October 21, 2012

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Novels On Ancient Greek And Xenophon's Remarkable "Anabasis"

ATHENS, GREECE - FEBRUARY 19:  Replica models ...
ATHENS, GREECE - FEBRUARY 19: Replica models of ancient Greek statues on display in a souvenir shop beneath the Acropolis on February 19, 2012 in Athens, Greece. Following a meeting on Wednesday, finance ministers across the Eurozone are calling for greater scrutiny and oversight of Greece's proposed budget cuts in order to approve the latest 130 billion euro bailout package. The package, which is anticipated to be finalised on February 20, 2012, is essential for Greece to avoid defaulting on a 14.5 billion euro bond it is due to repay in mid-March. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
The decades after the catastrophic Peloponnesian War came to an end in 404 B.C. were a key transition period, but many of the events of interest for novelists took place on the fringes of the Greek world instead of the traditional center. One of the most famous adventures of that age took place far to the east, in the Persian Empire. There Xenophon, a young man from Socrates’ circle who had made an unhappy choice of sides after the Spartan victory, went off to seek fame and fortune as a mercenary. Fortune was not kind, but his response in a time a crisis won fame. His own written account of his amazing adventures in Asia was called the Anabasis, to which my paperback translation adds: The MarchUp Country. Michael Curtis Ford has ably retold that story under the title Ten Thousand.

 Whatever the title, it’s one of the great military adventures of all time, and Ford does a good job of conveying it in novel form. His narrator is Xenophon’s life-long servant and companion, who begins the story with a terrifying scene of battle under dire conditions that ends badly. The defeat of their faction leads to Xenophon’s decision to try his luck abroad, but the story first takes a long flash-back to the hero’s youth, including his first meeting with Socrates. But eventually the two are mustering with other Greek soldiers, part of a core unit of ten thousand hoplites marching on and on across Asia Minor with no clear notion where they are heading. I’ll spare details to avoid spoilers for people who have somehow never heard the outcome, but it should surprise no one to learn that there are indeed battles, that betrayal looms more than once, and that the climax of the story involves a keen struggle for survival. The fact that Xenophon survived to write his own account is an obvious clue to the outcome, so it’s not giving away much to note that this was one more episode confirming the truth of the Persians war  that the Greeks standing together in battle order were very hard to beat. So too is Ford’s telling of the tale.

When the main narratives of novels such as The Tides of War and The Last of the Wine have come to their conclusion Sparta has won the Long War, and Athens is just beginning to recover from its humiliating defeat. But a generation later, Sparta had tumbled from its dominating position, and an unexpected new power had risen to take its place. How did Sparta’s triumph give way to decay and disaster?

There have been several attempts to treat the key events of those decades in fiction, but I’ve only found one worthy of recommendation. I had high hopes on the release of Victor Davis Hanson’s The End of Sparta. The author has a solid reputation for scholarship and published several non-fiction books which were greeted with some approval. Unfortunately the skills that had won his reputation did not suffice for the creation of readable fiction. It has been a long time since I have found myself forced to give up within the first five pages of a novel, but after stumbling through one off-balance sentence after another, lurching back and forth with the skittering viewpoints, I finally called it quits. From comments in the introduction I assume the author was trying an experiment in style; from the results, it’s clear that the old generation of editors is gone, and there was no one willing or able to tell him how completely he had failed.

A better stab at the period is David Gemmell’s The Lion of Macedon. Gemmell concocts a Spartan past for Parmenion, known to history as one of Alexander the Great’s best generals, and he weaves a lively story about the process by which new tactics were devised that would eventually shatter the Spartan supremacy. Unfortunately, Gemmell’s specialty is historical fantasy, and he includes a supernatural side-plot, about sorcery and a drowned lover. It’s not bad as such things go, but it doesn’t seem appropriate for a list of the best historical novels on Ancient Greece.

But there’s one novel about this period I can recommend without reservation. M. N. J. Butler’s The Fox is a moving novel about a young Spartan prince of dubious parentage who forges his own identity as a devotee of the law handed down by Lycurgus. But as readers of The Tides of War will know, the Long War was only won because the Spartan admiral Lysander was willing to compromise his nation’s traditional values—especially their ban on gold or silver money—and accept Persian pay-offs in order to maintain a fleet large enough to offset the brilliance of the Athenian’s leader Alcibiades. Those two leaders of an older generation loom large in the life of Butler’s protagonist Leotychides, who narrates the story late in his life from the court of Philip of Macedon. He tells his auditors, who include his host’s son and that son’s un-named but now-famous tutor, all about his coming of age in a traditional Spartan “flock.” There the boy becomes a firm believer in the uncorrupted values of the communal fellowship. His upbringing, the joys as well as the hardships, is depicted in loving detail, along with the varied characters of his close companions during the novel’s slow build-up. The informed reader will guess long before the narrator does that he is in fact the illegitimate child born by a Spartan queen to the exiled Athenian leader Alkibiades, but it is Leotychides’ nominal father, king Agis who exerts a stronger influence on the child’s emerging character.   The novel’s title is drawn from a familiar anecdote about a Spartan youth and a fox, but in this case the painful pay-off comes well after childhood’s end.

