Tag Archives: history

The Spirit of the Ancient Olympics

ancientolymp

After reading about all of the pollution, doping and dangers of the Zika virus at the Rio Olympics, plus hearing about the endemic corruption rife in the International Olympic Committee (IOC), I can’t help but feel nostalgic about the simplicity of the ancient Greek Olympics.

Origins of the Olympics

While the Greeks attributed the origins of the Olympics to myths about Herakles, Pelops and Zeus, no one really knows how or why the ancient Olympics began.  As the Greeks used athletic competitions in conjunction with many of their festivals, it seems safe to assume that its origins were probably religious.

In Homer’s Iliad, after the death of Patroclus and Hector, both the Greeks and the Trojans included athletic competitions among the funeral celebrations.   In the case of Hector, the two warring sides even agreed to a truce while the games took place.  It seems the games were meant to honor the dead and were no doubt a long-standing tradition even in the time of the Trojan War (c. 1184 B.C.).

The games were held every 4 years outside the Greek city of Elis in a valley called Olympia.  Evidence of the game’s religious importance, is that Olympia was named after the highest mountain in Greece, Mt. Olympus, which was thought to be the home of the gods.

The games were dedicated to the king of the gods, Zeus.  Within the Temple of Zeus at Olympia stood a 43 foot tall statue of Zeus made out of gold and ivory.  The statue was sculpted by Phidias in 445 B.C. and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Phidias also sculpted the statue of Athena that was inside another ancient wonder, the Parthenon at Athens.

In the 6th century B.C., the Greeks also instituted pan-Hellenic games at Delphi, Corinth and the Nemea River, but the Olympics continued to preserve its prominence as the pre-eminent celebration.  One of the interesting features of the Pythian Games in Delphi, were that they also included competitions for poetry, music and theater.

Date of the First & Last Olympics

The traditional date of the first Olympics is 776 B.C.   The games were so important to the Greeks they used 776 B.C. as their ‘year 1’ and measured time from that date.  For example, a person might mark their date of birth by saying, “I was born in the second year of the 23rd Olympiad.”

When the Roman Emperor Theodosius imposed Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 393 A.D., he put an end to the Olympic Games as they were viewed as honoring a pagan religion.

The Olympic Truce

Though we think of Greece as a country, in ancient times it consisted of hundreds of city-states who were constantly at war with one another.

One of the important aspects of the ancient games was that a universal truce existed across the Greek world during the games to allow athletes and spectators to travel safely to Olympia.  This ceasefire extended across Greece and its colonies located in Asia Minor, on the Black Sea, Africa, Italy, Sicily and Spain.

History records only one instance of this truce ever being violated, and even that case was contested.

Some interesting facts about the Olympics:

  • Average attendance was in the range of 20,000 to 40,000.
  • The use of the death penalty was suspended throughout Greece during the games.
  • Only free men who spoke Greek could compete in the games.
  • Women were not allowed to compete or attend.
  • There were no team sports, only individual events.

The Olympic Festival and Events

Athletes had to arrive at Olympia one month before the games for training.  Before the games began, they swore an oath that they would abide by the rules and that they had been in training for at least ten months.  While this is nothing compared to the training undergone by modern athletes, it meant that only the well-to-do could afford to compete.

The original Olympics lasted only one day, and consisted of only one event, the stadion or stade (from which we get the word ‘stadium’),  a sprint the length of the track, roughly 700 feet.

The diaulos, or two-stade race was introduced in 724 B.C.  It consisted of a single lap of the track, approximately 1,300 feet.

The original Olympic Games consisted entirely of track and field events.  A third foot race, the dolichos, was introduced in 720 B.C.  The length of the race was 18-24 laps or about 3 miles.  The runners began and finished in the stadium, but the course wound its way through the Olympic grounds.

As more events were added the Olympics were expanded to five days.  Two of the five days were spent conducting religious rituals.  The first day was devoted to swearing oaths and conducting sacrifices, and the last day to crowning the victors with an olive wreath and holding a great feast at which 100 bulls were sacrificed.

