Find Out More

Find out more about Helena P. Schrader's Sparta novels at:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review of The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas

I recently read The Olympian: A Tale of Ancient Hellas by E.S. Kraay and thought readers of this blog might be interested in a review.

The novel is set roughly ten years after the defeat of the Greeks at Thermopylae but the main subject is the events of the summer of 480 BC and the impact they had on the two main characters. What makes this book exceptional and good reading is that it is not, except for one short chapter, the retelling of the familiar story of blood and gore and courage, but rather the story of a Thasian athlete seen through the eyes of others who knew him. The book is told in the first person from the perspective of the poet Simonides of Cos.

In Delphi, Simonides chances upon a party of men from Thasos, who have sought the advice of the Oracle about how to end a drought oppressing their island. Simonides, after hearing the oracle delivered to them, believes he can interpret it for them. He explains that it concerns righting wrongs done to a certain Thrasian athlete, Theagenes, who competed at the Olympic games in 480. He promises to explain himself by telling the story of Theagenes as the party makes its way back to Thasos.

The book moves at the gentle pace of a journey on foot and the story teller unravels his tale slowly, but as a result the voice seems all the more authentic, and at no time was I bored or tempted to leave the book unfinished. The story was, in its leisurely way, compelling. The characters took shape convincingly and their behavior is consistent and believable throughout. Particularly well drawn is the first-person narrator, Simonides himself. In fact, the use of the aging poet as narrator is one of the most engaging features of this novel. It is refreshing to have an aging, unattractive poet rather than an exceedingly handsome hoplite telling a story about, eventually, Thermopylae. The use of Simonides as story-teller also enables the book to be more reflective in tone, while adding wonderful authenticity through homilies and judgments that would seem out of place of another narrator or if this character were not so well-drawn.

Kraay’s historical research must have been first class also. He adds brilliant touches like allowing Simonides to quote Hesiod in appropriate ways and places. I also liked his use of small details – the food eaten, the scars left on boxers – to give the entire book texture and color. Most impressive, his description of Greek society rang true in a way rare in modern literature. Kraay manages to depict a society in which the array of different Gods were revered and omens taken seriously without making either seem ridiculous. His treatment of the Spartans is devoid of the usual hyperboles about mindless, uneducated brutes, although a shade stereotypic nevertheless. While I find it hard to believe Sparta would not call all her athletes back to Sparta when the decision was taken that one of her kings should set off for Thermopylae, I have no evidence to prove it and accept Kraay version as a legitimate interpretation.

The only part of the book that truly taxed my imagination was the way in which Simonides witnessed the Battle of Thermopylae, but this is a small flaw in an otherwise very good book. I recommend The Olympian to anyone, who likes reading about ancient Greece.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Night in Sparta

Not long after I started doing research for my novels on ancient Sparta I seized the opportunity to visit that part of Greece that had given birth to Sparta – the province of Laconia in the Peloponnese. The city itself was gone, destroyed by earthquakes, abandoned, ploughed under and washed away over the centuries to the point that even archeologists can find little of note left. But we know where Sparta once stood, and a new city was founded on this site in the mid-nineteenth century and called Sparti.

I flew to Athens and travelled down to modern Sparti by car, crossing the Isthmus of Corinth and stopping to visit the ruins of that powerful ancient mercantile city. Then I continued on the road past the towering mountain crowned with the ruins of Acrocorinth, leaving Agamemnon’s city of Mycenae for a different trip, and scorning to set foot in Sparta’s ancient rival Argos. I crossed the broad plain of modern Tripoli, ancient Tegea, and climbed the low hills to the south heading along the highway toward Sparti/Sparta.

I expected to find on the other side of those hills something, well, Spartan. The word itself connotes sparse, barren, bleak, even harsh. I expected an arid place in which little could grow. I expected a harsh, infertile landscape best suited to producing tough soldiers and citizens who disdained all luxury. Sparta, I assumed, had made a virtue of necessity when it condemned the display of wealth and banned coinage. Sparta, I thought, was surely a poor country in which learning survival – even by theft and conquest – was sheer necessity.

