Henchmen of Ares Book Review

Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece
by Josho Brouwers
Karwansary BV
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
2013

 

The shadow of Homer looms large over the history of ancient Greece, and in no area does it overhang more than in the realm of warfare. Homer composed in poetry what he had inherited from the distant past, and in doing so provided undying inspiration to generations of later Greeks. Homer’s influence also runs throughout Henchmen of Ares, a deeply researched and lavishly illustrated new study of Greek warriors and their world from Mycenaean times to the Persian Wars by Mediterranean archaeologist and Ancient Warfare magazine editor Josho Brouwers.
Homer was in many ways like a medieval poet looking back on the past across of a gulf of years to ancient Rome. Homer, like that poet knew some details well, but others were forgotten, or misunderstood, and he inserted elements from his own era into his work to plug the gaps. Homer’s world, as painted in the Iliad and the Odyssey, is a composite one, not bereft of all value in understanding the past, but not completely accurate either. The contribution of archaeology, Brouwers’ specialty, is necessary to fill in the gaps as they exist and distinguish between authentic survivals from the Mycenaean period, roughly 1600-1200 B.C, and Homer’s interpolations from the so-called Greek “Dark Age,” 1200-800 B.C.
Homer (I will refer to him in the singular for the sake of simplicity, though there is some question as to whether he was in truth a single person) lived around the eighth, or perhaps the seventh, century B.C. His masterpieces, made all the more astonishing because they are the oldest works of Western literature, were derived originally from orally-composed poems that had been handed down from bard to bard over several centuries. From an analysis of the material that comprises the Iliad, it is more than likely that the work dates to soon after the event that it describes, a war with the city of Troy in the 13th century. Though it is probably the case that the Trojan War as it is known was more of an outsize Greek plundering expedition rather than a siege that spent ten full years before the hill of Ilion, the world described in the poem bears a strong relation to that of the Mycenaean Age.
In the centuries of that civilization’s greatness, when powerful kings ruled from citadel-palaces in Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos, and Orchomenos, Greece produced large armies supplied by the palace-kings with arms. The organization and equipping of such soldiers was overseen by a scribal bureaucracy that wrote on clay tablets in a script known as Linear B. The Mycenaean elites were chariot warriors, just like their social peers in the Near Eastern societies of the Late Bronze Age. They were, following Homer, obsessed (not too strong a word) with their personal honour. The Iliad itself was apparently originally known as the Wrath (as in of Achilles) on account of the bottomless anger that the half-divine son of Peleus felt when Agamemnon, supreme commander of the Greek expeditionary force at Troy, stole away his captive woman, Briseis. Achilles’ bruised feelings caused him to withdraw from the fighting entirely, such was the offense that he took.
Homer gets many things right about the Mycenaean era, despite the elapse of time. The use of boar’s tusk helmets, which Homer describes, has been confirmed via modern-day archaeological finds. Brouwers surmises that Homer may have seen one such example that had been maintained as someone’s family heirloom throughout the Dark Age. History may be done with either words, i.e., written sources, or with a shovel, archaeology. In this instance, as well as in a number of others, Homer has been backed up by the discoveries at dig sites around Greece. There were also common soldiers in Mycenaean armies, and artists did not disdain to portray them on wall frescoes, several of which have been uncovered. Many of these men seem to have worn boar’s tusk helms, and the prevalence of such headgear supports Brouwers belief that they standard-issue equipment provided by the palace-kings to warriors in their service.
The civilization of Mycenae fell at the end of the thirteenth century B.C., for reasons that are still subject to debate. It is likely that invasions and/or the migrations of peoples overturned the hard but brittle power structures that had controlled the Greek world. The palaces were abandoned, and Greece in this post-palatial phase was much like Arthurian Britain, where remnants of an earlier, more sophisticated world, vied with and then lost out to a newer, rawer, and more primitive one. Even before the collapse, a new type of Greek warrior was in evidence. He wore body armour and carried a shield, spear, and a longer sword, the Naue Type II. What relation this type of soldier had in the end of Mycenae is difficult to say. But in the period that next ensued, Greece’s Dark Age, such men enthusiastically conducted raids for cattle, women, and other riches. There was no dishonour incurred in this kind of behaviour, and pirates were so common that strange men met abroad in foreign countries, such as Odysseus, were readily assumed to be pirates.