The last running event added to the Olympics (520 B.C.) was the hoplitodromos or hoplite race.  Runners ran either a stade or diaulos in full or partial armor, carrying a shield, helmet and greaves weighing roughly 50 pounds.  In a vase painting depicting the event, runners are shown leaping over fallen shields that runners dropped.

The 26 mile marathon was NOT an ancient Greek Olympic event.  The event was added when the modern Olympics were introduced in Athens in 1896.

Over the years, boxing, wrestling and pankration were added.  Initially soft leather was wrapped around boxers fingers, but over time this was changed to hard leather and sometimes metal was used.  Boxers fought on open ground.  These fights had no rounds or rest periods.  There were no rules against hitting a man when he was down.

A wrestler had to throw his opponent to the ground 3 times to win.  There were no weight classes, so heavier wrestlers had an advantage.61406c74cb

Pankration was a brutal combination of boxing and wrestling with very few rules.  It was not uncommon to break an opponent’s fingers or twist their ankles from their sockets. The bout ended when one pankrationist surrendered or died.  If a contestant died, he was declared the winner, post mortem.

The pentathlon consisted of wrestling the stadion, long jump, javelin thrown and discus throw.

At the conclusion of each event, a herald announced the name of the winner.  A judge placed a palm leaf in his hands while spectators applauded and threw flowers.  A ribbon of red wool was tied around his head and hands as a sign of victory.

Later events such as horse-racing and chariot-racing were added.  As very few people in Greece could afford a horse, it was confined to the wealthy.

Jockeys did not have stirrups on their saddle.  Individual riders did 6 laps (4.5 miles) of the race track.  There were separate races for full-grown horses and foals.

There were 2-horse and 4-horse chariot races, and a 12 lap race (9 mile) between carts drawn by a team of 2 mules.

The first woman ever to win an Olympic event, in 396 B.C. and again 392 B.C., was a Spartan named Cynisca, who won the 4-horse chariot race.  Although Cynisca did not drive the chariot and was probably not even present to watch, she owned the chariot, and the winner of the event was the owner, not the driver.

The official ceremony for all of the victors took place on the last day of the games in the Temple of Zeus.  A herald announced the name of each winner, his father and his city.  Then a judge placed a crown made of an olive branch on the winner’s head.  The olive branch was considered significant, because it was believed the olive trees at Olympia had been planted by the hero Herakles.

Victors were welcomed back to their home cities as heroes.  They could expect banquets in their honor, exemption from paying taxes, statutes erected in their honor and poems written about their exploits.  The real prize for athletes was eternal fame.

Penalties for Rule Breakers

Rules were rarely broken.  When they were, penalties included fines, flogging and exclusion from future games.  Fines were paid to the Temple of Zeus.  If the offender could not afford the fine, the city he represented was excluded from the next games.

Rule breakers had their names inscribed on the bases of statues of Zeus that led to the stadium called ‘Zanes.’  They were a reminder to future visitors about the identity of rule-breakers and a warning to all.

While Ryan Lochte did not cheat or break any rules at the last Olympics, I can’t help but think that his bad behavior goes against the spirit of the ancient Olympics.  Rather being flogged or having his name inscribed on a statue, he’ll lose his advertising endorsements, which I suppose is the modern equivalent of being fined.

While I still enjoy watching the Olympics, I can’t help but think that something has been lost over the ages.  Yes, there is still the athletic competition.  Just not the same spirit.

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A Storm of Spears

Storm SpearsWriting a historical novel takes an enormous amount of research.

In the first book in The Wandering King series, Summer, Harvest, War, I included a suggested reading list in the back.  I am indebted to many of the authors listed, particularly the ancient writers Herodotus, Pausanias and Homer for my source material.

The second novel in the series, With This Shield, owes a debt of gratitude to an Aussie named Dr. Christopher Matthew and his book A Storm of Spears: Understanding the Greek Hoplite at War.  Matthew’s work provided the basis for how my Spartan characters fought in the phalanx.

