<span class="caption">The ruins of the Temple of Victory in Himera, which was constructed to commemorate the first battle in 480 B.C.</span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">Katherine Reinberger</span>, CC BY-ND</span>
The ruins of the Temple of Victory in Himera, which was constructed to commemorate the first battle in 480 B.C. Katherine Reinberger, CC BY-ND

Historians loved to write about battles. The plot for the movie is provided by Herodotus, while Homer's story provides the plot for the movie.

A team of Italian archaeologists began to dig outside the ancient city wall at Himera in 2008, which was a Greek colony on the north-central coast of Sicily. The mass graves were found in the western necropolis, and many of the people in them were male.

The Battles of Himera were written about by ancient Greek historians. I am part of a team of anthropologists, archaeologists and geologists who analyzed the teeth of people who lived more than 2,400 years ago to figure out where they came from. It looks like early historians didn't tell the whole story, and our findings might change that.

A chance to fact-check ancient history

Both Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus wrote about the Battles of Himera. The first battle in 480 B.C. was described as a victory by an alliance of Greeks from all across Sicily. The second battle in 409 B.C. was more chaotic than the first. Carthage besieged the city of Himera, which had little outside help.

The accounts tell of grand generals, political alliances, and military tactics such as the Greek cavalry who pretended to be friendly aid to get into the Carthaginian camp.

The discovery of the remains of soldiers from around the time of the two famous battles provided a rare opportunity. I was able to travel to Sicily with the Bioarchaeology of the Mediterranean Colonies Project, co-directed by Laurie Reitsema and Britney Kyle, once Italian researchers had done initial studies on the remains of the 132 individuals.

We were interested in figuring out if the soldiers were told the same story as the ancient historians. The historical sources say they were probably all Greeks, with some from other cities in Sicily. Where did these soldiers come from?

Teeth record your origin story

This question can be answered by chemistry.

The land and water of different places have signature ratios of elements. The standard number of protons but different amounts of neutrons is called anisotopes.

The trick is that when you eat and drink these characteristic isotopes, your body integrates them into your bones and teeth. Researchers know that the type of strontium in your body is indicative of the underlying geology where the plants and animals you ate grew. Your water source is where the oxygen isotopes come from. The elements become a record of your origins.

While bones are constantly growing, and incorporating elements from your environment throughout life, tooth enamel is like a time capsule. The outer layer of the tooth forms when you are a child and doesn't change over time, so scientists can use it to figure out where an individual grew up.

Even after thousands of years in the ground, the strontium and oxygen isotopes we measured on 62 of the individuals were incorporated into the soldiers' teeth. We used the combination of elements to determine if these soldiers were from Himera or not, and then compared them to samples we collected to create a local isotopic profile for the city.

The majority of soldiers from the first battle in 480 B.C. were not from the area. The fight had support from all over Sicily. These soldiers had high strontium values and low oxygen values compared to what we would expect in a Himera native, and my colleagues and I think they were from even more distant places than just other parts of Sicily. Based on their teeth's ratios, the soldiers were likely from the Mediterranean or beyond.

The majority of the soldiers from the later battle were local. The ancient sources said that the Himerans were mostly left alone in the second fight, which allowed the Carthaginian force to overwhelm them.

The unknown role of foreign mercenaries

The case of soldiers from 480 B.C. suggests that Greek armies were more diverse. The results challenge the previous interpretations that the soldiers were Greek and that foreign mercenaries were not included in the historians accounts.

Historians know that Greek soldiers served as paid career soldiers in foreign armies. There is no evidence that foreign soldiers fought for Greece.

The Greek armies at this time were mostly foot soldiers. They fought in groups based on where they were from, so they could serve in the military when needed.

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There may have been foreign soldiers who joined the Greek side because of the large variation in the isotope values between the soldiers. In the Classical period, hiring foreign mercenaries could have changed the composition of communities, possibly giving outsiders a path to citizenship not otherwise available.

Some residents of Greek colonies would not have been eligible for citizenship because of their interactions with other groups of people. The role of citizenship was often reserved for wealthier men with Greek heritage. It was rare for foreigners to get into this position because they had to be Greek.

The discovery of foreign mercenary forces has changed the history of the first battle of Himera, as well as changing our understanding of who had power and privilege in Sicily during the Classical period.

The Conversation is a news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by a University of Georgia student.

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