Classicist, farmer and conservative commentator Hanson (The Soul of Battle, 1999, etc.) turns to fiction to tell the tale of Sparta’s final days.
Mêlon—his name means “apple” in Greek, on which a bit of prophecy at the beginning of the novel turns—is a farmer from the district of Thespiai who lays down his plowshare and picks up a sword when the need arises. Epaminondas, the commander of the Theban forces, is mighty glad of it, too, for when Mêlon arrives at the battlefield of Leuktra, he is the moral equivalent of 1,000 men: “The presence of Mêlon, the apple, would win over the hesitant horsemen and the scared farmers and the ignorant tanners and potters as well.” The slight against tanners and potters notwithstanding, Mêlon is a fellow who knows his business on the battlefield, a philosophical soul who reflects that war “is the great torch that brings such heat and light to everything and everyone.” Yet, like some Stonewall Jackson of old, he isn’t quite certain about Epaminondas’ program of freeing the slaves—the helots, or “seized ones”—of Sparta, which seems a touch radical to him. No matter: Mêlon is a good soldier, and he eventually buys into the program. Along the way, he meets with all manner of characters who help serve Hanson’s purpose of delivering genuine history within the Trojan horse of an action-packed war story, including a prostitute who doesn’t have a heart of gold, but who could easily afford to buy one with her fabulous wealth; Epaminondas, ambitious and shrewd, with a gift for poetry; and various Spartans, servants of an evil empire about to go up in a cloud of smoke.
A worthy historical re-creation: Hanson has high-minded purposes in depicting the triumph of democracy over dictatorship, but there’s plenty of exciting swordplay, too.