Josho Brouwers, Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Karwansaray Publishers: Rotterdam, 2013.
I can enthusiastically recommend Henchmen of Ares to anyone interested in ancient Greek warfare. It is beautifully made, backed by serious research, and clearly written, but its greatest value is that it comes from the perspective of an archaeologist. Most work on early Greek warfare is written by historians or literary scholars, so Brouwers provides an interesting alternative. While Brouwers clearly knows early Greek poetry, he also gives a prominent place to art, architecture, and funerary practice and puts Greek warfare in an East Mediterranean context. In particular, he emphasizes that the development of Classical warfare was bound up with practices in Lydia, Caria, Phoenecia, and Egypt. Not all hoplites were Greek, just as not all early Greek warriors were hoplites. He also makes a serious attempt to cover the period between the collapse of the Mycenaean palace kingdoms and the revival of cities which has left very little evidence (so little, in fact, that a minority of scholars think that it was much shorter than the 400 years allowed in most chronologies). And he explains his methodology, rather than simply telling a plausible story based on sources with a few brief remarks on the literary evidence.
Henchmen of Ares covers about a thousand years, from the Late Bronze Age to the early fifth century BCE. It is structured chronologically, with an introduction, four chapters on successive periods, and a conclusion. Both introduction and conclusion emphasize that throughout this period, warfare was linked to aristocratic ideals, and references to the Iliad are frequent and thoughtful. Like most recent writers, Brouwers believes that while the Iliad and Odyssey contain some Bronze Age elements, the society and type of warfare which they describe are closest to the evidence from roughly the eighth century BCE.
This book is richly furnished with scholarly tools. There is a timeline, a bibliographic essay, an index of themes and Greek words, and a general index with short definitions. Tools like these are often neglected, since they require much work by skilled and specialized professionals, and since the work of compiling them is less glorious than writing the main text, but they are important, especially to the lay reader without handbooks and databases at their fingertips. Ancient texts are cited in the body, and ancient artifacts are given a location but not catalogue numbers.
Brouwers’ achievement is especially impressive given that many prolific scholars disagree about early Greek warfare. Scholars have devoted particular attention to how warriors in the Iliad fought and the nature of combat between Greek hoplites. Synthesizing all of these perspectives is no easy task. (Another successful attempt, and one which agrees with Brouwers’ on many points while focusing on texts and on a slightly later period, is Hans Van Wees’ Greek Warfare: Myth and Reality). Because of the extent of these controversies and the difficulty of writing such a synthesis, I will not try to list individual points of disagreement, although I would have liked to see a few more old bugbears challenged. For example, Brouwers repeats the commonplace that Greece was a poor country, but it seems to me that archaeological evidence implies that Classical Greece was one of the most prosperous societies in the world, with a healthy population which had large amounts of durable goods. Brouwers also makes some confident conclusions about the practice of warfare from uncertain types of evidence such as epic poetry, burial goods, and painted pottery, and when there is no direct evidence for a practice he often suggests that it was absent, even when that practice is well known in neighbouring cultures. Perhaps many readers want to read an expert’s best guess rather than every quibble and doubt, but could Mycenaean paintings of battle as a knife-fight between gangs of bare-chested warriors be just as misleading as Classical paintings of battle as a skirmish between small groups of naked spearmen?
Part of these differences reflect my training as a historian of one millennium and Brouwers’ as an archaeologist of the previous one, and that brings me back to the worth of this book. Henchmen of Ares provides a solid overview and a distinctive perspective based on an unusually broad range of evidence, and it gives readers both the inspiration and the tools to ask further questions.
(I should note that I have published an article in Ancient Warfare Magazine under Josho’s editorship: readers tired of missing aircraft, the movements of markets, or the vagaries of politics can speculate whether this has influenced my judgement).