Sten (Return to Lesbos, 2017, etc.) presents the second installment in a historical-fiction series about one man’s travels through ancient Greece.
The year is 433 BCE, and the hero of this series, a man from Lesbos named Arion, rows with other slaves aboard a Greek ship known as a trireme. It’s carrying sacks of grain to the busy wharf of Kantharos, where it will be unloaded and its owner (and Arion’s master), Artontes, will prepare it for battle. It turns out that the trireme is to be sent to aid in what will later be known as the Battle of Sybota. Arion takes part in and survives the naval conflict, but he has little reason to rejoice, as he’s then sent to work in the Laurion mines. Some call these mines “the tomb of the living,” and anyone who attempts to escape can expect a hot iron to the forehead. Meanwhile, a peace between Athens and Sparta is unraveling as both parties head toward what will become the Peloponnesian War. To make matters worse, a plague breaks out in Piraeus, then Athens. Even if Arion survives his years in the mines, he’s sure to have a difficult time wherever he winds up. Thus his adventure unfolds against a backdrop of conflict in the ancient world. It’s in the details of this world that the book is at its best. The narrative explores numerous elements that illuminate the action, such as shipbuilding materials (fir and pine) and breakfast food, including “porridge, dried figs, and bread with olive oil.” On the other hand, the motivations of some characters are less specific. At one point, for instance, Arion is said to feel “rage, anger, frustration, and sorrow”—a mixed bag of general emotions whose description does little to help the reader understand what Arion is actually going through. But even if the modern reader isn’t likely to fully understand what it means to be in the sandals of a slave, this book does succeed in portraying the complexity of his situation.
An intricate, if unevenly written, narrative that shows the many facets of a life of servitude.