The topic of early Greek warfare is beyond doubt one of the most lively and controversial subjects in the field of ancient Greek history. The issues surrounding the historical usefulness of Homer, the introduction of the phalanx and the so-called «hoplite revolution» have been at the centre of many debates among historians and archaeologists over the past century. Despite this, however, the number of recent works dealing with the early periods of Greek warfare as a whole is perhaps surprisingly small, and there are only a handful of studies which successfully combine the ancient literary sources with the available archaeological records. In his latest book Josho Brouwers aims to address this issue, providing an accessible account of warriors and warfare in early Greece.
Henchmen of Ares, written by Mediterranean archaeologist and editor of Ancient Warfare magazine Brouwers, focuses on the cultural history of early Greek warfare, covering the long historical stretch from the Late Bronze Age (1550 BC) to the end of the Archaic period (479 BC). The book is largely based on the author’s doctoral dissertation and, as such, is intended for an audience of both students and specialists. It is structured chronologically, divided into four main chapters, and accompanied by a prologue and an epilogue.
The book begins with Homer’s Iliad and its significance in the study of early Greek warfare. Brouwers takes the reader on a brief tour of the world depicted by Homer, paying particular attention to the ideals of the society and warfare presented in the poem, which, as he argues, closely echo the historical realities of the Greek societies of the Early Iron Age and the Archaic period. Following J. E. Lendon’s Soldiers & Ghosts (2005), Brouwers sees the Iliad as a useful guide to the study of early Greek military history, particularly emphasizing the importance of the Homeric warrior ethos which, according to him, closely «reflected an ideal that served as an inspiration for at least the upper echelons of Early Greek societies» (p. 4). The section provides a good introduction to the book, as the author freely refers to a number of passages from the Iliad throughout the following chapters.
The first chapter of the book concerns the Mycenaean Bronze Age (1550–1100 BC). The author first looks at the surviving weapons and armour from the period – including the «Lion Hunt» dagger, the Dendra panoply and the boar’s-tusk helmets – before moving on to the palatial fortifications, with the impressive Lion Gate of Mycenae in the forefront. Then, using iconographic evidence of wall-paintings, combined with the clay tablets (which served as palace archives), Brouwers provides us with a brief survey of the Mycenaean warriors and their social and military organization, stressing the hierarchical structure centred around the figures of wanax (king), lawagetas (army leader) and heqetas (elite warrior). Unlike the armies of the later periods discussed in the book, Brouwers notes that Mycenaean armies were organized «using a mix of private and public means», with the palaces responsible for providing the warriors with some of the necessary equipment. The situation, however, was to be drastically changed with the destruction and abandonment of the palaces and the demise of the Mycenaean civilization after 1200 BC.
With the disappearance of the Mycenaean palaces, the nature of warfare in Greece shifted from the centrally controlled armies to the small and privately raised warbands, which, according to Brouwers, dominated Greek warfare over the next five centuries. The second chapter of the book looks at the initial stages of this process which took place in the Early Iron Age (1000–700 BC). The section begins with a study of burials with arms (the Toumba cemetery at Lefkandi being the highlight), followed by a survey of fortifications in Asia Minor and the Aegean islands, and finally a discussion of the depictions of warriors and combat in the Geometric art. Brouwers here emphasizes the prevalence of the small scale nature of fighting, usually depicted as taking place on or around ships, which, as he adds, «suggest that most battles consisted of skirmishes fought as part of raids, in which the acquisition of wealth… was a key motive for the men involved» (p. 62).
In Chapter 3, the author continues to trace the developments in Greek warfare in the Archaic period (700–500 BC). After a detailed survey of the war depictions in Archaic pottery, lyric poetry of Archilochus and Tyrtaeus, and arms and armour dedicated in sanctuaries, he concludes that the equipment of warriors became more standardized throughout the period; «the small-scale army organization and flexible tactics appear to continue», as armies are still composed of «a number of smallish warbands, each consisting of a leader and his followers, with perhaps some lower-ranking people compelled to swell the numbers» (p. 102–103). Although artistic scenes with ships are replaced with depictions of combat on land, Brouwers categorically refutes the existence of phalanx warfare in the Archaic period, thus placing himself firmly in the «revisionist» camp in the so-called «hoplite debate». The highlights of the chapter are without doubt his short study of the artistic depictions of hippobatai (knights) and hippostrophoi (squires); and his brief look at Anatolian warfare, which leads him to question the uniqueness of the Greek way of fighting in the Mediterranean.
In the final chapter, Brouwers looks at the changes in the formation and structure of the Greek armies of the late Archaic period (550–479 BC). He traces most of the new developments to the last quarter of the sixth century BC, when the small warbands were replaced with large and centrally mobilized armies, with clearly delineated units which now began to fight in much tighter formations. The phalanx formation also appears, which according to Brouwers is indicated by the introduction of trumpets and secondary inside handles on the shields, as well as the use of more open helmets and a shorter type of sword. The section is then followed by a an epilogue, in which the author helpfully reiterates all the main points made throughout the book, finishing with another mention of the Homeric warrior ethos, which he believes is key to our understanding of early Greek war.
The book is accompanied by a number of colour photos, maps and illustrations, as well as some artistic impressions of military scenes, all of which greatly enhance the readability and graphic appeal of the volume. Every chapter has extra information boxes which introduce the less-familiar readers to the most important concepts and items mentioned in the text. The main body of the book is also followed by a list of important dates, a subject index of ancient sources, and excellent bibliographic notes, which provide references to modern works for further study.
Henchmen of Ares is an ambitious book, primarily due to its large scope but also because of the author’s choice to engage with a very broad range of historical evidence, which he does in a successful and efficient manner. The large scope of the book, however, prevents the author from elaborating on his most original points, which often leaves the specialist reader wanting to hear more. Brouwers’ observations on the hippobatai and hippostrophoi are especially interesting here, as one wonders whether their presence in Archaic warfare might have involved more than just riding to the battlefields. Similarly, his question about the uniqueness of Greek warfare in the Mediterranean, raised a couple of times in the book, also deserves more attention due to its potential significance for our understanding of early Mediterranean warfare in general. Although Brouwers emphasizes the military changes concerning the equipment and structure which he observes in the sources, he rarely spends any time on the larger political and social reasons behind those changes; his discussion of the shift from the Iron Age and Archaic warbands to the centrally mobilized armies of the early Classical period is especially lacking in this respect. All these issues, nonetheless, are perhaps understandable considering the sheer size of the historical stretch dealt with in the book, as well as its accessible nature.
All in all, Henchmen of Ares provides an excellent overview of the cultural history of warriors and warfare in early Greece. It will serve as a rewarding read for enthusiasts, students and specialists alike, providing the former with a useful foundational read, and the latter with some directions for future research.
von Cezary Kucewicz M. A. (Postgraduate Researcher; Department of History, University College London)