And then I came around the bend in the road and caught my first glimpse of Sparta’s heartland – the Eurotas valley. It defied all expectations and was one of the most fertile, flowering and naturally beautiful places I had seen anywhere in Greece! Instantly, my understanding of Sparta started to undergo revisions. Not only is the Eurotas valley green and fertile, the surrounding mountains, the Paron range to the east and Taygetos to the West, were not barren and covered with scrub growth typical of much of the Mediterranean, but richly forested. In short, Sparta had been exceptionally rich by ancient standards – even before it conquered the vast and agriculturally significant neighboring state of Messenia! No wonder Sparta had never developed significant trade with the rest of the world; it was completely self-sufficient.

I visited what few archeological remains there were, wandering between the olive trees and oleander bushes that cover the Spartan acropolis today to examine the odd wall of stone here and there as the sun went down. I sat on the stone steps of the Roman amphitheatre and gazed toward the western sky, now turned a luminous purple behind the rugged peaks of Taygetos, and listened to the crickets singing in frantic chorus. It was, for a moment, almost if the famous choruses of ancient Sparta, which had once drawn visitors from around the ancient world, were trapped indignantly in the bodies of the insects.

When it was so dark that I had to pick my way with great care across the rumble, I returned to my hotel and ordered wine. Remembering that the Spartans never drank their wine “neat” (unmixed), I ordered sparkling water as well and mixed this with the wine when it arrived. It was wonderfully refreshing and to this day I prefer my wine this way. It struck me that often less is better, that the saying “nothing in excess” originated from a Spartan philosopher and statesman, Chilon the Wise. Was it the very abundance of riches that had taught the Spartans the dangers of excess? Was it possible that it was because they had so much wealth that they were keen to ration it – or at least the display of it? Or had they collectively gorged themselves on their abundant resources at some point in the distant past and woken up with such a hangover that they decreed it should not happen ever again, making laws to not only water wine, and ration food, but to avoid all excessive self-indulgence?

Or was it the fear that differences in wealth – or at least the open display of such differences – would undermine solidarity in the Spartan ranks and so endanger morale in the army, the basis of Spartan power, that induced the Spartans to restrict conspicuous consumption? After all, in other city-states the sons of the rich served in the elite cavalry rather than marching in the dust with the middle class, while the poorest citizens pulled the oars in the bowels of the great triremes – a job so unpleasant and unglamorous that it was more commonly given to slaves. But all Spartans, regardless of wealth, were required to wear the same colors, carry the same arms and serve as heavy infantrymen. Spartans referred to themselves as “Equals,” and it is easier to maintain that sense of equality if no one is obviously much wealthier than his peers, if they had the same profession, ate the same meals in their messes, and were not allowed to hoards silver or gold. Sparta’s laws clearly reinforced the image of equality among its citizen-soldiers while not actually eliminating differences in wealth as many ancient commentators noted.

One thing was clear: the Eurotas valley could easily sustain the citizen population of Sparta, which never exceeded roughly 8,000 men, and here even a small estate could be a garden of plenty. Indeed, in such a beautiful setting, each farm would have been like a little piece of Paradise.

When I retired to my room, I was glad that modern Sparti is a sleepy town in summertime. No hordes of tourists come to see the unremarkable ruins of the Spartan acropolis or visit the tiny museum with its handful of artifacts, while the students of the local university are away on summer break. So the town soon fell silent below my window, just as ancient Sparta would have been with its citizens either dispersed to their estates or in barracks. But the stars were all the more visible, and in the silence, the singing of the crickets could again be heard. It was a cheerful sound. I was beginning to understand that Sparta was not at all the grim place most modern writers make it out to be.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Unnatural Mothers, Cowardly Sons

In Plutarch’s collections of Spartan sayings there are eighteen attributed to Spartan women (many of them unidentified) which share the familiar theme of “with your shield or upon it.” Presumably, all these women, named and unnamed, shared the Spartan ethos of preferring to see their sons dead than defeated or disgraced. They either express themselves in graphic and often insulting language to sons who failed to live up to their ideals, or reject comfort and exhibit no grief when told of a son’s death. Three of them even go so far as to kill their disgraced sons with their own hand.

These sayings are all too commonly taken at face value, despite serious grounds to doubt their authenticity. First and foremost, with the exception of the quotes attributed to Gyrtias and Damatria, all these sayings are anonymous. “Anonymous” has been the author of most slander in the history of mankind, and while “anonymous” clearly does have a real identity, he/she is very rarely who he/she purports to be.