In chapter two of With This Shield, “The Art of War,” when Portheus and Theokles are teaching the men of Croton how to fight with shield and spear, I relied heavily on Matthew’s research.

A New Spin on an Old Fighting Style

Classical scholars have been battling for generations over how the ancient Greek hoplites engaged in combat. Matthew does an incredible job of analyzing hoplites’ weaponry, armor, stance, spacing and attack methods to provide fresh insights on the debate and provide some startling new conclusions.

For instance, he questions whether or not the phalanx attacked at a run or a walk.  At the Battle of Marathon, Herodotus claims the Athenians ran a mile before hitting the Persian line.  Was this even possible?  Matthew provides convincing evidence that the phalanx was more effective when it attacked at a much slower pace as it enabled them to move in a close order.  Attacking in a tight mass, shoulder to shoulder, allowed them to bring more spears to bear on the enemy.

As soon as a wall of hoplites begin running, they naturally spread out.  So it becomes impossible for a phalanx to charge at a run in close formation.  All of which makes a great deal of sense.

He also provides new insights as to why the phalanx could be arrayed anywhere from four to twelve ranks deep.  The accepted view was that the deeper the formation, the heavier the weight of the charge.  The hoplites in the rear ranks, pushed the men in the front ranks forward, resulting in a mighty crash of shield against shield and a rugby-like scrum.

Matthew refutes this belief.  He states that since the phalanx did not attack at a run there was no deafening collision, no scrum.  So there was no need for the men in the rear ranks to push against the men in front of them.  Instead, the depth of the phalanx merely meant that the men who fell in the front ranks were replaced by the men behind them.  The deeper the phalanx, the more replacements you had during the battle.

Instead of the battle involving a lot of pushing and shoving, Matthew claims the hoplites maintained their orderly rows, kept an arm’s length away from the opposing shieldwall, and calmly attacked one another with their spears.  All of which is an entirely new viewpoint.

Are Matthew’s Findings the Gospel on Hoplite Warfare?

Matthew examines the ancient sources, along with what recent scholarship has written, then tests these theories by using Greek hoplite re-enactors to find out how things actually worked.  When providing his conclusions, he is not afraid to contradict well-respected historians like Victor Davis Hanson and others.

What Matthew taught me, was how hoplites stood together, how they held their shields, how they moved forward and the various methods in which they could have wielded their spears.  All of which found its way into the pages of With This Shield.

As much as I admire Matthew’s new approach to hoplite warfare, I find it hard to buy into all of his conclusions.

He provides his findings from a scientific, almost sterile laboratory analysis. Real soldiers hardly perform under such conditions. Sure, it might make sense for the phalanx to walk toward the enemy, but that takes out the human element.  Soldiers are not laboratory mice.  If you’re being pelted by arrows and sling stones, you may very well be forced to run to avoid catching an arrow in the throat.

The primary assertion that Matthew makes, that I question, is how hoplites wielded their spear.  Greek art shows them using three primary attacks:  the overhead thrust, underarm thrust and underhand attack.  According to the author, by studying these various attack methods using re-enactors, he claims it would have been impossible for the ancient infantryman to hold his spear aloft over his head for long periods of time.  They simply would tire faster.  Matthew shows that the underarm thrust actually has a longer effective kill range.

Chigi_vaseOverhead Spears really Javelins?

In making his argument that the Greeks did not use the overhead thrust with their spears, he claims that all of the ancient pottery showing ancient warriors holding their spears aloft – are not spears at all – but javelins.  They are not thrusting spears, aiming at their opponent’s throat, instead they are throwing javelins.  I find this hard to swallow.

The famous Chigi Vase (shown here), depicts hoplites holding their spears aloft, using them to strike downward at the enemy.  Are they wielding spears or throwing javelins?  According the Matthew they’re throwing javelins.  Is he right?  You be the judge.

It might make more sense for hoplites to attack using the underarm thrust.  They might have a longer kill range, but do humans ever behave in an entirely logical fashion?

