Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Leonidas Trilogy

Leonidas is arguably the most famous of all Spartans. There have been numerous works of art which depict him. He has been made the hero of a recent, popular film. There is even an entire line of chocolate confectionary named after him! But no serious biography has even been written, and what is best known about him and most often portrayed is his death. Leonidas is remembered for the commanding the Greek forces, which defended the Pass at Thermopylae against an invading Persian army that vastly outnumbered them. Because Persia was then an autocratic empire headed by a King, while the Greek forces at Thermopylae were sent by a coalition of democratic Greek city-states, Leonidas became the incarnation of Freedom fighting Tyranny. Leonidas is particularly remembered for refusing to surrender despite betrayal that made defeat absolutely certain. Thus he also came to symbolize the noblest form of military courage and self-sacrifice. Consequently, the events leading up to the three day battle and the death of Leonidas with 300 other Spartans at Thermopylae have been the focus of historians and artists of all media from Herodotus onward.


But Leonidas had lived perhaps as long as sixty years before that battle took place, and he had reigned for ten. It was those years preceding the final confrontation with Persia that made him the man he would be at Thermopylae. To the extent that we admire his defiant stand, learning more about his early life and tracing the development of his character is important. Arguably, understanding what made Leonidas the hero he was is a useful lesson for future generations.

Yet so very little is actually known about his early life, that historians have been discouraged from attempting a biography. Novelists, fortunately, enjoy more freedom, and what we do know about Leonidas’ early life is enticing. Leonidas was born into the senior of Sparta’s ruling families, but he was born to his mother late in her life and had two elder brothers. As a result, unlike most of Sparta’s kings, he attended the Spartan public school or agoge and underwent the harsh training of ordinary Spartans that has been the subject of so much fascinated – and often appalled - commentary. He married the daughter of his half-brother and predecessor, a sharp – not to say sharp-tongued – woman, who epitomized everything other Greeks abhorred and condemned about Spartan women. Most important, he was elected to lead a coalition of Greek forces against the Persians.

This latter fact has far too often been undervalued by historians. It is usually interpreted simply as a tribute to Sparta’s military reputation or her political position as the leading power of the age. This all too glibly overlooks the fact that Sparta had two kings and his co-monarch Leotychidas could have represented Sparta just as completely. Even more important, it ignores the fact that just two years after Leonidas’ death, the same coalition of forces preferred Athenian leadership to submitting to command by Leonidas’ successor Pausanias – and Pausanias had won the battle of Plataea! Sparta was not less powerful in 478 than she had been in 480, and her reputation at arms had never been greater. If simply being Spartan was all that mattered to the allies, the coalition would have asked Sparta to send King Leotychidas or another Spartan general to replace Pausanias, but they did not. In short, Leonidas was elected to lead the coalition, not simply because he was Spartan but because he enjoyed the trust of the coalition partners.

Combining the few known facts we have about Leonidas and his wife Gorgo, listening to the sayings attributed to them both, and knowing how Leonidas met his destiny at Thermopylae, I have written the Leonidas Trilogy. The three part biographical novel incorporates all that is known about Leonidas and Gorgo and their society. It interprets these facts and then interpolates from these facts to a reasonable hypothesis of what Leonidas and Gorgo’s CVs could have been. The characters that emerge are far greater than the historical input. Leonidas is consciously portrayed as the quintessential Spartan because that is what he has become in legend. Gorgo, likewise, epitomizes that which set Spartan women apart from their contemporaries – without robbing her of individual traits and personality. The two principals are surrounded by a large cast of secondary characters, each of which is unique and complex. The resulting tapestry is a seamless mixture of plot, character development and historical events against the backdrop of a fascinating and unique society.

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 hoard 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 were 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.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Why write – or read – about Ancient Sparta?

Ancient Sparta probably seems obscure and irrelevant to many modern readers – even those of you who like historical fiction. Not only are we separated from Sparta by two and a half centuries, but Sparta does not live on in any contemporary society. Unlike Athens, Rome or Constantinople, there is not even a modern city that traces its ancestry back through the generations and the architecture to the ancient one.


Yet ancient Sparta was remarkably “modern” – not only compared to other Greek cities but with respect to a variety of characteristics from artistic taste to the role of women. Personally, it was the role of women in Sparta that first attracted my interest in the society as a whole. While women in Athens were treated essentially the way women in Afghanistan are treated under the Taliban today, women in Sparta enjoyed freedom of movement, public education and economic power. The fact that the debates, intrigues and scandals of the Athenian Assembly seemed astonishingly similar to what goes on in modern legislatures had already alerted me to the fact that ancient Greece had more to teach us about human nature than what we learned in school. The status of Athenian women, however, was so alienating that I had never wanted to write about ancient Athens. Sparta’s radically different and more modern attitude to women was attractive enough to make me start to learn more about Sparta.

I soon realized that Sparta shared far more with modern Western society than just the treatment of women. For example, Sparta was the only ancient Greek city to introduce public education for all future citizens, just as we have in Western countries today. Sparta sought to ensure a minimum standard of living for all citizens by giving each citizen an estate large enough to support him and his family, rather the same way that welfare payments and other forms of subsidies for the poor are intended to prevent abject poverty in modern Social Democracies. Despite its overwhelming military might, Sparta had only one vote in the defensive alliance it founded and headed – a situation comparable to that of the U.S. in NATO today. Spartan artistic and architectural style was minimalist and functional rather than highly decorative – something evocative of Scandinavian design today. All these factors convinced me that writing about Sparta would underline the degree to which humans have shared values across millennia.

