Book Review

Henchmen of Ares

By Louis Mignot:

henchmen_1

Josho Brouwers, Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers, 2013. Pp. 208. €29,95/ £25.07. ISBN: 978-94-90258-07-8.

Brouwers’s Henchmen of Ares traces the development of warrior culture from the thirteenth to the fifth century BC. By using Homeric epics and other near-contemporary accounts in tandem with archaeological finds, Brouwers attempts to drill down to the nature of warfare and its development. There are issues surrounding the use of such sources but, despite this, Henchmen of Ares is a good read for anyone seeking to gain a foundational understanding of the cult of the Early Greek warrior.

***

‘I am a henchman of the lord god of war
and skilled in the lovely gift of the Muses’
-Archilochus

Henchmen of Ares is a deeply researched and engrossing work. It provides a good foundation of the culture surrounding combat and warfare in early Greece. Covering a long period of history, from the thirteenth to the fifth century BC, this book examines the cult of the warrior through the works of classical authors and archaeological finds. The progression in military technology and tactics (shown to be intrinsically linked) is traced from diffuse ‘war bands’ to the classic image of Spartans fighting in organised shield walls at Thermopylae.

The work is centred on a reading of Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, followed by an extrapolation of the information gleaned from these sources. Now, while it is true that the Homeric epics are important sources for the perception of warfare in the Greek mind-set, it is perhaps putting the cart before the horse to use them as one’s principal source. In that, just as art, film and literature exaggerates and glorifies the nature of war today, so too did their early Greek counterparts. This is not to compare the use of the Iliad as a source with the use of the film ‘300’, but nonetheless there are inherent historiographical flaws. Brouwers often alludes to issues with sources, such as Herodotus’ account being written fifty years on, but they are not pursued sufficiently. The provenance of any source is something that must always be considered and this is not done sufficiently in Henchmen of Ares.

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This representation of Lykaon and Nike, on display at the British Museum, dates from 440 BC. This is a good example of how we should not take pictorial representations of combat as the be all and end all in evidence. The fact that Lykaon is naked here, is a stylistic feature found in much art from this period (Photo by Louis Mignot)

Brouwer’s use of art, particularly pottery, is an interesting historiographical method. The pictorial representations of warriors on vases and other pieces are drawn upon several times throughout the work to inform comments on an individual’s equipment and, occasionally, tactics. These conclusions are then excellently illustrated by several talented illustrators. However, just as Brouwers fails to critically engage sufficiently with his classical authors, so too does he fall short with his archaeological evidence. There are a number of fundamental problems here. Firstly, generalisations in terms of equipment are likely to be made; frescos are cited by Brouwers showing soldiers with a certain type of helmet. The author then suggests that these helmets must therefore have been widespread. Yet, soldiers in these pictures are idealised forms, and the same can be said for their equipment. In terms of tactical conclusions there are more issues. Making judgements on the numbers of soldiers in a battle based on a representation on a vase is very difficult. Firstly, the picture is in profile, so you cannot see the three-dimensional aspect of the battle; how many are there in this line or ‘wave’ of soldiers? Secondly, the issue of idealisation comes up again; an artist will exaggerate a warrior’s prowess in art. For example, several illustrations cited by Brouwers show naked warriors, he correctly dismisses the notion that they fought naked, but it is a good example of the impressionistic attitude of the artist.

The author does, however, tackle anachronism well. This period is steeped in a poor chronological understanding, which can be misleading. For example Brouwers refutes the notion of the Greek ‘knight’ and ‘squire’ dynamic; he points out that the young man aiding the warrior served to keep the fighter’s horse safe, not aid him in combat or arm him.[1] Additionally, the author does admit that artistic representations of equipment are likely to be exaggerated, showing the peak of technology rather than the reality. Brouwers concedes that metal armour was not wholly widespread in this period.[2] He also tackles the anachronism of the Phalanx, pointing out that this method for fighting only really became effective and organised under Philip of Macedon in the 300s. Brouwers’s discussion of tactics is strong; one can clearly see the progression from what he calls ‘mass combat’ and ‘massed combat’.[3] This delineation does not suggest a leap from loose-knit ‘teams’ to the phalanx, but indicates a greater cooperation and mutual protection by the warriors on the battlefield. This, no doubt, was facilitated by technological progression towards improved armour and weapons.