The Spartans trained constantly.  What if they didn’t tire so easily?  What if using the overhead thrust to go for the enemy’s throat was a more effective way of killing your opponent?  What if the overhead thrust – because it was so difficult – brought kudos upon the soldier?  What if using the underarm thrust was for amateurs and the overhead thrust was for professionals like the Spartans?  This is the approach I choose to use in With This Shield.

Conclusions

The ancient sources do not comment on these issues, so we are left to try to figure out on our own how hoplites really fought.  I admire Matthew’s ability to take a step back from the accepted assumptions, and look at hoplites from a fresh new perspective that is based on experiments with live re-enactors.

However, they are re-enactors, not real soldiers engaged in battlefield conditions. When you really come down to it, we’ll never fully understand the ancient mind or how the ancient soldier fought. Though I imagine Matthew’s book will provide plenty of discussion for classical scholars for years to come.

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.

Sword & Sandal Movie Reviews

When I was doing my student teaching, my 9th graders’ mantra was, “Why do we have to learn how to read?  Can’t we just watch the video?”

As you are reading this blog, I take it for granted that you enjoy reading, but like my 9th graders, you probably enjoy watching a good flick too.  The following, in no particular order, are some of my favorite picks and pans for films dealing with ancient history.

The links on the movie titles will take you to the movie reviews found on Rotten Tomatoes.  If you’ve never been to the site, it gives you access to all the top critics’ reviews.  Below the link are the number of critics that reviewed the movie, their average rating (out of 100), the number of moviegoers that rated the movie, and their rating, followed by my grade.

gladiator_ver3_xlg

Gladiator (2000)
166 critics 77%
34M moviegoers 85%
me 90%

One of the best movies about the ancient world of all time.  I give it credit for starting a renaissance in movies about ancient Greece and Rome.  Though I enjoyed the film, my only real problem with it, was where it deviated from history.  Emperor Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his son Commodus, but died of an illness in Vienna at age 58.  He had made Commodus his co-emperor three years before his death.  He also had 13 children, five of whom out-lived him.  Commodus was known for his love of the gladitorial games, where he would do things like shoot hundreds of animals with his bow from the safety of his box seat in the coliseum (on one such occasion he shot 100 lions) or he would have groups of sick citizens chained together and club them to death himself (or he would collect his own wounded soldiers and slay them with a sword).  Commodus was not killed by the fictional Maximus, but was assassinated by his own officers.  They tried poisoning him, but after Commodus vomited the food, they strangled him to death.  Despite these inaccuracies, you can’t beat the movie’s opening battle scene or the gladitorial scenes.


300a300
(2006)
226 critics 60%
1.4M moviegoers 88%
me 40%

Though I enjoyed parts of this movie, I spent the vast majority of my time in the theater groaning.  What does one expect from a movie based on a comic book?  For example, the Spartans did not go bare-chested into battle.  They wouldn’t have lasted long if they had.  Too, Xerxes did not shave his head, wear nose-rings or a loin cloth.  Take a look at a piece of ancient artwork that depicts the Persians and you’ll see that they wore long beards and pants.  The thing that I found most disappointing was how they depicted the ancient phalanx.  In the battle scenes they started formed up in a shieldwall, but as soon as the fight would begin, the Spartans would break ranks and devolve into a Matrix-like slow motion, hack ‘n slash fest.  What made the Spartans invincible was their training, heavy armor, and their ability to fight in an impenatrable, close order, shoulder to shoulder formation.  It’s diappointing that in Hollywood it’s more important to show comic book blood spraying across the screen than an actual phalanx in action.

