Tag Archives: Athens

The Wandering King: Book 3 Begun

phalanx

 

Those that have been enjoying The Wandering King series will be happy to hear that I’ve started work on book 3.  I used the year’s hiatus to work on a contemporary novel.  After spending 5 years immersed in the ancient world, I needed to spend some time writing about today’s world.

The subtitle for book 3 hasn’t been selected yet.  If you’d like to weigh in on the subtitle or suggest one of your own, feel free to do so in the comments section.  Here are a couple that I’m mulling over…

  • Glorious Fall the Valiant
  • Black Hulled Ships
  • Perils of War
  • Land of Brave Men
  • The Sworn Band
  • Victory or Death

The lines “glorious fall the valiant” and “land of brave men,” come from the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus.  “Black hulled ships,” comes from Homer.  The “perils of war” comes from Thucydides.  “Sworn band” is a translation of the Spartan smallest military unit, the enomotia.  A variation for the subtitle could be “Sworn Band Leader,” which was an enomotarch, which is comparable to the modern title of lieutenant.

Where Book 3 is Going

In book 1, Summer, Harvest, War, you journeyed with Euryanax south to Libya and north to Corinth and Delphi.  In book 2, With This Shield, you followed him west to Italy and Sicily.

In book 3, you’ll venture east with our hero to Thrace, Scythia and Asia Minor (modern Turkey) where he’ll take part in a 6-year struggle called the Ionian Revolt.  Though not written about in any novels that I’m aware of, the Ionian Revolt is covered in Herodotus.  It was a revolt by the Greek cities in Asia Minor against the High King Darius of Persia, and is seen as the precursor to the more famous Persian War.a82f442a443b716d8ffa57bc15e88771

Before Eury goes east, he has some unfinished business to take care of at home in Sparta.  When we last left him, he was marching away from Athens with the Spartan army after they had just ousted the Athenian tyrant Hippias.  His uncle Leonidas had put him in charge of a handful of young Athenian boys, who we are told are hostages, but King Cleomenes wants to disguise this fact by having Eury train them in the agoge.

Book 3 opens with us learning that Eury has been given the responsibility of training a group of young boys from all over Hellas.  Cleomenes has expanded upon his original idea, and offered to teach the sons of his allies in Boeotia, Arcadia and Macedon the Spartan way of war.  Like many of the innovative things Cleomenes did in history, this is not a popular idea among his fellow, conservative Spartans.

Among Eury’s students are some young, historical personages, such as Alexandros son of King Amnytas (Alexander the Great’s great-great-great grandfather), Alcibiades of the Alcaemonids (grandfather of his famous namesake), and Leontiades, the future Theban commander at the Battle of Thermopylae.  Several others are based on minor characters mentioned by Herodotus in The Histories, some of whom, like Attaginus, end up allied with the Persians during the Persian War.

Eury’s cousin and chief rival and antagonist, Pausanias, is also training a ‘herd’ of boys, the salamanders.  As they have a 8-year head start on Eury’s ‘turtles,’ Pausanias’ salamanders are  a lean, mean pack of wolves, whose main goal in life is to kill Eury’s charges, of which they’ve already done away with 3 at the start of the story.

How Eury manages to help the turtles survive the agoge and one of Sparta’s most brutal rites of passage, the Festival of Artemis Orthia, make up the first two chapters of book 3, which I am working on now.

Diversion to Athens

If you’ll recall from book 2, after the Spartans overthrew the Athenian tyrant Hippias they left one of their puppets, a rich nobleman named Isagoras in charge.  Isagoras promptly exiled ‘the father of democracy’ Cleisthenes from Athens.  If you’ve read Herodotus, you know that Cleisthenes eventually returns and “took the common people into his party” enabling him to oust Isagoras.

Although I admire the Spartans, one of the things that is not so admirable about them is their aversion to democracy.  In defense of the Spartans, philosophers like Aristotle and Plato were not exactly keen on the Athenians version of ‘pure’ democracy either.  Many during the age (particularly wealthy landowners) viewed it as ‘rule by the unwashed, uneducated rabble.’  Cleomenes attempted to interfere in Athenian politics, where he wanted to get rid of Cleisthenes and reinstate Isagoras.

As the Athenian democracy survived, you can probably guess that Cleomenes’ plans backfire on him.  Once the Peloponnesian League and his co-King Demaratus learned what he was up to, they walked out on him.  Cleomenes had cleverly planned to have Sparta, Thebes and Chalcis attack Athens from three sides, but once the Spartans left with Demaratus, the Athenians rallied and beat the Thebans and men of Chalcis in two separate battles.

