Books

The Will to Create Kingdoms

lost_testamentTwo new books about and relating to Alexander have lately been published.

In Search Of The Lost Testament Of Alexander The Great is written by David Grant. According to The Daily Mail, Grant,

… claims to have unearthed the Macedonian king’s dying wishes in an ancient text that has been ‘hiding in plain sight’ for centuries. The long-dismissed last will divulges Alexander’s plans for the future of the Greek-Persian empire he ruled. It also reveals his burial wishes and discloses the beneficiaries to his vast fortune and power.

You can read the full report here.

The ancient text referred to here is, of all things, the Alexander Romance. At first glance, the Lost Testament sounds like one of these extremely speculative works by by a historian on the fringe of respectability in their field. You know the kind: a big idea extracted from hardly an iota of evidence and then expanded with more creativity than a writer of fiction usually brings to bear on his work. However, it would not do to dismiss Mr. Grant’s work; at least, not without reading it first. Every man deserves a hearing. If we aren’t prepared to give it to them, we are better keeping our mouths shut lest we make fools of ourselves.

Therefore, don’t expect me to mention the book on this blog as I don’t intend to read In Search Of The Lost Testament Of Alexander The Great just yet. Amazon is currently selling the hardback version for £25.97 (rather surprisingly, the paperback version is priced at £29.95). Even the iBook version costs £19.99. I understand that even e-texts take a lot of work to be made ready for sale but such a high price for a book that maybe awful as well as brilliant is for me unrealistic. If the hardback receives excellent reviews from scholars in the field of Alexander studies, I would change my mind; otherwise, I shall wait for the paperback and – depending on reviews – take a punt then.

David Grant’s website: The Lost Testament of Alexander the Great
Lost Testament front cover: Amazon

The second book is From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities and a Fiefdom pyrrhus_to_cyprusby Billy Cotsis. According to Neos Kosmos, for which Mr. Cotsis writes,

Billy Cotsis explores 36 Hellenic kingdoms, territories, empires and a fiefdom to demonstrate the extent of the Greek world. From Pyrrhus to Cyprus covers the period following the end of the Alexandrian empire to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Added to the mix are a number of independent Greek entities which existed during and post Ottoman times. The book has a twist and a connector in that it is told by a fictional Thucydides, who has managed to survive for an eternity thanks to a spell cast by Apollo. This is Cotsis’ tribute to the brilliance of Thucydides as the first-ever historian who truly presented primary facts with minimal bias.

To read the full post, click here.

I like the idea of Thucydides narrating the story. It’s a nice touch. I like even more that in the article from which I have just quoted, Mr. Cotsis places the Ptolemaic dynasty above its Seleukid counterpart in his Top Ten Greek kingdoms and, of course, puts Alexander’s empire first. For this reason, I will not be boorish and remind you that Alexander’s empire was not a Greek empire but a(n ancient) Macedonian one.

Mr. Cotsis’s book is on sale at Amazon for £7.23, which makes taking a punt on it extremely tempting.

Billy Cotsis’s website: Hellenic Travels to the Past
Front Cover of From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Amazon

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The Battle of Bosworth

I have known for a while that my Alexander reading is skewed in favour of the primary sources. Over the past few years I have read, re-read and re-re-read them in order to get a good understanding of what they had to say about the Macedonian king.

However, the ultimately deficient nature of this approach came into sharp focus recently when I was asked if I could recommend any texts to read about Alexander. All I could think of was Peter Green, Robin Lane-Fox and Michael Wood – historians who I read prior to focussing on Arrian et al in 2013. And to be honest, I think I first read them at the start of my interest in Alexander, c.2007. Way too long ago*.

As a result of this, I decided to try and make 2017 the year in which I would make a concerted effort to read more secondary accounts of Alexander’s life. My second decision was to start that process now, or rather, last week, rather than wait until 1st January. Impatient as ever.

I have a lot of buying to do (my Amazon trolley is starting to heave) but for once I thought I would be sensible and start with a book that was already on my desk waiting patiently to be read – A. B. Bosworth’s Conquest and Empire The Reign of Alexander the Great.

