Holt's a past master at being both erudite and unpretentious, offering mildly amusing novels about Norse sagas (Who's Afraid of Beowulf?) and Wagner's Ring Cycle (Expecting Someone Taller). This time, it's ancient Athens seen through the eyes of a somewhat nebbishy playwright. In this first of a projected series, Eupolis of Pallene recounts what purports to be the world's first autobiography, which coincidentally presents a vivid--if revisionist--picture of Golden Age Athens during the Peloponnesian War up until the invasion of Sicily (415 B.C.). Disfigured as a child, Eupolis is an outsider in a society where beauty and goodness are equated. He's easily manipulated and taken advantage of, but he finds himself through agricultural experiments and the theater. A writer of comic verse, Eupolis asserts that ""any fool can be a Tragedian. It takes courage to compose Comedy""; he learns, moreover, that powerful men don't object to being made fun of; that comedy is society's safety valve. With such observations, Eupolis provides a satiric view of his world and its heroes (including Socrates, Pericles, Aristophanes), much in the vein of Joseph Heller's debunking of Athenian democracy and virtue in Picture This. Still, Eupolis declares that he has never hated his city and ""this monster we used to call democracy"": they inspire in him the same fascination, the same ""tortuous jumble of emotions"" as his beautiful, faithless wife. A pleasant, always readable but not essential outing for those interested in Athens and Greek drama.