With This Shield

spartan shieldOne of the most gratifying things about reading the reviews on Amazon for The Wandering King are the comments from people that are looking forward to reading the second book in the series.  Therefore I wanted give my small band of followers a sneak preview as to where I am going with book two, titled:  With This Shield.

The title comes from a famous rite of passage in Spartan culture.  When a young man graduated from the agoge and was about to take his place in the army, his closest female relative, usually his mother, presented him with his shield, with these words:

“Return with this shield,
or carried home dead upon it.”

Victory or death.  Come home a winner or don’t come back alive.  That may sound like harsh advice, particularly from your mother, but the Spartans were so out-numbered by their helot serfs, their very survival depended entirely on military superiority.  In fact, after just one catastrophic loss on the battlefield, at Leuctra in 371 B.C., the entire Spartan system collapsed and never recovered.

Magna Graecia

Book one in The Wandering King series, Summer, Harvest, War, was divided into three sections:  Libya, Corinth and Delphi, and followed the main character Euryanax’s adventures in those three places.  All of which gave me a chance to introduce readers to the Spartan way of life; Euryanax’s father Dorieus’ rivalary with his half-brother Cleomenes; and Dorieus’ initial attempts to build a Spartan colony overseas.

With This Shield is divided into two sections: Magna Graecia and Attica.

The first section follows Dorieus, Euryanax and their army to southern Italy and Sicily, which in ancient times were known collectively as Magna Graecia.  During the Archaic Period of Greek history (750 – 480 B.C.), the Greeks colonized so much of southern Italy and Sicily they considered it an extension of Greece, and because the land was so rich compared to the motherland, it became known as Magna Graecia, which is Latin for ‘Greater Greece.’

The War Between Sybaris and Croton

In this section of the book, Euryanax recounts the war between the Greek colonies of Sybaris and Croton, which according to Herodotus, Dorieus may have taken part in.  Not all the ancient sources agree as to whether or not Dorieus and his band of Spartans actually took part in this war, but as it took place at the same time Dorieus would have been passing by on his way to Sicily, I can’t help but think, what Spartan general would have been able to resist getting involved in a war with the wealthiest city in the world, particularly when Dorieus needed money to finance his colony?

Among the few ancient authors to comment on the war between Sybaris and Croton was a Greek named Athenaeus living in Egypt in 200 A.D.  Athenaeus wrote a book called the Deipnosophistae, or The Banquet of the Learned, in which he discusses food, wine, luxury, music, art, sexual habits and literary gossip.  The Deipnosophistae is primarily important to us today for its references to hundreds of earlier Greek writers, most of whose work have been lost over time.  Some of the passages Athenaeus quotes are the only extant references we have for some of the missing works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Heraclides.

Athenaeus is important to me, because he is one of the few sources of information on the fabled city of Sybaris, which was legendary in ancient times as the wealthiest, most luxurious city of the age; sort of the Sodom & Gomorrah of its time.  As the story goes, Sybaris controlled one of the largest tracts of fertile farmland in southern Italy and was the leader of an alliance of 25 cities.  Dorieus and Euryanax were passing by on their way to Sicily, when Sybaris came into conflict with its neighbor Croton, and the Spartans became embroiled in this little known war.

The Philosopher Pythagoras

What interested the ancient Greeks about this particular conflict was Sybaris’ reputation for wealth and excess, and Croton’s reputation for its number of Olympic champions, good health and dutiful wives.  Croton owed much of its reputation to the philosopher Pythagoras.  Everyone has heard of the Pythagorean Theorem, but oddly enough, the mathematical equation attributed to Pythagoras has little basis in reality.  Historians agree that the theorem (that the square of the hypotenuse on a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides), was in use by the Babylonians, Egyptians and Indians hundreds of years before Pythagoras was born.  It is possible Pythagoras learned about the theorem during his travels to the Far East and brought it to the Greek world, but it’s not the most interesting thing we know about the man that is credited with inventing the word ‘philosophy,’ love of wisdom.