300

The 300 Spartans (1962)
N/R critics
55K moviegoers 72%
me 95%

According to Frank Miller, who wrote the comic book that was the basis for the movie ‘300,’ he was inspired by a film he’d seen as a young boy, ‘The 300 Spartans.’  Like Miller, I’d seen the same film as a kid and loved it.  All of which makes me wonder why Miller injected charging rhinos, dual sword wielding ninjas and an oversized giant, as they weren’t anywhere to be found in the original.  I suppose that’s what’s known as creative license.  The sad thing is, today’s young people, whose knowledge of ancient events may come from the movies, are going to have a horribly distorted view of actual events.  Though the 1962 version of ‘The 300 Spartans’ has no special effects, and was done on a low budget, it’s a fairly accurate depiction of what happened at Thermopylae.  Richard Egan, though not as muscled as Gerard Butler, is a better actor, and the film includes Sir Ralph Richardson as Themistocles (a crucial character the Frank Miller version leaves out), and David Farrar as a very convincing Xerxes.  I can do without ‘300s’ pumped up pecs and digital effects.  I’ll take a more historically accurate film any day.

troy

Troy (2004)
221 critics 54%
819K 72%
me 40%

As The Iliad is one of my favorite pieces of literature, when the movie ‘Troy’ came out, I rushed to the movie theater, where I was promptly disappointed.  In the credits they state the movie is ‘based on The Iliad.’  A better description would have been, ‘loosely based.’  The producers took so many liberties with the Trojan War, that anyone that loves Homer’s epic poems will hardly recognize the story.  For one, Brad Pitt is no Achilles.  He’s too small.  The very sight of Achilles struck fear into the hearts of his enemies.  Probably the only hysteria Brad Pitt inspired during the shooting of ‘Troy’ is when the filmmakers saw the size of his bar tab.  Sure, they got right the part about Paris stealing Helen, but they botched what happens to each.  In the original, Paris dies and Helen is reclaimed by her husband Menelaus and the two of them live a long happy life together.  In the movie, Menelaus dies and Paris and Helen run off together.  In the ancient Greek version, marriage is sacosant.  You steal someone’s wife, you are doomed.  In Hollywood, you steal someone’s wife you ride off into the sunset together.  I could go on and on about all of the things ‘Troy’ gets wrong, but reliving it is just too depressing.  Even though The Iliad has been a classic for 3,000 years, the filmmakers seemed to think they could improve on the original.  They didn’t.

Alexander

Alexander (2004)
194 critics 16%
236K moviegoers 39%
me 70%

I’m not a big fan of Alexander the Great, but I’ve read enough about him to know that Oliver Stone did a wonderful job of researching his story and for the most part stuck to the actual historical facts.  Where the movie goes horribly awry is the casting of Colin Farrell as Alexander.  It’s one of the worst acting performances I’ve ever seen.  Remember George C. Scott in the movie ‘Patton’?  Now there was a general.  You can understand why his soldiers followed him across Europe.  I couldn’t imagine a poodle following Colin Farrell even if he was loaded up with doggie treats, much less the Macedonian army following him across 16 countries.  If you manage to block out Colin Farrell, the rest of the movie isn’t bad.  Oliver Stone pays a great deal of attention to Alexander’s generals, troops like the Silver Shields, and correctly arms the phalanx with the Macedonian’s long spears called the sarissa.  The depiction of Babylon, though probably computer generated, is awe-inspiring, as is the Battle of Gaugamela, that is if you delete Colin Farrell’s less-than-inspiring speech.  Farrell spends so much time weeping in the film, instead marching his army back to Greece, he could have sailed them back on all his tears.

Alexander Burton

Alexander the Great (1956)
6 critics 35%
5,325 moviegoers 56%
me 75%

Though somewhat old, this is a much better movie about Alexander the Great, for one big reason:  it has the British actor Richard Burton playing the leading role.  It lacks today’s special effects, it’s not a 3 hour Oliver Stone extravaganza, and it only touches on some of Alexander’s life, but it does have one great scene.  When Alexander was in Asia Minor at a city called Gordium, he encountered something known as the famous ‘Gordian Knot.’  As the story goes, whoever could untie this huge, tangled mess of ropes, would conquer all of Asia.  Richard Burton looks at the knot, draws his sword, and in one swing cuts the knot in two.  Not a word spoken, but a brilliant scene.