Leotychides attains manhood at a time when his nation faces its crucial challenge. How can a political system designed to be balanced among elders, ephors, supposedly equal citizens, and a pair of off-setting kings, provide the kind of consistent leadership that will sustain the Spartan state as an international force? What happens when one king is both unscrupulous in the way he seeks power, and indifferent to the effect of his actions on his nation’s soul? The narrator’s personal fortunes become linked to these vital questions, and empathy with his fate holds the sympathetic reader through the novel’s wrenching climax. The Fox succeeds in shaping genuine tragedy from the Spartan fall from power. It provides a memorable sequel to the stories told about the Peloponnesian War by Pressfield and Renault. And it is, alas, almost impossible to find.

Butler’s novel is long out of print. Follow the link and try to buy it from Amazon, and you will find copies on offer for more than $140. I sought it out via interlibrary loan, and was told that the only available copy was in the Library of Congress, and that they would deliver only for in-library use. So to read The Fox I rode down to my local library and spent six hours a session, two days in a row, sitting at a table with Butler’s book. It was time well spent. The novel of just under 500 words is not a rapid read. The author is fond of those compound adjectives Greek favors—remember rosy-fingered dawn?—but for some reason Butler shuns the use of hyphens, a choice that tends to slow the pace. His tale is also full of characters, some of whom have both names and nicknames, and the challenge of tracking them reminded me of reading Tolstoy. But so too did Butler’s love for his characters and the culture that shapes them, not to mention the deep significance of his theme and the moral vision at its heart. The Fox is, I believe, one of the ten best novels ever written about the Ancient Greeks, and it is deeply frustrating to discover its virtues and to have no real way to make them more widely known except to plead for its reissue.  

If I had not been eager to find a novel that dealt in depth with the Greeks of Sicily, I doubt that I’d have taken the trouble to seek out Tyrant by Valerio Massimo Manfredi. My first taste of Manfredi was his novel Spartan, whose florid style and melodramatic storytelling made even the episodes drawn directly from history come across as pop fiction. But that novel was written fifteen years earlier in the author’s career, so I decided to Tyrant a chance. Although not entirely free from scenes of boy’s-fiction intrigue like those that fatally marred Spartan, Tyrant provides a solid narrative of the rise to power and gradual corruption of Dionysius of Syracuse.

Here at last was an account of the island’s second Carthaginian invasion—the first, at the time of the Persian Wars has not yet been treated in fiction—and the struggle by the Greek colonies to survive and rebound from defeat. We see the fall of cities, the young leader appalled at the failures that allow those savage sacks, and his determination to replace the indecisive regime with his own resolute rule. There are exiles and returns, betrayals and revenge, battles won and lost, and the eventual establishment of Dionysius at the head of an empire in the east of Sicily and the south of mainland Italy. Manfredi streamlines the story, most notably by sidestepping the story of Dionysius’ son-in-law Dion, but his novel left me with a clearer sense than I had ever had of the challenges faced at the western end of the greater Greek world. Before reading it I had no idea even of the existence of cities such as Motya, Himera, Selinus, and Acragas; after reading Tyrant each evokes vivid images of war and destruction.  And the story of Dionysius’ drift toward power sustained by pure force reveals how one path to building larger nations from Greek city states included the seeds of its eventual destruction.

I’ve added The Arrows of Hercules L. Sprague de Camp as a sort of optional supplement to my list of novels about the Ancient Greeks, for people who might enjoy a well-crafted story that provides another perspective on events also treated in Manfredi’s Tyrant. De Camp’s novel is set in the early years of the reign of Dionysius of Sicily, and its hero Zopyras is an engineer who invents the first useful artillery of the ancient world, the arrow-throwing machine the Romans would adopt and use for centuries, calling it a ballista. Zopyras undergoes assorted adventures, including a battle against Etruscan pirates, a kidnapping in Carthage, and a taste of a slave auction from the viewpoint of the merchandise, and in the process makes friends across national lines.