Pythagoras was famous in the ancient world for his teachings on science, music, medicine, astronomy, politics, math, religion and everyday life.  He preached equality for women, was a vegetarian and believed in reincarnation.  He had a great influence on later philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and started his own religion.  During his lifetime his followers were called Cenobites, which meant, ‘the common life,’ but later they became known as the Pythagoreans, and greatly influenced the ancient world for hundreds of years after Pythagoras’ death.

Although Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, he left during the turmoil caused by the tyrant Polycrates of Samos, ventured to Egypt and Babylon, eventually settling in Italy at Croton where he was responsible for writing their code of laws.  In some sense, Pythagoras is a mythical, somewhat Christ-like figure, as his views differed radically from what most Greeks believed, his teachings inspired a religious cult, and he came to a tragic end.

Though Herodotus never mentions a meeting between Pythagoras, Dorieus or Euryanax, there is no question that the famous philosopher was living in Croton at the same time my heroes stopped in southern Italy on their way to Sicily.  Were Euryanax and the Spartans attracted to Pythagoras’ teachings?  No one knows.  All we know is that according to Herodotus, Sybaris’ army amounted to over 300,000 men.  Herodotus does not give us a figure for the army fielded by Croton and Dorieus’ Spartans, but it was miniscule in comparison.  To the Greeks, the war between Sybaris and Croton was remembered as a clash between the forces of excess and the forces of discipline.

A Failed Attempt at Democracy

I’m not going to tell you what happened during the war, except to say that one of the additional causes, beyond Sybaris and Croton’s obvious differences in lifestyle, was a difference in political philosophy.  Sybaris was ruled by a tyrant named Telys.  Croton was ruled by an oligarchy called the Thousand.  The ancient sources such as Strabo and Diodorus hint that Croton was among the first cities in the ancient world to flirt with the idea of democracy.  Unquestionably it was a failed attempt, possibly led by Pythagoras and his followers.

What is fascinating to me about what was going on in southern Italy is that my hero Euryanax got to witness these political struggles between tyranny, oligarchy and democracy, and this struggle provides the backdrop for what occurs in the first section of With This Shield.

I cannot reveal what happens to Euryanax in Italy and Sicily, but a reading of Herodotus will let you know that the Spartans didn’t stay in Magna Graecia.  Euryanax eventually returned to Sparta, where in the second section of With This Shield, he is sent with an expedition of Lacedaemonians to free the Athenians from the oppressive rule of the tyrant Hippias.

The Democratic Revolution at Athens

The second section of the book is titled ‘Attica,’ which is the name of the Greek province where the city of Athens is located.  Why not call it ‘Athens?’  Because the action takes place in the city of Athens along with several additional locations in Attica, such as the plain of Phalerum, the villages of Braunon and Piraeus, and by the Cephissus River.

I’ve always been amazed that there aren’t dozens of books on the market regarding how the world’s first democracy was formed at Athens.  History books touch on the subject, but there’s never been a novel depicting the revolution that occurred in Athens around approximately 508 B.C., a revolution triggered according to Herodotus, by a small Spartan expeditionary force that was sent by Euryanax’s uncle King Cleomenes to overthrow Athens’ tyrant Hippias.

Herodotus is among our few sources for what happened at Athens, and he is maddeningly vague about the details.  All of which allows me to create my own plot based on the details we do know.  Suffice it to say, it makes for a good story.

Like the first book in the series, With This Shield is first and foremost an adventure story that describes Euryanax’s wanderings around the ancient world during a pivotal period of  history.  On a deeper level, With This Shield is about the end of the Age of Tyrants and the emergence of democracy on the world stage.

While we take things like freedom of speech and democracy for granted today, they were prized commodities in the ancient world, things people fought and died for.  One of the things that may surprise you about the original democracy at Athens is how many people, Socrates and Plato among them, distrusted ‘rule by the people.’  To them, it meant rule by the uneducated, unwashed masses.

As of December 2013, I’m approximately 3/4’s of the way through writing With This Shield.  I hesitate to promise an exact date as to when it will be available, but will say that it’s my goal to have it completed in 2014.  Stay tuned…

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