Second, except for the quote attributed to Gyrtias, all quotes are vague and generic, with nothing to suggest the date and context. Thus nothing about them requires an intimate knowledge of Spartan society or personalities. Yet the sayings undoubtedly convey an unattractive, not to say alienating, image of Sparta.

After all, what could be more alienating and repulsive than a mother so unnatural that she wants her son to die? The love of a mother for her child is one of the most primeval feelings in the world, a love that mankind has long acknowledged and cherished. Ancient Greek literature sets the standard. Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband is understandable not because he brings Cassandra into her home, but because she is revenging the murder of Iphigenia. Medea remains a repulsive barbarian because she is willing to kill her children out of jealousy. In this context, it is clear that the sayings attributed to Spartan mothers are intended to make Spartan women sound like barbarians, like unnatural, unfeminine creatures, who deserve no sympathy even in their adversity.

Furthermore, all the sayings are predicated on cowardice on the part of young Spartan men. So, allegedly, while the women were upholding Sparta’s post-Thermopylae ethos of victory or death, the young men were deserting in droves having failed to absorb the proper ethos despite their harsh upbringing. Based on these sayings, Sparta was populated by cowardly men, a situation that seems hard to square with the historical record – even if we admit that Spartans were probably no braver than most other Greeks.

Keeping in mind that slogans and apocryphal stories often evolve to counter sentiments that those in power find dangerous, one could hypothesize that these sayings were developed as examples of the “good old days” and were supposed to depict model behavior. Maybe they were intended to inspire young men and women, who the Elders did not think were living up to the ideals of their youth, to behave more courageously. But it seems odd that, if the Spartan elders wanted to motivate the younger generation to behave more like their ancestors, they did not put the slogans into the mouths of historical figures rather than anonymous ones. Surely it would have been more effective to give the women and their sons names? Wouldn’t, for example, the story of the young man killed by his mother after reporting “all the men are dead” have been more effective and intimidating if it had been attributed to the mother of one of the two survivors of Thermopylae?

More plausible to me is that all these sayings are the invention of Athenian or other enemy commentators intended to create/reinforce the “Feindbild” – the image of the enemy as alien and contemptible. The sayings had the two-fold benefit of making Sparta’s warriors seem less frightening, and Spartan women less human. Sparta’s warriors were diminished because these sayings proved that many of them were really cowards, who would run home to their mothers if they could. At the same time, unlike the Trojan women, who are frequently portrayed as loving mothers deserving of sympathy (see Euripides plays), these sayings make Spartan women seem so repulsively unnatural that Athenians could feel justified in any kind of atrocities against them.

The greatest pity is that most modern readers take the image of Spartan women evoked by these sayings at face value and imagine Spartan women as unfeeling beasts – curiously without likewise adopting the image of cowardly Spartan men.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Book Review of "The Olympic Charioteer"

The following book review appeared on the blog "A Cup of Coffee and a Good Book" on August 3, 2010.

Helena P. Schrader’s The Olympic Charioteer is a brilliant tapestry of Ancient Greece, with brilliant characters and scenery. It is a story for everyone: those interested in history should find this to be a realistic portrayal of what might have happened during this time, while those who enjoy romance will get that fix as well. There are also liberal sprinklings of mystery, drama and action. A fascinating read!

The Olympic Charioteer takes the reader to ancient Greece and into a world of politics and intrigue, painting a picture of social and political life in Tegea and Sparta of the day. Although the story is fictional, Helena P. Schrader’s intense level knowledge of the era brings the story alive in a very authentic way. The story explores the conflicts between the two city-states that eventually led to the series of non-aggression pacts that later formed the Peloponnesian League.

Phillip is not just any slave. Not only does he possess a level of pride not typical of someone of his station, as well as a death wish, but when horse breeder and important politician Antyllus purchases him to save him from a horrible fate, he learns just how unusual Phillip is. For one thing, despite his insolence and sarcasm, Phillip has obviously had training in deportment and rhetoric. For another, he has a way with horses that rivals that of all Antyllus’s stable slaves.

Antyllus is training his team of chariot horses in hopes of an Olympic victory, but he needs a skilled driver. He recognizes potential in Phillip and teaches him to drive to assist in training sessions, and when Phillip learns so quickly as to surpass Antyllus in skill, the politician finds that he has found his Olympic charioteer—and that is when he finds out exactly where his mysterious slave came from.

Jennifer Walker
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

(I have re-ordered the paragraphs but made no changes to the original text. HPS)