History of Recruiting: Part II

Mar 18, 2008

Innovations in recruiting have been occurring for over several millennia. I recently wrote about some in an earlier article about the Roman army. The Romans were by no means alone. Other societies (the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Chinese) also contributed to the developing recruiting practices, some of which are still with us today.

These practices almost invariably developed to support the recruitment of soldiers, since the army was the only formal organization of any size and consequence. These societies faced many of the same problems we have today: a shortage of talent, laws, and regulations that attempted to benefit one group over another, and the need to have a reliable mechanism for keeping their armies at the level of readiness they needed to achieve their goals.

As a consequence, they also developed practices around compensation, evaluation, and sourcing, to enhance the effectiveness of their recruiting efforts.

My earlier article on this subject was not meant to be the start of a series. The title was borrowed from the Mel Brooks movie History of the World, Part I. Apparently, hardly anyone picked up on that. I did receive a deluge of email from ERE readers who asked for a follow-up piece, and so I decided to write one.

Ancient Egypt

Formal recruitment practices existed as far back as 2686 B.C. in Egypt during the period known as the Old Kingdom. There existed a system for recruiting a militia from the nomes (tribes) and there were officials responsible for training and for logistics, which already displayed a high level of organization. By 1550 B.C., the period known as the New Kingdom, recruiting had become part of the formal duties of the king.

An inscription from the reign of Amenemhat II from Memphis (in Egypt, not Tennessee) included the requirement that the king was responsible for recruiting manpower for the kingdom’s needs. This required the Pharaoh to ensure that there were enough men of appropriate talent for an expedition to destroy Syria and other enemies.

Formal recruitment had become a necessity because the system of the tribes providing soldiers was unreliable in terms of both quantity and quality of talent.

Ancient Greece

The Greeks had huge needs for recruitment for their armies. The Hellenistic states were small, with small populations, and frequently at war. They relied heavily on mercenaries, which had to be recruited from elsewhere. By 35 A.D. large numbers of non-Greeks were being hired as soldiers.

Two types of recruitment were common in this period. It was either carried out by recruiting agents or through diplomatic channels and interstate treaties that included clauses allowing citizens to serve as troops for the contracting parties. These mercenaries were well-paid, and usually only hired for nine- or 10-month contracts.

The Greeks limited the term of the contracts of mercenaries because they did not want non-citizens getting too deeply involved in their society. It was the first guest worker program. But reality proved otherwise. Mercenaries were just that, mercenary?hired guns. Their loyalty was questionable, readily undermined by more lucrative offers. Integrating them into the regular army without proper training limited their effectiveness. There was a constant need to acculturate and train them, which was expensive given their short tenure. This ultimately forced a situation where these “temps” were more or less permanently domiciled within a state and given grants of land to keep them there. It was a way of securing a supply of troops and linking them to their employers.

Recruitment was a serious business. For many of the Greek states, their survival, and the lives of their citizens, literally depended on it. In one instance, in 318 A.D, Eumenes of Cardia, being faced with an advancing enemy, sent out a force of recruiters with large sums of money to hire soldiers from surrounding states.

To ensure the success of this effort, much publicity was given to the high pay offered and particular groups were targeted to hear about it. One recruiter went to Crete, because the population on that island was isolated and poorer. In a short time they had recruited over 2,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry.

Part of the reason the Greeks were short of soldiers was because of some restrictive laws and unusual practices. Laws in some cases limited much of the citizenry to working in only police roles. One of the more interesting practices was the requirement in ancient Sparta for a soldier to have an older male lover as his mentor! He was even fined if the older lover was not a reputable sort. Plato had made the case for this in his Dialogues that the best army of all would be made up of pairs of male lovers who “…when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world.” Apparently the policy in the Spartan army was “do ask, do tell.”


The contribution of the Chinese to recruiting was the development of formal employment testing. The Chinese had introduced a system of examinations for entry to the civil service as early as the seventh century A.D., but it was used to only hire a very small number of civil servants, and then only from the aristocracy. Starting in the 10th century, during the Sung dynasty the system was expanded to fill most positions and to recruit commoners.

The tests were long. First a candidate had to take the regional examination. It was closely proctored, recopied, assigned a number, and then graded. Only a very small number of candidates passed. Next came the metropolitan exam, taken at the capital city, which was also closely proctored, recopied, assigned a number, and graded. About 15% to 20% of the candidates passed this second exam (around 200 per year).

The exam was based entirely on the Confucian Classics. The candidates had to memorize the Five Classics, interpret passages, master their literary style, and use Confucian philosophy to interpret the Classics and construct political advice. The tests were so rigorous that the candidates who passed represented the very best minds in the country.

Statistically, it would be far easier for a person to be admitted into Harvard than it would be to pass the civil service exam in ancient China. The government bureaucracy represented the top one percent of the top one percent of the population in terms of talent, education, intelligence, and, above all, ethical training. Contrast that with what government bureaucracies are today, anywhere in the world. We’ve come a long way.


In researching this article, it has been interesting to learn how ancient societies developed recruiting practices. The reasons for these were not always the right ones, and in some cases, the effects were not positive. For example, a lot of labor law developed in response to problems with recruiting.

During the Middle Ages, shortages of talent and the problems with finding qualified workers gave rise to the first employment laws. The Black Death had ravaged Europe, with some countries losing as much as half their populations. This caused massive shortages of labor, and the survivors found they could charge a premium for their work and choose what to accept.

The result was the creation of the first labor law in 1350 that set wages and restricted mobility. Touted as a way to maintain stability, it was nothing but an attempt to reduce competition for talent and keep the working class in its place. Europe is still dealing with the legacy of that law seven centuries later.

Still, much of what occurred in recruiting was of positive value. It’s humbling to think that centuries ago, recruiters were doing what we do today. The next time you have a difficult recruiting assignment, think of that recruiter setting off across the Mediterranean to recruit soldiers on Crete, sending out town criers ahead of him to drum up interest. We have it easy.