Ancient Greeks knew all about the Great Panathenaia, but it’s a puzzle for a mystery writer…

As I’ve mentioned before, writing any historical fiction means establishing what modern scholars know, and crucially, what we don’t know. Writing a murder mystery set against the backdrop of the Great Panathenaia presents a particularly interesting challenge.

We know it was one of the greatest panhellenic occasions. Every four years, the three days of the annual city festival to honoured Athena was extended into eight days of sporting competitions, musical contests and sacred rites to celebrate Attica’s good fortune, blessed by their patron goddess. Visitors came from right across the Hellenic world to watch or to take part.

Athletes ran races of various lengths, in different age classes. Pentathletes competed in the long jump, discus and javelin throw, a sprint and a wrestling match. For those with a taste for more physical confrontation, there was boxing, wrestling, and the no-holds-barred pankration where deaths were not unheard of – and that didn’t necessarily disqualify a contestant. Equestrian events included chariot and horse races, while rowers raced their triremes across the bay at Piraeus.

There were competitions for singers, solo and accompanied, as well as for lyre players and those who played the twin pipes called the aulos. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey were performed in their entirety, in what was also a contest for the rhapsodes*. These performance poets in their brightly coloured cloaks~ specialised in the great epic tales that were the popular entertainment of the day. The victors in all these sporting and artistic competitions won a garland of olive leaves, as well as a quantity of sacred and extremely valuable olive oil in specially decorated amphorae.

Then there were the contests specifically for Athenians, between teams drawn from the voting tribes made up from city, country and coastal districts. Designed to foster the unity that was as essential for democracy as it was on the battlefield, these culminated in an evening relay race where flaming torches were passed from hand to hand. After a night of festivities up on the Acropolis, the Great Panathenaic procession made its way through the city to honour Athena’s most ancient statue in her temple.

What a great setting for a crime novel? There are so many possibilities, with so much going on! Yes, but… we may know what was happening, but we really don’t know a lot about how these events were organised. As far as the Athenians and everyone else were concerned, the details were common knowledge, and people rarely bother writing such things down. By the time someone realises crucial information has been forgotten, it’s usually too late to retrieve it.

Where do scholars find the details that I’m going to need for this book? Remember those special panathenaic amphorae? They were produced in vast quantities, along with smaller souvenir replicas, all decorated with officially sanctioned designs including portrayals of competitions. A fair few of those have survived, along with other ceramics with relevant images. Archaeologists have uncovered the starting blocks for a sprinters’ racetrack in the agora as well as stones with inscriptions listing the prize winners in the different contests. These may not be complete, but they offer further useful information. Memorials and other statues give us additional clues, most notably the carved frieze of the Parthenon which is generally reckoned to show a stylised Great Panathenaic procession. Literary sources here and there make passing references that add a bit more to the picture.

So we do have quite a few pieces of this puzzle, even if we don’t have the equivalent of the jigsaw box lid. There are still plenty of gaps though. This is where historians and novelists alike start to get creative. When it comes to the practicalities of performing Homer’s epic poems in their entirety, scholars have been trying that out for themselves, as well as examining the written texts from this new perspective, and getting input from modern actors and poets. I’ve found reading their conclusions and looking at these performances absolutely fascinating. We can also look at events like the modern Olympics and festivals such as Glastonbury, and consider how people interact with those. How far can we use those events as a template? Well, when we look at the surviving dramas from these same decades of the 5th century BCE, there’s good reason to believe that people then and now have plenty in common.

So while no one knows for certain how the Great Panathenaia unfolded over these eight days, the hard work of countless experts has meant I can put together one plausible version that offers a dramatic setting for this new murder mystery – as well as creating some very interesting challenges for Philocles as he attempts to find a killer.

* Yes, the early working title for this book was ATHENIAN RHAPSODY

~ Those performing the Iliad wore red cloaks to reflect the bloodshed of the war at Troy. Those performing the Odyssey wore cloaks to symbolise the endless seas … so would their recital be … rhapsody in blue?

A rhapsode relaxing. We can tell he’s a performance poet from his distinctive hooked staff on the left-hand side of this picture.

How do you write a murder mystery without the usual expectations of an investigation?


Securing Justice for Athena was as much a challenge for me as a writer, as it was for Philocles trying to find out what had happened. This is a distinctly different murder to the first two deaths he’s investigated. In both those cases, he was directly involved, so everyone could accept he had a legitimate interest in tracking down the guilty party. This time though, he’s never even spoken to the man who’s been found dead, and that matters.

