Henchmen of Ares

Revisiting the 2013-book on Greek warfare

Nearly five years ago, my first book was published. Here’s a look back at the commercial edition of my PhD thesis and the lessons learned.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Back in 2010, I defended my PhD thesis about warfare in Early Greece. It covered the period from the Late Bronze Age down to the Persian Wars, or about 800 years’ worth of history. I shopped it around for a bit and it was eventually published in 2013 as hard cover book with the title Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece.

The book has a completely different structure from my PhD thesis. In the latter, I structured the text around different types of evidence. Hence, my thesis has a chapter on burials with arms, fortifications, iconographic evidence (mainly vase paintings), as well as separate chapters on the Homeric epics, Archaic Greek poets and inscriptions, and the Histories of Herodotus. In contrast, the book’s contents are organized chronologically, using a division proposed in the conclusion to my original dissertation.

Some of the finer details from my dissertation were dropped from the book for various reasons. A PhD thesis has to be overly thorough, taking various things into account that don’t necessarily make for a very gripping read. But the book does, of course, keep the key points from my thesis, and I managed to emphasize points that I believe were especially important, such as the notion that Greece was more or less peripheral to the larger Mediterranean world at the time.

If I were to summarize the book as concisely as possible, I’d say that it sets warfare in Greece in a socio-cultural context. I’m less preoccupied with developments in weapons and armour than I am in the people actually involved in the fighting (the “henchmen of Ares”), and in the role that warfare played in shaping ancient Greek societies.

Reviews of the book

After its release, the book received universally positive, but fortunately not uncritical reviews. That’s pleasing for an author, as either positive or negative reviews without any critical commentary – “It’s amazing!”, “It sucks!” – aren’t very helpful.

Author Philip Matyszak wrote that “if you want only one book on pre-classical Greek warfare, this should be it.” In his review for Antike Welt, Cezary Kucewicz wrote that the book “provides an excellent overview of the cultural history of warriors and warfare in early Greece”. Likewise, Louis Mignot on Strife called it “an important foundational read for anyone interested in Greek warfare.”

One review that wasn’t as good as I had hoped was published on the Bryn Mawr website. This review, which is overall still quite positive, was written by Christopher Matthew, who himself wrote a PhD thesis on hoplite warfare.Show Published by Pen & Sword as Storm of Spears: Understanding the Greek Hoplite at War. He says a bunch of nice things:

This work is beautifully presented with magnificent colour illustrations reconstructing the warriors of ancient Greece and images of artefacts and artworks throughout. Text boxes and sidebars scattered across the chapters take the reader to additional information about specific elements of ancient Greek warfare without taking anything away from the flow of the main narrative of the text. The book is well written and easy to read and appears to have been designed with the layman and/or general reader with an interest in this period of history as its target audience.

But there’s also a few statements in here that I find a little odd. For example, he claims that my book covers the Classical period (it does not). He also writes that there is no further reading and no regular bibliography (as in a largely nondescript list of referenced works), despite the fact that the bibliographic notes are, in fact, a combination of footnotes, suggestions for further reading, and a list of references.

While based on my PhD thesis, the book is aimed at a general audience and has found a large number of receptive readers. Novelist and re-enactor Christian Cameron reviewed the book and devote a bunch of kind words to it. Here’s a taste:

Henchmen of Ares is, I think, the best comprehensive treatment of the origins of hoplite warfare since the “Heretics vs Orthodox” debate began in the 1980s. Brouwers is a member of the “Heretic” camp and so am I, but he deals with the evidence in an even-handed way, and his Bibliographic Notes are masterful – in fact, they are the core, or even the spine, of the whole argument, and the reader who looks at the pretty pictures and reads the chapters but skips the “notes” is missing what I see as the very best of the book.

The book has also been rated well by regular readers on Amazon and on GoodReads, though sadly there are no written reviews on the latter website. Ratings are fine, but it’s words that matter most. Nevertheless, I’m happy that the book continues to sell, despite the fact that ancient Greece isn’t as popular a topic as ancient Rome.

Useful points of criticism

Critical reviews are useful in figuring out what could be done better. Nearly all of the reviewers of Henchmen of Ares have raised useful points that I have tried to keep in mind when tackling new books. I also hope to apply what I’ve learned to a future edition of Henchmen.

The first point raised by reviewers is that perhaps the vase-paintings and other forms of Greek art are not treated with enough scepticism. Problems of interpretation were discussed in more detail in the PhD thesis, but they have largely fallen by the wayside in Henchmen. I think in a future edition of the book I need to devote more space to discussing the problems inherent in studying the different types of material, as interpretive problems arise not just with the iconographic evidence, but also with the archaeological data and the texts (as Louis Mignot has pointed out specifically).

In fact, for a future edition, I should probably add a kind of “primer” that discusses the different types of evidence and their associated interpretive problems (for example, the fact that burials with arms are comparatively rare, that we don’t have iconographic evidence for all periods under examination, that texts should be treated with caution because of this-and-that). It would be an appendix like the bibliographic notes, but devoted exclusively to the evidence (with references that are now scattered across the bibliographic essay integrated here).

