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