Read: May – June 2014
Author: Helena P. Schrader
Published: 2010 – 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction
Selected By: Elle Tea
“This is Sparta as you’ve never seen it before. Leonidas of Sparta, destined to lead the Three Hundred at Thermopylae, earned his citizenship, kingship, and fame by force of personality, but Schrader is the first writer to produce a biographical novel of the Spartan hero. Schrader combines historical research with a novelist’s skill to tell Leonidas’ compelling personal story and create a refreshingly unorthodox portrayal of Spartan society.” – from the author’s website.
This is a general review of the entire trilogy, which includes the following works:
A Boy of the Agoge (2010)
A Peerless Peer (2011)
A Heroic King (2012)
At this point, who doesn’t know about Leonidas and his famous Three-Hundred? Of course, the Frank Miller graphic novel and Zack Snyder movie are good for sparking interest but horrible for anyone looking for historical accuracy – and even history itself has yielded very little about Leonidas himself. Oh, sure, you can find a book that will tell you all of the clever things he said, the strategies he and his fellow officers formulated for their last great hurrah… you can find information all over the place about Sparta’s history as a city-state, the laws laid down by Lycurgus that set them apart from the rest of Greece, and the unheard of freedoms they permitted their womenfolk (for the time). Hell, if you’re feeling especially froggy (and / or sadomasochistic), you can even find a recipe for their infamous black broth and eat like a Spartan.
“If numbers are what matters, all Greece cannot match a small part of that army; but if courage is what counts, this number is sufficient.”
But when it comes to Leonidas the man, history is woefully, regrettably silent. We know he was an Agiad king who, because he was not the clear heir to the throne, was one of the few Spartan royals to actually attend the agoge and qualify for citizenship purely on his own merit. We know he married his eldest half-brother’s daughter, Gorgo, and sired the Agiad king Pleistarchus. We know his reputation was such that he was specifically selected by the Greek coalition to address the issue of Xerxes’ massive army during the second Persian invasion of Greece – and we know that, after almost a week at the “Hot Gates,” he dismissed the bulk of his 7,000-man army, formed a rear guard of perhaps 1,500 (whether this action was to protect the fleeing soldiers or to ensure the glory specifically went primarily to his Spartan forces is frequently debated), and that he, along with all of the Spartans who made that march with him, did not survive. After that, things get a bit murky. He was either the third of four sons, or a twin; he might have been 45 when he died, or he might have been closer to 60; it is unclear what sort of relationship he actually had with his brothers or wife, whose own reputation was so impressive that she merited an actual mention – by name – by Herodotus (who, like so many men of his time and culture, did not find the actions of women particularly noteworthy); and absolutely no record was kept by him, any member of his family, or any of their contemporaries that might shed light on the life of the man whose strategies, sacrifice, and wit would be remembered thousands of years after his city was reduced to rubble and dust.
“But if I were no better than you others, I should not be king.”
Enter the Leonidas of Sparta trilogy. Schrader is a historian first and foremost, and she has a real passion for Spartan history and society. Now, I love history, especially ancient history, but my track record for enjoying historical novels that have been written by actual historians is abysmal, and I went into this expecting the trilogy to go one of two ways: (a) the author’s passion for her subject would lead the story to become bogged down in so much historical and cultural minutiae that I may as well have just re-read old Herodotus or Plutarch myself, or (b) she would veer wildly and sacrifice historical accuracy for pure fantasy, living out a pile of what-if scenarios that obviously never happened but that might have changed the course of factual history (this last fear was one that I never actually considered possible until I read the Elizabeth novel written by Alison Weir – whose historical non-fiction is excellent but whose heavily-fictionalized version of the Virgin Queen was too fantastical for my tastes).
“Too many for the enterprise on which we are going.” (In response to the statement that he wasn’t taking enough men to Thermopylae.)
One of my biggest complaints in combining a love of history with a love of fiction is that authors (and movie-makers) seem content to take perfectly amazing tales from humanity’s past and embellish, distort, and/or completely falsify people and occurrences, apparently forgetting entirely that something about the truth of those very same people and occurrences intrigued them and, thus, might intrigue everyone else. Schrader has apparently been thinking the same thing, and, after having read the entire trilogy, I can say that I can’t think of a better tribute to Leonidas or the land that was once ancient Sparta than the one she has created here. Each book is prefaced with the facts of Spartan life, with the general history of the specific period being outlined in each novel, and Schrader makes a point to tell readers in the beginning what she has expanded upon and why; each book also has an index at the end that provides definitions of Greek terms that would have been common at the time and that can’t really be represented accurately or succinctly in English (such as the aforementioned agoge).
“Won’t it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight?”