Another point of criticism, also raised by Louis Mignot, is that tactics are not explored in detail in Henchmen of Ares. The reason for that is that my interest is largely cultural – I don’t particularly care about battlefield tactics, but in a future edition of the book I should probably explore this topic a little better. There is, of course, the problem that we don’t have a lot of clear-cut evidence as far as tactics are concerned for the period before ca. 500 BC.

The final point, raised by Cezary Kucewicz, is that Henchmen doesn’t focus as much on the social aspect of the developments in the Archaic period in particular. I agree with this: there is probably room to explore socio-political change from the Iron Age down to the Persian Wars in a little more detail.

In particular, the shift from smallish warbands to large armies, which I date to the second half of the sixth century BC, can be made stronger when more of the socio-political aspects are taken into consideration. After all, the socio-military developments should be placed within a context of urbanization and state formation processes.

Corrections

Something that I’ve learned over the course of my career as both a writer and an editor is that (almost) no book is perfect. Errors easily creep into a text, and no matter how hard you try and catch every mistake, a few will always manage to elude you. Henchmen of Ares is no different in this regard.

Fortunately, none of the mistakes are particularly egregious. Here’s a list of all the errors that have been found to date:

  • Typo on p. 4: metis should of course be menis. It means “rage” and is the first word of the Iliad. Funnily enough, metis is actually a proper Greek word, too, though it actually means “wisdom”. (There’s a goddess of wisdom called Metis, who gets eaten by Zeus.)
  • On p. 8, Tawagalawa is identified as the king of Ahhiyawa. This is not correct: he is the brother of the King of Ahhiyawa. The name of the King is never given in the letter.
  • At the top of page 69, there is a minor mixup in the sequence of events in the first two sentences. It starts with “When Hector is killed by Achilles” and ends with “mocking the fallen hero.” This should be replaced by the following: “When Hector is killed by Achilles, the Greek hero strips him off his armour. The other Greeks then gather round to stab and poke the body in order to despoil it, mocking the fallen hero.” The paragraph then continues as normal, with “Afterwards, Achilles in his anger…”
  • Typo on p. 95, second paragraph: “Alcaus” should be “Alcaeus”.
  • The caption on page 107 is wrong. The original idea for the map was to focus on the campaign of 480–479 BC, but the map maker, Carlos García, and I ended up including almost everything, including the Ionian Revolt and the campaign of 490 BC, but I forgot to update the manuscript. The caption should read: “A map showing key sites and movements of troops during the Persian wars of the first quarter of the fifth century BC, including the Ionian Revolt.”
  • On page 114 (text box), I write that Isagoras is a member of the Alcmeonidae. This isn’t correct: he is an aristocrat, but belonged to a noble house that Herodotus was unable to trace back very far, and was probably relatively new (see Hdt. 5.66.1).
  • Page 146, under 660 BC: remove “founding of Naucratis”, as this isn’t correct. Greeks did indeed settle at what we now call Naucratis, but it wasn’t founded at this date and the settlement of Greeks at Naucratis didn’t happen until the sixth century BC.
  • Typo on p. 169, second paragraph: “under the reforms of Cleisthenes” should of course be “until the reforms of Cleisthenes”.

Some of these mistakes were spotted by Cezary Kucewicz while he was reading the book for his review. Others were found by Dr Fernando Echeverría Rey as he was working on the Spanish translation of the book. The Spanish edition, published by Desperta Ferro, has corrected all of these mistakes and also includes some extra photos that weren’t included in the English version.

Lessons learned

Henchmen of Ares is the first book of mine that was published. I worked on it while still getting the hang of being a magazine editor, too. I learned a lot of valuable lessons the hard way. In general, I’ve learned to accept that no work will ever be perfect; you cannot proofread enough to catch every mistake.

More in particular, I think that perhaps using a bibliographic essay instead of more traditional notes was a mistake in the case of this book.Show I did use the same approach for my Dutch book on Greek mythology, but I think it works well there because that book’s focus is on distinct stories, rather than an attempt to bring together disparate source material and interpreting that to arrive at a coherent narrative. While the essay is certainly more legible, numbered notes are perhaps of more use for those who want to know exactly what I base a particular statement on. I think some kind of combination might be useful in future: notes plus a (shorter?) bibliographic essay as a handhold for those who want to explore the topic further.

Another point concerns the use of custom illustrations. There are a lot of them in Henchmen, all made by talented illustrators. Nothing exposes the limits of your own knowledge as acutely as having to provide instructions to an illustrator. Aspects that are glossed over or ignored in text (how did they fix their crests to helmets? what did the sandals look like? how was the scabbard fixed to the baldric?) suddenly become problems that send you back to the library to look for answers. While I think the final results are fine, I do feel that some of the illustrations are less didactic than they could have been.

I’m currently working on a new edition of my book on Greek mythology (next to include Roman tales, too), and a book on the Trojan War (to be published by Pen & Sword). As a writer, I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the last five years, and my experience as an editor has allowed me to take a more sober look at how books are produced and eventually released into the wild.

Closing remarks

If this article has piqued your interest about Henchmen of Ares, I hope you’ll check it out. If you don’t want to spend any money on the book, that’s fine: my PhD thesis is available in its original form online, accessible for free as part of the VU University’s Open Access initiative.

There’s also plenty of content about this topic for you to explore right here on the website. For example, you might want to check out our podcast on hoplites or read some of our articles that bear the tag “warfare”.