The recent events with the Wagner mercenaries, hired by the Russians to attack Ukraine and then turning around and advancing on Moscow, seem unusual.

But how unusual is this historically?

How frequently do mercenary armies change sides?

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    Related: Stories from history of mercenaries who didn't get paid
    – justCal
    Commented Jun 28, 2023 at 2:02
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    Doesn't Mercenary answer your question? Mercenaries attacking their employers is mentioned several times there - for example, in early modern Italy. Commented Jun 28, 2023 at 7:59
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    Please note that in the Wagner case there was no change of sides. They didn't switch allegiance to Ukraine. Even "attacking their employing country" is an overstatement, it was more like a protest than a changing of sides.
    – vsz
    Commented Jun 28, 2023 at 17:59
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    See also: 30 Years War
    – Rich
    Commented Jun 28, 2023 at 23:16
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    Mercenaries aren't always employed by countries: during the Renaissance wealthy individuals, such as Cesare Borgia, hired mercenaries, and they frequently had to face rebellions from their hired troops. Here is how Cesare Borgia handles one such revolt, when he was aged 27. Commented Jun 30, 2023 at 23:26

1 Answer 1

It's very historical and not at all unusual.

Mercenaries only fought when paid - and paid on time! If payment was late or absent, they stopped fighting your enemies. At best, that is. Because from that moment they started to focus on how to get paid. Being in the business of violent enforcement and premeditated murder (we call that 'war'), they had ways to convince their paymaster rethink his sloppy payment policy.

In Dutch there still is a proverb: "Geen geld, geen Zwitsers" or in English: "No money, no Swiss". The Swiss were well known as excellent and courageous mercenaries, as long as they were paid on time. The moment payment was late, they went on strike.

It did happen mercenary bands changed sides, but that was bad for business. Their reputation was very important, such a band would find future employment difficult.

Marching in a threatening way to the capitol, or wherever their employer happend to be, was (and is) a way to get what they want. It did happen, for example Antwerp was unlucky enough to be pillaged twice in first the Spanish and later the French Furies. The French Fury failed. Those troops were not mercenaries, but regular troops. If regular army units pillaged a city over payment issues, you can be sure mercenary units wouldn't be any different.

Mercenaries are as old or nearly as old as the 'oldest profession in the world'. My answer focuses on Swiss and contemporary mercenaries, but the first mercenaries probably used their payment for services from aforementioned oldest professionals.

Cretan archers and Balearic slingers were famous and for hire. Even older were Nubians, employed in the Old Kingdom in Egypt.

Carthage had a navy crewed by Carthaginians, and a (mostly) mercenary army. After the first Punic war they tried to forgo payment, which didn't sit well with the mercenaries.

The famous march of the ten thousand was a mercenary army trying to get home after their contract became redundant.

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    @Jan - as an American who learned Dutch in the 90's, that was a common enough proverb that I encountered it.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 28, 2023 at 13:08
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    "The famous march of the ten thousand was a mercenary army trying to get home after getting fired without payment." That is not correct. They were not fired. Cyrus who hired them and put together the entire army was killed in battle and the army disbanded. The Greek corps held together to help each other in a hostile land.
    – FluidCode
    Commented Jun 28, 2023 at 13:26
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    @Jos: About the proverb; under what circumstances would you use it? Like if you were in a band and you'd been booked to play a gig but the pub-owner started whining about the price? Commented Jun 28, 2023 at 13:37
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    @mustermax corrected
    – Jos
    Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 0:07
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    @OscarBravo When someone hasn't the money to pay for something. He wants it, but can't have it. Your example is quite right. We'd be using 'Geen geld, geen Zwitsers!' as reply.
    – Jos
    Commented Jun 29, 2023 at 0:12

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