Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

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.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer - Excerpt 2

If he was allowed only three hundred Spartiates to hold Thermopylae until the army arrived after the Karneia, then he couldn’t take the Guard. They were all young men, the majority unmarried, all but a handful childless. Casualties were inevitable while waiting for the promised three-thousand-strong army to arrive. Leonidas did not want to have the extinction of any family on his conscience. So he had asked permission to substitute Guardsmen with volunteers from among the citizens with living sons. The ephors had agreed.

Leonidas expected about a thousand volunteers. He calculated that if he had a thousand men to choose from, he would be able to put together the balanced force he needed. He needed both canny veterans and enthusiastic youth. He needed men good at dogged defense, but also men capable of a quick sortie or a night raid. He needed men who cared more about the freedom of their families than their own lives, and that meant men who loved their families. He needed men who were prepared to die―but only after taking a heavy toll on the enemy first.

Oh, yes, he knew what he needed in principle, but how was he to select the men in fact? How was he supposed to walk down a line of men he’d known from childhood, men who’d sweated and bled beside him in the Argolid, or youth he’d mentored as eirenes, men whose daughters sang and danced with his own, and men whose sons went to school with Pleistarchos―and decide who he was going to throw in front of the Persian host like a piece of meat?

Eventually, they would all fight. They would all take blood for blood when the time came. And every one of them―no matter whom he chose―was a trained soldier.

But because he’d failed to prevail in Council, only three hundred would be squinting into the sunlight to watch for the darkening that indicated a new volley of arrows. Only three hundred would stand in the murderous sun, shield to shield, while sweat poured from their straining bodies until their feet were churning mud rather than the dust of summer-baked earth. Only three hundred would be splattered with blood amid the screaming and the groaning of the dying, risking their limbs, their eyes, and their lives while the others remained with their wives and children, singing the paeans and cheering the grape-runners and feasting in the nine ceremonial tents of the Karneia….

Was he supposed to pick the three hundred men like the helots chose a sacrificial lamb? For the beauty of their bodies? Was he supposed to select the best Sparta had to offer? Or should he do the opposite, and take with him those that Sparta could best afford to lose?

Leonidas realized he was not prepared to risk the latter. If he took the worst and they failed when it mattered most, Gorgo and Agiatis, no less than all the other women and children of Sparta, would pay the price. No, he had to take the best to ensure they could hold Thermopylae until the army reinforced them.

He picked up the pace and turned the corner to enter Tyrtaios square, where he had requested the volunteers to muster. Instantly he was taken aback by the glare of sun reflected from bronze. The volunteers had drawn up across the square in full panoply. Although they stood at ease, with the hoplons resting on their knees and their helmets shoved back to expose their faces, they wore bronze fighting armor and red cloaks. The stiff, black, horsehair crests bristled proudly from their helmets.

Magnificent as they appeared, however, they were a mere handful―far fewer than the one thousand men Leonidas expected. He made a quick count of the ranks and files, and realized that exactly three hundred men awaited him. That could be no coincidence. Someone had made the selection for him. He frowned. He did not intend to let whoever it was get away with that! He would demand to see the complete list of volunteers.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer - Excerpt 1

How do you choose men for sacrifice? The question seemed to hang in the stagnant summer air, thick with the dust kicked up by herds of sacrificial beasts driven into the city for the start of the Karneia. Leonidas had looked into the eyes of the passing steers, and they had looked back at him with recognition and understanding. “We are part of the same fraternity,” the four-legged sacrifices seemed to say as they nodded their heads and moved on, flicking their tails at flies.

But Leonidas had come to terms with that. He had been selected by the Gods. He was a descendant of Herakles. He had taken up the burden of kingship with the conscious intention of leading Sparta to a better future. At the time, he had pictured different challenges, but he knew now this was his destiny. He would not fail.

But what about the others?

Leonidas looked about the empty streets. At this time of day on a holiday, the city seemed abandoned. School was closed and the children sent home with their familes. The soldiers of Sparta’s army were furloughed. The stalls in the market and the workshops of craftsmen were boarded up. The race-courses, palaestra and gymnasia were deserted. Only on the edge of town and along the backstreets, behind the shuttered windows and closed doors of the houses, families rested in the noonday heat, gathering their strength for the athletic and choral competitions scheduled for later in the day and week. Pleistarchos would be taking part in the sporting contests for the first time, and Agiatis had been selected to perform in one of the dances. Leonidas wanted to be there for them, cheering and applauding—but not if the price was that the next time they performed it would be as slaves for a Persian master!