Before I continue I should say that as I write these words I have read the first, biographical, half of the book. The second is made up of Thematic Essays, which I will leave for another day. I will explain the reason for this below.

bosworth_conques_and_empireBosworth’s name frequently pops up in my Alexander reading. In my mind – and I am sure in reality, too – he is up there with Tarn and Badian as one of the major scholars of the conqueror. Reading his book, therefore, has been a privilege.

I can’t say, however, that it has been particularly enjoyable. On the one hand, Conquest and Empire contains some good insights. On the other, it is written in a very sober to the point of dull fashion. It is not a book to read if you want to get excited about Alexander.

Part of the reason for this is that Bosworth is a sceptic when it comes to Alexander’s greatness. Actually, that’s fine; in fact, it is more than fine, it is important – we need scholars who recognise the truth that not everything Alexander did was wonderful, and that he did not always behave in a ‘great’ fashion; what made the book a bit of a chore to read was Bosworth’s style of writing. Not everyone can write with the infectious enthusiasm of Michael Wood but it’s a shame when they write in such a staid fashion that you feel your enthusiasm being sucked out rather than renewed.

For this reason, I am going to skip Bosworth’s Thematic Essays for now. I’ll come back to them after I have read one or two more books. That will give me time to forget how Bosworth wrote and remember the value of what he wrote. Speaking of which, my favourite chapter of the book is definitely the epilogue where he briefly discusses what happened in the years following Alexander’s death. The insights there helped to make up for what I didn’t like about the rest of the book.

***

Would I Recommend This Book?
Yes, definitely – but not to someone who had never read about Alexander before. Conquest and Empire is for someone who has already got excited about Alexander’s achievements but now needs to come back down to earth by understanding their cost.

* Of course, I have read other books in the meantime, but not enough

Credit
Conquest and Empire front cover: From Amazon

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A Glimpse

hephaestions_journalHephaestion’s Journal represents a glimpse into the life of Alexander the Great as he was seen through the eyes of his closest friend.

So begins the introduction to this short (136 page) book, translated by Valentin Numbers and edited by Loren J Herbin.

Except that neither Numbers or Herbin are real; Hephaestion’s journal is a fiction-within-a-fiction, which Saiz uses to draw the reader deeper into the ‘reality’ of the book. For another example of this type of literary conceit see The Lord of the Rings, which purports to be a translation of a book written by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

But whereas Tolkien’s role as the actual author of his work is highlighted in the Note on the Text, Note on the the 50th Anniversary Edition and Forward to the Second Edition, Saiz keeps herself very firmly in the background. Her name appears only on the spine of the book and its copyright message. It is absent from the brief About the Author note at the back of the book.

As for the book – if I had read Hephaestion’s Journal on fanfiction.net I would have have regarded it as a good example of that genre. It is a thoughtful piece of work and has been competently written.

It doesn’t yet work, however, as a novel. The story is under developed – Saiz’s Hephaestion does little more than record key moments in Alexander’s life. He feels hardly more than a royal secretary. Yes, we get insights into the development of his relationship with Alexander but only insights. These two men are at the heart of the story, we should be getting much, much more.

Only Saiz can tell us what that ‘more’ should be but I found the way she portrayed Hephaestion as being antagonistic towards Alexander during their childhood and then, in the later years of the expedition east, of the opinion that Alexander had gone mad as being intriguing ideas that have a lot of potential for further exploration.

The same could be said for some of the other characters. Saiz’s Perdiccas is licentious and a sadist, Ptolemy ‘solid’ and Craterus bent on power. So much could be done with people like them. I really hope that Saiz comes back to this subject in the future to do them justice.

Saiz’s main source for Hephaestion’s Journal is Arrian, although she also uses Plutarch and Curtius. Aristotle and Xenophon are also referenced as is Alexander scholar Elizabeth Carney. In that Saiz places Cassander (and Antipater) in Alexander’s army she may be taking inspiration from Oliver Stone’s Alexander film as well.

All-in-all Hephaestion’s Journal has the feel of a work written at leisure and then published at the writer’s ease. If Hannah Saiz was to take it back and develop it further I am confident that she would then have a book that any publisher would be interested in taking on.

6.5/10

  • Thank you to my friend Jen who sent me her copy of Hephaestion’s Journal to read. You can read her review of the book here.

