The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

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*Marking International Women’s Day* – This is a re-telling of part of the Iliad  from (mostly) the viewpoint of Briseis, the princess given to Achilles as a prize of war and then claimed by King Agamemnon, leading Achilles to refuse to fight.  The treatment of all the Trojan women in the Iliad is horrific – handed out to the men as trophies, enslaved, raped, even sacrificed –  and it’s just accepted that this is the lot of women in wartime. In some cases, even today, that hasn’t changed – look at the treatment of Yazidi women by IS.

This isn’t a particularly well-written book, and some of it’s really rather silly, such as all the female slaves singing “Why was he born so beautiful?”.  But it tells an important story.  We don’t really know whether or not anything in the Iliad is based on truth, but it and the Odyssey play an important part in all Western cultures, and are indeed often described as the starting point of Western culture.  I’ve climbed up a very steep hill to Mycenae in the heat, and walked round the ruins of both Troy and Sparta, partly out of historical interest but also partly because of the influence of Homer’s writings., How horrific is it that these stories, which have had such an impact and lasted for so many centuries, depict the role of women as being this?

They’re barely even given a voice.  And that’s what Pat Barker’s tried to redress.

The story goes that Briseis, the young wife of Mynes, son of the King of Lyrnessus, is given as a prize to Achilles when the Greeks take Lyrnessus.  Another young woman, Chryseis (Cressida) is given to Agamemnon.  Apollo sends plague to the Greek camp and refuses to stop it unless Chryseis is returned to her family.  Agamemnon is forced to give in, but takes Briseis as a replacement.  Achilles is furious at the affront to his honour, and refuses to fight.  He’s their star man, and, without him, things go badly.  Patroclus, his best friend, probably also his lover, dresses in his armour and takes his place, but is killed by Hector.  Agamemnon sends Briseis back, but Achilles is ready to fight anyway, to avenge his friend’s death.  He kills Hector, but is then killed himself.  Troy falls, and the women are raped and enslaved, apart from the young princess Polyxena, of whom the Greeks make a human sacrifice.

At one point in the Iliad, Achilles claims to love Briseis.  That isn’t really shown in this book, and it doesn’t fit with what happens elsewhere, when both Achilles and, in a rare moment when Homer allows her to speak, Briseis make it clear that he sees her as a possession, a prize of war.  The book talks a lot about the dehumanising of the women – not only are they being forced to act as sex slaves, and to the men who killed their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, other relatives and friends, but they’re not even seen as human beings any more, except by each other.

Patroclus shows Briseis some kindness.  Agamemnon is violent.  And there’s some weird fetish thing going on with Achilles, who likes her to smell of the sea because it reminds him of his sea-goddess mother – I’m not sure where Pat Barker got that from!   Interesting points are made, though, about Achilles having “issues” because his mother abandoned him.  Very 21st century, but fair points.

Some of the women, those who were from lower social ranks but are blessed with good looks, in some ways benefit from what’s happened, and some grow fond of their captors: it’s a way of coping.  Briseis, as the slave of one of the top men, is at least in a better position than some of the other women, who are more or less thrown to the men to do with as they will.  Pat Barker uses the term “rape camp”, associated with the Balkan wars of the 1990s.  It’s not inaccurate – but, as she says, it’s not what people associate with the Trojan War, the war of gods and heroes.

We also see quite a lot of the camp, and we see how Briseis is able to regain some dignity and sense of self by treating the sick and wounded.  Books about heroes never tell you much about hospitals.

The focus is very much on the women, but the men obviously play a big part in the story.  Apart from Patroclus, the one man who comes out of things well is elderly King Priam, who comes to the Greek camp alone and unarmed, to beg for the return of his son Hector’s body.  But, however courageous and dignified he is, he can’t do anything to help Briseis.  He recognises her, Pat Barker having fleshed out her back story to show her having a sister married to one of Priam’s sons, and having been friendly with Helen, but says that he can’t take her back to Troy with him, because the rules of war are that she belongs to Achilles.