What role will Eury play in all of this?  You’ll see.

Reunited with Miltiades

Hopefully I’m not giving away too much of the story  by saying Euryanax is forced to leave Sparta.  When Eury does, he returns young Cimon to his father Miltiades, who as we learned at the end of book 2 was returning to the Thracian Chersonese to reclaim his lands there.

Why did I introduce Miltiades in book 2?  Readers familiar with Greek history will recognize him as the key strategos of the Athenian forces at the famous Battle of Marathon.  If there is a book 4 in the series, it’ll cover Marathon, where Miltiades has his historic day in sun.

For purposes of book 3, Herodotus also records that Miltiades was involved in some adventures prior to Marathon.  He captured the islands of Lemnos, Imbros and Tenedos in the Aegean Sea, taking them away from the Persian Empire.  Miltiades also has a part to play in …

The Ionian Revolt

hoplite3The last thing I’ll say about book 3 is that the same way that Eury was reunited with Theokles during the Battle at Phalerum in book 2, his friend will reappear in time for the Ionian Revolt’s famous Battle of Lade.  There will be some surprises regarding Theo and his mistress Stesilaus, so I’ll close here before I give anyway any spoilers.

The important thing to know is that book 3 is begun and I am excited to be working on it.  Don’t want to promise a completion date as that just adds the pressure of a deadline.  Will only say that it took three years to write book 1 and two years to complete book 2.  It’ll take a few years to deliver the story to you, but for me, this is the fun part.  Just like you, I’m curious to see what happens next to our hero, Euryanax.

With This Shield: Historical Characters

othryades-mourant

Of the 60 men and women in With This Shield’s character listing, more than 40 are based on real people from ancient Greek history.  Below you will find some additional information on 15 of these historical figures.  Am also including the pronunciation of their name, as readers have told me they find this helpful.

SPOILER ALERT:  Though the data below will not give away the plot of With This Shield, in some cases it will tell you what became of the character in history.  I’ve been careful to leave out events covered in the next book in the series, so it does not give away too much information.

Aeschylus (S-kuh-lus)

While only a teenager in With This Shield, Aeschylus will grow up to be one of the most famous dramatic playwrights in Greek literature.  Twenty years later, he and his two brothers, Cynegeirus and Ameinias, would take part in the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.).

Of Aeschylus’ 90 plays, only 7 survive.  One of his earliest works, The Persians, is based on his experiences in the naval Battle of Salamis (479 B.C.).  It is unique among the Greek tragic plays in that it describes a recent historical event.

Aristides (ah-ris-TĪDE-ēz)

In The Histories, Herodotus describes Aristides as the “best and most honorable man in Athens.”  In later years he was called “Aristides the Just.”

His life is recorded by the Greek author Plutarch in his book The Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans.  Plutarch states that Aristides and Themistocles were friends when they were young, but they had a falling out because “…both were in love with Stesilaus…”

My favorite story about Aristides occurred when he was older. The Athenians were voting on who to ostracize (the ‘winner’ being exiled for 10 years).  An illiterate voter who did not recognize Aristides approached him and asked him to write the name of Aristides on the ballot.  When the statesman asked the man if Aristides had ever wronged him, the man said, “No, I do not even know him, but it irritates me to hear everyone call him ‘the Just’.”  Honest to the end, Aristides wrote his own name on the ballot and was exiled.

Callicrates (kal-ē-KRAT-ēz)

Callicrates is only mentioned once by Herodotus, who says he was the most handsome man in the Greek army.  Thirty years after the events described in With This Shield, he would die at the Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.) while the Greeks were waiting for the Persians to charge and an arrow struck him in the eye.

Herodotus wrote:  “Having been carried to the rear, as he lay dying, Callicrates said he was  happy to die for Hellas, but it grieved him that he did not get a chance to prove his bravery, that he did no acts of valor worthy of the spirit he had in him to perform great deeds.”

Callimachus (kal-ah-MOCK-us)

Twenty years after the events described in With This Shield, Herodotus lists Callimachus as the polemarch (commanding officer) at the Battle of Marathon.  Callimachus led the Athenian right wing and was killed after the Persians were routed and the Greeks were chasing them to their ships.

In Athens, it was customary for the father of the bravest man killed in the battle to give the public funeral oration over the dead.  Callimachus’ father and the father of Aeschylus (whose brother Cynegeirus was also slain) argued over whose son was the bravest.  Callimachus’ father won.

Years later the Athenians erected a statue on the acropolis next to the Parthenon in his honor, called “The Nike of Callimachus” (the Victory of Callimachus).

