Five tips for unscrupulous mercenaries working in the Medieval Near East
Posted in
September 25, 2022

Five tips for unscrupulous mercenaries working in the Medieval Near East

By Nicholas Morton

The Medieval Near East never lacked for mercenaries for a very good reason. The region was immensely rich so ambitious mercenaries might well ask themselves why they continued to eke out a pittance at home when they could acquire vast piles of wealth fighting for the many embattled powers along the fabled Silk routes. To this end, thousands set out for the region from across Eurasia, whilst many warriors already based in the Near East were often prepared to offer themselves for employment if the price was right. 

Naturally mercenaries took different forms. Armoured cavalrymen serving for cash within an elite squadron would have angrily rejected the notion of being associated with other groups of hireable warriors including siege engineers, miners, infantry, or light cavalry. Yet the fundamental principle of their employment was the same: no money = no war.

So what was the nature of the mercenary market in the Near East? What were its guidelines, whether spoken or unspoken? Here I offer five themes common to at least some mercenaries across the region at this time.

Be ready to switch sides

Mercenaries could be discerning about their choice of employer. Some preferred to fight alongside members of their own faith or culture, others were loyal to a specific commander, but for many the basic principle was to … follow the money. If this meant switching employers at the last minute then so be it. In 1124 the ruler of Melitene in Southern Anatolia was besieged by a rival named Ghazi and so he slipped out from the city at night to recruit some mercenaries from the Crusader States for 30,000 dinars. Unfortunately for him, these mercenaries never turned up because they were called away to support King Baldwin II of Jerusalem who was gathering troops to besiege the city of Aleppo in northern Syria; presumably they received a better offer.

Of course, the sudden abandonment of one employer for another could impact the region’s balance of power. From the mercenaries’ perspective however this probably wasn’t too much of a concern because their priority was generally to maximise their pay. In the years directly before the famous Battle of Hattin and the subsequent Fall of Jerusalem (1187), mercenaries had been flocking away from the Crusader States, heading instead to serve King William II of Sicily who then used them to wage war against the Byzantine empire. For Near Eastern mercenaries, languishing during a period of truce in the Crusader States, in the years directly before the Hattin campaign, this was an easy decision – they wanted to be paid.  Even so, King Henry II later came to fear that his actions had drawn possible soldiers away from the Crusader States at a crucial moment.

Be careful who you work with!

Some mercenary companies were huge. In the twelfth century many leading Turkish rulers in Syria employed thousands of Turkmen nomadic warriors to bulk-out their armies. These warriors were not necessarily mercenaries in the traditional sense, but some groups were evidently prepared to fight for money because in 1119 the Turkish ruler Ilghazi, having won a major victory against the Principality of Antioch, complained that he needed all his cash to pay his considerable force of Turkmen warriors. Another commentator called Ibn al-Athir complained about these warriors observing:

‘Each one of them would arrive with a bag of wheat and a sheep and would count the hours until he could take some quick booty and then go home.’ 

Nevertheless, teaming up to form mercenary companies could pose problems. Mercenaries have their own agendas and those agendas aren’t always solely centred on the acquisition of money. In 1270, two mercenaries approached Philip of Montfort, lord of Tyre in the Kingdom of Jerusalem asking for employment, dressed as Turkmen warriors. They were then enrolled as turcopoles (light-cavalry) and Philip learned to depend heavily upon their assistance. In time he relied on them so much that he permitted them to live in his own house. Nevertheless, these soldiers weren’t actually seeking money or even employment. They were assassins intent firstly on seeking his favour and then – when he dropped his guard – assassinating both him and another Frankish lord. In the event, one assassin managed to murder Philip of Montfort and almost killed his son as well. The other was apprehended before he could strike. For mercenaries in the Near East the lesson here was clear – be careful who you ally yourself with. Fellow mercenaries may have hidden agendas.

Roger de Flor, leader of the Great Catalan Company, is received by the Byzantine emperor. Painting by José Moreno Carbonero in 1888.

Have an eye on the main chance!

Normally when rulers hire mercenaries, they just want to supplement their forces with a company of auxiliaries or perhaps a few specialists, such as siege engineers. In such circumstances, mercenaries generally had to be content with their pay and then go home. There were some occasions however when mercenaries realised that their paymasters were starting to depend on them for their very existence. For many mercenaries – this was the moment of opportunity. Perhaps they could aspire to take power in their own right.

This kind of scenario occurred many times in the Medieval Mediterranean. In 1303 a mercenary band called the Catalan Great Company arrived in the Byzantine Empire, seemingly ready to offer its services to Emperor Andronicus II. Initially the mercenary company drove back the empire’s enemies in Anatolia winning several important victories. Nevertheless, their leader soon recognised just how badly Andronicus needed his assistance and how little resistance he could offer should the Great Company turn against him. Consequently, he demanded more and more concessions from Andronicus until the situation declined into open war as the mercenaries sought to take power for themselves.

Guy of Lusginan with his armies outside Tyre – Wikimedia Commons

Be alert to opportunities created by rising powers

There is a story about a former king of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan, who became king of Cyprus in 1192. The tale reports that soon after taking power he wrote to Saladin asking for advice about how he could best secure his rule. Saladin replied a little reluctantly, but his advice was clear – Guy should liberally hand out the island’s estates to settlers from friendly territories. He wasn’t necessarily talking about mercenaries here, but the principle is important. Rulers in this era sought to attract the best warriors by paying them or giving them as much as they could. They needed to be generous or these same warriors would simply transfer to the higher bidder. When they had these warriors at their command, they stood a far higher chance of being victorious in war. Of course for mercenaries, the key principle was to stay vigilant to changing political tides; wealthy and successful employers have a much greater chance of keeping you safe and paying you well than their weaker and poorer counterparts.

Know your exit strategy

There comes a time in every mercenary’s life when their fighting days are done and it’s time to hang up the sword. This raises the significant question – how will they support themselves when they are no longer being paid?

The Arab nobleman Usama ibn Munqidh tells the story of one of his close friends called Tadrus who went for a meal with an elderly Frankish (Western European) knight in the city of Antioch. They were on very good terms and, although Tadrus expressed some concerns that Frankish food might be served, especially pork, the knight hurriedly reassured him that he never ate pork and that he had an excellent Egyptian chef. Tadrus was however clearly curious to know how this knight supported himself given that he was no longer paid by the prince of Antioch as a fighting knight. As it turned out, the knight possessed enough property in the city to enable him to live in some style on the proceeds of the rental income. The key principle here for aspiring mercenaries was to make sure that enough money was invested to keep them in their old age!

Nicholas Morton is an Associate Professor of History at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. He is the author or editor of several books covering different aspects of Medieval Near Eastern history. These include The Crusader States and their Neighbours: A Military History, 1099-1187 (Oxford University Press, 2020) and The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East (Basic Books, 2018). You can follow Nicholas on Twitter @NicholasMorto11

Further Reading:

Nicholas Morton, The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East (Basic Books, 2022)

Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 95 fol. 25v


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