Follow the leader?

Mustering armies in the Homeric world

In the story of the Trojan War, battles are fought between huge armies. But how were these armies organized? How were they assembled?

Josho Brouwers

Homer’s epic poem known as the Iliad deals with the ten-year war of the Greeks against the Trojans. According to the poet, each side fielded thousands of troops, divided roughly into contingents commanded by kings and princes.

The Greek contingents all come from various parts in Greece: the people of Mycenae have followed their king Agamemnon to Troy, while Odysseus commands the troops from Ithaca, Achilles those from Phthia, and so on. Among the Trojans and their allies, Glaucus and Sarpedon lead the men from Lydia, Rhesus those from Thrace, and Hector commands the Trojan forces themselves.

In this article, we’ll look at different aspects of Homeric armies. I’ll first discuss the organization of Homeric armies, before going into how the men might have been called up for battle. I’ll then discuss why some of the men may have fought, and who was supposed to arrange their equipment.

Leaders of men

In the poem, the followers of heroes such as Hector and Achilles are referred to as hetairoi or “companions”. They can also be referred to as philoi (“friends”). These companions are ubiquitous (e.g. Il. 1.179; 2.778; 3.1; 4.379; 7.115; 11.461; 13.164–165; 16.816–817). While most of these companions are essentially faceless fighters, lost in the throng of battle, a few of them play a more prominent role in the story, most notably Patroclus, the foremost of Achilles’ companions (Il. 9.205).

In 1988, Hans van Wees published an article called “Kings in combat: battles and heroes in the Iliad” (Classical Quarterly 38, pp. 1-24), in which he looked in detail at the composition of armies in the Homer’s battle-epic. He pointed out that heroes are typically assumed always to be accompanied by their followers in battle. The poet makes a point of mentioning whenever a leader is caught on his own, that is, without any companions nearby (e.g. Il. 11.401-410).

A small number of companions are referred to as therapōntes. This is an interesting word. It’s often translated as “retainers” or “henchmen”. Some warriors can, for example, be referred to as the therapōntes of the war-god, i.e. the “henchmen of Ares”. In my PhD thesis, I proposed a slightly different translation, namely “householdmen”: they were such close associates that they may have lived in their masters’ houses.

In the Iliad, Partroclus is referred to as a therapōn of Achilles. As a child, Patroclus had accidentally killed another boy and was sent away to live in the house of Achilles’ father, Peleus. Patroclus and Achilles thus grew up together. Hans van Wees has suggested that “perhaps the only retainers to live in their masters’ houses are refugees without a livelihood or a place to stay, while other retainers are local men with their own households” (see Hans van Wees, Status Warriors (1992), p. 32).

Mustering the troops

One can easily imagine retainers living in a leader’s home to be expected to join him in battle. But most followers were not retainers of this sort. Where did these men come from? Some were no doubt really philoi or friends of the leader in question, who came when called. But not every follower would have been a personal acquaintence of the king or prince who commanded him.

Instead, some (perhaps most?) followers were apparently under some obligation to join their leader in the event of war. It’s not clear if this applied to all able-bodied men in Homeric society or only those belonging to the upper echelons. But what does seem clear is that families were supposed to supply one warrior each.

One of the Myrmidons (followers of Achilles), a man called Argeïphontes, tells the Trojan king Priam that he and his six brothers cast lots, and that he was thus chosen by fate to accompany Achilles to Troy (Il. 24.399–400). Casting lots is a common method in ancient Greece to determine who gets picked to do what: it’s how, according to mythology, Zeus and his two brothers divided the world between them.

This does sort of beg the question: were men sometimes forced to go to war? There is no proof in the epics that some men were pressed into joining a military campaign. Perhaps only the father of Argeïphontes, as the head of his household (oikos), was asked to accompany Achilles. He may have decided to send someone else in his stead to fulfill the favour.

Sending someone else to fulfill an obligation isn’t uncommon in the epic world. After all, Achilles himself led the troops from Phthia because his father Peleus was too old to do so himself. This also explains why Argeïphontes and his brothers cast lots: only one of them had to go. Achilles, needless to say, was an only son and therefore the only suitable replacement for Peleus.