I, Claudius (1976)
133 reviews on Amazon (105 gave it 5-stars)I Claudius
me:  95%

I, Claudius is a made-for-TV, BBC mini-series, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Graves.  I, Claudius is one of the best programs about ancient Rome ever produced.  If you’re looking for a Gladiator-like action movie, pass I, Claudius by. If you’re looking for an intelligent, Masterpiece Theater-like inside look at the palace intrigue, murder, and back-stabbing that went on in the Imperial Roman family during the reign of Augustus Caesar, then this show was made for you.  The members of the royal family stop at nothing, including poisoning their own relatives, to jockey for position in the royal line of succession.  Augustus’ wife Livia, played marvelously by Sian Phillips, is the most fiendish of the bunch.  I lost track of all of the people she murdered to ensure her son Tiberius was selected as the next emperor.  What’s sad about all of this is that some extremely worthy, noble, talented people like Germanicus end up getting knocked off in the mad grab for power.  Ironically, Claudius survives all of this mayhem because he’s lame and he has a stutter.  Livia and the rest of the royal family consider him an idiot, so after the family does each other in, the only one left with royal blood to claim the throne is Claudius, played to perfection by British actor Derek Jacobi.  If you’ve heard about the antics of people like Caligula, Messalina and Nero and want to find out why they are so infamous, I, Claudius gives you the inside track.  While the program is not on Rotton Tomatoes, the link above is to its page on Amazon.  Amazon Prime owners can watch it for free.

Agora1Agora (2009)
89 critics 53%
21,100 moviegoers 64%
me 85%

This movie did not do well with critics, but I came away thinking it was an enjoyable film about a period of ancient history I knew nothing about.  It follows the life of a Greek philosopher, astronomer and mathematican named Hypatia played by Rachel Weisz.  The story takes place in the city of Alexandria in Egypt and has a great deal to do with the emergence of Christianity and the Christians persecution of the pagan religions.  From what I’ve read by people who know more than I do about the 4th century A.D., the movie is a bit heavy handed when it comes to the Christians, who appear more like modern day Taliban, and it seems the Library of Alexandria and lighthouse were already destroyed.  As I was ignorant of those facts, I found Hypatia’s story interesting and the depiction of Alexandria quite fascinating.

Jason

Jason and the Argonauts  (1963)
35 critics 94%
22,100 moviegoers 72%
me 90%

As a young person this was one of my favorite movies of all time.  Nice to see it received a good response by the critics, and somewhat surprising audiences did not appreciate it as well.  Though the special effects of the titan Talos, the harpies and the ‘children of the hydra’s teeth’ look rather dated now, at the time, they were the work of the master of stop motion animation, Ray Harryhausen.  There are no actors in the film you’ve ever heard of, nor is the acting anything special, it’s just a fun adventure story.

ulyssesdouglasUlysses (1954)
N/R critics
1,710 moviegoers 46%
me 95%

This is an oldie but goodie, starring Kirk Douglas as Ulysses.  Similar to other films done during the period, they look faded now, but the producers made a strong attempt to stick to the original story from Homer’s Odyssey.  The scenes where Ulysses and his crew are captured by the cyclops, when he listens to the song of the Sirens, and when he finally returns home to slay the suitors are classics.

The Odyssey (1997)
N/R critics
7,630 moviegoers 60%
me 60%

This was a made-for-television miniseries starring Armand Assanti as Odysseus (Ulysses).  It seemed to go on longer than Odysseus’ ten-year voyage home.  Though not as lavish, nor did it include Vanessa Williams, Isabella Rossellini or Bernadette Peters, I much preferred the original with Kirk Douglas.

Spartacus  (1960)spartacus1
49 critics 96%
75,700 moviegoers 79%
me 90%

This is another golden oldie starring Kirk Douglas, this time as the gladiator turned rebel leader, Spartacus.  He is supported by a great cast including Sir Laurence Olivier and Jean Simmons and benefits from the directorial talents of Stanley Kubrick.  There’s plenty of sword play and battle scenes that include a cast of thousands, but my favorite moment in the film comes when Spartacus is training to be a gladiator.  As Jean Simmons, playing a slave named Varinia, is pouring wine for Spartacus, as he takes the cup, he gently caresses her hand.  It’s an extremely small, tender moment in a 3-hour spectacle, but it’s that sort of attention to detail about the characters that make it a great film.

