To be elite in much of the ancient world was to be a warrior. There are a few famous kings who spent part of their youth fighting for foreign rulers, like Harald Hadrada, but in my setting there’s a culture that takes this to the extreme.

Every year a portion of the nobility of a certain kingdom goes campaigning as mercenaries for the richer city states to their south. They do this to make considerable money, keep their skills sharp and keep the commoners of their own lands in line by keeping taxes low and prestige high through their mercenary exploits.

My question is, would it be plausible for a region to send most of its warrior class to fight as mercenaries? Would this cause too much political disruption or make too many enemies?

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    $\begingroup$ "To be elite in much of the ancient world was to be a warrior": Not in ancient Greece, not in ancient Rome. You probably mean medieval, not ancient. In the ancient world, only barbarians had warriors, as opposed to civilized peoples, which had soldiers. And soldiers were most definitely not elite. (And mentioning Harald "the last Viking" Hardrada strengthens the point.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 13, 2022 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I am going to disagree about warriors not being present in Greece. Prior to Phillip of Macedon the core of Greek armies were wealthy landowners who were not paid for their military duties and were required to supply their own equipment. Phillip II of Macedon changed this by having a highly trained and drilled army that utterly demolished hoplite armies. $\endgroup$
    – user71781
    Jan 13, 2022 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ (1) There were very few "wealthy landowners" in classical Greece. (2) Yes, each hoplite supplied his own equipment. It was not that expensive. In a city-state such as Athens about half of the citizens qualified. (3) And those who could not supply their own equipment were employed in the fleet; the fleet did pay its sailors. (4) The difference between a mob or warriors and an army of soldiers is that the soldiers in the army train together as an army. They have unit cohesion. They respond to commands. Fighting in a Greek phalanx and fighting as an individual are two very very different things. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 14, 2022 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Citizens in Ancient Greece were in fact defined by the fact that they were wealthy. The population of citizens as a percentage of the Polis overall was small. Having half of the citizens take up arms is around 5% of the total population, as most of the human beings in Ancient Greece were slaves. Your distinction between soldiers and warriors is not a good one, as warrior societies like the Norse fought in shield walls, nomadic warriors like the Comanche used complicated feints and flanking maneuvers and the hoplites did not even train for combat. $\endgroup$
    – user71781
    Jan 14, 2022 at 1:36

6 Answers 6

  • There are not all that many noblemen. That is sort-of the entire point of nobility.

    In western Europe, France and Germany had some 2 or 3% of the population beloging to the noble class. The English had less than 1%. (With the English it's complicated, because it's not clear what counts as "noble"; I assumed that we count "peers" as noblemen, and we don't count all ordinary gentlemen, who never had any special legal status, unlike the gentilshommes of France and the Adel of Germany.) The absolute European champion was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with about 10%.

  • In real life, having a fraction of a small fraction of the population go abroad and play soldier would not bring anywhere near enough money to "keep the taxes low".

    • Which is quite obvious if you think about it. If sending your people to fight as mercenaries for some foreigners keeps the taxes low, this means that the foreigners transfer a significant part of their tax income to you. Which means that the foreigners are so very much richer than you, or else they could not afford it; and since they are so poor at fighting, why don't you conquer them outright?
  • During some periods of time it was perfectly normal for young, poor noblemen to seek military employment abroad. No, this did not make them rich, except in a handful of cases. More usually it made them dead.

    Except in Italy, where they eventually reached a point where wars were not as much fought as played. For a typical example, see the furious battle of Anghiari (1440) between a Papal-Florentine-Venetian alliance and Milan, famous for being the subject of a lost fresco by Leonardo da Vinci; some 16,000 soldiers were engaged, out of which one died, and he died because the drowned in a swamp.)

  • Realistically speaking, the situation varied enormously from place to place and from time to time.

    • During the later part of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, just about everybody playing soldier in Italy was a mercenary. (Excepting of course the invading French and Spaniards, who actually brought actual armies with actual soldiers.) (It's not that mercenaries were not good soldiers; they may have been. But mercenaries are expensive, and the Italian city-states were small and disorganized.)

    • The Germans, the Italians, the Scots, and the Swiss were notorious for seeking military employment abroad.

      For the Swiss, serving as mercenaries abroad was sort-of a national specialty. Everybody had Swiss mercenaries, the Spanish, the French, the Italians, even the British. The Swiss were considered the best among mercenaries, and were the best paid. Not many noblemen among them, however.

    • There is an entire category of Italian mercenary commanders: the condottieri. (The Italian word means "contractor".)

    • Famous mercenary commanders include Cesare Borgia; Fernando d'Ávalos, 5th marquis of Pescara; Andrea Doria, most famous as admiral of Genoa); Alexander Farnese, duke of Parma; Ottavio Piccolomini, one of the best generals fighting on the Imperial side in the 30 Years' War; Enea Silvio Piccolomini, famous for fighting in the service of emperor Leopold I against the Turks; and Albrecht von Wallenstein, the best general on the Imperial side in the 30th Years' War.

    • The absolute peak of mercenary armies was the Thirty Years' War, the closest thing to a word war that the pre-modern world ever had. The only sides which fielded real national armies were Spain and Sweden; throughout most of the war, everybody else, both on the Imperial side as on the Rebel side, used mostly mercenaries of various kinds. And Spain and Sweden also used mercenaries on a large scale.


It's perfectly plausible.

In a situation where only the first born male inherit the title and the benefits from a family, any additional male has only two options ahead of him: become part of the clergy or become a cadet and pursue military glory.