Photo Credit
Front cover of Hephaestion’s Journal Booksamillion

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More A Catalyst Than A Creator

E.M.AnsonI didn’t mean to buy Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues by Edward M. Anson (Bloomsbury 2014).

I was in the bookshop to attend the launch of The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton, and you know how it is. You attend a book launch and get your book signed. You should be happy with that, but are you? Are you really? No, book lovers can always do with one more book; even when they have no room for them.

By the time I left the bookshop, one book had become four. I read The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare first and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am biased because I have met Milton (he is a very friendly man!) but I can say with absolute honesty that he really knows how to tell a tale. And when the tale is as good as how Britain fought a ‘dirty war’ against the Nazis during the Second World War then you are in for a rollicking good ride. I thoroughly recommend The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare to you.Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

I do not know Edward M. Anson but I am going to be even more effusive in my praise of Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues. For two reasons,

1/ Anson cites his sources in his text. I love Peter Green’s and Robin Lane Fox’s biographies of Alexander. I think they’ll always be my modern ur-texts but I really appreciate having a book where the author goes to the effort of telling me there and then his source for the statement he has just made. Well, I’m being unfair to Green, Lane Fox and others like them: they are writing popular histories and including sources would break the story up so really Anson’s book is a compliment to theirs rather than being better.

2/ The whole of Themes and Issues is a conversation with the five major sources of Alexander’s life and – especially this – modern day historians. On one page we find Anson disagreeing with Ernst Badian over this, and then on the next agreeing over that. Reading this book was like being in a lecture theatre again, and it was very exciting.

In light of the above, I am really grateful to have found this book just three years after its publication as it means I now own an up-to-date scholarly work. At least, I hope so. That’s a problem with living outside academe and not being an independent scholar: with no access to the academy you are always likely to be ten steps behind whatever the professionals are saying. I don’t even know of any academically minded Alexander blogs.

Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues isn’t perfect. There are mistakes within the text and I didn’t find the book to be a visually easy read. Anson’s text is by no means impenetrably dense but is just heavy enough for me to wish that Bloomsbury had printed the book in a slightly larger format with the text more widely spaced.

Because Themes and Issues is a more academic work I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone wanting to read about Alexander for the first time. Green, Lane Fox and the other popular historians are the perfect place to start. But once you have polished them off, Edward M. Anson’s book absolutely deserves to be in your hands and on your shelf. It has sources and good insights; it doesn’t just talk about but discusses. It is a very rewarding read.

8.5/10

Picture Credits
Alexander The Great: Themes and Issues – Goodreads
The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare – The Times

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An engaging historical mystery

The Lost Book of Alexander the GreatAlexander died in June 323 B.C. At the time of his death, his wife Roxane was pregnant. Hoping that the child would be a boy, Alexander’s generals divided the late king’s empire between themselves to run until Alexander’s son (please Zeus) came of age.

As it turned out, Roxane did indeed give birth to a boy. Despite this, the generals divided once more between those who supported the newly named Alexander IV, and those who wanted to rule the territory as independent states. Perdiccas, Alexander’s deputy at the time of his death, led the loyalist faction. Ptolemy, governor of Egypt, was a splitter.

In 320 B.C., Perdiccas went to war against Ptolemy. He lost and was assassinated by his own men.

After arriving in Egypt, Ptolemy began writing his memoirs. Some scholars believe he wrote them soon after his arrival because he takes a couple of jabs at Perdiccas – what would have been the point of doing so years after his enemy had died? Others, however, believe that the memoirs belong to a much later date, one no earlier than 310/09, as Ptolemy corrects another historian who did not write his account until then.

I wonder if Ptolemy wrote and rewrote his book over the course of years thus giving it the appearance of belonging to distinct periods. Either way, his memoirs were eventually lost. Happily, this did not before before Arrian, in the second century A.D., used them as one of the major sources of his account of Alexander’s expedition.

Which brings us to The Lost Book of Alexander the Great by Andrew Young. It is a very brave attempt to find Ptolemy’s lost memoir in Arrian’s Anabasis. I say brave but maybe it is just foolhardy, for how does one find a lost text inside another?