Cimon (SĪ-mon)

Miltiades’ youngest son would go on to become one of the most famous statesmen and generals in Athenian history.  My depiction of Cimon is based on what we know from Herodotus and Plutarch, who claim he was a great supporter of the Spartans.  In later life he wore his hair long in the Spartan style, and named his first son, Lacedaemonius, after the Spartan homeland, Lacedaemonia.

After the Greco-Persian Wars, when the Greeks formed the Delian League to prevent future Persian incursions (the League would become the precursor to the Athenian Empire), Cimon was named as its principal commander.  Cimon led most of the League’s military operations from 475-463 BC.  During that period, he and Aristides drove the Spartans under Pausanias out of Byzantium (later called Constantinople and today called Istanbul).

His most famous military victory came at the Battle of Eurymedon River (466 B.C.), when he captured or destroyed over 200 Persian warships.

Cleisthenes (KLĪS-thenes)

Cleisthenes was the grandson of the tyrant of the Greek city of Sicyon (also named Cleisthenes).  Among his more famous descendants in the Alcmaeonid clan were the Athenian statesman Pericles (builder of the Parthenon) and the orator, statesman and general Alcibiades.

Cleisthenes is remembered in history as the ‘father of democracy.’  While some people consider his reformation of the Athenian constitution giving equal voting rights to all citizens a benevolent act, more than likely he did it to break the hold of the wealthy plains tribes, the Pedieis, over Athens, giving each of the tribes a level playing field.

Cleisthenes called his reforms “isonomia” (equality under the law).  It wasn’t until later they would become known as “demokratia” (rule by the people).

Cleomenes (KLE-ah-men-ēz)

Even though Cleomenes reigned for 30 years, during which time he was the key player in Spartan politics, and he accomplished numerous, slick diplomatic maneuvers, Herodotus does not paint a flattering picture of him.  He accuses him of being unscrupulous, a drunk and insane.  Historians tend to believe that whoever Herodotus spoke to in Sparta to gather information about Cleomenes, was probably among his worst enemies.

Cylon (SĪGH-on)

What we know about Cylon comes from the Syrian neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus, who wrote in his book, The Life of Pythagoras:

“Cylon was a leading citizen of Croton with all of the advantages of noble birth, fame and riches; but otherwise he was a difficult, violent and tyrannical man who eagerly desired to participate in the Pythagorean way of life.  He approached Pythagoras, but was rejected because of his character.  Unaccustomed to rejection, Cylon vowed to seek revenge and destroy Pythagoras and his followers.”

The story in With This Shield about the alliance between Cylon and Ninon, who used phony, forged documents, to discredit Pythagoras and inspire the populace to burn down Milo’s house are found in Iamblichus.  Whether there is any truth to the story, or if it was part of an oral tradition, is hard to say as Iamblichus wrote 700 years after Pythagoras’ death.

Elpinice (L-pin- ēz)

The daughter of Miltiades, Elpinice, is known from Plutarch’s Life of Pericles, where she appears twice.  On both occasions she confronts and rebukes Pericles regarding his political actions.

After the events described in With This Shield, she became the lover of the painter Polygnotus who used her likeness in a painting of Trojan women on a stoa in the Athenian agora.  Later, the richest man in Athens, Callias, fell in love with her.  At the time, her brother Cimon owed the Athenian state a large sum of money and he married her to Callias to pay off the family’s debts.

Gorgo (GORE-gō)

Euryanax’s cousin Gorgo is among the few women mentioned by Herodotus in The Histories.  She is notable for being the daughter of a Spartan king, the wife of a Spartan king and the mother of a Spartan king.

Though little is known about her childhood, like other Spartan girls from a noble family, she would have exercised daily, been well educated, could read and write, and do mathematics.  She also would have learned how to drive a chariot and taken part in Sparta’s many festivals, which included dancing and singing in a chorus.

Gorgo is presented by Herodotus and Plutarch as an extremely wise, well-respected woman, who offered sage advice on several occasions.  Her most famous remark came when an Athenian woman asked her, “Why are you Spartan woman the only ones who can rule over men?”  To which Gorgo replied:  “Because we are the only women to give birth to real men.”

Miltiades (mil-TĪE-ah-dēz)

Miltiades is among the more famous Athenians appearing in With This Shield.  Will resist talking about his most well-known exploits, which will be detailed in the third book in the series.

Miltiades’ family, the Philaids, claimed descent from the Trojan War hero Ajax the Great.  Miltiades’ father won the Olympic Games three times for chariot racing, making him so popular it inspired the jealousy of Athens’ tyrant Hippias, who had him murdered.