The book ends with Briseis, expecting a baby by Achilles, being married off to Alcimus, a nice enough man, who’ll look after her. It’s a better fate than she might have met, but it’s not her choice – but, as she says, at least she’s no longer a part of someone else’s story.

It’s not a particularly well-written book, as I’ve said, but it’s a story that needs telling.  Very few schools still provide a “classical education”, but these stories are still crucial to our culture, and the names of Achilles, Hector, Helen and Cassandra are still known to most people.  Homer rarely allows the women to speak.  The way they’re treated is horrific.  Pat Barker’s tried to redress that, a little.  Don’t be expecting writing of the quality of Homer’s, but this is still worth a read.

A Greek Odyssey with Bettany Hughes – Channel 5

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Ah, this was lovely.  Remember those halcyon days of yore, four months ago – seems like four years – when you could travel abroad, enjoy a meal with friends, go into a small souvenir shop and take a boat trip?  All of that was going on here.  The idea of this programme was that Bettany Hughes was retracing (ish) the journey taken by Odysseus on his way from Troy back to Ithaca. Odysseus always really annoys me, TBH.  Taking ten years to get home, when he knew that Penelope was waiting?!   But never mind.  This was a lovely programme.  Sunshine, blue sea, lots of meals eaten al fresco, and, hooray, lots of ancient Greek ruins.  And a type of cup, supposedly designed by Pythagoras, which spills all the wine if you overfill it, to stop you from getting too drunk.

Bettany sailed first of all to Chios, where she received a very warm welcome and discussed the tradition of “Philoxenia” – a love for strangers, making them feel welcome.  Then on to Lesbos, where she went to some wonderful thermal baths – oh, when will we be allowed even to go in a swimming pool again?! – and visited the theatre of Mytilene, which gave the Romans the idea for all the theatres (ditto being able to go to theatres again) they built.  And then her next stop was Samos, where she visited an amazing ancient Greek aqueduct, heard the tale of Pythagoras and the cup, and saw what was supposed to be the birthplace of Hera, and also where the marriage of Hera and Zeus took place.

I usually find it frustrating when history and myth get too tangled up together, but somehow it works really well in Greece.  I’ve got a pair of earrings which a shopkeeper in Delphi assured me solemnly were exactly like the ones Helen of Troy would have worn!   And, after staggering up the steep hill to the citadel of Mycenae, in extremely high temperatures, no-one was telling me that this wasn’t Agamemnon’s city.

This was a lovely programme.  Bettany Hughes is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic, without ever being silly, or sarcastic, or trying to push across an agenda.  And all that lovely Greek sun and sea.  There were even dolphins!   Just so, so nice 🙂 .

Circe by Madeline Miller

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Circe is best-known as the witch in the Odyssey, where she turns men into pigs. I’d have gone for something smaller, cuter and less messy, myself, but each to their own. She’s also aunt to both Medea and the Minotaur. What she isn’t is a household name in the way that so many of the figures from ancient Greek myths and epics are, but she’s attracted a certain amount of attention over the years, usually being vilified for being a female who held power and used it against males.

This is being billed as a “#MeToo” re-telling of her story. I don’t know that it’s that, as such, but it’s a very readable story of a woman’s life. It must be very difficult to weave together a coherent narrative from bits of lots of different stories, especially with the added complication of having gods, demi-gods and mortals all alongside each other, but it does work very well. I rather like this recent resurgence of interest in the stories of Ancient Greece (I’m the idiot who climbed up to the citadel of Mycenae and went wandering round the ruins of ancient Sparta when it was well over 100 degrees in the shade). They’ve been around for so long, and they’ve had such a profound influence in Western culture – so many words in English come from them – that it’d be a great shame if they were ever to be lost.