Young is completely upfront about this problem. He isn’t scared to say maybe and perhaps. The book, therefore, is written honestly. But what use are too many of them to readers? For my part, I enjoyed The Lost Book because I enjoy reading about Alexander. I’d read his shopping list if it was available. Ptolemy is my favourite of his generals so that was a bonus.

I have to admit, though, I didn’t come away from The Lost Book thinking that it added much to my understanding of Alexander or Ptolemy. There are certainly no revelatory insights in it. The book joins dots where it can but is forced to imagine a fair number of others.

Despite this, I am not inclined to say that The Lost Book is a waste of time. In my opinion, it does have a value, and that is in the simple fact that it is bold enough to confront the question of whether it is possible to find Ptolemy in Arrian.

Maybe it would have been better for the question to be answered in an essay or monograph but that’s by-the-bye, the fact is that it is a reasonable question to ask and Andrew Young has had the guts to stick his neck above the parapet and give an answer. The question is a difficult one, actually, an impossible one, but it still deserves answering. I applaud Young for daring to do so and recommend the book to you.

7/10

Picture Credit
Front Cover of The Lost Book: Tower Books

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The Air He Breathes Is The Complexity Of Life

The Mighty DeadThe Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson is an intense and enlightening read.

The book is also a deeply personal one as Nicholson grounds Homer’s story – which for him begins not in the eighth century B.C. when Homer is supposed to have lived, nor even in c.1250 when the events that inspired The Iliad are believed to have taken place, but centuries earlier – in the journey of his own life.

Thus, we find him ruminating on Homer while sailing in the Atlantic, and searching for the gates of Hades in southern Spain. This might have been just a nice literary conceit had Nicholson not included an account of how he was raped at Palmyra in Syria.

It is very brave of him to tell such a story and it elevates the personal aspect of this book from potentially being just a means to an end to being part of the end; Palmyra connects his life to that of the Trojans and Greeks whose story Homer told in a way that writing from a study or even boat never could.

Even at the best of times, The Mighty Dead is not an easy going read – there’s too much going on, both in the past and present – for that to be the case, but what it loses in casualness it makes up for in insight. I cannot stress that enough. Therefore, if you are interested in Homer or even just want to read a really well-written book, I recommend The Mighty Dead to you. I am sure you will not be disappointed.

9/10

Picture Credit
Front cover of The Mighty Dead: Waterstones

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Bitter Words

I last read The Iliad in its entirety 21 years ago. Given my interest in Alexander the Great I should have read the epic that so inspired him much, much more recently than that. Well, it’s no use crying over spilt milk. I’ve started reading it now and as often as I do so will write an update on this blog on how I am getting on.

Iliad Diary
Day 1

Firstly, an apology. An apology for all the references that I will miss while reading the poem. I am an amateur when it comes to the fourth century B.C. and am rather less than that when it comes to the thirteen. To make up for this, I will, as I read The Iliad be doing some background reading as well. Where I can incorporate what I learn into these posts, I will certainly do so.

Secondly, a word about how I will structure these posts. To keep the word count down, and encourage myself to be more concise I will be taking the poem one scene at a time. Having said that, I don’t want to be in the position of blogging about one line so this will change if the scenes are very short.

With that said, let’s jump into the poem. Book I Lines 1-7. I have chosen these because they comprise Homer’s introduction to his work*.

The rage of Achilles – sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief

Two things jump out at me in these two lines: the fact that Homer is asking the goddess to sing the poem through him and the fact that Achilles’ anger hurts his own side, not the Trojans.

A question: which goddess is Homer referring to? Is it Artemis, the goddess of war? Or perhaps Hera, who loved Achilles (I.201)?

Whichever goddess it is, the first line of the poem tells us something very interesting about how poets of archaic Greece saw themselves. Not just reciters of great lays but channels of the gods, themselves.

Now, I am sure Homer was a very humble man, but the idea of poets seeing themselves as the gods’ interlocutors must have given at least a few of them big heads.

This reminds me of Callisthenes’ alleged big headedness. Arrian tells us (IV.10) of a story that Aristotle’s nephew claimed,

without the history he was writing, Alexander and his work would be forgotten

And that Callisthenes claimed,

if Alexander was destined to have a share of divinity, it would not be owing to Olympias’ absurd stories about his birth, but to the account of him which he would himself publish in his history.