Miltiades’ uncle, known as Miltiades the Elder, established an Athenian colony in the Thracian Chersonese (today known as the Gallipoli peninsula) where he set himself up as a tyrant.  When Miltiades the Elder died the tyranny passed to Miltiades’ brother Stesagoras, and after his death, to Miltiades.  Miltiades cemented good relations with the Thracian tribes in the area by marrying Hegesiplye, the daughter of the Thracian King Olorus.

The Greek historian Thucydides, author of The History of the Peloponnesian War, was a Philaid.  His father was named Olorus.  Whether it was the same Olorus related by marriage to Miltiades, is unknown.

Othryades (oh-THRAY-dēz)

As noted in the first two books of The Wandering King, Othryades was famous in Sparta as the lone survivor of the Battle of Champions (540 B.C.) between 300 Spartans and 300 Argives.

According to Herodotus, after the battle Othryades was so upset that his companions had all been killed, he committed suicide.  My apologies to Herodotus for letting Othryades live.

The image at the top of this post is a photograph of a sculpture done in 1779 by the French artist Sergel, titled “Othryades the Spartan Dying.”  It is on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Stesilaus (STES-ah-lāy-us)

The “beautiful and brilliant” Stesilaus from the island of Keos is mentioned in Plutarch’s Lives as the cause of the lifelong enmity between the two Athenian statesmen Aristides and Themistocles.

Like Othryades, I’ve taken some creative license with Stesilaus by turning “him” into a “her.”  It’s not that I’m anti-gay.  Not in the slightest.  I just did not think the story would read as well if two of my characters were fighting over a beautiful young boy.  That said, it’s important to realize the role homosexuality played in ancient Greece.

Says Plutarch of Aristides and Themistocles, “They were both in love with Stesilaus of Keos, the most beautiful and brilliant of youths; whom they both cherished so passionately, that not even after the boy’s beauty had faded did they lay aside their rivalry.”

Themistocles (tha-MIS-tōe-clēz)

While I don’t know how many readers are familiar with Themistocles, he is among the most famous Athenian statesmen and generals of all time.  I don’t want to reveal too much about him, as his story will continue in the next book in the series.

My depiction of Themistocles in With This Shield is taken from a tidbit of information I picked up while reading Plutarch’s Life of Themistocles.  Plutarch describes the young Themistocles by saying, “The wildest colts make the best horses.”

He also says that Themistocles was thrown out of his family by his father Neocles for drinking and carousing.  Though this information about Themistocles is debated, it helped form my characterization of him as brilliant, but somewhat wild and unscrupulous.

Plutarch also says that Themistocles was among the first people in history to become a lawyer to launch a political career.

Xanthippus (zan-TIP-ē-us)

Xanthippus was a wealthy aristocrat in Athens, famous in history as the father of the statesmen Pericles, who built the Parthenon and led Athens into its golden age.

Xanthippus married a niece of Cleisthenes named Agariste (Pericles’ mother).  Although not an Alcmaeonid, he became closely linked with their family.

Like Aristides, Themistocles, Miltiades, Callimachus and Aeschylus he would fight in the Battle of Marathon.  His greatest military victory would come in the last engagement of the Greco-Persian Wars as the commander of the Athenian naval forces at the decisive Battle of Mycale (479 B.C.).

Character request?

Want to know more about a character in The Wandering King series?  Let me know, and I’ll do my best to comply.

Suggested Reading List

If you have a taste for ancient Greek history, you may want to give my list a look. I have thousands of books in my house, over 700 of them devoted to ancient Greek history, culture and literature.  Even if you’re already a fan of Greek literature, hopefully I am be able to point out a gem or two you’ve missed.

choice-classics

The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer

Not to be sacrilegious, but The Iliad was the Bible of its day. If you haven’t read any of the ancient Greek authors, start with Homer. He gives you the most authentic look at what life must have been like in ancient Greece. The writing is superb. Though there was probably no single man named Homer and these two epic poems probably contain the collective wisdom of a series of bards, the end result is Shakespearean in scope.

While the events of the Trojan War occurred around 1184 B.C., the story was part of an oral tradition for centuries that wasn’t written down until the invention of the Greek alphabet around 750 B.C. Plenty of time for traveling bards to insert characters and genealogies to butter up whoever was in their audience. Interestingly, Athens receives only brief mention in the form of a minor hero, Menesthius, which may be due to Athens not becoming a power till about 500 B.C., by which time The Iliad’s story and characters were solidified.

It helps to understand what an impact Homer’s epics had on Greek culture to know that when Alexander the Great was a young man, he carried The Iliad with him everywhere and even slept with a copy under his pillow at night. When Alexander landed in Asia the first place he visited was Troy, where he took the reputed ‘shield of Achilles’ from a temple and carried it with him throughout his campaigns.