Circe is a nymph and a sorceress, the daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perse, but, despite her powers, her personality’s very human in this book, which starts off with her as a young girl in whom no-one takes much interest because she’s the plain one of the family, then as a rebel who tries to help her uncle Prometheus when he’s chained to a rock and turns her love rival Scylla into a monster, and then as a woman who’s exiled to the island of Aiaia on her own, works hard there with her herbs and spells, and becomes embroiled in some very well-known stories. Hermes turns up quite often, as her on-off lover. She’s called to Crete to help deliver the Minotaur and sort out what’s to be done with him, and gets involved with Daedalus whilst she’s there. And, of course, there’s the visit of Odysseus. This is the #MeToo bit: the way it’s presented here is that Circe, after a previous sexual assault by a visiting sailor, turns Odysseus’s men into swine because she’s frightened of what they might do to her if they remain in human form.  It’s self-protection.

There are all sorts of different stories about Circe and Odysseus’s children, but, in this book, they just have the one – Telegonus, who then accidentally kills his father. Odysseus’s wife Penelope and their son Telemachus then turn up, and Circe takes up with Telemachus, whilst Telegonus goes off to found Tusculum.  I love seeing Circe and Penelope team up! This is very much a book in which women are the main players – despite the fact that Circe is exiled by her father.  Odysseus is presented as having been completely overrated, Jason as being rather a prat, and most of the male gods as being silly and spiteful.

It’s not as anti-male as that sounds, honestly!  And I don’t know that it’s meant as a feminist book generally.  But it is very irritating how there’s always this vilification of women who hold power.  Part of it’s the idea of sexual power, which Circe is seen as holding because of her involvement with Odysseus. Anne Boleyn, Wallis Simpson, and even to some extent Elizabeth Woodville are all reviled as women who used their sexual power to inveigle men into unsuitable marriages – as if the men, the kings, the most powerful people in the land, had nothing to do with it!

Part of it’s just a fear of hatred of female power in general, and the idea that that’s somehow linked to malign powers.  Anne and Elizabeth were both accused by their enemies of being witches.  Even now, people will use the term “witch” to describe a female politician whom they don’t like. OK, presumably they’re not alleging that the women have supernatural powers, but the fact that “witch” is a term of abuse whereas “wizard” and “sorcerer” are great compliments says a lot.

Despite being a witch, Circe is, as I’ve said, very human in this book – someone with faults and feelings, and I got quite attached to her.  Whilst I generally prefer “real” history, I’ve been interested in Greek and Roman myths since reading a children’s book of them when I was about 6 – Google suggests that it was probably Enid Blyton’s “Tales of Long Ago”.  I have to confess that I’ve never read the Iliad or the Odyssey, despite having had copies of them for years.  I have read the whole of the Aeneid, but that was when I was a teenager and had more time!  But they are fascinating, and it’s great that there’s still this interest in them, and that people like Madeline Miller, Pat Barker, Margaret Atwood and Margaret George (oh, and Brad Pitt) are keeping that going.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although it’s not my usual sort of thing, and would highly recommend it.

The Walls of Troy by Cherry Gregory

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This is the sequel to The Girl from Ithaca and, rather appropriately, I read it just before visiting Mycenae and Sparta.   It continues the tale of Neomene, the fictitious (fictitious as in not appearing in the legends) sister of Odysseus, amongst the Greeks outside Troy, and takes the story up to the fall of Troy. Incidentally, one thing I have never understood is why the horse is always referred to as “a Trojan horse”. It was a Greek horse!   Anyway, that’s beside the point, LOL.

Towards the end of the book, Neomene is taken prisoner by the Trojans, but, as the sister of Odysseus, she isn’t mistreated, and instead is handed over to Helen as a lady-in-waiting, until the Greeks come and she’s rescued. So we get several conversations between Neomene and Helen, in which Helen says that everything is the fault of the gods, who made her fall in love with Paris.

That’s the whole thing about ancient Greek legends – the idea that everything is predestined. It’s quite hard to get your head round. Come what may, Troy is going to fall, Hector is going to be killed and Achilles is going to be killed. And no-one will believe poor Cassandra … I keep being earwormed by the Abba song every time I think about her!   There are some interesting comments about it in The Thorn Birds – it’s not a book which people probably associate with ancient Greece, but Colleen McCullough wrote brilliantly about the ideas of Greek legends, in which everything’s predestined, and, by contrast, the idea of free will. I suppose the 17th century Puritans went back to the idea of predestination – and that’s something else I don’t really get … what’s the point of making a huge fuss over people playing football on a Sunday or eating mince pies at Christmas if everyone’s fate is predestined anyway?

