The positive impact that certain animals can have upon humans is a recognized fact. Go to any “baby zoo” and observe the fascination animals have for toddlers. The fact that people keep pets of any kind is a tribute to the fact that these animals contribute to our mental health. Dogs have long been known as “man’s best friend,” and cats were important enough companions to be mummified in ancient Egypt. Horses too, although traditionally beasts of burden who are often badly abused in places where they are not the treasured toys of the rich but instead means of power and transport to the poor, have the power to heal. Indeed, the therapeutic aspects of letting handicapped children ride, for example, have been increasingly recognized.
Personally, my love of horses started very young, riding with my father on rental hacks in Brazil. As a teenager I worked at a stables in Sussex, while training as a riding instructor, something I then did for a summer in Maine. I hot-walked race horses at Keeneland track in Lexington, Kentucky to earn extra money while in graduate school, and owned my first mare at that time. Later, I kept up my riding skills to the best of my ability with school horses or the horses of friends, until I could again afford a horse of my own while working and living in Berlin. Altogether, I was privileged to own three horses and hope to own at least one more before I am too old to ride competently.
It was this lifetime with horses, particularly the time working at the race track, that inspired an important component of my novel The Olympic Charioteer. The war between Sparta and Tegea interested me because, first, the Spartans were mauled during their initial invasion attempt and many Spartans were enslaved. That contradicts the conventional wisdom about the “invincibility” of the Spartan army and also contradicts the ethos of “never surrender,” “do or die” that is associated with Sparta because of Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae and the commonly quoted admonishment of a (anonymous!) Spartan mother to her son to return with his shield or upon it. I felt, as a historian and novelist, that it would be good to show that Spartan were not as mindless or inflexible as popular literature makes them out to be. Spartan history is littered with defeats, and in more than one recorded incident the response of the Spartan state was not condemnation of those individuals who were involved in the debacle, but rather a revision of Spartan foreign policy. One such incident was the defeat of Sparta at the hands of Tegea in the middle of the 6th Century BC.
So, I knew I wanted to write about this historical incident, specifically about a Spartan enslaved after the defeat of the Spartan army. I knew too that I wanted to show how this defeat induced Sparta to end its policy of aggression toward its neighbor and to instead to pursue hegemony on the Peloponnese through diplomatic means. But it wasn’t until I read that in the ancient Olympics the drivers of the chariots in the prestigious chariot races were often slaves that I had the igniting idea for a novel.
In the ancient games, it was the owner of the chariot, not the driver, who was credited with the victory in the chariot races. The owners were recognized for breeding and training horses, not “merely” driving them. There are several monuments at Olympia dedicated by Spartan victors in the chariot racing, the most famous being the one dedicated by Kynisca, a Spartan woman of royal blood, who boasted she was the first woman to win an Olympic victory. But that was centuries after the conflict with Tegea. On the other hand, while the names of the horses were affectionately listed on some monuments, the names of the drivers were not necessarily mentioned.
The idea for a novel about a charioteer/slave took root and slowly the plot took shape in my mind. A proud young man, enslaved and abused, seeking death at each opportunity, is purchased out of pity by a wealthy Tegean horse breeder. The slave’s work with the gentle (if temperamental) race horses restores his desire to live. While the horses heal the slave’s bitterness, his new owner, a politician as well as a horse breeder, is losing his own sense of purpose as Tegea slides toward tyranny and he finds himself unable to overcome his grief at the loss of his only son. Only when he discovers in his new slave the driver he has been lacking to make his team ready for the competition at Olympia, do the horses start to work their magic on him as well. They bring the two men, master and slave, together in their love of horses and their work toward the common goal of an Olympia victory – a journey that soon sets in train a diplomatic initiative to end the war with Sparta as well.