The State and the Mercenary

Life in the European Middle Ages was chaotic. If you were a peasant, you likely had several masters who demanded your allegiance: the local feudal lord, the king, the neighboring Franciscan monastery, the Holy Roman Emperor, the pope, to name a few. Worse, they often feuded, simultaneously claiming rights to you, your land, and your soul under pain of death. Unlike today, there was no single supreme authority within your territory, as in the modern state, and this led to overlapping authorities and divided loyalties.

Political scientists describe this situation as “fractured” or “fragmented” sovereignty, and it was the central feature of the medieval world order, where popes, emperors, kings, bishops, nobles, city-states, monastic orders, chivalric orders, and vassals frequently made concurrent and conflicting claims to the same parcel of land and the people upon it. Not surprisingly, this led to a lot of war.

Like most of history, the Middle Ages knew no taboo against mercenaries. Despite Machiavelli’s protestations, the mercenary profession was considered a legitimate trade, and often the lesser sons of nobility, such as Duke Werner of Urslingen, Count Konrad von Landau, and Giovanni de’ Medici, sought careers as mercenary captains. There was no stigma attached to hiring a private army; it was considered no different from employing an engineering company to repair one’s moat or commissioning an artist to paint portraits of one’s family. The commodification of conflict resulted in a thriving market for force, as the services of private armies, or “free companies,” as they were known, went to the highest or most powerful bidder. Contract warfare was common in the Middle Ages, especially in northern Italy.

The medieval world order traces its roots back to the fall of the Roman Empire and perhaps reached its zenith during the “high Middle Ages,” about 1000 to 1300. It slowly declined in the centuries that followed. Historians conventionally peg the end of the medieval era around 1500, but the reality is less clear. The centuries between 1400 and 1700 witnessed the gradual consolidation of political authority from the fragmented sovereignty of the Middle Ages—where church, emperor, king, princes, city-states, monasteries, and the like all made competing and overlapping claims of authority—to a centralized system of states that became the modern world order. But there is one date especially associated with this transition.


In 1618, an uprising in Bohemia turned into a war throughout central Europe between Catholics, Protestants, and political opportunists that lasted thirty gruesome years. The devastation of this Thirty Years War was irrevocable. Nearly a third of the populations of what are now Germany and the Czech Republic were wiped out. The armies of Sweden, then a superpower, destroyed up to two thousand castles, eighteen thousand villages, and fifteen hundred towns in Germany alone. The economy was in tatters, and many small villages and cities would take a hundred years to recover. Disease and famine were rampant, and tens of thousands of people became refugees, wandering the plains of Europe. In terms of sheer destruction, the Thirty Years War was comparable to the World Wars for central Europe.

Out of the Thirty Years War emerged the modern international system, or so we are told. The war ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, named after two peace treaties signed in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster, in modern-day Germany. All the continental great powers were party to this peace that redrew the map of Europe and rewrote the rules of power. The standard reading of this event holds that 1648 delivered humanity from the anarchy of the Middle Ages by creating a new world order, sometimes called the Westphalian order, which should look familiar to modern readers. Some scholars trace the origins of the modern order back to the Peace of Lodi (1454), which founded the Italian Concert, or developments in late medieval France, but 1648 is conventionally seen as the establishment of the modern world order.

The Westphalian order has three primary characteristics. First, unlike in the Middle Ages, it vests all power into a single political actor: the state. The victors of the Thirty Years War resolved the medieval problem of overlapping authorities and allegiances by declaring that only entities that controlled land may legitimately rule. Certainly, land-based authorities existed before—empires, kingdoms, dukedoms, and so on—but the modern state is different, in that it claims absolute power over all people and resources within its territorial boundaries to the exclusion of nonstate actors, such as the pope.

Second, states must recognize other states as equals, and third, states should not interfere with the internal affairs of other states. Unlike in the Middle Ages, this drew a clear line between domestic and foreign politics. For domestic politics, states were free to govern as they wished, so long as they could persuade or compel their populations to obey their rule. Over the coming centuries, states increasingly participated in constructing citizenship and nationalism, so much so that by the twentieth century, most Europeans and others identified first with their nationality and second with their religion, ethnic group, or other affiliations.

States also forcibly compelled dissident citizens to obey their rule and sought a monopoly of violence so no one could fight back. They outlawed their armed competition, such as mercenaries, who could physically threaten the government’s existence. The state’s exclusive claim to violence to uphold its rule of law is, according to many, the very essence of statehood. For instance, in 1919, the eminent German sociologist Max Weber defined the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” This definition remains widely used today, and states that cannot maintain a monopoly of force and endure civil war or frequent violent crime are routinely described as “weak,” “fragile,” or “failed” states.

For foreign politics, states made treaties with other states, sometimes sought to expand forcibly into their neighbors’ territory, and prevented other states from interfering in their internal politics. Over time, states developed stronger controls over their own borders and built standing national armies—not present in the Middle Ages—to wage war against other states. The great seventeenth-century Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz describes the use of militaries by states as “a duel on a larger scale” to resolve interstate disputes. For him, war is simply the “continuation of politics by others means.” His seminal book On War remains the best rationale of the Westphalian way of war, which is fundamentally between states and best exemplified by World Wars I and II.

Westphalian sovereignty demanded that states put private armies out of business. First, if a state were to govern as the sole authority within a given territory, it needed a monopoly of force to uphold its rule of law; all threats to this enterprise, such as mercenaries, were proscribed. Second, the Westphalian system held that each state was responsible for transborder violence that emanated from its territory, even if the regime did not support that violence. Owing to this, states prohibited private armies out of fear that they might start a war with a neighbor and drag both states into armed conflict with each other. The medieval market for force came to an end with the expansion of the Westphalian system, as public armies replaced private ones and mercenaries were outlawed. So powerful is this stigma against mercenarism that it still haunts the world order today, as evidenced by international reaction to the Haditha versus Nisour killings.

“Legitimate” Violence

Given the state’s interest in violence as a means of control, it is not surprising that the rise of the modern state is closely related to war. The development of states and the subsequent state system that makes up the Westphalian order was gradual and complex, with a thick scholarly literature on the topic. A full review of this research is beyond the scope of this book, but one thing is clear: the state’s superiority at wielding violence, both domestically and abroad, allowed it to stamp out internal dissidence and conquer nonstate rivals.