Many renaissance captains, like Giovanni delle Bande Nere, were cadets who created a mercenary army. It was as the game was played.

  • $\begingroup$ Why would these second sons come back? OP wants them to return to their brother's estates at the end of the campaign and pay taxes (!) to a country they don't live in. I'm pretty sure I'd just overwinter in the "richer cities in the south" and keep all my pay. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Jan 13, 2022 at 19:17


Soldiers can be drilled in loyalty as well as fighting skill. Their mercenaries can be good, but the most improvement is simply in numbers. Buying extra troops can lead to a lot of extra wealth for a government if they win, or at least less of a loss.

For the (groups of) mercenaries it's an easy choice. They can accept or decline offers, lowering the chance they get into a huge disadvantaged fight. Winning fights can enrich them enormously through plunder. This allows them to return home as not just a celebrated soldier, but raise their living standards.

As even the lowly peasants can get to the middle class via such a system with a reduced mortality rate compared to normal war they are more likely to accept the culture and be loyal. If other kings or governments try to abuse their power towards the mercenaries/mercenary kingdom they can be cut off, mercenaries can be supplied to opponents and/or infiltrate the normal ranks of mercenaries that are always available and betray them. Lastly they will fight against a highly trained army.

It can certainly work. Even if it's just propaganda. People held Spartans in high regard due to the stories. However, it seems that they weren't as formidable as depicted in fiction. Just a warrior nation that had some advantages and then sold their stories very well.


In regards to political disruption.

Political disruption could happen if one nation or another took it personally, but if the mercenaries themselves were unbiased with who they took up contracts with then this could mitigate that. However, an unbiased contract system could lead to this mercenary society fighting its own from time to time- which of course they could charge more for.

Another benefit; Access to foreign nobles.

This would reap its own benefits for your errant warlords. They could arrange deals or alliances beyond mercenary service while in the court of whatever lord they were serving or while campaigning with them. Foreign bodyguards were also not unheard of in ancient times, in fact they were sometimes preferred. Bodyguards with no attachment to other local powers that might threaten your position could be more loyal to the gold you give them than the people you were oppressing. Either way its direct access to the rich and powerful.

On the Note of Pesky Realism.

Another answering your question have already criticized the realism and practicality of this. They make a well informed point and supply a good amount of references I'd suggest you consider and research. However, I'd like to may make suggestions on how you can balance realism and practicality with this interesting culture your cooking up instead of telling you all the ways it wouldn't work.

You might want to consider these mercenary nobles to be vassals in one form or another of the rich city states, and instead of paying their taxes in gold or goods they pay with fighting men, noble and commoner. This could keep the country taxes down, require the nobles to often go of to war, earn them the prestige and loot you mentioned, and keep to the general idea of the society you are suggesting.

This was a practice used for certain Gaulic groups conquered by Rome back in the day. These peoples would have to be very good soldiers to justify the loss of that sweet, sweet tax money or specialize in a form of warfare in high demand (it was mounted cavalry for the Gauls I mentioned). A religious element could also play a hand into the reasoning behind why it is a requirement for men of this society to go of to war.


Constant War of Small Medieval States requires mercenaries and a mercenary outlook.

Time Periods featuring small states with shifting allegiances especially prior to consolidation of a land mass by one power, offer endless opportunities to be at war. Even though an elite class of warriors may exist they might easily have shifting loyalties several times in their lifetime forming new units and affiliations for different battles.

It is necessary in a medieval world, that a state sends its warriors to show support for other states, to push their family further up the hierarchy of noble clans and remain in favour. Keep your enemies close, as they say.

Even though Samurai are famous for their loyalty, in the 1500s and early 1600s the daimyos would often commit their troops to other daimyos, and if they lost a battle or were betrayed by a general, all the samurai committed to one side would then go to another. The fighting was continuous for almost a hundred years.

Consider all these permutations of Japan: Nobunaga,killed his own brother to take control of his clan, fought and destroyed Shingen, was betrayed and defeated by Hideyoshi, who invents a lineage to take control of the country, unifying most of Japan, and then his son Hideyori is defeated by Leyasu, who finally completes the task of uniting all of Japan and assembles an elder council of other daimyos to ensure that his dynasty will stay in place.

Even when a ruling dynasty occurs, they will levy troops from smaller, poorer houses . On the other hand, as long as there is no stable leadership, there will constant statecraft, and a dynamic leader will always adapt and have a mercenary outlook.


Not mercenary warriors but mercenary GENERALS

As it was pointed out, there weren't that many nobles during the Middle Ages (or in general for that matter) so if they are serving as mercenaries, it would naturally happen that they would be pitted against each other. What southern state would want to be trampled by a mercenary heavy cavalry unit? Instead place the mercenary heavy lancer unit to fend them off. The casualties suffered by the northern nobles would be catastrophic, and the time it takes to train and the cost to equip them might be not worthy the effort, from an economic and social point of view.

What if, alternately, these northern nobles would hire out as elite generals, logisticians, strategists and captains? Advisors and leaders, not direct fighters (unless required). They would give an instantaneous boost to the performance of these southern cities by the sheer fact that these northern nobles are dedicated to war: improved supply lines, better formations, drilling exercises, positioning and matching of units, more accurate battle orders, you name it.

In this way they would not be killed off that easily. A general could lead the charge, but these mercenaries would be "chess players".

This idea branches off into secondary options: what if these northern generals use the southern wars to further their agendas, their intrigue and courtly matters. Maybe it's a rite of passage for the young. Their politics could be rooted on the contracts, alliances and outcomes of their mercenary campaigns of the south.


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