An ancient Greek word for mercenary?

An examination of some early Greek texts suggests that the term epikouros requires a more complex definition than just “mercenary”.

Josho Brouwers

Last Friday, we recorded another episode of our irregular podcast. The topic we talked about was mercenaries in the ancient world; the episode will be published next month. The discussion was, as always, wide-ranging, but one particular element I want to explore in more detail in the present article, namely the use of the ancient Greek term epikouros. I’ve written a bit about this term before in my article on the poet Archilochus, but there’s plenty left to say about it.

The earliest reference to epikouroi can be found in Homer’s Iliad (dated ca. 700 BC), the epic poem set in the tenth year of the destructive Trojan War. The Trojan allies are specifically referred to as epikouroi (e.g. Il. 5.473, 6.227, 7.368, 8.497, 9.233, 10.420, 11.220, 12.108, 13.755, 17.212, 18.229). In contrast to the Greek forces, they are culturally heterogenous and speak many different languages (Il. 2.803–804), so that unlike the Greeks they cannot be referred to collectively by a single name (cf. Thucydides 1.3).

In one of the earlier parts of the poem, Priam, the king of Troy, tells Helen that he was once summoned to the aid of Otreus and Mygdon to fight against the Amazons. He says specifically that he came to their aid as an epikouros (Il. 3.185-189). A little later, the hero Sarpedon tells Hector, the commander of the Trojan forces, that he had come to Troy as an epikouros (Il. 5.477-478 and 491; again at Il. 12.101). Sarpedon emphasizes that he joined the fight even though he himself had never been threatened by the Greeks (Il. 5.482-484). A little later, the wise Polydamas rebukes Hector and tells him: “now you have utterly forgotten your armed companions [i.e. epikouroi] who for your sake, far from their friends and the land of their fathers, are wearing their lives away” (Il. 16.538-540; all the translations of passages from the Iliad are by Richmond Lattimore).

All of these instances make clear that epikouroi are men who come to the aid of a friend or ally. This idea is reinforced by none other than the goddess Athena (Il. 428-431):

Now may all who bring their aid to the Trojans be in
such case as these, when they do battle with the armoured Argives,
as daring and as unfortunate, as now Aphrodite
came companion in arms [epikouros] to Ares, and faced my fury.

In the Iliad, there is, as far as I know, just one instance in which Greeks are referred to as epikouroi. Agamemnon reminds Diomedes that the latter’s father, Tydeus, had once come to Mycenae with Polynices to ask for epikouroi in their war against Boeotian Thebes (Il. 4.376–379). This war is best known from the play Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus. The story is part of another epic cycle and predates the Trojan War.

Interestingly, the Trojan epikouroi are said specifically to render aid in exchange for rich gifts (Il. 17.220-226). After all, unlike the Greeks, the Trojans don’t have the prospect of a wealthy city to seize and plunder if they are successful. Similarly, in the case of Tydeus and Polynices’ expedition against Thebes, the epikouroi would not have had the chance to sack the city: Polynices wanted to oust his brother and seize control of the city and its territory, not raze it to the ground.

Epikouroi, then, are men who, in times of war, come to the aid of their friends or allies, and who are expected to be compensated in such way. The word literally means “young man alongside”, but considering all the evidence so far, a better translation would be “fighter alongside”, i.e. a man who offers military support in times of war.

Since epikouroi apparently fought for some kind of reward, it’s not such a big leap to consider these men mercenaries. Indeed, when the Parian poet Archilochus (second half of the seventh century BC) complains that he will “be called an epikouros, like a Carian” (fr. 216 West), there is the suggestion that he doesn’t like being called a mercenary, fighting only because he gets a reward, similar to the allies of the Trojans in the Iliad and, apparently, similar to Carians.

The main difference between an epikouros and a mercenary seems to be that epikouroi maintained ties of friendship with the people who asked them for help. They are different from the misthophoroi (‘wage-earners’) familiar from Classical sources – the mercenaries who fought for pay and who did not necessarily have any prior relationship with whoever was footing the bill. In this light, we can also better understand Archilochus’ pessimistic statement that “an epikouros is a buddy [philos] for just so long as he’s prepared to fight” (fr. 15 West): if an epikouros were a simple mercenary, Archilochus might have said instead that a man like that is only a friend for as long as he’s paid.

In short, it’s probably too simplistic to regard epikouroi as mercenaries. The Archaic sources, at least, suggest that an epikouros was someone who rendered military support as a favour, and who could be expected to be given some kind of reward for his efforts. The relationship between the two parties was not simply – or at least not primarily – transactional.