According to historical sociologist Charles Tilly, states arose as a sort of security racket, akin to the Mafia, providing “protection” to citizens for a fee, or tax. Over time, states grew powerful through a violent cycle: they created strong security forces to extract wealth from the population in order to pay for those security forces. Additionally, states required security forces to eliminate rivals, both foreign and domestic. Armed force was a significant factor in states’ rise to power, or, to paraphrase Tilly, violence makes states, and states make violence.

American economist Mancur Olson describes the rise of states another way, using the metaphor of banditry. Bandits survive by plundering the goods of others and moving on to their next victims. At some point, the bandit decides that roving the countryside in search of loot is too fatiguing and chooses instead to “loot in place” by forcibly taking over a community and extorting the locals for wealth under the heavy hand of tyranny, like a warlord, while enjoying a stable life not “on the run.” However, this gives the stationary bandit an incentive to provide some semblance of government to ensure that people continue to produce wealth and also protect them from roving bandits. In this way, a state is a “stationary bandit” that evolved from “roving bandits.”

For Tilly and Olson, states arose from their superior ability to use force and eliminate nonstate rivals, rendering the distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” force ambiguous, elastic, and invented. For them, might made right, and states were the mightiest. Monikers such as legitimate and just used to sanction state force were probably only internalized once states became the dominant political authority in Europe, recognizing no other authority except other states.

Many and perhaps most international relations scholars believe the modern world order is inherently stable. They describe Westphalian sovereignty as a “system” or “society” of states that govern the world, and a good example of this today is the United Nations, whose voting members are states alone. Stability is sustained by natural balancing within the system, as rival powers cooperate to prevent any single state from gaining too much power. States check one another’s power through the Machiavellian calculus of national interests and balance-of-power politics, with military might as the ultimate arbiter. Hence the Westphalian order maintains global governance with the state as the prime actor of international relations.

From Peace Treaty to World Order

The implications of 1648 are profound for international relations, because it served as the beginning of a new world order, ruled by states. It resolved the medieval problem of overlapping authorities and allegiances by marrying sovereignty to physical territory, organized by state, and stateless authorities such as the papacy retained no authority at all. Perhaps this is why Pope Innocent X referred to the Peace of Westphalia as “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane and devoid of meaning for all time.”

Unfortunately for Innocent, the following four centuries saw the Westphalian order grow from a European model to a worldwide one, partly because European powers exported it through colonization. Gradually, the state dominated all other forms of international authority. The papacy, once the powerful adversary of kings and princes in the Middle Ages, lost all territorial control by 1870, and its authority was largely relegated to the sphere of morality. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Westphalian state system had completely replaced the medieval order.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, European states were empires of such strength that they could successfully make claims to controlling territory and monopolizing violence beyond their borders and into Africa, Asia, and the Americas. From 1880 to 1914, European state politics played out on a global scale, in the crises of Fashoda, various Balkans wars on the Habsburg-Ottoman frontier, the Great Game of Anglo-Russo rivalry in central Asia, economic competition in China, and the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 that settled the scramble for Africa. New and non-European states also sought a place in the new world order, as the United States and Japan embarked on colonial conquests and even bested European powers on occasion, in the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). European state hegemony went so far that France, under the Second Republic, declared Algeria an integral part of its own territory.

World Wars I and II remain the greatest expression of Westphalian war, in both scope and destruction, and their battlefields spanned the globe, by then mostly colonized by European states. In addition to the horrific losses of life, World War I also claimed the Habsburg and Ottoman empires as casualties, and the Treaty of Versailles seriously enfeebled Germany. However, this destructive test of the Westphalian order did not invalidate it. In one generation, Japan’s imperial pursuits put it in direct competition with the United States, Italy’s imperial conquests took it deep into northeast Africa, and Germany rebounded to threaten European powers once more under the Nazi regime.

On September 1, 1939, World War II erupted and perhaps marked the zenith of the Westphalian order. The Axis countries of Germany and Japan suffered total defeat and occupation by other states, and Italy was rendered ineffectual as a world power. The Allied countries of Britain and France were also grievously wounded and retreated from their colonies in the decades to follow. The Suez Canal crisis in 1956 demonstrated that Britain and France, the last of the old European powers, were no longer leading actors on the world stage, replaced by the younger United States and Soviet Union. However, international relations had changed, because warfare had changed. Armed with world-destroying nuclear weapons, the US and Soviet superpowers sought power without tempting direct confrontation and therefore fought a cold war through allied states, proxy wars, and economic competition.



Condottieri; Niccolò da Tolentino Leads the Florentine Troops circa 1438-40


On April 27, 1522, two armies faced each other at dawn across a soggy field ready for battle at a manor park of Bicocca, a small town six kilometers north of Milan. On one side stood the combined forces of France and Venice, numbering more than twenty thousand troops, including the mercenary captain, or condottiero, Giovanni de’ Medici’s Black Bands and sixteen thousand dreaded Swiss mercenaries. For two centuries, Swiss companies were the scourge of the European battlefield, overtaking superior forces with deadly twenty-one-foot steel-tipped pikes and precision formations that could run down heavily armored knights—as the doomed duke of Burgundy could attest to—making them the most sought-after private armies on the market.

Opposing the combined army were the comparatively meager Spanish imperial, Milanese, and papal forces, which numbered only sixty-four hundred but included landsknechts, or German mercenary pikemen. The Swiss companies and landsknechts were more than mere business rivals and held special contempt for each other. Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I had formed the first landsknechts regiments several decades earlier and patterned them after the Swiss companies, which regarded them as cheap copies purloining their brand. Consequently, no quarter was given when these mercenary rivals met on the battlefield.

The attack commenced at dawn. The French advanced on the outnumbered Spanish imperial forces with two columns of Swiss mercenaries, numbering a few thousand each, bearing down on the landsknechts and the Spanish arquebusiers—soldiers using a predecessor of the musket—who stood behind a sunken road and an earthen rampart. As the Swiss advanced, their French masters ordered them to halt and wait for the French artillery to bombard the imperial defenses first, but the Swiss did not. Perhaps the Swiss captains doubted that the artillery would have any effect on the earthworks; perhaps the Swiss did not trust the French, owing to an earlier pay dispute regarding their contract; perhaps it was the aggressive Swiss push-of-pike strategy that advanced without support of firearms; perhaps it was rivalry between the two Swiss columns, one from the rural cantons and the other from Bern and urban cantons; or perhaps it was their “blind pugnacity and self-confidence,” as a French eyewitness later remarked. Either way, the Swiss moved swiftly across the open field without regard for consequence.