Clash of the Titans (1981)
38 critics 66%
55,900 moviegoers 68%
me 40%

This is a horrible movie about the mythical hero Perseus starring Harry Hamlin.  What a great actor like Sir Laurence Olivier is doing in this film, I have no clue.  It also includes the stop motion animation by Ray Harryhausen, but in this film, it’s pretty lackluster stuff.

Clash of the Titans (2010)
238 critics 28%
280K moviegoers 43%
me 30%

Why anyone would want to re-make a bad movie is a mystery.  The only good thing I can say about this film is that Wrath of the Titans (2012) and Immortals (2011) are worse.

Ben Hur (1959)ben_hur
36 critics 89%
103K moviegoers 81%
me 95%

What list of films about the ancient world would be complete without mentioning Ben Hur.  The chariot race is probably one of the most famous scenes in movie history.  Am just glad Charlton Heston was not toting a rifle throughout the film.

The Ten Commandments (1956)
32 critics 91%
58K moviegoers 83%
me 95%

Another great Charlton Heston film, this time about Moses.  When I first saw it as a young person, I could not help but think Moses was an idiot for abandoning the war-loving Egyptians in favor of the poor Judeans.  I must not have been paying enough attention in church.

Julius Caesar (1970)
N/R critics
2,660 moviegoers 40%
me 80%

Yet another Heston film, this time in the role of Mark Anthony in the Shakespearan version of Julis Caesar.  It’s not bad if you can sit through the old English.  The 1953 version starring Marlon Brando, Sir John Gielgud and James Mason received vastly better reviews.

Cleopatra (1963)Cleopatra 2
26 critics 46%
20,000 moviegoers 70%
me 70%

I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to sit through this 3-hour epic starring Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Richard Burton as Mark Antony.  The climactic sea battle between Antony and Octavian is obviously between toy models and so bad it’s almost comical.  As I recall, the love affair that erupted during the filming between Taylor and Burton (both were married to other people) and resulting scandal eclipsed interest in the actual movie.  It’s $44M cost ($300M today) made it the most expensive movie ever made.

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!

Why the Fascination with Ancient Greece?

When I was twelve years old I was flipping through our family’s Golden Encyclopedia when I found an entry for the Trojan War.  Beneath it was a captivating illustration of two warriors doing battle with shield and spear.  The caption read, “The heroes Achilles and Hector dueling before the walls of Troy.”  Sadly, the accompanying article said nothing about the outcome of their fight.  So I took that volume to school, showed the picture to our librarian and asked, “Who won?”

She took me to the 880 section of the library and pulled an old book down from the shelves.  She handed me a copy of Homer’s Iliad and as librarians must be trained to do, she said, “You’ll have to read the book to find out.”  I did, and when the anger of Achilles slew the family man Hector, I cried.  Never before had a book had such a profound effect on me.  I daresay it changed my life.  The Iliad led to the Odyssey, then Virgil’s Aeneid and eventually in college to Herodotus’ The History, which provides the framework for The Wandering King.

My main character Euryanax meets Herodotus in the book and I have some fun poking fun at ‘The Father of History,’ which comes out of some of the gross inaccuracies in The History noted by modern historians.  For instance, Herodotus places Xerxes’ Persian army at over a million soldiers.  Historians say it would have been impossible to feed that large a force and tend to agree it was more along the lines of 250,000 men.  Too, Herodotus mentions things like flying snakes and giant ants that dig up gold, which probably come from folklore rather than actual, historical events.

Though I have some fun at his expense, without Herodotus, we wouldn’t know about the existence of Leonidas and Euryanax or the events in my story, so my debt to him is great.

