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.
Suggestions for further reading are listed below:
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