As soon as the Swiss were in range of the enemy cannons, they began to take massive casualties. With nowhere to go but forward, they moved toward the Spanish positions but came to a deadly halt when they reached the sunken road that acted as a ditch and the tall rampart behind it. Atop that rampart were the landsknechts, who mercilessly attacked their trapped rivals, while the arquebusiers fired downward into the sunken road, massacring the Swiss. Retreating back across the field, they lost more men to cannon barrage. By the time they reached French lines, they had suffered more than three thousand casualties, including twenty-two captains and all but one of the French commanders who accompanied the Swiss assault.

The battle was lost, and three days later, the Swiss abandoned the campaign altogether, marching home to their cantons and marking the end of Swiss dominance in the mercenary market. As Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary historian, wrote, “they went back to their mountains diminished in numbers, but much more diminished in audacity; for it is certain that the losses which they suffered at Bicocca so affected them that in the coming years they no longer displayed their wonted vigour.” From this battle comes the Spanish word bicoca, meaning a bargain or something acquired at little cost.

The problems of contract warfare are as timeless as the benefits. The unexpected departure of the Swiss mercenaries left their French masters powerless to carry on their campaign, and the French lost the war. Better, Machiavelli would have counseled, to have one’s own troops than to hire mercenaries, which cost the French everything. Although today’s nascent market for force is tame compared with the medieval market, the condottieri have much to teach us about how privatized warfare alters strategic outcomes.

Dispelling Common Myths

The mercenary market has long received bad press that has reified into truism. While history is replete with tragic examples of private military exploits, they are not always representative of the overall industry yet are often taken as such; hence the word myth. Before any cogent analysis of the industry’s troubling aspects—and there are many—it is first necessary to dispense with some common myths about mercenaries.

Probably the most pernicious perception, made famous by Niccolò Machiavelli’s bitter pronouncements, is that they are faithless. And he would know. Machiavelli was no stranger to mercenaries in Renaissance Italy and worked with them as the minister in charge of Florence’s defenses, from 1503 to 1506. His native city suffered serial humiliations at the hands of its own mercenaries during its protracted war against Pisa. In his book The Art of War, he explains that a rift between military and civil life converts the former into a trade, turning soldiers into beasts and citizens into cowards, and makes his opinion on mercenaries plain in his famous treatise The Prince: “They are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, unfaithful; gallant among friends, vile among enemies; no fear of God, no faith with men.” While there are certainly examples of faithless mercenaries, perfidiousness is hardly unique to the private military industry, although the consequences are more lethal than in other sectors. Additionally, according to some scholars, Machiavelli’s claims about mercenaries may be overstated, ahistorical, or a misreading.

In an open market for force, mercenaries are incentivized to honor their contracts in order to build a positive professional reputation and attract future business. Many mercenaries enjoyed long and esteemed relations with their employers: Hawkwood was faithful to Florence for decades, and the city honored him with a funerary monument at the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore; the Varangian Guard was fiercely loyal to the Byzantine emperors for centuries; and the Dutch and British East India Companies served their respective nations’ interests admirably for well more than a hundred years. Private military actors tend to meet their contractual obligations when they are held accountable and when it serves their long-term interest.

Another myth is that mercenaries are lone-wolf adventure seekers. Although there are individual mercenaries or small bands of private warriors, most of the successful private armies are sizable and sophisticated organizations: Xenophon’s Ten Thousand, the free companies of the condottieri, and PMCs such as Triple Canopy. These private armies are well organized, with clear chains of command, in-house codes of conduct and discipline, and internal machinations to handle administrative tasks such as personnel, logistics, and accounting. The condottieri formed expeditionary corporate military units made up of international personnel with itemized budgets for battle gear, compensation for loss of horse, ransom-based revenue detailed, and other costs of war. They also had company policies regarding the democratic distribution of loot, bonuses for victories, and a standardized war feast should victory be won. They even formed their own trade association of “confederated condottieri,” much like today’s International Stability Operations Association (ISOA) based in Washington, D.C.

Finally, the stereotype that mercenaries are little more than murderous thugs is unfair. The marketplace tends to discipline bad mercenaries, as it did in the Middle Ages. When the famed Hawkwood switched sides one too many times during the War of Eight Saints, Bernabo Visconti of Milan passed a decree promising thirty florins to anyone who “took or killed” a member of Hawkwood’s company. Similarly, Blackwater saw its business with the United States plummet after the Nisour Square incident, and in 2009, the State Department did not renew the PMC’s contract.

While these problems still haunt the private military industry today, they are still the exception rather than the rule. And those who cavil too much about ethical issues surrounding mercenaries ought not avert their eyes from the obvious. There is plenty of evidence that private armies are more disciplined and effective than public forces in Sudan, Somalia, Myanmar, Belarus, Chad, Zimbabwe, the DRC, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guinea, Kyrgyzstan, the Central African Republic, Tajikistan, or Côte d’Ivoire, to name a few. Some even await the day when the United Nations hires qualified PMCs as peacekeepers, a rational choice given that peacekeeping needs rise each year while national troops available for such missions dwindle. Today, such missions are often undermanned and staffed by soldiers from poorer countries, who are often badly trained. Private military force is a high-utility commodity, which is why the market for force has thrived for most of human history.

For-Profit Killing

Myths aside, there are profoundly disturbing problems with an industry that is paid to kill. Many cringe at linking armed conflict to profit motive, because it incentivizes private armies to prolong and expand war for financial gain. Worse, markets fail, and in the context of war and the market for force, failure may mean impunity for mercenaries—violence without constraint—because no credible police force exists to control them. Under these conditions, mercenaries devolve into marauders and prey on the weak for survival, as was often the case in the Middle Ages.

Moreover, the market for force does not behave like other markets. A surplus of military supply does not necessarily correspond to lower private military prices or insolvent weaker mercenary companies. Instead, unemployed mercenaries can weather tough economic times by plundering local lands to feed themselves. This makes security a commodity that is not strictly demand-driven but also self-directed, generating bloody market distortions. Pope Urban V described marauding mercenaries in the fourteenth century as a “multitude of villains of various nations associated in arms by the greed to appropriate the fruits of labor of innocent and unarmed people, let loose to every cruelty, to extort money, methodically devastating the countryside.”6 When mercenaries fight in times of war and pillage in times of peace, for civilians, the line between war and peace may disappear.