I’ve now gone completely off the point!   There isn’t actually that much talk in this book about the gods and predestination: we see the Greeks making decisions and that just comes across as … well, making decisions.   It does all work very well: the legends and the story of this invented character are all woven together, and we see snippets of normal life in the Greek camp, particularly the lives of women and children, which Homer and those who write academic studies of the Iliad certainly don’t show us. I was lucky enough to get this book, as I was with the first book in the series, for free, and I’m now looking forward to reading the next one … which I assume will move from the Iliad to the Odyssey and show us the Ithacans’ journey home.

What amazing stories the ancient Greek legends are! Still going strong after all these centuries. In the age of technology, what term is used to describe a nasty computer virus which tricks you into installing it? Trojan horse – the term from the legends of a war thought to’ve taken place in 12th or 13th century BC.   How incredible is it that those legends are still such a big part of the culture of the Western world and beyond after all that time?   OK, that’s rather more to do with Homer, and for that matter Virgil, than Cherry Gregory, LOL, but this is a very readable book, and highly recommended.

Spartan by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

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Word PressThis isn’t Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s best book, but it’s still fascinating because it makes you think so deeply about Spartan society.  We still use the words “spartan” and “laconian” today, and many different schools of thought at different periods of modern history have looked to Sparta for inspiration.  Yes, inspiration: the view of Ancient Sparta is generally a positive one, and not even because of Spartan heroics at Thermopylae but because of the idea of dedication to the state and everything being done by and for the state.

So – we have heroism, selflessness, and striving for success and even perfection.  Yet, with that, freedom and individual choice, all the ideas of personal freedom and individual choice go out of the window.  It’s much more French Revolution than American Revolution, just to be incredibly annoying and try to sum up an ancient society in 18th century terms!  Yet it’s not French Revolution-ish at all, because Spartan society consisted of a privileged elite – and that’s partly what this book is about.  Yes, we see Thermopylae, but we also see one of the major revolts of the Helots, the majority population who were subjugated to the Spartan elite.

The Spartans weren’t just privileged by birth, they were privileged by virtue of physical strength … and that’s really what makes Spartan society so uncomfortable to read about, especially in the post-Nazi era.  The (fictitious) hero of this book was abandoned as a baby because he had a disability, a problem with his leg which affected his mobility.  He might well have died, just dumped on the mountainside, but he was rescued by the Helots.  The idea that Spartans threw physically or mentally disabled babies into a ravine has been largely discredited, but that they just abandoned them to die is well attested to.  So are stories of wives of men who were unable to have children being passed over to healthy, fertile men, to breed more strong Spartans.  It sounds like a cross between Nazi eugenics and some horrific science fiction novel … but it’s what happened.  And this is the society which has attracted so much admiration.

I’ve read better books by Valerio Massimo Manfredi.  In this one, the style of writing isn’t wonderful, and he doesn’t seem sure whether he’s writing historical fiction or fantasy.  Also, the ending is a big let-down.  But it doesn’t half make you think.  So much humanity, amid a society which didn’t really allow for it … yet which also brought about so much bravery.  Sparta – what are we to make of it?

 

 

The Lost Army by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

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Word PressThis book’s based on the “Anabasis” written by Xenophon of Athens … one of the books traditionally read by students of ancient Greek, but not particularly familiar to most other people.  Wikipedia says that it is to Greek students what Caesar’s Gallic Wars is to Latin students: I sincerely hope that it isn’t as boring!  I kept wishing that Asterix and Obelix would turn up and make our A-level Latin lessons a bit more interesting.  Give me Suetonius and all his wonderful scandalous gossip any day.  Er, hmm, I appear to have got totally off the point.