The Persians were advancing faster than expected. Sparta could not wait until the end of the Karneia to deploy the army. By then it might be too late—particularly with half of Hellas in Olympia and sticking their heads in the sand!

For a moment, the anger flared up in his chest. Two-thirds of the Gerousia and two of the ephors were as stupid as all the other Greeks who thought Persia would respect the Olympic peace. They refused to see that this struggle was like none that had gone before. They refused to understand that Sparta and her allies could not wait for a convenient time to respond. They had to march now. If they didn’t, they would come too late—as they had at Marathon.

The argument in the Council still echoed inside his aching head. The ghostly voices of his counterparts and the even more ghostly whispers of what he should have said had kept him from his sleep throughout the night. Leonidas felt acutely his failure to prevail in Council. He had mustered all the intelligence they had on Persian strength in men, ships and horses. He had described in detail the terrain between the Persian host and Lacedaemon, underlining the advantages of a defense at Thermopylae. He had reminded them in gruesome detail of the costs of failure. And he had stressed until his throat was raw that too little too late could be fatal for all they held dear.

At length, the Council agreed that Thermopylae, although far north of Sparta’s sphere of influence and beyond the usual range of operation for her army, was the ideal place to make a stand. They agreed further to ask the Assembly to call up five classes of reserves, increasing the strength of the standing army to three thousand men, and they agreed this force must deploy “as soon as possible.” But the Council stubbornly insisted there could be neither an Assembly nor a deployment until the Karneia was over. To do either would be an insult to the Gods.

That was when Leonidas had taken a desperate gamble. Since a king could take the Guard anywhere he ordered, Leonidas had made a last attempt to force the Council’s hand by announcing that, if they would not give him the army at once, he would march north immediately with the Guard alone. To his dismay, they had agreed.

Three hundred men against a million!

Well, three hundred Spartiates and maybe twenty times that number of allies against the million.

A stray cat trotted purposefully but with lowered head along the side of the nearest barracks, disappearing into the next alley. A mouse hung limply from either side of her mouth. It was still twitching and left a trail of blood on the cobbles. Yet even a mouse, Leonidas thought, when cornered will stand and fight. They would fight.

My next entry will be posted April 25, as I will be travelling in Greece until then.  Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer

Leonidas is arguably the most famous of all Spartans. Numerous works of art depict him. He was the hero of two Hollywood films. There is even a line of chocolate confectionery named after him. But no serious biography has ever been written, and what is most often portrayed is his death. Leonidas is remembered for commanding the Greek forces that defended the pass at Thermopylae against an invading Persian army. He is revered for refusing to surrender despite betrayal that made defeat absolutely certain. Thus Leonidas came to symbolize the noblest form of military courage and self-sacrifice. The events leading up to the three-day battle and death of Leonidas with three hundred other Spartans and seven hundred Thespians at Thermopylae have been the focus of historians, writers, and artists from Herodotus onward.

But Leonidas was not a young man at the historic battle where he gave his life. He had lived close to half a century (if not more) and reigned for ten years before he took command of the Greek alliance defying Persia. 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. Yet so very little is actually known about his early life that historians have been discouraged from attempting a biography.

Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the AgogeNovelists, fortunately, enjoy more freedom, and what we do know about Leonidas’ early life is enticing. This is why I chose to devote a three-part biographical novel to Leonidas of Sparta. The first book, A Boy of the Agoge, was published last year. In it I built upon known facts about Leonidas’ birth and family situation and Sparta’s unique educational system to construct a plausible picture of Leonidas’ boyhood.

This week I delivered to my publisher the second book in the trilogy, A Peerless Peer. In this second book, I focus on the next stage of Leonidas’ life, the years when he was a common citizen before he became a king. This is the period in which he married his niece Gorgo and gained experience in battle and politics. Building on the few known facts, listening to the sayings attributed to Leonidas and Gorgo, and knowing how Leonidas met his destiny at Thermopylae, I have written this novel.

While based on all known facts about Leonidas, Gorgo and the society in which they lived, the novel goes beyond the bare bones of the historical record. It interpolates from these facts a reasonable hypothesis of what Leonidas and Gorgo might have been like and what they might have done, thought, and felt. The characters that emerge are greater than the historical input. Leonidas is consciously portrayed as the quintessential archaic 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, largely fictional characters, each of which is unique and complex. In short, this novel is quite candidly fiction.

As the publication date approaches, I will publish a series of excerpts from the the novel as a "teaser" in anticipaton of the release of the book.