Even when the market for force is functional, security is a commodity for which supply can artificially create demand through extortion. Like a mafia, a private military organization can arrive at a community and extort payment in exchange for not attacking it. The condottieri made a lucrative living this way, as the most common response for communities was to purchase reprieve. In 1342, Werner of Urslingen and the Great Company made a tour of Italy and successfully extorted payment from Cesena, Perugia, Arezzo, Siena, and several Lombard communes. Eleven years later, the Great Company, by then numbering some ten thousand, returned under the leadership of Montreal d’Albarno, whom the Italians called Fra Moriale, and extracted tribute from Pisa, Arezzo, Florence, Siena, and the Malatesta of Rimini. True to their name, condottieri entered into a no-sack contract with local cities. The October 1381 agreement between the city of Siena and John Hawkwood stipulated that his company would not attack the city and its local lands for eighteen months in exchange for four thousand florins. Often, it was cheaper for both mercenary and target to negotiate a price for peace rather than face the expenditure of a siege and sacking.

However, such payments only encouraged more mercenaries, either as racketeers or as hired defenders of cities, revealing the true nature of the market for force: expansion. Consistent with the logic of both markets and war, competition in the market for force escalates until one market actor emerges victorious with the monopoly of force, eliminating all rivals. This produces constant war, since monopolies are difficult to attain. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Florence and its mercenaries were continuously at war with someone: Pisa (1362–1364), the pope (1374–1375), and Milan (1389–1390, 1399–1400, 1423–1424, 1430). Luckless Siena was obliged to buy its freedom from enterprising condottieri thirty-seven times between 1342 and 1399. This endless fighting attracted more mercenaries from every corner of Europe, compounding the problem.

The dynamic of the market for force presents a counterintuitive conundrum for modern observers. Private warfare actually swells rather than depletes the ranks of private armies. Wars fought by national armies, such as World War I and II, often devolve into conflicts of attrition that terminate when one side runs out of citizens to conscript. As the Allies marched on Berlin in 1945, the German army had insufficient soldiers left to defend the city and had to rely on old men and young boys. Japan went even further. Low on soldiers, the government extended the logic of its kamikaze program to the entire populace, arming people with bamboo spears to repel the expected US land invasion, in what critics called “collective suicide.”

Inversely, wars fought by mercenaries evolve into conflicts of amplification. Unlike states, private armies can recruit soldiers from around the world and are not restricted to limited labor pools, such as a state’s citizenry. In fact, battle between mercenaries can enlarge the labor pool as the lure of well-paying contracts, rich booty, career progression, and other opportunities attract private warriors from around the world. Medieval mercenaries in northern Italy hailed from all over Europe, just as PMCs in Iraq and Afghanistan are packed with foreigners, and intrastate conflicts in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire have attracted mercenaries from all over Africa. During the Thirty Years War, some forty thousand Scotsmen—perhaps 15 percent of the total males in Scotland—journeyed to central Europe to fight for both sides of the conflict. As in all markets, supply seeks demand, and supply in this case is private warriors, and demand is armed conflict.

Unconstrained by nationality in their recruitment, private armies can endure wars of attrition, as long as there is a paying client and enough willing men-at-arms on the planet. Such conditions only propagate private warfare. More war means more mercenaries, which gives private armies more resources to ply their trade, fostering more war. This self-feeding and ever-escalating cycle of violence generates the perpetual war that is the market for force.

Normans – Byzantine Mercenaries

The Normans arrived in the Byzantine world not as enemies, but as valued mercenaries esteemed for their martial prowess. The settlement of Scandinavian raiders created the duchy of Normandy, when the region was ceded to their war leader Rollo (d. ca. 931) by the Carolingian king Charles the Simple (898–922). Rollo’s descendants mingled with the local French population to create the Normans, a people thoroughly Christian, doggedly militaristic, and unfailingly expansionistic. Norman soldiers entered Italy around the start of the eleventh century where they served as mercenaries for various Lombard princes. By the 1050s large numbers of “Franks,” as the Byzantines called them, had served as mercenaries in Byzantine armies from Syria to Bulgaria, and Normans served as part of the standing garrison of Asia Minor. In the 1040s the Normans began the conquest of south Italy, establishing several counties in the south and finally invading and conquering Sicily from the petty Muslim dynasts there by 1091. Since the late 1050s the Normans had challenged Roman interests in Italy and Robert Guiscard led a Norman invasion of the Byzantine Balkans in 1081. In the ensuing conflict the Normans defeated Alexios I Komnenos, who expelled them only with great difficulty. Two more major Norman invasions followed over the next century, and the Norman kingdom of Sicily remained a threat to imperial ambitions in the west and to the imperial core until the Hauteville Norman dynasty failed in 1194. By this time all hope for the Byzantine recovery of south Italy and Sicily had vanished, thanks to Norman power.


The Normans served under captains who rose to prominence due to birth or their fortunes in war. Minor nobility like Tancred of Hauteville, who founded the dynasty that would conquer much of Italy and Sicily, was a minor baron in Normandy and probably the descendant of Scandinavian settlers. The warriors who carved out territory within Byzantine Anatolia seem to have been either petty aristocrats or simply successful soldiers. One such Norman was Hervé Frankopoulos, who in 1057 led 300 Franks east in search of plunder and territory. After initial successes around Lake Van, he was delivered to the emperor and eventually pardoned. Thus, Norman companies were of no fixed numbers, and it seems that each baron recruited men according to his wealth and status. Norman lords in Italy raised the core of their army from men to whom they distributed lands and wealth in exchange for permanent military service. Lords were required to provide fixed numbers of troops, either knights or infantry sergeants. Other Normans served for pay and plunder, including conquered lands to be distributed after successful occupation of enemy territory. The Normans that the Byzantines encountered were a fluid group—some fought for the empire and then against it; their interests were pay and personal advancement rather than any particular ethnic allegiance. In this the Normans who warred against the Byzantines resembled the later free companies of the late medieval period—variable in numbers, generally following a capable, experienced, and charismatic commander, and exceptionally opportunistic. As a warlord’s success grew, so did his resources. Thus Robert Guiscard rose from the leader of a band of Norman robbers to be Count and then Duke of Apulia and Calabria; in 1084, following his defeat of Alexios at Dyrrachium, Guiscard marched on Rome with thousands of infantry and more than 2,000 knights, a far cry from the scores or hundreds with which he began his career.