At this point, I should say that if at any point I can relate anything I read in The Iliad to Alexander’s life, then I will endeavour to do so. I beg your patience if the connexions I draw are just too tenuous!

Going back to the poem, the poet implies that Achilles’ anger was ‘the will of Zeus’. The king of Olympus, therefore, permitted many of his people – Greeks – to die because of Achilles. This is a very pressing reminder that though Hera loved Thetis’ son, the gods could not always be relied upon to have their subjects backs at any given time.

A question: Was this because the Olympians only ever acted according to self-interest or were they at the mercy of fate, or the Fates?

***

I almost forgot to tell you: I am reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad in e-book form (Phoenix 2013).

The Arrian I quoted from is the beat up Penguin Classics (1971) edition that I wouldn’t lose for the world.

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David Hogarth “A Wandering Scholar in the Levant”

I have just finished David Hogarth’s A Wandering Scholar in the Levant (John Murray 1896). It was a delightful account of his travels through the near east in search of the ‘Remains of Distant Times’ (p.7).

A few of passages made a strong impression on me. I covered one of them in this post and thought I would record the others here.

The first quotation really made me sit up. Ten renaissances! Egypt must certainly have been a powerhouse of cultural brilliance. The second, however, floored me. What’s going on? I wondered, One minute Hogarth is saying how excellent Egypt was the next he is deriding it.

I should have re-read the renaissance passage again. When I did, I realised that for Hogarth, Egypt’s renaissances were not the same as Europe’s. The were not a time of rediscovery and flowering anew. Rather, as the first sentence below shows, they were a time simply of restarting. This takes some of the gloss off Egypt’s past but one still has to admire a country that no less than ten times was able to pick itself up again.

For the record – I spaced Hogarth’s text out as you see it below to make it easier to read.

Each new agency has all to do over again; each new agency advances sometimes as far as the last, sometimes less far, never farther.

Egypt has seen not one Renaissance but ten –

the Renaissance of the Twelfth Dynasty(1), when the sculptures of Beni-Hassan and the gold-work of Dahshur recalled the standard of the Tomb of Ti:

the Renaissance of the Eighteenth(2), labouring up again to an inferior delicacy in relief sculpture in the eastern halls of Karnak, at Der el Bahari, in the monuments of Amenhotep III(3) at Luxor, and of Seti I(4) at Abydos:

the Renaissance again of the Saitic Pharaohs(5), to whose period belong three-fourths of the more exquisite trifles sold now in Egypt,

and the Renaissance of the Sebennytics (6), this last a conscious effort to throw back.

There was a Renaissance of the Ptolemies(7), another of early Christianity(8), another of the Fatimites(9), another of Saladin(10), another of the Mamluks(11), a last of Mehemet Ali(12).

And the impulse of one and all, almost beyond doubt, came from without Egypt, the Amenemhats and Usertasens(13) being foreigners as truly as the founder of the Dynasty that is reigning now(14).
(A Wandering Scholar, p.156)

‘Each new agency…’ In Hogarth’s opinion, it sounds like the Ptolemies went backwards.

Ptolemaic art is worse every way than Pharaonic – bad relatively and bad absolutely, corruptio optima pessima(15)!
(
A Wandering Scholar, p.165)

1. 1991-1803 B.C.
2. 1549-1292 B.C.
3. 1391–1353 or 1388–1351 B.C.
4. 1290–1279 B.C.
5. i.e. The Twenty-Sixth Dynasty 685–525 B.C.
6. i.e. The Thirtieth Dynasty 380 BC–343 B.C.
7. 305-30 B.C.
8. A.D.33-c4th Cent (I’m following Wikipedia here in dating the beginning of ‘Christian Egypt’ from St Mark’s arrival there)
9. A.D.909–1171
10. A.D. 1137/1138-1193
11. A.D. 1250-1517
12. A.D. 1805-1953
13. Amenemhat and Usertasen (aka Useresen, Senusret) were the names of seven pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty. The only ruler not to have that name was the eighth and last of that line, Queen Sobekneferu
14. i.e. Mehemet [Muhammad] Ali
The above dates and information was taken from Wikipedia
15. ‘The corruption of the best is the worst’ (from here)