The idea for The Wandering King story grew out of reading Herodotus and a book by the now deceased author Richard Powell, who wrote a wonderful novel about the Trojan War epic entitled, Whom the Gods Would Destroy.  As a 17-year old it was my favorite book of all time and is still at the top of my list.  If I manage to give a reader the experience Powell gave to me, I will have succeeded in my task.  If the opening line of The Wandering King sounds familiar to fans of Whom the Gods, it is my homage to Powell’s brilliant novel.

For the record, the word ‘Greek’ is never used in my book as it is the European word for the Hellenic people.  Originally the name ‘Graeki’ was given by the ancient Italians to the first Hellene colonists in Italy as they came from a village called Graia.  Afterwards the Italians called all Hellenes, Graeki or Greeks, which worked its way into Western tradition.  While most of the world considers them Greeks, the people of Hellas to this day call themselves Hellenes. For purposes of the book, the characters consider themselves Dorians, Ionians, Achaeans, etc, as that is the way they thought of themselves.  When I refer to them as a collective group, I use the word Hellene, as it is in keeping with their national identity.

The ‘Triumph of Achilles’ by Franz Matsch (1892)

Why Blog?

Because I want to share my experience in writing a novel about ancient Sparta.

Why a book about ancient Spartiates, men known in their own language as homoioi or Equals?  Didn’t we see enough of their ripped abs in the movie 300?  Well, if you’ve read anything about the real Spartans, you know they didn’t look anything like the Hollywood version.  One of the reasons they kicked Xerxes’ ass at Thermopylae is because they were the only professional heavily armored infantry of the time, sort of the knights on steriods of their age.  The homoioi didn’t run around bare-chested, they wore a bronze, iron, leather or boiled linen cuirass to protect them from getting skewered.

The thing is, if you thought 300 was a good movie, you’ve only heard half of the story.  The real plot is much better than the video.  The tale of Thermopylae comes from ‘The Father of History,’ Herodotus, and although the movie does contain a few accurate scenes, unfortunately the really juicy facts in the original have never gotten any press.

For instance, Leonidas.  He didn’t look a thing like Gerard Butler.  Hardly.  Historians think Leonidas was probably around 65 years old when Xerxes and the Persians gunned him down in the pass.  Even the 1962 movie, The 300 Spartans, used a young Richard Egan in the role of King Leonidas. The story plays better that way.  We want to believe that a brave, young hero sacrificed his life and the lives of his men for lofty ideals like freedom, but if you really knew the truth, Leonidas may have decided to stay and die at Thermopylae for other reasons.  What reasons?  Well, because if he’d returned home to Sparta he might have been put on trial for murder. The murder of his own brother Cleomenes, whose death made Leonidas king.

Do you remember Leonidas’ wife Gorgo in the movie? Hollywood left out the fact that she was Cleomenes’ daughter, or rather, Leonidas’ niece. Marrying Gorgo cemented Leonidas’ claim to the throne. Why might Leonidas have to take such a firm hold on the royal scepter? Well, because his twin brother Kleombrotus probably thought he deserved to be king too. What, you didn’t know Leonidas had a twin? Oh yeah, I guess the movie left that part out. Ah well, what do you want, you can’t exactly jam Herodotus’ 700 page book into a 2-hour digital effects swords ‘n sandals extravaganza.

The best part of 300, and it came straight from the pages of Herodotus, is when Xerxes demanded Leonidas lay down his weapons. Leonidas replied, “Molon la’be!” or “Come and take them!” That part was real. The stuff about the rhino’s charging the Spartan lines, Xerxes wearing nose rings and the Persian Immortals dressing like ninja turtles, well, those parts came out of Frank Miller’s comic book.

Herodotus’ story, or at least my version of it, centers around King Anaxandridas’s four sons, the royal princes: Cleomenes, Dorieus, Leonidas and Kleombrotus, each of whom fought with Shakespearean zeal over the kingship.

Stop back.  More to come.

Possibly a bust of King Leonidas, located in the musuem at Sparta.