Methods of Warfare

The bulk of the Norman fighting forces were infantry, but they formed a largely defensive force that operated in support of the cavalry. Norman infantry fought generally as spearmen—the Bayeux Tapestry shows many Normans on foot wearing the nasal helm and mail hauberks, but it is unlikely that the majority were so armed. Most were probably unarmored and relied on shields for protection like most of their counterparts throughout Europe. Light infantry archers fought with little or no armor, and missile troops played a role in their Balkan campaigns as well—the Byzantine commander George Palaiologos suffered an arrow wound to his head in battle at Dyrrachium in 1082, but generally the Byzantines relied on superior Turkish archery in order to unhorse the Normans and immobilize the knights. Norman knights wore heavy mail hauberks and mail chausses with in-pointed mail foot guards, which Anna Komnene noted slowed the Norman cavalry down when they were unhorsed. These mounted men carried lances and swords. The weight of their mail made them relatively safe from the archery of the day. Norman knights usually decided the course of battle; it was the shock cavalry charge delivered by the Norman knight that delivered victory in battle after battle. Unlike the Turks and Pechenegs with whom the empire regularly contended and whose weaponry was lighter and who relied on mobility, hit-and-run tactics, and feigned retreat, the Normans preferred close combat. They fought in dense, well-ordered ranks and exhibited exemplary discipline. In an era when infantry were generally of questionable quality, most foot soldiers throughout Europe and the Middle East could not stare down a Norman frontal cavalry charge. Norman horsemen punched holes in opposing formations and spread panic and disorder that their supporting troops exploited. By the end of the eleventh century, Norman prowess on the battlefield yielded them possessions from Syria to Scotland.

Byzantine Adaptation

The Byzantines avidly recruited Normans into their armies. Though critics have unfairly blamed the medieval Romans for not adapting their warfare in light of the new western techniques and technologies to which they were exposed, fully equipped and well-trained kataphraktoi could match the skill and shock power of the Norman knight. What the Byzantines of the Komnenoi era lacked were the disciplined heavy infantry of the Macedonian period and combined arms approach of mounted and dismounted archery that could blunt enemy attack and cover infantry and cavalry tactical operations. Alexios I relied on Turkish and steppe nomad auxiliaries and patchwork field armies assembled from mercenaries drawn from the empire’s neighbors. As with other intractable foes, the Byzantines relied on a combination of defense and offense—the Normans were contained in the Balkans allowing space for an imperial recovery and the time to muster new forces following the heavy defeat late in 1081 of the Roman army at Dyrrachium on the Adriatic. Alexios allied with southern Italian nobles and the German emperor Henry IV (1084–1105) who menaced the Norman flanks. The death of Robert Guiscard in 1085 removed the most serious threat to Byzantine rule since the seventh century, but Guiscard’s son, the redoubtable Bohemund, renewed war against the empire in 1107–8. Alexios had learned from his twenty years of dealing with the Norman adversary and returned to the traditional Byzantine strategies of defense, containment, and attrition. The Byzantines relied on their Venetian allies to provide naval squadrons on the Adriatic that interfered with Norman shipping and resupply, and Alexios’s forces blocked the passes around Dyrrachium; the emperor forbade his commanders to engage in a large-scale confrontation with the Normans. In the skirmishes and running battles against Norman scouting and foraging parties Byzantine archers shot the enemy mounts from beneath their riders and then cut down the beleaguered knights. Hunger, disease, and lack of money undid Bohemund, who was forced to sign a humiliating treaty and return to Italy. Thus the ages-old Byzantine principles of indirect warfare proved triumphant against a stubborn and superior enemy.

Mercenaries – During the Middle Ages

The “Saubannerzug”, an irregular military formation carrying a wild boar and a club on its banner, aproaching the City of Bern in 1477 A.D.

Professional soldiers (or sailors) who fought for pay or plunder, not for any national or religious cause or because they were conscripts. Mercenaries have been found garrisoning forts or on the battlefield almost as long as men have made war: they marched alongside Roman Legions as auxiliaries, and fought against them; Song emperors deployed mercenaries in China in distant garrisons and used them in field armies from the 12th century; they guarded the great trans-Saharan trade routes for the African slave empires of Mali and Songhay; they fought for the Crusader states of the Holy Land, as well as against them in several Muslim armies. The Aztec Empire was built in blood by a ruthless people who began as tributary soldiers in the paid service of a more advanced and wealthy city-state, Tepaneca, in the Central Valley of Mexico. In parts of Medieval Europe primogeniture ensured that many young men were forced to turn to arms to earn a living. This produced the necessary forces to eventually defeat the great waves of invasions over some 600 years by Vikings, Mongols, Arabs, and other warlike raiders. A growing surfeit of warriors produced by a whole society structured for war but with a newly rising population was then sent off to fight the Crusades, while others went mercenary and fought ever closer bound to the king’s war chest at home.

The collapse of the monetary economy in Western Europe following the fall of Rome left just two areas where gold coin was still used in the 10th century: southern Italy and southern Spain (al-Andalus). Ready gold drew mercenaries to wars in those regions as carrion creatures draw near dead flesh. Also able to pay in coin for military specialists and hardened veterans was the Byzantine Empire, along with the Muslim states it opposed and fought for several centuries. The rise of mercenaries in Western Europe in the 11th century as a money economy resumed disturbed the social order and was received with wrath and dismay by the clergy and service nobility. Early forms of monetary service did not necessarily involve straight wages. They included fief money and scutage. But by the end of the 13th century paid military service was the norm in Europe. This meant that local bonds were forming in many places and a concomitant sense of “foreignness” attached to long-service soldiers. Mercenaries were valued for their military expertise but now feared and increasingly despised for their perceived moral indifference to the causes for which they fought. Ex-mercenary bands (routiers, Free Companies) were commonplace in France in the 12th century and a social and economic scourge wherever they moved during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Their main weapon was the crossbow, on land and at sea. In the galley wars of the Mediterranean many Genoese, Pisan, and Venetian crossbowmen hired out as specialist marine archers. Much of the Reconquista in Spain was fueled by the mercenary impulse and concomitant necessity for armies to live off the land. The hard methods and cruel attitudes learned by Iberians while fighting Moors were then applied in the Americas by quasi-mercenary conquistadores. Mercenaries- “condottieri,” or foreign “contractors”-also played a major part in the wars of the city-states of the Italian Renaissance.

