Born into a stern farming family on the island of Keos, Simonides escapes his harsh childhood through a lucky apprenticeship with a renowned Ionian singer. Travelling through fifth century BC Greece, Simonides learn not only how to play the kithara and compose poetry, but also how to navigate the political intrigue surrounding his rich patrons. He is witness to the Persian invasion of Ionia, to the decadent reign of the Samian pirate king Polykrates, and to the flourish and fall of the Pisistratids in the Athenian court. Along the way he encounters artists, statesmen, athletes, thinkers, and lovers, including the likes of Pythagoras and Aischylos. Using the singer’s unique perspective, Renault combines her vibrant imagination and her formidable grasp of history to establish a sweeping, resilient vision of a golden century.
Review by Jean Cox ( apologies that there’s no podcast yet, the pronounciation is hard!)
If you come to this book thinking it’s another “Persian Boy”, then you’ll be disappointed. This is primarily Simonides’s story, he’s heterosexual and his sexual encounters are given their due. There are homosexual elements, though—integral because of the nature of Greek society at the time and also key to the plot. The cover blurb of my copy states, “Hipparchos’s folly precipitates his murder by Harmodios and Aristogeiton…” and that simple phrase hides a wealth of intrigue and unrequited sexual longings.
You won’t be disappointed by Miss Renault’s writing, however; it constantly amazes me how she can say so much by saying so little—I reread “The Charioteer” every few months and always find fresh nuances.
So too here:
Dark-haired Aristogeiton stroked the horse’s neck; they smiled; spoke a few words, as it seemed about the race; Harmodios gave the groom his orders and handed over the bridle.
I can see that scene clearly as if it were being played out on screen, despite what appears to be a paucity of description. Many writers would have taken a page to depict the same occurrence, and not as elegantly. Less is more, sometimes. Simonides himself might have concurred; one of the running threads of the book is the nature of composition and the most economical use of words in describing something, the learning of old works to recite and the composing of new ones.
There’s also what feels like a “soap opera” thread running through—passion, arguments, tittle-tattle, everyday things mingled among the feasts and festivals. Simonides and his protégé aren’t averse to gossiping like old women, although they’re too wise to do it in public
“But you don’t tell me the (Hipparchos) pays his court on the wrestling-ground?”
“Well, almost. He stands staring.”
If you want explicit sexual scenes, this is not the book for you. Nor is it right if you’re looking for flowery praise or overblown explanations about life “back then”. It does work if you want an intelligent and elegant story in an entirely believable world, the political intrigue, domestic dramas and petty jealousies as fresh and relevant now as they would have been in ancient Greece. This ceases to feel like ‘history’; it’s just life, in all it’s abundance. If you know people who don’t “do” historicals, they could start reading at a much worse place than with Renault.