***

But lest we think that Hogarth has no time for the Ptolemies at all:

… the only monarchs of the Nile valley that approach to absolute greatness are Ptolemy Philadelphus I., Saladin, certain of the Mamluks, and Mehemet Ali;

for these held as their own what the vainglorious raiders of the Twelfth and Nineteenth Dynasties but touched and left;

and I know no prettier irony than that among all those inscriptions of Pharaohs who “smite the Asiatics” on temple walls and temple pylons, there should occur no record of the prowess of the one King of Egypt who really smote Asiatics hip and thigh – Alexander, son of Philip.
(A Wandering Scholar, p.169)

I am very interested in Egypt’s history but I have to admit, when I read those last words about Alexander, I did smile.

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I wrote this review in November 2013 whereupon it went into my drafts folder in anticipation of being edited before I pressed the ‘publish’ button. Fourteen months later and I think it’s fair to say the time for editing has long since passed. If I was going to do that I would need to read the book again, which I don’t have time to do. As the review is perfectly readable (and, I hope, understandable) I thought I would publish it “as-is”.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Book reviews on The Second Achilles are few and far between but I could hardly ignore this one.

We all know the story of how Achilles was dipped into the Styx by his mother so that he was invulnerable except at the heel; how he fought in the Trojan War, only to be dishonoured by Agamemnon; how he died after being shot by Paris in the one place that he was vulnerable.

Similarly, we all know of his friendship with Patroclus. The Iliad doesn’t say as much but the ancient Greeks generally believed that they were lovers. Miller takes that view as well, and so her book is Patroclus’ account of how they met and fell in love.

Oh yes, and died; we shall come back to that.

Madeline Miller is a good story teller. She can turn a phrase well and is at ease with her characters. She wears her learning lightly (according to the author’s biography in the book she has two degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek and teaches both subjects) and has made me want to read The Iliad again. I understand she is writing a book based on The Odyssey; on the strength of The Song of Achilles I shall certainly be keeping an eye out for it.

If you have the feeling that a ‘but’ is coming, I applaud you prescience, for here it is.

But…

The Song of Achilles had – for me – a number of faults that stopped me from regarding it as a first class effort.

Most profoundly, I did not feel that it made clear why Achilles was attracted to Patroclus. One minute Patroclus is sitting by himself at the table, the next Achilles has noticed him, the third they are bosom buddies for the rest of their lives and beyond.

I felt that the book suffered from a number of disconnections.
i. Achilles is portrayed as an utterly carefree boy and then as a man obsessed by his honour. How and when did this change take place? We are given no indication (that I can recall, anyway) that justified his hardline stance after Agamemnon took Briseis.
ii. Achilles carries out no great deeds as a youngster. Except for at meal times, it seems, he lives apart from other people. Yet, when he returned to Phthia after a period of time in Scyros, the men are cheering him to the heavens. Why? Why are they so convinced by him? Is it just reputation alone? If it is, I wish it wasn’t. I wish Miller had given them a more solid reason to cheer him.
iii. Thetis’ appearances were very disjointed. I appreciate that this may have been deliberate to emphasis her apartness from the mortal world but it grated nonetheless, especially because her character remained static for the whole story.

There were three plot elements to The Song of Achilles that I thought were big mistakes to include. The first was the Scyros episode. Again, I appreciate that this is part of the myth of Achilles (although that does not mean Miller was obliged to use it) but it felt very out-of-place as far as the story was concerned. Are we really supposed to believe that Achilles would not have sought to return to Patroclus before the latter went to him? Perhaps Miller was telling us something either about his character or his regard for his mother. If only we had a better sense of his relationship with her beforehand.

Similarly, I was not convinced by Achilles’ dressing up as a woman. Was his appearance altered by magic? That’s what I thought at first but then it appeared not to be the case. Granted that Achilles is not big like Ajax or Sarpedon but really didn’t anyone notice who he was? I’m sure I’m missing out on what made his deception convincing but I don’t know what it is. The manner of his unmasking was rushed and felt farcical.