The three books are so different, not just in content but also in style, that I feel I can only do them justice if I address each one individually.
“Then we are also near to them.” (When a soldier said the Persians were near the Greek ranks.)
A Boy of the Agoge is our introduction to Leonidas and the world in which he was raised. Nothing exists that can tell us what the man’s specific childhood was like, but Schrader does a fair job of taking what is known about Sparta’s family structures, education systems, child-rearing, and Leonidas’s own family tree and filling in the blanks with fabricated (but still believable for the culture and time period) conversations, events, and relationships. I really enjoyed her break from the vision of Sparta that we are typically fed; Western media seems to spend a lot of time justifying our predisposition towards military violence by playing up the prominent armies of other well-known cultures from history, and the military practices of Lacedaemon are no exception. We have been handed many interpretations of Spartan culture, most of which portray the Spartans as ultra-violent bumpkins with little experience or knowledge of the world outside of their own rigid military regime and which make little to no mention of the fact that Sparta was equally famous for its athletes, arts (specifically its brass-works, which were known for spitting out unrivaled statues and figurines), rhetoric, dance, and music. Not to mention that the other Greek city-states specifically handed the leadership of their later coalition over to one of the kings of Sparta – an action that would make no sense if this had truly been a land of blood-thirsty, backwards, uneducated and uncouth automatons. Schrader, however, deals more fairly with the Spartans; the agoge is shown to be what historians have stated it more than likely actually was: a state-funded system of education, with boys learning not just how to be warriors but how to also contribute to their society via politics, poetry, music, dancing, and sports. In A Boy of the Agoge, Leonidas serves more as our doorway through which we might glimpse the world in which the future king was raised. It was a great read and one that is necessary if you plan to read the other two books in the series; however, I will warn you that it might put-off some casual readers – there are a few instances when it feels less like we’re involved in the world and more like we’re being lectured at. These are few and far between, and the author does a great job of immersing readers in the world most of the time, but those few instances do exist in this first book. As a lover of history, I would give this four cups, but a casual reader who just wants a good story and cares little for ensuring the facts are represented as well as they might be would probably give it three cups.
“If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting the possessions of others; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race.”
A Peerless Peer was my favorite book of the trilogy, and I would give it a resounding five-cups and think any reader would do the same. It is well written and, unlike A Boy of the Agoge, at no point are readers pulled from the story to have things explained or expanded upon. This book represents Leonidas’s life from his late teens throughout his twenties and into his citizenship and really brings to the fore some of the politics that led to the eventual Invasion, as well as more details about the lives of Sparta’s adults, perioikoi, helots, and neighbors. My only complaint about this book is really not a complaint about the book, author, or style at all, but more about personal preference: by the end of this book, we have the impression that Leonidas is the noblest, most honorable, most talented, and most misunderstood and under-appreciated individual in all of Laconia; if you’ve been reading my reviews, then you know by now I really tend to love characters with more “grey” to them – a flawed Leonidas would have been just that much more intriguing for me. For example, I would have really preferred to have seen a bit of ambitious hunger in him when it at least came to his choice of wife. That Leonidas was married prior to Gorgo is a probability; Sparta had laws in place to ensure that its Citizens followed the “proper” path for life, one of which was to get married and produce more Spartans – if he had not been married prior to Gorgo, he would have been breaking the law for at least the better part of a decade, a ridiculous crime for a member of the ruling family. This very probability is addressed in A Peerless Peer according to Schrader’s views of the man; however, unlike her version of Leonidas’s life prior to Gorgo and the kingship, I’ve always preferred to think he had the freedom to wed for love the first time, choosing a bride that fit the life of the Citizen he thought he would be for the rest of his life… and when it became apparent that the kingship was suddenly attainable, he put the first wife aside, perhaps out of ambition, perhaps out of a sense of duty, or, as I’ve always preferred to think, perhaps a bit of both – he wanted the kingship, and he knew he was the best candidate to sit on one of the thrones of Sparta.
“Come and take them.”