French “gen d’armes” and Swiss pikemen and halberdiers fought for Lorraine at Nancy (1477). By the start of the 15th century Swiss companies hired out with official Cantonal approval or as free bands who elected their officers and went to Italy to fight as condottieri. With the end of the wars of the Swiss Confederation against France and Burgundy, Swiss soldiers of fortune formed a company known as “das torechte Leben” (roughly, “the mad life”) and fought for pay under a Banner displaying a town idiot and a pig. Within four years of Nancy some 6,000 Swiss were hired by Louis XI. In 1497, Charles VIII (“The Affable”) of France engaged 100 Swiss halberdiers as his personal bodyguard (“Garde de Cent Suisses”). In either form, the Swiss became the major mercenary people of Europe into the 16th century. “Pas d’argent, pas de Suisses” (“no money, no Swiss”) was a baleful maxim echoed by many sovereigns and generals. Mercenaries of all regional origins filled out the armies of Charles V, and those of his son, Philip II, as well as their enemies during the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries. By that time Swiss mercenaries who still used pikes (and many did) were largely employed to guard the artillery or trenches or supplies. Similarly, by the late 16th century German Landsknechte were still hired for battle as shock troops but they were considered undisciplined and perfectly useless in a siege.

In Poland in the 15th century most mercenaries were Bohemians who fought under the flag of St. George, which had a red cross on a white background. When Bohemian units found themselves on opposite sides of a battlefield they usually agreed that one side would adopt a white cross on a red background while their countrymen on the other side used the standard red-on-white flag of St. George. In the Polish-Prussian and Teutonic Knights campaigns of the mid-15th century the Brethren-by this point too few to do all their own fighting-hired German, English, Scots, and Irish mercenaries to fill out their armies. During the “War of the Cities” (1454-1466) German mercenaries were critical to the victory of the Teutonic Knights at Chojnice (September 18, 1454). When the Order ran out of money, however, Bohemian soldiers-for-hire who held the key fortress and Teutonic capital of Marienburg for the Knights sold it to a besieging Polish army and departed, well paid and unscathed by even a token fight.

The social and economic dislocations caused by confessional ferocity during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) forced many men into the profession of arms, especially if they came from the fringe peoples of Europe or borderlands such as Scotland, Ireland, or the Balkans, where wars of raid and counter-raid were endemic. Thus, when a “Swedish” army assaulted Frankfurt- on-the-Oder a Scots Brigade made the attack against a defending “Imperial” Army made up wholly of Irishmen under Colonel Walter Butler. In fact, the great bulk of European armies during the first half of the 17th century were comprised of mercenaries who owed little ethnic, class, or religious loyalty to the causes for which they fought. This was because kings and great captains owed such men little more than pay, out of which soldiers were expected to buy their own food, weapons, clothing, and provide shelter. In some armies musketeers were even expected to buy their own black powder, so of course they were loathe to spend it on combat. Even this primitive system was subject to great abuse and corruption as quartermasters and colonels skimmed payrolls, troops exposed themselves to minimal danger, and captains used their tactical skills to escape rather than win battles. One result was a tendency for armies to maneuver constantly, eating out enemy territory rather than seeking out combat. The mercenary presence on the battlefield thus led to fewer pitched battles but much longer wars, conditions which best satisfied the interest of military professionals in prolonged but also cautious and relatively non-sanguinary service. During the Thirty Years’ War many top officers were mercenaries, notably on the Habsburg side under Wallenstein. Not all were Catholics-Wallenstein himself was an agnostic mystic. They came from Scotland, England, Ireland, the Swiss cantons, and the many overrun and warring German states. In 1500 most European armies contained about one-third mercenary troops. Shortly after Gustavus Adolphus intervened in the Thirty Years’ War 130 years later his “Swedish Army” had become, through casualties and new recruitment, 80 percent foreign mercenaries wrapped around a core of Swedish veterans.

Among the most important effects of large numbers of greatly skilled, highly mobile, and utterly disloyal mercenaries, combined with the lethality of the cannons and firearms they employed, was to so threaten any self-respecting sovereign that it became essential to establish standing armies to protect the dynasty and realm. The answer to the anarchy, terror, and destruction caused by “Free Companies” of heavily armed and homeless men all over Europe thus became the law of kings. This was then enforced by soldiers in royal service who dressed in the king’s colors, were paid regularly and sheltered year-round in barracks, who had stables for their mounts, magazines full of shot and powder, and national foundries and small arms industries to supply military needs. In short, the answer to mercenary anarchy was the modern state.

Suggested Reading: S. Brown, “The Mercenary and his Master,” History, 74 (1989); K. A. Fowler, Medieval Mercenaries, Vol. 1 (2001); M. E. Mallett, Mercenaries and Their Masters (1974); J. F. Verbruggen, The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages (1977); David Worthington, Scots in Habsburg Service, 1618-1648 (2004).

The Black Army

Knight of the Black Army

Under King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (r. 1458–1490), the Black Army was a highly skilled mercenary force but it became too expensive for the country to support. Federico da Montefeltro was not only one of the most successful mercenaries of the Italian Renaissance but was also a famous patron of the arts: his study, finished in 1476, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The success of Swiss mercenaries at the battle of Nancy (1477) encouraged more European leaders to hire them. The failure of other mercenaries, during the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, to kill Lorenzo de Medici led to their own deaths. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I formed the mercenary Landsknecht regiments in 1487; they would eventually displace Swiss mercenaries on the battlefield.

The term “Black Army,” coined after the death of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (1443–1490), refers to his foreign mercenary forces, which consisted chiefly of Bohemians, Poles, and Germans.1 There are various theories about the origin of this unusual name. The first recorded references to a “black army” appear in memoranda written immediately after Matthias died. His death occurred when his soldiers were pillaging Hungarian and Austrian villages because they had not been paid; they may have sewed a black stripe on their uniforms as a sign of mourning. If so, it is not clear today whether they were mourning their lost leader, their lost pay, or both.