Yet for all its remarkable similarities with modern Western societies, Sparta was still radically different from the world we know today. Many features of Spartan society such as the life-long, compulsory military service and membership in dining clubs for men, the lack of currency, or the polytheism and slave economy Spartans shared with the rest of the ancient Greek world seem strange if not offensive to us. Thus reading about ancient Sparta entails not only recognizing familiar values and attitudes but learning about strange ones as well.

It was the mix of the familiar and the peculiar that made me decide to write about life in ancient Sparta. In my series of Spartan novels, I explore human nature and analyze universal themes by stretching our vision beyond the familiar and examining human behavior in a strange, often uncomfortable, setting. While I strive for the greatest historical accuracy in all my works, the focus of my novels is not distant historical events but rather the society and people responsible for historical development and above all what they tell us about our own society and mankind generally. My characters are not modern people dressed up in Spartan scarlet and bronze; they are people who, despite being the products of their unique society, share emotions, and some values and behavior patterns with us. I believe my novels reveal the extent to which the characteristics of human nature have remained recognizable despite the passing of millennia and dramatic differences in technology, life-syle and ideology. This is what makes writing – and reading – about ancient Sparta so intriguing.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Book Review of the Olympic Charioteer

The following review of the Olympic Charioteer appeared in the blog:
“A Cup of Coffee and A Good Book” on Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Book Review: The Olympic Charioteer

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.

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.

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!

By Jennifer Walker
A Cup of Coffee and a Good Book

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Searching for a Cover

Covers can kill – novels, that is. Nothing, studies have shown, is more influential in enticing a potential buyer browsing in a bookstore to pick up a book than an “attractive” cover – and nothing is more likely to put a potential reader off than a “bad” one. A good cover will attract readers that would never look for the book based on subject, title or author, and a bad cover will make the very people who would love a particular book scorn it. Covers matter!

But being “attractive” isn’t enough. A cover that is “attractive” in the advertising sense of the word may get a browsing bookstore customer to pick up a book and read the cover blurb, but if the picture has nothing to do with the content, they are likely to feel deceived and put the book down again. There is no point having a vampire or a half-naked model on the cover of your book, if the book isn’t about vampires or beautiful women in sexual situations.

The cover has to give some hint of what the book is about so that it attracts not for its own sake, but because it draws the attention of potential readers – in short, people who have at least a latent interest in the subject matter. Because I write historical fiction, there is no point in using obviously modern images on the cover. People who don’t like historical fiction might pick it up because of the cover, but they will seldom buy. Likewise readers of historical fiction will probably skip over a book with a modern image on the cover – in search of something historical. So the cover has to be “topical.”

When I started publishing my novels, I used to let the publisher design the cover, thinking they were the professionals and they would understand the market much better than I. Big mistake. When it comes to historical fiction, it is vitally important to immediately evoke the right time period because you discredit yourself instantly, if you get it wrong. Publishers, however, are not historians. They don’t know the difference between 11th and 16th century armor, or between a Spitfire and a Piper Cub. So I now “design” my own covers, by which I mean I select the overall thematic components, and then hire a professional graphic designer to do the fine work essential to make the cover look as good as anything a major publishing house can produce.

Right now I am working on the cover of the second book in my Leonidas Trilogy. To be consistent with the first book of the Trilogy, I know I will place the image of a fifth century sculpture depicting a Spartan hoplite commonly identified as “Leonidas” on the spine and back cover. This will tell readers the book is about ancient Greece. But a marble statue alone is too “dead” for my novels. The whole point of my novels is to bring the ancient world back to life! To give color and movement, emotion and thought back to the monuments and legend that Leonidas has become.

For this reason, the front cover of the first book in the series, A Boy of the Agoge, is a color photo of the Spartan landscape. Sparta, the city and society may be gone, but the valley that cradled Sparta and the snow-capped mountains that dominated it are older than Sparta itself and as beautiful as ever. The photo I took of an olive orchard against the snow-capped mountains is thus a view that Leonidas too would have enjoyed. The last book in the trilogy will show the Pass at Thermopylae. But what about the second book?

The second book in the Trilogy is about Leonidas’ nearly two decades as an ordinary Spartan ranker – before he becomes king and before the first Persian invasion of Greece. It is the book in which he marries, is widowed and remarries. This is the book in which Leonidas rises through the ranks of the army - and raises a family. I want the cover, therefore, to evoke a domestic environment – the front porch of a house in a Greek landscape, an orchard, flowers on a terrace or outdoor stairway lined with flower-filled terracotta pots.

But finding such a photo-object, simple as it sounds, proved much more challenging than expected. Try taking a picture in Greece today without a paved road, a telephone wire, an electric light or a glazed window in it! I admit, however, it was fun looking! Modern Laconia, the territory that corresponds roughly to the heart of the ancient territory of Sparta’s Lacedaemon, is truly beautiful – mountainous but fertile, with rich green valleys, extensive orchards and well-tended, blooming gardens. I hope I got several shots that are potentially suitable, and as soon as Charlie, my graphic artist, has produced some proposals I will post them here and solicit your opinions. Meanwhile, I welcome any comments you have on covers generally.