Homer’s Odyssey sheds some further light on the kinds of people who could be counted among a high-ranking man’s following. When the suitors in Ithaka hear that Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, has set off to visit the mainland, Antinous asks which of the young men (kouroi) went with him: the exairetoi (“chosen men”) of Ithaka, or perhaps thētes (landless labourers) in his employ, or even slaves (Od. 4.642–644).

The exairetoi or “chosen men” were no doubt culled from the upper echelons of society: presumably other “princes” (i.e. aristocrats), like Telemachus himself. In short, it seems that in the Homeric world, only the aristocracy and their dependents (i.e. slaves and thētes) were eligible to serve as part of a leader’s retinue. Antinous refers to kouroi (“young men”) presumably because Telemachus himself was very young: no doubt it would have been strange for older men to obey the commands of someone who was barely old enough to shave, let alone a young man who hadn’t yet proven himself in battle.

You might notice that the common people are entirely absent from Antinous’ list: they were clearly not expected to join a young aristocrat on an expedition. This is quite common in the Homeric world. We should probably not ascribe this to wilful neglect on the part of the poet; instead, it was very likely a feature of archaic society. The common people may well have played little part in military endeavours in Archaic Greek history as in the Homeric world.

Repaying a favour

In the case of the Iliad, the army was assembled by Agamemnon in order to defend his brother’s honour and make the Trojans pay for having abducted Helen. Not everyone was particularly enthused about this. In fact, near the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles tells Agamemnon this frankly (Il. 1.152–160), in the translation by Richmond Lattimore:

I for my part did not come here for the sake of the Trojan
spearmen to fight against them, since to me they have done nothing.
Never yet have they driven away my cattle or my horses,
never in Phthia where the soil is rich and men grow great did they
spoil my harvest, since indeed there is much that lies between us,
the shadowy mountains and the echoing sea; but for your sake,
o great shamelessness, we followed, to do you favour [chairēs],
you with the dog’s eyes, to win your honour [timē] and Menelaos’
from the Trojans. You forget all this or else you care nothing.

Achilles makes clear that he and the other leaders followed Agamemnon as a favour (charis). This is interesting: according to other stories, most of the men in Greece had longed to marry the beautiful Helen, nominally the daughter of King Tyndaraeus of Sparta (but actually a child of Zeus). To maintain the peace, all men swore an oath to let Helen pick a husband of her own choosing, and to defend him against whoever would quarrel with him.

The Trojan War thus came about when the Trojan prince Paris ran off with Helen and took her to Troy. But there’s hardly a hint of this in the Homeric epic. Instead, use of the word charis suggests that the Greeks joined the expedition simply as a favour. Indeed, the poem suggests that the Trojan War was perhaps a voluntary endeavour.

Some men were even able to politely refuse an invitation to war by sending Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, some valuable gift. Echepolus, son of Anchises (not to be confused with Aeneas’ father!), gave Agamemnon a beautiful mare, specifically “so as not to have to go with him to windy Ilion but stay where he was and enjoy himself” (Il. 23.295–296).

Still, it seems likely that many men would have had to answer the call to arms for fear of losing face. While most men no doubt had to supply their own weapons and armour, at least some in the retinue of a wealthy man could be supplied from the latter’s surplus equipment.

That leaders had extra equipment is clear from a description of Odysseus’ palace in the Odyssey. The poet mentions that there’s a store-room filled with all sorts of treasures (keimēlia) and weapons (Od. 2.337–347). But weapons and other equipment could also adorn the central hall in a prince’s home. Earlier, Telemachus had removed all of the weapons and armour from Odysseus’ hall (Od. 19.1–34, 22.23–25).

Closing remarks

In the Homeric world, armies consisted of leaders and their followers. These followers could be close friends, sometimes even retainers who lived in their master’s house. Other followers were perhaps obliged to follow their leader to war, or did so as a favour. Some men cast lots to determine who had to go off to war. And while they most likely had to supply their own equipment, a leader often had a reserve from which he could supply some of his men.

There are interesting parallels to be found between what we read in the Homeric epics and what Greek poets of the Archaic period (roughly the seventh and sixth centuries BC) wrote about warfare and society. But there are differences, too. Homeric society is ruled by kings, which were already a rarity in Archaic Greek communities. But in both instances, it seems that warfare was very much the perogative of the upper strata of society, and organized on a largely personal basis.