Most high schools generally include The Odyssey in their 9th grade curriculum, though The Iliad is the better story. When I was doing my student teaching and inquired why they chose The Odyssey over The Iliad, I was told The Iliad is too violent, which is true. The Odyssey is about a journey, which has modern applications for students everywhere, which is understandable. Still, I managed to sneak in sections of The Iliad when I taught.

Though The Iliad describes warefare in graphic detail, with heads flying and bodies gutted by the spear, ultimately it is an anti-war story.  It’s main hero Achilles made the choice to go to Troy, live a short life, and win eternal fame, versus staying home and living a long life but dying in obscurity.  At the climax of the story, after Achilles has slain Troy’s most famous son, the family man Hector, in the scene where he gives Hector’s body to Hector’s father King Priam, Achilles has his ephipany that now that he has won his fame, he too will die.  Though most people miss it, I tend to think Homer’s point is that Achilles chose wrongly.  What good is fame when you’re dead?  If Achilles had stayed at home, he would have lived a long happy life, instead of dying horribly, killed most likely by a poisoned arrow that hit him in his famous heel,

The big question for readers today is which translation of Homer to read. There are almost as many translations as there are characters in the poem. When I was young I read Richard Lattimore’s version and like a lot of people tend to think it’s the best. It’s not easy reading, but it is considered the closest to the ancient Greek style and meaning. More recently Princeton professor Robert Fagles came out with a more modern version that many people prefer. In the 18th century Alexander Pope wrote a version that rhymes the entire poem. I find it rather remarkable, though others find it ridiculous. There are also a number of prose versions written by Samuel Butler, E.V. Rieu and W.H.D. Rouse. All are good. Poet Robert Fitzgerald did a translation in the 1960’s, that while not as faithful to the ancient Greek as Lattimore’s, is considered an excellent literal translation.

Not long ago The New Yorker printed a nice article on the different Homeric translations, Englishing the Iliad: Grading Four Rival Translations.

The Aeneid
of Virgil

As a teenager, after reading The Iliad and The Odyssey I was overjoyed to learn that a Roman poet named Virgil had continued the story in his Aeneid. The story mimics Homer’s epics with battle scenes similar to what is found in The Iliad and it follows the wandering of the Trojan Prince Aeneas across the Mediterranean similar to Odysseus adventures in The Odyssey. Aeneas even runs across one of Odysseus’ crew members that was left stranded on the island of the cyclops and rescues him. In the end Aeneas finds his way to Italy where he founds Rome. Traditionally The Aeneid was written by Virgil to connect the Roman Emperor Augustus with the heroes of Greek myth found in Homer’s work. Heroes like Aeneas were descended from the gods, in Aeneas’ case Aphrodite, which helped solidify the Emperor’s claims to divine origins.

The Histories by Herodotus

Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) is considered the ‘father of history,’ as he was supposedly the first to chronicle a historical event, in this case the Persian War. My bet is that others wrote histories before Herodotus, his is just the only one to survive. The Histories covers a lot of ground, from the foundation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great (557-530 B.C.) to his successors conquest of Egypt, Asia Minor (Turkey), Scythia (Bulgaria) and their eventual conflict with the Greeks (490-479 B.C.). Herodotus may have been the first person to travel far and wide to interview people for his history. In a way, he was recording events from the memories of the Persian War veterans similar to the way Ken Burns interviewed World War II vets for his documentary film, The War. Unfortunately, a lot of what Herodotus records is tainted by superstition, folklore and petty political rivalries, which makes some of his facts suspect. The most famous example is his claim that Xerxes’ Persian army numbered one million men. Modern historians claim it would have been impossible to feed that size army, and it’s more likely that to the Greeks the Persian army was so large, that they used a number like a million to estimate its size. Historians reckon it was probably closer to 250,000 men.

There are a lot of good translations of The Histories out there. The new The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories is excellent as it includes maps on nearly page, plus is accompanied by a great deal of worthwhile commentary.

The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

While Herodotus has been dubbed the ‘father of history,’ Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) is known as the ‘father of scientific history.’ His History of the Peloponnesian War covers the war between Sparta and Athens (431-404 B.C.) and as Thucydides was an Athenian general during the war, is much more factual than Herodotus’ work. Though Herodotus has a lot of good stories to tell in his work, such as the stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, Thucydides’ work is better written. He does not glorify war or moralize events, instead he records the facts, which make quite clear just how horrifying war must have been in the ancient world. Thucydides died before finishing the book, so it does not cover the last seven years of the war. Readers interested in finding out what happened turn to Xenophon’s Hellenica.  Like Thucydides, Xenophon was a general during the Peloponnesian War, he’s just not as good a writer as Thucydides.