The foundations of this highly skilled mercenary army were laid by the father of Matthias in the early 1440s. The concept of a professional standing army of mercenaries, however, is said to have come to young Matthias himself—when he was reading about the life of Julius Caesar. The eventual result of this creative idea was that the soldiers of the Black Army would be well-paid, full-time mercenaries who were devoted to perfecting their military skills. At its peak strength in 1487, this army could field some 28,000 men, i.e., 20,000 horsemen and 8,000 infantrymen. Moreover, as noted earlier in this book, every fifth soldier in the infantry had an arquebus—an unusually high ratio at the time.

As Matthias’ income increased, he was able to hire more and more mercenaries. Contemporary records differ on the numbers involved because these changed from one battle to another and because some soldiers were employed only for the duration of a given campaign. Nevertheless, if all the nobility’s Banners (military units), all the mercenaries, all the soldiers of conquered Moravia and Silesia, and all the troops of allied Moldavia and Wallachia are added up, Matthias might have had as many as 90,000 men at his disposal.

Managing this force was not child’s play. The major disadvantage of having troops who were paid periodically or only rarely was that if they did not receive their pay, they would simply leave the battlefield or even, in some cases, they would revolt. Such revolts had to be put down by the king, but since these rebels were well-trained, disciplined, men-at-arms they were very hard to suppress.

The good news, from the king’s point of view, was that since only a relatively small number of his troops revolted at any given time, their captains could often be encouraged to return to the fold simply by offering them lands and castles, which they could then mortgage and use the proceeds to pay their troops. If this ploy did not work, however, Matthias would resort to military force, tempered by mercy. In 1467, for example, his troops captured a rebel garrison. After the captured men had watched some other prisoners being hung, they begged for mercy—which Matthias kindly granted. He even made one captured rebel officer a captain in the Black Guard because he was such a good fighter.

In 1481, Matthias himself summed up the battlefield duties of his infantry in a letter to Gabriele Rangoni, bishop of Eger. The description, disposition, and tactics of this unit follow closely the actual practices of the Italian mercenary armies. Matthias writes:

The third force of the army is the infantry, which divides into various orders: the common infantry, the armored infantry, and the shield-bearers…. The armored infantry and shield-bearers cannot carry their armor and shields without pages and servants, and since it is necessary to provide them with pages, each one of them requires one page per shield and armor….

Then there are handgunners [i.e., soldiers carrying primitive hand-held firearms known as hand cannons] … They are very practical, set behind the shield-bearers at the start of the battle, before the enemies engage, and in defense. Nearly all of the infantry and the handgunners are surrounded by armored soldiers and shield-bearers, as if they were standing behind a bastion. The large shields set together in a circle present the appearance of a fort and are similar to a wall in whose defense the infantry and all those among them fight almost as if from behind bastion walls or ramparts and at a given moment break out from it.

Before Matthias died in 1490, he had asked his officers to support his son, John Corvinus, as the new king, but Hungary soon collapsed into rival factions struggling for power. Moreover, in about 1492, because some Black Army mercenaries had not been paid they switched sides and joined the army of the Holy Roman Empire, which was then invading Hungary. Another Black Army unit was not paid, either, so it survived by looting the nearest monasteries, churches, villages, and manors.

The failure to pay mercenaries arose because the king simply could not afford to support such a large number of hired troops. Indeed, it has been calculated that out of an annual income of about 900,000 ducats, the king had to set aside 400,000 ducats to pay these men. Revolts by the mercenaries finally led the Black Army itself being disbanded in 1494. Its surviving members were either integrated into local garrisons or, as in the case of some who had turned traitor, were arrested for treason, were locked up, and were quietly allowed to starve to death.

Swiss Mercenaries in the 15th and early 16th centuries

The Swiss (on the left) assault the Landsknecht mercenaries in the French lines at the Battle of Marignano

“As for trying to intimidate the enemy, blocks of thousands of oncoming merciless Swiss, advancing swiftly accompanied by what a contemporary called “the deep wails and moans of the Uri Bull and Unterwalden Cow*” or landsknechts chanting “look out, here I come” in time with their drums were posturing on a grand scale. Not to mention what 8 ranks of lowered pike-heads looked like when viewed from the receiving end…”



In Hamlet Act IV, Scene 5, Shakespeare has the king call out: “Where are my Switzers? Let them guard the door.” Here Shakespeare is referring to the famous Swiss mercenaries, whose courage, reliability, and battlefield skills made them the most sought-after mercenaries during the Late Middle Ages. Their discipline and training even allowed them to withstand cavalry charges. Because they were so good at their work, it is worth saying something here, very briefly, about their abilities.

The modern scholars Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw tell us this about the Swiss mercenaries:

The French could boast the finest heavy cavalry in Europe in the companies d’ordonnance, permanent units raised and paid for by the Crown, in which the French competed to serve. For infantry, the French had come to rely heavily on Swiss mercenaries. In the 1490s, the reputation of the Swiss stood very high. They were a different kind of “national” army. A well-established system of training, organized by the governments of the cantons, resulted in a high proportion of able-bodied men having the strength and ability to handle pikes, halberds and two-handed swords, and the discipline to execute complex manoeuvres in formations of several thousand men.

Employers hired these men not only for their military skills but also because entire contingents could be recruited simply by contacting the Swiss cantons. Young men there were required to serve in the militia system, were willing and well-prepared to do so, and welcomed the chance to serve abroad. Alternatively, Swiss men could also hire themselves out individually or in small groups. It is clear that the Swiss were hard fighters and hard-headed businessmen as well. Their motto was: pas d’argent, pas de Swisse (no money, no Swiss).

Swiss mercenaries were highly valued through late medieval Europe because of the power of their determined mass attacks, in deep columns, with pikes and halberds. They specialized in sending large columns of soldiers into battle in “pike squares.” These were well-trained, well-disciplined bands of men armed with long steel-tipped poles and were grouped into 100-man formations that were 10 men wide and 10 men deep. On command, pike squares could wheel and maneuver so quickly that it was nearly suicidal for horsemen or infantrymen to attack them. As they came at their enemy with leveled pikes and hoarse battle cries, they were almost invincible.

These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A These Swiss soldiers were equally proficient in the use of crossbows, early firearms, swords, and halberds. A halberd is an axe blade topped with a spike and mounted on a long shaft. If the need arose, they could easily lay their pikes aside and take up other weapons instead. They were so effective that between about 1450 and 1500 every major leader in Europe either hired Swiss pikemen or hired fighters like the German Landsknecht who copied Swiss tactics. The extensive and continuous demand for these specialist Swiss and landsknecht pike companies may well have given them the illusion of permanency. In any case, what it did show was that medieval and Renaissance warfare was becoming better disciplined, more organized, and more professional.

