed the makeup of communities in classical times, perhaps offering foreigners a path to citizenship that was not otherwise available.
While the populations of the Greek colonies were likely diverse due to interactions with other groups of people, not all residents of the colony would have been eligible for citizenship. Citizenship meant having a role in political life and was often reserved for wealthier men of Greek descent. It was rare for foreigners to have access to this highly valued position because, traditionally, one had to be Greek.
Not only does the discovery of foreign mercenary forces change the story of the First Battle of Himera, it also transforms our understanding of those who held power and privilege in Sicily during the Classic Period.
Katherine Reinberger is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Georgia. She studies the bioarcheology of Greek warfare, using human skeletal remains to investigate the building of military forces and understand how war connects culturally and spatially diverse populations in a globalizing world. Find Katherine on Twitter @klreinbe
A version of this article was originally posted during the conversation and has been reposted here with permission. The conversation can be found on Twitter @ConversationUS