This was Homer’s world, one in which the written Greek language of Mycenae was lost entirely. Though there had been some material advances, such as the introduction and adoption of iron as the basic substance of metalworking, overall the period was one of retrenchment and regression. The population of Greece declined precipitously. The royal palaces were gone, replaced by the lesser residences of local lords. One item that would characterize Greek warriors for centuries hence made its appearance. This was the bronze, bell-shaped cuirass, though at this time it lacked the essential flare at the waist of later armours. One such example was recovered from a tomb at Argos.  On the basis of Homer’s testimony and surviving pictorial evidence, the armies of the Greek Dark Age were warbands organized to take part in small-scale skirmishes or undertake seaborne raids against coastal towns. The similarity of the era to that of the Viking Age, and the concomitant devastation wreaked upon England and France, is unmistakable.
The Greek world was reborn in the period that came after the Dark Age. Writing returned, in form of the Phoenician-derived alphabet that we would today recognize, perhaps because of the desire to record the words of Homer for posterity. There was also an expansion of the Greek world in this “Archaic” age. Beginning in the eighth century, Greek communities sent abroad portions of their own populace to replicate in Asia Minor, Sicily, and Italy their mother cities. The marvelous two-page map found on pages 84-85 of Henchmen of Ares showing the multitude of Greek colonies established in the period highlights the extraordinary scale of this migration. These colonies not only enlarged “Greece” in the ethnocultural sense, they also acted in later centuries to bring Greek culture to the wider Mediterranean world, perhaps nowhere with more impact and historical significance than Italy, where Rome would be one day be transformed by its contact these Italian Greek cities with the philosophy, art, and science of classical Greece. From Rome the rest of Europe would receive its own Greek education.
Yet that mighty contribution still lay far in the future. More immediately, the Greeks widely adopted the bell-shaped cuirass, metal helmet, and the round, Argive shield that would come to typify the classical hoplite infantryman. Brouwers argues strongly that the phalanx tactical formation was not yet in use. The depiction of battling proto-hoplites on the famed Chigi Vase, taken by some to be indicative of a combat between phalanxes, is instead just two waves of infantrymen attacking each other just as had been done in the Iliad.
Greeks soldiers were highly sought after, with Hellenic mercenaries present in Egypt and Babylonia. Their aforementioned panoply, which made them top quality heavy infantry, was not an exclusively Greek invention. Herodotus claimed that it was the Carians of Asia Minor who attached handles to their shields, an innovation that the Greeks adopted. The stoic mental outlook of hoplite fighters gestated in this era, and this may be seen in the lyric poetry of Callinus of Ephesus, and perhaps most notably, Tyrtaeus of Sparta, who celebrated the bravery and sacrifice of such men. The warrior virtues and ideals praised by the poets were nothing less than those found throughout the Iliad.
The rise of a tactically proficient heavy infantryman was not to be of just historical curiosity. The states of Greece now adopted a battle formation in which citizens, organized by their home cities, fought on foot in close-order. The hoplite civic militia, with its warriors standing shield to shield, proved to be an unbeatable combination when the Greeks had to contend with much bigger but more lightly-equipped Persian armies at the start of the fifth century B.C. The battles at Marathon and Plataea amply demonstrated that hoplites were superior in a stand-up fight with the Persians. This military superiority, to my mind, allowed Greece to retain its liberty free from Persian overlordship. Classical Hellenic culture thereafter flowered, most conspicuously at Athens, with enduring consequences for the Western world.
Henchmen of Ares will be invaluable to anyone with an interest in the origin and historical development of the ancient Greek warrior. Apart from the topics covered in this review, Brouwers has filled this book with numerous and useful sidebars dealing with related matters, such as explanations for the periodization of the era under study, the masonry-style employed in the building of Greek fortifications, and the typology of Greek helmets. Nearly every page contains either an illustration of the warriors being described, or a map, or a colour photograph of objects of archaeological or pictorial importance. Brouwers has done a splendid job marshaling the disparate strands of written, pictorial, and archaeological evidence to produce a coherent portrait of the Greek warrior and his world. Sifting through such voluminous material requires a Hercule Poirot-like attention to detail, which is amply demonstrated by Brouwers in this book.