The use of illustrations (that is modern reconstructions, not contemporary art) in the book is a double-edged sword. The pictorial representations of warfare, particularly of arms and equipment, are in some ways helpful, but they do, at times, detract from the argument. If one was to examine the illustrations provided, the impression gained would be of widespread use of armour, yet Brouwers states that sophisticated armour types were not always widely proliferated. Moreover, photographs of pottery and of geographic locations serve to illustrate the author’s argument, but here they are often a few pages on from the relevant passage. This is something that could be addressed (perhaps in a future re-edition) to aid the book’s argument.

Readers expecting a clear, factual tactical discussion of Greek warfare may perhaps be disappointed. Henchmen of Ares is very much a cultural exploration of warfare, with detailed discussions of possible equipment, but little in the way of battle technique. Moreover, when Brouwers does discuss tactics, the reasons behind the specific tactic and its success are not fully explored. Despite this, the cultural examination of warfare is fascinating. The author discusses the cult surrounding the successful warrior, pointing out the proclivity in sources for deeds of heroism. Brouwers suggests that this may have been due to less organised formations -the phalanx in its most organised form in this period- allowing for more individual combat. Yet it is important to be aware of the impediments that Brouwers faces; almost every source available is unreliable to some extent.  Despite these historiographical difficulties, it is surely commendable that the author has constructed an interesting discussion of warfare, thereby facilitating understanding, .

Henchmen of Ares is an important foundational read for anyone interested in Greek warfare. Detailed tactical discussions are absent, but blame cannot be solely placed on the shoulders of the author. The sources available are perhaps more impressionistic, rather than specific. The cultural discussion in this book is an interesting insight into the social landscape of the early Greek world, but it is important that we critically engage with our sources and question the implications of provenance.

NOTES


[1] J. Brouwers, Henchmen of Ares, Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece, Karwansaray Publishers, 2013, p. 76.
[2] ibid. p. 102.
[3] ibid. p. 92.

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5 thoughts on “Henchmen of Ares

  1. Thanks for the review!

    There are some points of criticism, such as my use of Homer, that could perhaps be removed when you realize that the book is based on my PhD thesis, which was structured completely differently (each chapter focused on a particular category of evidence, i.e graves with weapons, finds from sanctuaries, iconographic evidence, Homer, the Archaic poets, etc.). The results of that work informed the structure of the book, so I can understand if certain connections are not immediately apparent. This could undoubtedly be made clearer in a future edition, along with some more explicit source criticism.

    By the way, the lines/waves of warriors you cite is from my discussion of the Chigi Vase, an object that is often regarded as depicting a hoplite phalanx, which is doubtful, in my opinion. It is also an instance in which I combine different types of sources, since I also make a comparison with descriptions of warriors marching into battle from Homer. Furthermore, the original PhD thesis had an extensive catalogue of pottery and other iconographic evidence that perhaps made the overall patterns more clear, and I hope to be able to publish this online in the not-to-distant future.

    Thanks again for the great review.

  2. Thank you for reading my review.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your book and constructed, what I hope is, a balanced critique. I am glad you have taken on board my historiographical criticism; perhaps some of my points are flawed by their straying from theory into evidence-based territory.

  3. I’m very happy with the review. I will be in London next month and will be speaking at a colloquium on Greek warfare on the 25th (UCL). Perhaps we can meet there. I would be very interested in talking with students and staff from War Studies.

  4. Admiring the time and energy you put into your site and in depth information you present.
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