Description of Greece by Pausanias

Pausanias was a Greek traveller and geographer living in the 2nd century A.D.  His Descriptions of Greece gives firsthand observations of the art and architecture in ten Greek cities, including Athens, Sparta and Corinth.  He not only describes what he sees, but provides the myths and legends that produced the buildings, statues and monuments.  Though Pausanias lived several hundred years after the period I am writing about, his work provided inestimable assistance in helping me describe the cities and the landscapes in my book, The Wandering King.  Want to take a walk through ancient Greece?  Check out Pausanias.

The Tragedies of Aeschylus

One of the things that saddens me about Greek literature is knowing that most of what was written during the Classical Age has been lost. Only a fraction of what was written has survived.  Much of it was destroyed when the Library of Alexandria in Egypt was accidently burned down in 48 B.C. by none other than Julius Caesar.

For instance, of the ninety plays written by the Athenian playwright Aeschylus’s (525– 455 B.C.) only seven survive. One of his plays, The Persians, is unique in that it was based on his personal experience in the Persian War at the Battle of Salamis.

The Tragedies of Euripides

Of Euripides’ (480-406 B.C.) ninety-five plays, eighteen survive. Of them, my favorite is The Trojan Women, which was produced into a movie in 1971 starring Katherine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave. It deals with the fall of Troy from the perspective of the captured Trojan women, who were once royalty and are now slaves. It is possibly one of the best anti-war plays of all time.

The Tragedies of Sophocles

Seven of Sophocles’ (496-405 B.C.) 123 plays survive. His most famous work is the story of Oedipus the King, though my favorite is his story about Oedipus’ daughter Antigone. She is a wonderfully heroic figure who fights the ‘establishment’ to do what she believes is right and of course, dies for her efforts.  Sophocles was the most successful playwright of his time, winning the dramatic competition at Athens 24 times, compared to 14 wins for Aeschylus and 4 for Euripides.

The Comedies of Aristophanes

The best known comic playwright of the classical age was Aristophanes (446-386 B.C.). My favorite among his plays is Lysistrata, the plot of which is truly remarkable and still reads well today.  The (fictional) story describes how the women of Athens and Sparta conspire together to end the Peloponnesian War by refusing to have sex with their husbands!  Eleven of Aristophanes’ forty plays survive.

historical fiction

Whom the Gods Would Destroy by Richard Powell
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970

This is my favorite historical novel of all time. In the 1950’s, Richard Powell won acclaim as the author of The Philadelphian, which was later turned into a movie The Young Philadelphians (1959) starring Paul Newman. Like in a lot of cases, the book is a hundred times better than the movie. Unfortunately, no one ever thought to make a movie about his best novel, Whom the Gods Would Destroy,  The title comes from a line in Euripides, “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”  The book tells the story of the Trojan War through a young Trojan boy named Helios.  Powell takes Homer’s characters such as Achilles, Odysseus, Hector and Helen and injects so much life into them, he turns them into living, breathing people that you feel you know, and are quite sad to leave when you finally finish the book.

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield
Doubleday, 1998

Steven Pressfield has written a number of novels about ancient Greece, none of which I really like. I mention The Gates of Fire because it’s about the 300 Spartans and it’s the least offensive of all his novels. The beginning and ending are worth skipping, but the middle section that deals with the Battle of Thermopylae is excellent. They probably should have taken Pressfield out and shot him after he wrote that part, as I’ve yet to enjoy anything else he’s written. The title of the book comes from the word ‘Thermopylae,’ which means ‘hot gates’ in Greek.  The place was named for the hot sulpher springs in the area and was thought to be one of the entrances to the underworld.

Goat Song by Frank Yerby
The Dial Press, 1967

Frank Yerby is perhaps best known for writing about the American south. He is also the first African American writer to sell more than a million copies and to become a millionaire as a writer. He wrote a couple of historical novels, including Goat Song, which follows a Spartan named Ariston during the Peloponnesian War. Most of Yerby’s early books were romance novels, and it shows in Goat Song, though it does have some nice scenes. In ancient Greece, a tragic play was called a ‘goat song.’