The historical merit of the novel flows mostly from the glimpses of the different cultures that jostled elbows in the middle of the Mediterranean, with a good survey of the assortment of varied beliefs then prevalent, including an accurate depiction of the era’s more matter-of-fact acceptance of nudity.  Much of the narrative’s fun comes from watching an ancient engineer face the same problems of incompetent supervisors and production setbacks that figure in the average Dilbert cartoon.  Instead of a modern cubicle, the struggle against departmental rivals and bureaucratic snafus takes place in the Tyrant of Syracuse’s fortress-complex of Ortygia. De Camp’s cheerful narrative voice will be familiar to anyone raised on the great post-war generation of science fiction writers because the author was one of them; the novel is dedicated “To Isaac Asimov and Bob Heinlein in memory of our own Ortygian days.”  

Whenever I re-read Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo I am so swept away that I have trouble remembering why I named one of her other books as her best. This time around I meant just to glance over it, to remind myself where the political side of the story, which centers on Syracuse, fit into the saga of that city’s struggles I had just read about in Manfredi’s The Tyrant. I quickly confirmed that it begins during the final years of the great tyrant Dionysius’ life, and then treats in detail the years following the succession of his son Dionysius the Second. With the background of the first Dionysius’ life fresh in my mind, I was a bit better placed to enjoy her account of the growing tensions between the hapless heir and his brother-in-law and rival Dion. But what sucked me back into a full rereading was a side of the book that had receded in my memory, the story of how Plato was entangled in the attempt to make a good man and good king of the spoiled heir to Syracuse. For those of us who know and love both Plato’s dialogues and the great Greek tragedies, The Mask of Apollo is a hard book to put down.

The deeper attraction of Renault’s novel flows from something greater than the keenly drawn portraits of men struggling to live up to their own values and find a way of applying those values to an imperfect world. What gives the novel real magic is its brilliant recreation of the world of Greek drama as seen from the inside by the actor who narrates the tale. I can’t read any of the great tragedies now without noticing how the actor’s roles would have divided, so that one performer can come on first as, say, a stern king, and then, switching masks and costumes, as a tormented woman. The Mask of Apollo is not just one of the best novels ever written about the ancient world, it’s also one of the best of a genre beloved by theater fans, the one that shows in rich detail how life is spent on-stage and behind the scenes.

When writers treat the rise of Macedon from obscurity to dominance, they usually come to the story late, when a young prince named Alexander is on the scene. Thanks to Thomas Sundell, we can now catch up on some of what we’ve been missing. How often do you read a novel of nearly 500 pages of smaller-than-average type, covering a complex political history, jam-packed with names of unfamiliar people and places made stranger by their authentic Greek spellings,  and find yourself frustrated at the end because the author has not yet written a sequel? That was my reaction to Sundell’s A Bloodline of Kings, a rich saga on the life of Phillip of Macedon that ends in the year when his son “Alexandros,” was born. Phillip, or Phillipos as Sundell spells it, was the greatest political and military leader the Greek world had ever seen, forging a harried Macedonian state into a power able to bring Greece under his control, imposing the unity the perennially splintered Greeks had resisted for centuries. But his story has been neglected because his son used his father’s great accomplishment as a spring-board for some of the most astonishing conquests in all human history. Until Sundell’s novel, we had become accustomed to seeing Phillip depicted only as he was in the final decade or so of his life, where books about Alexander the Great start to trace his childhood. It turns out that the story of how a younger son survived the treacherous politics and diverse military challenges of the Macedonian realm, transformed the military structure of the realm, and led his nation to triumph, is one that can capture the imagination on its own terms.

A Bloodline of Kings is not exactly the swiftest of reads—I found myself referring again and again to the end-paper maps to follow the myriad of neighboring cities and peoples who figure in the story—but its unusual present-tense style holds the attention and moves the action along nicely from place to place and character to character. The most usual viewpoint is naturally that of young Phillipos, whose abilities reveal themselves bit by bit and eventually find a way to shine. The only real drawback of Sundell’s novel is that it leaves one aching to read the rest of Phillipos’ story. We know that the author researched the later years too; he designed a board game named Hegemon on the ultimate confrontation between Macedon and the Allies of central Greece, and his work must at least have influenced a well-regarded computer game called Hegemony that treats Phillip of Macedon’s rise to power beginning with the period covered in A Bloodline of Kings. While we wait in hope that Sundell will someday publish a novel that treats those later years with the same skill and attention to detail he devoted to Phillipos’ youth, we can take consolation that a figure of such immense ability and importance has finally begun to emerge from the huge shadow cast by his son. (Source)
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