Skip to main content
Skip to main menu Skip to spotlight region Skip to secondary region Skip to UGA region Skip to Tertiary region Skip to Quaternary region Skip to unit footer


Research opens up new revelations about Ancient Greece

Alan Flurry

Thanks to trade and colonization, 1st millennium BCE Mediterranean was characterized by an unprecedented increase human mobility. New anthropology research co-led by the University of Georgia on the diverse genetic origins of the Classical period Greek army reveals a broad mix of ethnic identity within Greece and throughout the region – as well as the use of mercenaries in battle.

Accounts by ancient historians Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus document two important battles in which Phoenicians from Carthage attacked the Greek city of Himera. During the first battle, in 480 BCE, a Greek alliance between Himera, Syracuse and Agrigento was successful in defending the Himera; but when the Carthaginians returned as an act of revenge in 409 BCE with a large mercenary army, Himerans fought largely unaided and the polis was destroyed and abandoned.

Excavations at Himera since the 1990s have unearthed one of the largest Greek necropoleis ever discovered, with over 10,000 burials. The new study, as reported in the New York Times, explores the genetic affinities of these soldiers and contemporaneous Sicilians by analysing the genomes of 54 individuals excavated at Himera and other sites in western Sicily:

neither Herodotus nor Diodorus Siculus mentioned mercenaries in their reports of the first Battle of Himera, a fierce struggle in 480 B.C. in which the Greeks from various Sicilian cities united to beat back a Carthaginian invasion. Mercenaries were considered the antithesis of the Homeric hero.

“Being a wage earner had some negative connotations — avarice, corruption, shifting allegiance, the downfall of civilized society,” said Laurie Reitsema, an anthropologist at the University of Georgia. “In this light, it is unsurprising if ancient authors would choose to embellish the Greeks for Greeks aspect of the battles, rather than admitting they had to pay for it.”

But research published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the ancestry of the troops defending Himera was not as strictly Greek as historical accounts of the time would have it.

The victory was widely seen as a defining event for Greek identity. But the new study, an analysis of degraded DNA from 54 corpses found in Himera’s recently unearthed west necropolis, found that the communal graves were largely occupied by professional soldiers from places as far-flung as those known today as Ukraine, Latvia and Bulgaria.

The finding buttresses research published last year in which Katherine Reinberger, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Georgia, and her colleagues performed a chemical analysis of the tooth enamel of 62 fallen fighters buried near Himera’s ancient battlefield, where two major clashes played out: one in 480 B.C., when Himeran forces defeated the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Mago, and a second battle seven decades later, when Hamilcar’s grandson returned for revenge and Himera was destroyed. Dr. Reinberger’s team concluded that about one-third of those who fought in the first conflict were locals, compared with three-fourths in the later battle. Dr. Reitsema is a principal author on both studies.

Congratulations to Reitsema and colleagues on this important new study.

Image: A mass grave of troops from the second Battle of Himera in Sicily in 409 B.C. One-fourth of the combatants are thought to have been mercenaries, compared to two-thirds in the first Battle of Himera seven decades earlier. Credit:Stefano Vassallo

Support Franklin College

We appreciate your financial support. Your gift is important to us and helps support critical opportunities for students and faculty alike, including lectures, travel support, and any number of educational events that augment the classroom experience. Click here to learn more about giving.