Pompeii by Robert Harris
Random House, 2005

Though not about Greece, this book is worth mentioning as it is an excellent novel about the eruption of Vesuvius in southern Italy and the destruction of the city of Pompeii. The book covers two days in the life of Marcus Attilius Primus, a Roman aquarius (an engineer that works on aqueducts), who is sent to Pompeii to investigate why the aqueduct there has stopped working. The book reads like a mystery novel, and as Marcus learns, early tremors from Vesuvius are what have disrupted the city’s aqueduct. The description of Roman daily life and the volcanic erruption are so well done, you feel like you are there walking the streets of Pompeii alongside Marcus.

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
Harper Collins, 2005

Another novel not about Greece, but Cornwell’s historical novels are worth mentioning as they are extremely good reads.  His Saxon series follows a hard-nosed warrior named Uhtred during the reign of Alfred the Great when the Vikings were rampaging across England. The series starts with The Last Kingdom, is up to its sixth book, and though the series has its highs and lows, Uhtred is such a good character, I find it impossible to resist it when Cornwell comes out with another installment.  Also high on my list of Cornwell’s many books is his King Arthur trilogy which starts with The Winter King.

nonfiction

The Greek Myths by Robert Graves

Though there are dozens of books on the market about Greek myths, Robert Graves’ book is the definitive work on the subject. It covers every Greek myth ever told, including a lot you probably never heard before  What makes Graves’ book unique is that each chapter is divided into three sections. The first part retells the myth, the second section provides the ancient Greek sources where the myth may be found, and the last part gives the reader an interpretation of the myth’s origins.  While his recounting of the myth will not wow you, his interpretations most likely will as they provide great insights into ancient Greek culture.

Alexander of Macedon: 356 – 323 B.C. by Peter Green
University of California Press, 1992

I’m not a fan of Alexander the Great, but after reading this book I became a follower of classical British scholar Peter Green. Green not only recounts Alexander’s life, he provides a fascinating analysis of each battle, peels back the propaganda spewed by Alexander’s historians and digs out the truth. Green has written several books on ancient Greece, but this is his best. I’ve given it to friends who don’t care about ancient history and even they found it hard to put down.

The Greco-Persian Wars by Peter Green
The University of California Press, 1998

Another book by Peter Green, this one on the Persian Wars. Not as well written as his book on Alexander, but it’s one of the better works on the subject.

The Oracle: Ancient Dephi and the Science Behind its Lost Secrets by William J. Broad
Penquin Books, 2007

The oracle of Delphi influenced Greek politics and society for hundreds of years.  Stories about the oracle are legandary.  For instance, when Croesus of Lydia asked the oracle if he should attack Cyrus the Great, the oracle responded, “If you do, a great empire will fall.”  Croesus thought the oracle meant the Persian Empire would fall, attacked, and it was his empire that was destroyed.  In this fascinating book, the author Broad investigates whether or not the oracles were just clever propaganda spewed by the priestesses, called Pythias, or if there was a scientific basis behind the mysterious oracle. By tracking down recent archegological evidence, Broad discovers that the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was built on a fault line over a chasm that emitted ethylene gas.  By comparing the historical and archelogical record, Broad reveals that the Pythias breathed in the fumes, which put them into a euphoric state that they interpreted as being inspired by Apollo, god of prophecy, and then delivered their oracles.  Though a niche subject area, the book is well-written and provides an interesting, fact-based answer to the mystery of the Delphic Oracle.

The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge
Overlook Hardcover, 2003

Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World by Paul Cartledge
Overlook Hardcover, 2006

Like Green, Cartledge is another Brit, a professor at Cambridge and probably the world’s foremost authority on ancient Sparta. Though not the best writer, he’s a must read for anyone that wants to know everything about the Spartans.

A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War by Victor Davis Hanson
Random House, 2005.

The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece by Victor Davis Hanson
Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, political essayist and former classics professor. He first attracted my attention when he was teaching at California State University and mocked up an ancient Greek hoplite panoply and was running tests among his students to see how far they could run, to check Herodotus’ claim that the Athenians sprinted for a mile before crashing into the Persian line at the Battle of Marathon. Hanson is an excellent non-fiction writer, though from what I see on Amazon his first foray into fiction, a novel titled The End of Sparta has received mixed reviews.

A History of Sparta, 950-192 B. C. by William George Grieve Forrest
W. W. Norton & Company, 1969

This little paperback gives a great overview of Spartan history. Forrest was not only a professor of ancient history at Oxford, he was an RAF pilot during WW2.

Well, that’s my list.  If you’d like to suggest something you’ve read that you felt was praise-worthy, please leave a comment!

Plot Sequence: Linear vs. Flashbacks

When I started writing The Wandering King and first outlined my plot, I decided that I wanted to start the story right in the middle of battle.  I’ve seen other authors do this and it works well.  From page one the reader is thrust into the action.  I thought this was an effective way of immediately grabbing the reader’s attention and getting them to flip the page.

