Henchmen of Ares by Josho Brouwers

Book Review by Philip Matyszak

The warrior-heroes of the Homeric epics and the Greek hoplites of the Persian wars were very different military types. Achilles at Troy had very little in common with Militades at Marathon, either in his social outlook or his military equipment and style of fighting. This book is essentially the story of how warfare in Greece evolved from Achilles to Militades over the seven hundred or so years between the fall of Troy (circa 1250 BC) and the rise of the Athenian empire (490 BC).

There have been very few attempts at telling this challenging tale, and this book makes it clear why this is the case. Firstly, the starting point – the Trojan wars – is a minefield of heated controversy about everything from the nature of the archaeological evidence to the accuracy of Homer’s descriptions. From there, as we go into the Greek ‘dark ages’ matters only get worse, and the picture only begins to become clear in the period after 700 BC. That is to say, for five of the seven hundred years described by this book, there is hardly a single statement about military developments that cannot be challenged or contradicted, so scanty and ambiguous is the evidence.

Fortunately in Josho Brouwers we have an informed and authorative guide to take us through the existing evidence. Many readers will be familiar with this author as the editor of Ancient Warfare, the eponymous bi-monthly magazine. Henchmen of Ares is in fact Dr Brouwers Ph.D thesis for the University of Amsterdam. This thesis has evidently been considerably re-worked to make it an approachable text for the interested amateur, but its academic pedigree is clear from the fact that over a third of the book consists of footnotes, appendices and bibliography.

Another advantage of this author’s publishing background is that he has been able to use the skills of specialist artists such as Johnny Shumante to produce colourful and evocative illustrations of the warriors he describes. At this point, I would like to mention one of my few quibbles with the illustrations, which is that naval vessels are invariably depicted as being powered simultaneously by both sail and oars. We know that this was almost never the case in the classical era, so we should consider these pictures as a sort of dual depiction rather than a totally realistic portrayal. The ancient Greeks did the same thing on their vases, so the author can argue a reasonable precedent.

Despite this, it should be stressed that one of the strong points of this book is the lavish use of colour illustrations on excellent paper. Paper and illustrations are easily of the quality usually found in ‘coffee table’ books which feature less original research and tightly-argued academic material – so with ‘Henchmen’ the reader almost gets two books in one. To some extent the illustrations are necessary, as the author relies heavily on archaeological evidence, especially from pottery illustrations. It would have been useful if the text treated these illustrations with somewhat greater skepticism, or at least described in more detail the challenges of working with such material. Pottery illustrations of warriors in combat might accurately depict contemporary warriors with standard military kit; or they might depict idealized, stylized or anachronistic soldiers rather as Renaissance paintings of ancient Rome invariably and completely misrepresent the military equipment they portray. Something to be included in a second edition perhaps.

Another issue is that the author has simultaneously too much and too little material to work with. Although the evidence for each individual topic is scanty, this ‘history of warfare’ for the period attempts to engage with everything from fortifications, social structures and naval warfare to infantry and cavalry weapons, equipment, logistics and tactics – a multiplicity of subjects which means that some aspects are at best sketchily described. In this respect the book should be regarded as a foundation on the overall topic. The extensive bibliography can then be used to direct the interested reader to more specific texts.

Overall, if you want only one book on pre-classical Greek warfare, this should be it. Not only is this book a visual feast but in my opinion it represents the best overview of the subject currently available. Whether or not you agree with some of the author’s more sweeping statements (e.g. that ancient Greece was peripheral to the main story of the period, which was the imperial experiments taking place in Anatolia and the Middle East), in terms of a cultural and archaeological exploration of the evidence for early Greek warfare one can hardly do better than with this superb book.

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