The second plot element that I thought a mistake to include was Neoptolemus. The line in child-tyrants has, in recent years, been dominated by Joffrey in Game of Thrones and he is one more one-dimensional, irritating, blood thirsty brat than fiction really needs. Neoptolemus is now another. He added nothing to the story for me. If anything, he took away from it with his needless arrogance and acts of cruelty. How he was not poisoned by the other captains I will never know. The only justification I can think of for his inclusion is that he was Thetis’ Revenger. If that was the case, though, he did not choose his targets very competently.

The final element was Patroclus’ narration after he died. I would much rather a second narrator had taken over at this point. Patroclus’ continued involvement diminished the value of his death, and therefore, the merit of Achilles’ mourning.

I would like to finish as I started – with some positives.

Although Patroclus came across as rather a bland person, I still liked him. At least he tried and loved. In regards the latter, I thought that his love for Achilles, and indeed their relationship in general, was very sweetly handled. I cannot say how much I liked Miller’s Odysseus – clever, witty, smart… but never arrogant or vain. I hope very much that her Odyssey book is focused on him. Similarly, Odysseus ‘double act’ with Diomedes was great to read.

Finally, I really liked the book’s fusion of myth and reality. To be sure, there was a way in which it didn’t work (the demythologised Achilles worked well as a man but less well as a warrior) but I enjoyed the appearance of Chiron very much, as well as references to heroes such as Herakles, and the first appearances of Thetis and Apollo, as well as the more oblique appearance of Zeus.

In conclusion, I think Madeline Miller has given us something that adds to our creative understanding of Achilles. For all its faults, it was a good first novel, and although it should not have won the Orange award, I saw enough in it to make me think that Miller will grow and continue to improve as an author. My copy came signed by her. I wish it had come without the praise of Bettany Hughes and Donna Tartt on the front cover as they raised unrealistic and unfair expectations.

I commend it to you.

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Hogarth at Ipsus

David_HogarthI have started David Hogarth’s A Wandering Scholar in the Levant, his episodic account of his travels in the near east.

In Chapter 2 DGH quotes from his diary entries to show that the life of a wandering scholar is not, as some believe, ‘a disguised holiday’.

One of the entries concerns the occasion he came to Ipsus, south-central Turkey – scene of the last great diadoch battle (for more details see my post here).

July 4th. – We are at the head of the valley of the Phrygian Lakes, down which Cyrus marched with his ten thousand Greeks on the way to Cunaxa. Here lies the site of Ipsus, and the great battle of 301 B.C., in which the greatest of the Successors, Seleucus, won Alexander’s heritage from old Antigonus, [and which] was fought probably on the grassy plain over which we rode to-day: two mounds near Chai perhaps conceal the slain.

I recovered enough strength to-day to begin a rough route-map with prismatic compass and dead reckoning of pace. Such surveying is an irritating occupation at the best of times. If the compass reading is to approach accuracy, it cannot be taken from the saddle. You must dismount twenty times in a morning. If a horse be left loose he will sidle off the track to browse and get bogged; if you slip your arm through his bridle, he jerks it up just as the needle was about to come to rest. He declines to stand to be remounted; the ill-girthed saddle slips round unless you throw your heel over like lightning, and agility is not one’s strongest point when weak and stiff from a malady hardly cured*.

So we crossed but slowly to Chai, and turned down beside, rather than on, the high road to Konia; everyone seems to go beside and not on this road, which is grass-grown, its bridges rotten and often disconnected from the embankments. A little village came in sight on the flank of the mountain, and we turned up to examine it in hope of finding relics of Ipsus; but no sooner had we arrived there than B**. was seized with violent shivering fits, and it became patent that we must stay where we were for the night.

We repaired to the village guest-house, and a weary afternoon has ensued for me, who became the centre of a crowd of gaping rustics, B. lying torpid the while, and a wearier evening, for no food appeared until nigh ten o’clock, the headman’s wife having long protested that she would not cook for giaurs***.

* Hogarth had been suffering from a fever
** H A Brown, Hogarth’s travelling companion
*** Derogatory term for a non-Muslim

Picture:Phaselis Birikimi

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