I would give four cups to the final book of the trilogy, A Heroic King. The events outlined in this novel have quite a bit more historical evidence to fall back on, and Schrader does a fantastic job of picking up all the threads of fiction and weaving them into the facts so it’s nearly impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends. By this point, Leonidas is on the path towards his fate (or doom, depending on how you look at it), and there are a lot of political issues on the table, not to mention minor skirmishes, religious celebrations, and bribes with which to contend – all leading up to the big finale. And what a finale it is! Unlike a lot of popular book and movie depictions of this battle, there is nothing glorious or magnificent about Schrader’s Thermopylae; rather, it is a desperate, violent battle, the clash of two opposing forces who are hell-bent on destroying one another. The chapters dedicated to that final stand are intense, and I really feel Schrader’s Thermopylae is probably as close to “right” as it can be. Schrader’s Spartans who make their last march to Thermopylae never mention heroics or swagger with confidence of their own bad-assness; what they do speak of, quite often, is their own honor and the wives and children they have left behind. Not a one among them is hungry for death (as I’ve read in other books that created Spartans with purely militant leanings); rather, Schrader’s Greek coalition is made up of men who very desperately want to live – but they want to live their own lives, with their own gods and kings, and they make the conscious decision to go to war – not because their uber-militant culture demands it – but because they and their people do not want to live in an occupied country. They are husbands, fathers, and sons who follow a man they trust and respect with the hopes that he’ll lead them home when it’s all said and done – but if he can’t, if they perish out on that field, then they’ll know they did it for the chance of freedom their lives might purchase for those they left at home. Those last few chapters are spent being shoved from one desperate battle to another; the dirt flies and the blood pours, the clang of metal-on-metal and the screams of the dying are almost audible, we can almost feel the push of the ranks, almost smell the reek of sweat and metal. It is a supreme clusterf*** (for lack of a better term), interspersed with moments of false calm spent collecting the dead, walking amongst the wounded, and, like Leonidas, anxiously awaiting correspondence that will tell us the status of reinforcements.
“Because they believe the one to be nature’s gift while the other is within their own control.” (When asked why the best of men seemed to prefer a glorious death to inglorious life.)
I’m a bit conflicted with my only real complaint about the final book*. After three books, we learn so much about Leonidas, we spend every moment of his life, from childhood into his late forties, with this man… but suddenly, when it’s time for the inevitable, we step outside of the core group of characters we’ve known and hover over the battlefield, reduced to bystanders who are forced to watch as the Spartans retrieve their fallen commander and spend the precious few remaining moments of their lives defending his body. That the last act of the Spartan forces was to defend their fallen king, down to the last man, is a fact and not what I’ve been mulling over in my head; my problem comes from not staying the course in that final moment – rather than following Leonidas to the very end, we release him and float above, suddenly completely passive. Part of me can accept this ending as it is; I know if I’d written such a book, I wouldn’t want to presume to know the final thoughts of a man such as Leonidas. Another part of me accepts it because we are suddenly part of a whole – with the end of Leonidas, the supporting characters gather together and come to the fore, and gradually we lose them all in a sea of strangers as they coalesce into one; the perfectly chaotic ending to a perfectly chaotic battle. But there’s a fairly large part of me that still remembers how discombobulated I felt when I read a sentence that actively involved Leonidas… and then the next one didn’t. Just like that. Or maybe that was the point – that one moment this epic character was part of the story, part of the world… and then, with a blink, he wasn’t, and the story (and life) moved on without a backwards glance.
See what I mean? Conflicted.
“A slave’s life is all you understand; you know nothing of freedom. For if you did, you would have encouraged us to fight on, not only with our spears, but with everything we have.”
I will say this is by far my absolute favorite fictitious depiction of Leonidas, his culture and people, and / or Thermopylae. I’ve seen a lot of reviews mentioning this book along with Gates of Fire; having read both, I can say the latter is a fair read but one that I’ve always felt should have been titled Gates of Fire: an Epic Novel of how the U.S. Military Would Like to Believe Legendary Heroes Lived & Died. Schrader is a historian, whereas Pressfield (the author of Gates of Fire) is from a military family and was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, not to mention the fact that Gates of Fire itself was written smack dab in the middle of George W. Bush’s infamous time as Prez-o-dent, and the book itself is full of so much nationalistic pride, do-or-die attitude, and gung-ho guns a-blazin’ swagger that it seems to be trying harder to justify the U.S.’s militarism more than shining a light on the epic battle of Thermopylae. In my opinion, if you want to read one or the other, go with Schrader’s trilogy.
“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to orders, we lie.”
If nothing else, by the end I really believe readers will walk away with one very clear vision of the flesh-and-blood men who stayed behind to face the Persian onslaught: what made them heroes was not their sacrifice or even their fearlessness – it was that they made their sacrifice with open eyes, regardless of a terror that they, as human beings, couldn’t help but feel.
* I’m assuming I’m not ruining anything by telling everyone Thermopylae doesn’t end well for the Spartans who remained behind for that last battle. I figure being shocked by the death of Leonidas & Co. is a bit like being appalled when the ship sinks in Titanic.
** All of the quotes on this page have been attributed to Leonidas by Plutarch with the exception of the final one, which was originally composed by Simonides (as recorded by Herodotus) and engraved as an epitaph to those who fell at Thermopylae.
Elle read the Amazon Kindle versions of these books.