 

Marc DeSantis

Dying of the Light Book Review

George R.R. Martin is well-known today as the mega-successful author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels. With the appearance of these stories on the small screen as Game of Thrones, Martin has become a household name, not just as one of the foremost fantasy authors of America, but as one of its preeminent authors, period.

Before he became the architect of Westeros, Martin was the editor of the Wild Cards series. If you have been reading fantasy and science fiction long enough, you would have seen these popular anthologies on the shelves of your local bookstore for many years prior to the arrival of A Game of Thrones in 1996. Before that, Martin was the author of other works, one of which was Dying of the Light in 1977, recently reprinted in a new edition by Bantam Books.

Dying of the Light is a far shorter work than we have become used to with the Ice and Fire novel series. But it shows the same seriousmindedness and attention to detail that we have come to expect in Martin’s later work. Indeed, comprehensive worldbuilding is Martin’s forte, and he creates a rich and deep far future background in which to place his troubled characters.

The story begins with the arrival of a “whisperjewel” in Dirk t’Larien’s possession, sent by Gwen Delvano, his former lover. He inteprets the jewel as a cry for help, a call for rescue, and sets off to find Gwen. Gwen, unfortunately, is trapped in a relationship with a stern but noble man, Jaan Vikary, who is not quite her husband, and she is not quite his wife. The resulting love triangle (actually something of a love quadrangle, as Jaan Vikary has a male hunting and fighting companion, Janacek, whom he places above all others people) is a complete mess, and bodes no happy ending for anyone involved.

Martin shows adroitness in developing “alien” cultures without the need for non-human aliens. The cultural stance of Jaan Vikary of High Kavalaan, with its immensely strong bonds between males, but relatively weak ones between men and women, is markedly and almost unbridgeably different from that of Dirk and Gwen, who hail from a culture nearer to our own. High Kavalaan is well-developed as an alien culture, with a seemingly plausible reason given for its development as a world where men form closer relationships with one another than with women.

The setting of Dying of the Light is the fading planet Worlorn, awash in melancholy and regret. It is a world colonized by the peoples of several other planets for the short time that it drifts through space in the vicinity of a grouping of life-giving stars. That fifty-year era is now coming to an end, and Worlorn is now nearly empty of inhabitants, much like a grand old building just before its demolition.

Dying of the Light is a love story, a planetary romance, an adventure, and an examination of how cultural preconceptions make it difficult, if not impossible, for people of radically different cultures to comprehend each other. It is worth a read.

 

Marc DeSantis

A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide: A Game of Thrones Edition Review

The novels of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, alongside the critically-acclaimed television hit Game of Thrones, are a popular culture phenomenon. With millions of copies sold, together with millions of viewers, author George R. R. Martin’s world of Westeros has legions of fans. In terms of popularity, in the fantasy fiction realm there is perhaps only Tolkien’s Middle-earth to compare to it.

But for those who wish to enter the dark world of Game of Thrones, where to begin? There are already five giant novels and three seasons of the TV show completed. Even at its simplest, Game of Thrones is a vastly complicated and massively detailed world. There are so many names and places that it is hard to remember them all, even for devoted fans of the series.

A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide: A Game of Thrones Edition is the solution to all who would bewail their fate, thinking themselves destined to ignorance of Westeros and its people forever. Green Ronin Press has produced a masterpiece of a roleplaying game supplement, and it is one of the rarest of things. Not only is it of use to people who play the RPG for which it is intended, it is also one of the finest introductions to the history, personalities, and geography of Westeros and the surrounding lands that I have yet seen.

The hardcover book is beautifully produced with full color pages of glossy paper. The history of Westeros is given in rich detail, and I found this to be of enormous use in putting together the disparate strands of the lengthy backstory of Game of Thrones. After the history section, the book examines each of the major houses and personages according to their geographical region.

If Game of Thrones has any appeal to you, but the numerous names and places have left you bewildered, then this book is the answer to many of the questions that might arise. Though it only takes events up to the time just prior to the start of the first novel, there is enough information contained within to justify its $49.95 asking price. Every king and noble house is here, and I think that it would make for an excellent companion to have at your side as you watch the series or read the novels.

 

Marc DeSantis

MHQ Autumn 2013

MHQ is a fabulous military history magazine. It covers the gamut of the history of warfare, from the Bronze Age to the twenty-first century. Each issue is spectacular, a genuine work of art, and the authors are all top-notch.

I have had the privilege of working as a research editor for MHQ these last three years, and I wanted to share the pride that I have in the magazine with everyone else. Check it out when you have the chance. The latest issue contains a short piece, written by me, called the War List. It is about non-combat losses of naval vessels.

Marc DeSantis

Ancient Warfare Magazine – The Battle of Drepana, 249 BC

Readers of Consolidated Pop Culture will be well aware of how highly I regard Ancient Warfare magazine, a splendid English-language, Dutch-produced publication. For the last year or so, I have been writing review essays on various titles for the print magazine, but this month, my first article for Ancient Warfare, entitled The Battle of Drepana, 249 BC, has been published online in two parts.

You can read them both here and here.