Swiss fighters were responding to several interrelated factors: limited economic opportunities in their home mountains; pride in themselves and their colleagues as world-class soldiers; and, last but not least, by a love of adventure and combat. In fact, they were such good fighters that the Swiss enjoyed a near-monopoly on pike-armed military service for many years. One of their successes was the battle of Novara in northern Italy 1513 between France and the Republic of Venice, on the one hand, and the Swiss Confederation and the Duchy of Milan, on the other. The story runs as follows.

A French army, said by some sources to total 1,200 cavalrymen and about 20,000 Landsknechts, Gascons, and other troops, was camped near and was besieging Novara. This city was being held by some of the Duke of Milan’s Swiss mercenaries. A Swiss relief army of some 13,000 Swiss troops unexpectedly fell upon the French camp. The pike-armed Landsknechts managed to form up into their combat squares; the Landsknecht infantrymen took up their proper positions; and the French were able to get some of their cannons into action. The Swiss, however, surrounded the French camp, captured the cannons, broke up the Landsknecht pike squares, and forced back the Landsknecht infantry regiments.

The fight was very bloody: the Swiss executed hundreds of the Landsknechts they had captured, and 700 men were killed in three minutes by heavy artillery fire alone. To use a later English naval term from the days of sail, the “butcher’s bill” (the list of those killed in action) was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Despite this Swiss success, however, the days of their supremacy as the world’s best mercenaries were numbered. In about 1515, the Swiss pledged themselves to neutrality, with the exception of Swiss soldiers serving in the ranks of the royal French army. The Landsknechts, on the other hand, would continue to serve any paymaster and would even fight each other if need be. Moreover, since the rigid battle formations of the Swiss were increasingly vulnerable to arquebus and artillery fire, employers were more inclined to hire the Landsknechts instead.

In retrospect, it is clear that the successes of Swiss soldiers in the 15th and early 16th centuries were due to three factors:

• Their courage was extraordinary. No Swiss force ever broke in battle, surrendered, or ran away. In several instances, the Swiss literally fought to the last man. When they were forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, they did so in good order while defending themselves against attack.

• Their training was excellent. Swiss soldiers relied on a simple system of tactics, practiced until it became second nature to every man. They were held to the mark by a committee-leadership of experienced old soldiers.

• They were ferocious and gave no quarter, not even for ransom, and sometimes violated terms of surrender already given to garrisons and pillaged towns that had capitulated. These qualities inspired fear in their opponents.

Habiru/Apiru Mercenaries

Throughout history it has always been difficult for governments to find enough good soldiers. A soldier’s life was and is often very hard, and there is the ever-present danger of loss of life, so for many a military life was not desirable. Warfare in the period from 4000 to 1000 BCE generally involved either local disputes or in some cases wars waged far from home. For example, Thutmose III (ca. 1504-1450 BCE) waged 17 military campaigns outside of Egypt during his reign. Military life for the Egyptian soldiers at this time included long periods away from home and away from their families and professions. Life in the military was often not popular, and many societies in the ancient world suffered shortages in personnel.

Conscription was one obvious way to deal with the shortage, and many ancient cultures adopted it. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms (ca. 2600-1780 BCE) Egypt conscripted 1 in every 100 men into the army, and by the time of Ramses II (ca. 1279-1212 BCE) 1 in 10 men were being conscripted. This was very unpopular, and many Egyptians avoided conscription by hiding or running away. The only way for Egypt and other societies to gain enough soldiers to maintain a large enough standing army was by hiring mercenaries. The period from 4000 to 1000 BCE was premonetary, so mercenaries were not paid in coinage but instead were often given grants of land and a share in the loot from the battle. A military career in Egypt, whether as a mercenary or a regular soldier, was one of the only ways for a peasant or commoner to increase his status and fortune in life.

The first solid references to mercenaries are from the reign of King Sargon of Akkad in Mesopotamia and date to ca. 2350 BCE. Sargon employed perhaps as many as 5,000 mercenaries, mostly recruited from the edges of his empire. These mercenaries also sometimes saw regular police duty and were often used to put down internal riots and revolts. Since they were far from home, they would have no connection with the people they had to control, and Sargon did not have to make his soldiers use violence toward their own people. This allowed Sargon to see his will done without much unrest developing within his military. The Egyptian pharaohs often used the famous Medjay Nubian mercenaries in a similar way. By the time of the Egyptian New Kingdom, the Medjay were unoffcially known as the Egyptian police force.

The most notable force of mercenaries in the ancient world were the Habiru. This group or culture was known across the ancient Middle East and appears in the documents of many cultures from 2500 BCE through to about 1000 BCE. Its origin is unknown, and there were groups of Habiru in many regions. The ancient texts note that they were sometimes hired for domestic purposes but most often as mercenaries. By the fourteenth century BCE the Habiru had become very successful as mercenaries, and their population had grown to the extent that they were able to take control of various towns and cities in the Levant, including Hazor and Byblos.

The Canaanite kings supplemented their forces with hired freebooters called apiru (sometimes known as habiru). The apiru were a class of outcasts, debtors, outlaws, and restless nomads who formed themselves into wandering groups of raiders, often hiring themselves out to princes and kings for military duty. These wandering brigands were a serious threat and often had to be brought to heel by the Canaanite princes by force of arms. One of history’s greatest generals, David, was an apiru. When forced to leave Saul’s court for fear of being killed, David returned to his old mercenary occupation by raising a force of 600 “discontented men” and hiring his soldiers out to one of the Philistine kings. The size and military sophistication of these brigand groups could present a considerable threat to public order. A record from Alalakh tells of a band of apiru comprising 1,436 men, 80 of which were charioteers and 1,006 of which were shananu, probably some kind of archer. Another text records the capture of the town of Allul by a force of 2,000 apiru.

However, with the collapse of the great city-states at the end of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1050 BCE), the Habiru disappear from history. It is possible that in all the upheaval of the period they were incorporated into what remained of society after the fall of the elite polities of the period

Bibliography Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Vintage Books and Random House, 1994. Yalichev, Serge. Mercenaries of the Ancient World. London: Constable and Company, 1997