Had Ancient Greece been conquered by the Persian Empire, as it might well have been, the entire course of Western history would have been different, and Western culture as it is now, and as it’s developed over the past two thousand years and more, would probably never had existed.  As it was, the Persians never succeeded in making Ancient Greece part of their Empire, despite their famous victory at Thermopylae in 480BC.  The events of this book took place 79 years after that, when Cyrus the Younger attempted to overthrow his brother Xerxes, King of Persia, with an army of Greek, mainly Spartan, mercenaries, known as the Ten Thousand.  The future historian Xenophon was amongst them, and the main character, and narrator, of this book is his fictitious mistress, a Syrian girl called Abira.

The story of “the Lost Army” is that it was defeated and Cyrus killed at Cunaxa, close to modern day Baghdad, but that the Greek survivors somehow made their way, via Kurdistan and Armenia, to the Black Sea, and from there back to Greece.  Part of the story is missing from Xenophon’s account, and Valerio Massimo Manfredi speculates that maybe Sparta was playing a double game, allowing Cyrus to recruit mercenaries from amongst its warriors without officially being involved, and that a Spartan secret agent deliberately got the survivors lost to try to prevent them from getting home and potentially embarrassing his government.  Double agents in the 5th century BC: it is fascinating how highly developed these states were, at the time of the Early Iron Age in Britain.  But mostly it’s a fascinating human story, the story of an army without pay or supplies and the story of the women who accompanied them, in an epic finding-our-way-home tale that sounds as if it should be fiction but is actually based on fact.

Ancient history can seem a very long way away from us, but it shouldn’t do.  And I think this is Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s best book to date.  Recommended.

 

 

The Girl from Ithaca by Cherry Gregory

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Word PressThis was pretty impressive for something that’s available for free (for Kindles)!  “The Girl from Ithaca” is Neomene, a younger sister of Odysseus.  No, she isn’t in the Iliad or the Odyssey, Cherry Gregory made her up; but she’s made up a very convincing character, and written a book which fits in fairly well with the legends of the Trojan War whilst at the same time being a fairly light and easy read.  Neomene is sent to Troy by Clytemnestra as part of a mission trying to persuade Helen to return to Sparta and avoid a war.  The mission, obviously, doesn’t succeed, and Neomene then accompanies Odysseus to the Greek camp and stays there.  We see her making friends with the other women at the camp, Greek slaves and Trojan prisoners, and a romance developing between her and Antilochus … until his death, which occurs far earlier in this book than it did in the Iliad, so a little moan about “inaccuracy” there, but only a little moan!

It’s an interesting female take on life in the Greek camp during the war, especially as regards nursing the wounded, and it really is well worth reading – especially as you don’t have to pay for it!

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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Word PressThis isn’t so much the Song of Achilles as the Song of Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion whose death led him to kill Hector – Achilles’ being the Greeks’ star man and Hector the Trojans’.  Opinion is divided as to whether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers or “just good friends”: Madeline Miller’s view is that they were definitely lovers, and I’m inclined to agree with that.  Trying to write your own interpretation of arguably the greatest epic of all time, in modern-day language, is very challenging, but Madeline Miller does an excellent job of it.  Gods nymphs and centaurs wander in and out, amongst the mortals, and it all seems perfectly natural!  She also shows Achilles saying that he reckons Helen ran off with Paris rather than being kidnapped, which is definitely my preferred version of events!  The whole Trojan War legend is insulting enough towards women: let’s at least believe that Helen was a vamp who left her boring husband and ran off with her lover, rather than the victim of an abduction!

However, Achilles doesn’t really come across as being that heroic.  Maybe that was Madeline Miller’s intention: she doesn’t say.  He’s shown as being very reluctant to go to the Trojan War, then, when he gets there, he performs heroically in battle but comes across as a bit of a spoilt galactico who thinks that the team can’t play without him and refuses to play after he has a bust-up with the manager.  Then, when he dies, there’s no mention of it being because an arrow struck him on the heel … having said which, the heel story isn’t actually in the Iliad.  I’d love to know what the author actually meant us to think about her portrayal of Achilles, because the real hero of this story is Patroclus.  Whatever she meant, it’s a very entertaining read.  Books based on Greek myths/epics can be heavy going sometimes, but this one definitely is not.