Marc DeSantis

Ancient Warfare on Ancient Egypt

As part of Consolidated Pop Culture’s ongoing efforts to keep you apprised of the best stuff out there, pay attention. The latest issue of Ancient Warfare has hit the shelves. The theme of this issue (every issue of this fantastic magazine has one) is ancient Egypt. The centerpiece article is about the Battle of Kadesh, which is as it should be. This battle, fought about 1274 B.C. between the Egyptians under Pharaoh Ramesses II and the Hittites commanded by their king, Muwatalli II, was arguably the greatest of the Bronze Age. It was an enormous clash of chariots in the heyday of that weapon system. It is also a rarity for the period in that we possess a substantial description of the battle, because Ramesses left inscriptions of the event in two forms all over Egypt: the Bulletin and the Poem became his letters to posterity concerning this important fight.
Be sure also to read editor Josho Brouwers’ introductory piece about ancient Egypt’s military situation. This will help place Egypt’s strategic setting in its proper context. The accompanying map is a great addition too. It is impossible to do history justice without a decent map.
One other treat must be mentioned. The War of the Heavenly Horses article describes a campaign fought around the turn of the 2nd-1st centuries B.C. between a Chinese military expedition to Central Asia and Ferghana, a kingdom descended from Alexander the Great’s settled Macedonian troops. The Chinese were seeking to acquire as many “heavenly horses” as they could. These were bigger than normal steeds that could carry much more weight than other horses and would be superior in battle. A battle was fought at Yucheng, which may be at or near the modern Uzgen which is itself close to the mouth of the Ferghana Valley. The Chinese also besieged the Greeks in Alexandria Eschate, which was considered the furthest of all cities founded by Alexander during his trek across Asia. I had heard of the story of the expedition, but had not previously seen it pieced together with specific names and places that could be correlated to those that I knew from my own reading of the Alexander histories. This was very well done.

Marc DeSantis

Mark of Calth Review Part 2

The final three stories that I have left for this review of Mark of Calth are Calth That Was, by Graham McNeill, The Underworld War by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, and Unmarked, by Dan Abnett. I have certainly saved the best stories for last.

Calth That Was is the longest story in the anthology. It is in fact a novella, far longer than a short story, and is about three hours in audio length. It follows the defense of Calth after the Ultramarines were compelled to leave the planet in the wake of the star’s the massive radiation output triggered by the Word Bearers. Left behind were thousands of Ultramarines trapped on the planet, along with numerous Word Bearer enemies who were similarly stranded by the sickening of Calth’s star.

This brought on the phase known as the Underworld war, so-named because the combatants were forced to retreat into below-ground arcologies for protection from the lethal radiation. Leading the Ultramarines and other surviving soldiers is the stalwart Captain Remus Ventanus, notable already for his heroism in defending Calth during the initial surprise attack launched by the traitorous Word Bearers.

Calth That Was has an elegiac quality to it, being a mournful hymn to what the once-fertile planet was, and what it will never be again. The Chaos-worshiping Word Bearers are unsurprisingly awful, and engage in vile atrocities without remorse. Ventanus’ defense of the population centers of Calth forms the narrative core of the story, which is thoughtful and action-packed in equal measure.

The Underworld War by Aaron Dembski-Bowden takes a look at the war from the other side of the hill. The story focuses upon a Word Bearer officer of the elite Gal Vorbak who, among other things, plays the host for a demon in his own flesh. If you have not already figured this out, the Word Bearers are nasty! He has, in fact, lost faith in the war on Calth that he is fighting, feeling that he has been left behind and forgotten by the rest of his brethren when they fled the Calth system to escape the star’s radiation. Years have past with no rescue or relief, and he wants out. Of course, one doesn’t just ditch an unholy war fought on behalf of the dark gods of Chaos, and the resolution to this story was worth every moment leading to it, and it surprised me very much.

The final story of the anthology, Unmarked, and my favorite, tracks the movements of Oll Persson, a strange but goodhearted man of an otherwise previously undescribed group known as “perpetuals.” The perpetuals, who have only been seen in a handful of places during the course of the two dozen or so Horus Heresy novels so far, are humans of immense age, being, it would seem, younger only than the Emperor himself, who is a virtually immortal being who has lived among men since about 8,000 B.C. To put Oll Persson in perspective, he is at least forty thousand years old, a span of time that is incomprehensible to ordinary mortal minds.

Persson finds himself leading a small group of survivors of the Calth attack via the application of an extraordinary weapon, an athame, which allows him to cut the fabric of reality in twain and step through the breach. That is remarkable enough, but even more remarkable is that this also allows him to step back in time as well as move across vast distance instantaneously, and he finds himself back on Earth in the deep distant past, with his unhappy band in tow. Dan Abnett’s Persson is a fantastic character. He is at once beyond any measure that a reader could apply to him. How can one fathom the mindset of a man who has lived for more than four hundred centuries? But he is also sympathetic as a man who can’t, it seems, die, but is fated to live forever, as the interminable years role by.

I have been greatly impressed by Black Library’s efforts in bringing the story of the Horus Heresy to print, and they have done a wonderful job with their audio anthology Mark of Calth. The universe of Warhammer 40,000 has slowly evolved over a quarter-century of development, with many, many hands involved in shaping this extraordinary milieu. The galaxy envisioned is not at all pleasant, and you would not want to visit it if you could avoid doing so. It is science fantasy of the grimmest, darkest kind, and that is how Black Library’s authors intend it. But the story is so deep, and so filled with elemental strife, that the novels, and now Mark of Calth, provide some of the best SF reading available today.

Marc DeSantis