By starting in the midst of a battle, I discovered that I wasn’t going to be able to talk about the events that led up to the battle, or the events of my main character Euryanax’s youth, so I devised what I thought was a clever way around this: the use of flashbacks.

The battle in the opening of The Wandering King was a small skirmish discussed in Herodotus that kicked off a series of events that led to the formation of the world’s first democracy in Athens.  This seemed the perfect way to tell the story of Athens’ democratic revolution. So the first section of the book told the tale of how the Spartans sent a small expeditionary force to Athens to free them from the rule of the tyrant Hippias.  This entire section was about one day in the life of Euryanax and a small band of 300 Spartans (the number 300 turns up a lot in Spartan history) as they fought against Hippias’ mercenaries on the plains of Phalerum.

At the end of the battle Euryanax suffers a head wound that leaves him half out of his mind.  This is strictly a plot device to be able to discuss the events that led up to the battle, The second section of The Wandering King consisted of Euryanax recovering from his wound and dreaming about various events that led up to battle.  This way i was able to inject stories about Euryanax’s youth and about his adventures wandering around the Mediterranean.

The third and final section of the book, brought the story back to the ‘present’.  Naturally Euryanax recovers from his wound and as one of the few survivors of the Spartan expedition to overthrow the Athenian tyrant, he becomes involved with the revolutionary parties inside Athens, whom he joins and helps overthrow Hippias, which ultimately leads to the formation of the world’s first democratic state. Good way to tell a story right?  Wrong.

My problems began when i completed the book and started thinking about its sequel.  Before the democratic revolution at Athens, when Euryanax was a teen, he wandered all over the Mediterranean with his father Dorieus and his army.  That’s the story I wanted to tell in Book Two of the series.  Only it meant telling a story that occurred before the events covered in Book One, and it began clashing with the flashback sequences.

Argh.  Suddenly what I thought was a neatly laid out story with a clever twist in the middle, suddenly was becoming a jumbled mess.  Analyzing my story I realized I’d goofed by inserting flashbacks into the center of Book One.  Double argh.  I knew I would be better off telling a linear story from start to finish.  Which meant that Book One could not start in the middle of the battle.  Ah well, it was a nice idea, but it wasn’t working.

Instead i decided to start the story with one the flashbacks, about when Euryanax was a young boy and competed in one of Sparta’s festivals called the Planistai, or The Festival of the Plane Tree Grove.  There would still be action in the opening, but it would be a different kind of battle, a battle between 12-year olds.

The Planistai is one of Spara’s many ritual rites of passage.  It involves two teams of young boys and girls.  In the middle of the Eurotas River that winds around Sparta’s five villages, is an island covered with plane trees, called the Plane Tree Grove.  On either side of the river are bridges that lead to the island.  On one bridge is a statue of Herakles and on the other bridge a statue of the lawgiver Lycurgus.  A team of youths is stationed on each bridge and on the signal to begin they rush across the bridges onto the little island where they proceed to fight it out with their fists, feet and teeth.  The goal of the contest is to throw the other team into the river.  Whichever side throws all their opponents into the Eurotas wins.  This was one of the flashbacks contained in my original tale, but when I realized I wanted to tell the story in a linear fashion from start to finish, I realized it was the point in the story where Euryanax was the youngest and it would make an excellent place to start my book.

Once I began re-writing, ripping out the flashbacks and placing everything in sequential order, I realized that what I thought was Book Two in my series, the story of Eury’s wandering across Libya, Italy and Sicily, was now the subject of Book One, and the story of Athen’s democratic revolution would have to get pushed back into Book Two.  Ironcially, Book Two was more than half finished, but I needed to create most of Book One from scratch.  A little frustrating as most of the work I’ve already put into the series is now residing in Book Two, but I was not about to release Book Two before Book One.

After going back to the drawing board and working feverishly on Book One, about Eury’s wandering with his father and their army, is now about 75% complete.  I’m working on the ending chapters now.  My goal is to have it finished early in 2013 and if  all goes well I’ll have Book Two out in 2014.

I’m setting all of this down in my blog simply to point out that even when you think you know your story, sometimes you don’t.  You learn as you go.  It was aggravating to think I had my book done, only to realize there was a better, smarter way to tell the story.

Although somewhat frustrating, in the end I’ll end up with a better series of books that tell the story from start to finish, rather than confusing the reader with flashbacks spliced in here and there.  Initially I thought the idea of using flashbacks was a clever plot device, but in the long run I’ve learned that because I’m writing a series of books, I’m better off telling my story from start to finish in a simple, linear fashion.