Investigating a suspicious death in ancient Greece was a family’s responsibility. It was up to a male relative, most likely the head of the household, to uncover the truth. It was his choice whether or not to bring a murder case before the city’s judges. The Athenians certainly took homicide seriously. The myths that underpin Aeschylus’ great trilogy of plays, The Oresteia, tell how the Areopagus Court was established, when Orestes was called to answer for killing his mother and her lover, as he was pursued by the vengeful Furies. Once an intent to prosecute had been declared with a public notice displayed in the agora, the designated magistrate reviewed the evidence presented by both sides, to establish there was indeed a case to answer. There were legal safeguards against malicious prosecution and false accusations were heavily penalised. But doing any of this, up to and including getting witnesses willing to testify to court for the one-day trial, was still a family duty, not a civic responsibility.

In Justice for Athena, the great and good of Athens might want this particular mess cleared up and quickly, but Philocles needs an excuse to get involved. He may be working for the Furies, as far as he’s personally concerned, but these goddesses of vengeance don’t hand him some divine warrant card to impress everyone else with his authority. He has no way to compel anyone to talk to him if they don’t want to. He’ll need to persuade people to share what they know.

The further I got into this story, the more I realised how few other expectations Philocles could rely on, when it came to solving this crime. These days, witnesses and other people on the periphery of a murder expect to be asked where they were at the time of death, to provide an alibi, and to make a statement. Philocles won’t find anything like such unquestioning cooperation. Today, the general public will be wary of the penalties for intruding on a crime scene or somehow obstructing a police investigation, but there were no police in Athens. There were the Scythians, the public slaves, but their role was limited to maintaining public order. Philocles can call on them to stand guard over a corpse, but they can’t start knocking on doors and asking questions. Free Athenian citizens won’t accept such intrusion into their private affairs by foreigners and slaves. No one, not Philocles or anyone else, has the authority to enter an Athenian citizen’s home without an invitation. There are no subpoenas, search warrants or interviews under caution.

Even when Philocles can find allies to help him, their resources are limited. Organising a citywide man hunt is going to be a challenge if the quickest communications technology is a slave running through the streets with a message. How does he go about issuing any kind of all-points bulletin or coordinating surveillance without tipping off a suspect?

These and other as aspects of life in 5th century Athens made writing this story a most enjoyable challenge. I’m happy to say early readers are finding the book just as rewarding.

Justice for Athena – out on the 15th October 2020

This time next week you can be reading the third murder mystery where Philocles the playwright must investigate a suspicious death during the Great Panathenaia that marked the start of the classical Greek new year in high summer.

There’s no drama contest at this particular festival, so Philocles and Zosime are looking forward to the holiday. Visitors are coming from across the Hellenic world for eight days of sporting competitions, musical contests and sacred rites to honour Athena, the city’s patron goddess.

Thousands will flock to the Pnyx to be enthralled by the dramatic three-day performance of Homer’s Iliad, an entertainment unique to this event. Taking part, as the episodes of the famous narrative are passed from performer to performer, is the highest honour and greatest challenge for an epic poet. Then one of the poets is brutally murdered.

Is this random misfortune, some old score being settled, or is someone trying to sabotage the festival? The powerful and influential men of the city want this cleared up quickly and quietly. Philocles finds himself on the trail of a killer once more…

If you’re a reviewer who uses NetGalley, you can find an advance copy there. Preorders are available from your preferred ebook retailer.

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New Canelo ebook editions now available at bargain prices!

I am delighted to see the new ebooks of Shadows of Athens and Scorpions in Corinth are being snapped up at their special offer prices. You can find both books from your preferred online store.


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Apple Books 

 

In related news, we have had a conversation with Orion Books, since Canelo are holding off on paperback editions on account of the pandemic, and agreed that the remaining paperback stock can be sold through booksellers, and that Orion can continue to sell the audiobooks, so readers will still have a choice of formats for the moment at least.

More news on Justice for Athena will be coming soon…

Never leave your dog alone with linen armour…

Doing the research for these books takes me to some interesting articles. The way historians and others embark on practical experiments these days is particularly useful – and sometimes hilarious. For example, here’s an article on linen armour, as widely worn in the Ancient Greek world. It was often reinforced with leather, but the cheapest option for the poorest citizen soldiers was linen on its own. How effective was it?

For our first linothorax, we glued together 15 layers of linen to form a one centimeter-thick slab, and then tried to cut out the required shape. Large shears were defeated; bolt cutters failed. The only way we were ultimately able to cut the laminated linen slab was with an electric saw equipped with a blade for cutting metal. At least this confirmed our suspicion that linen armor would have been extremely tough.

So that’s one important question answered. But wait, there’s more…

We also found out that linen stiffened with rabbit glue strikes dogs as an irresistibly tasty rabbit-flavored chew toy, and that our Labrador retriever should not be left alone with our research project.

Oh, the temptation to work that into a story somehow… or maybe Philocles could put it in a play? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. Meantime, do read the whole article.

A bit of context for readers disappointed at the initial ebook only publication for ‘Justice for Athena’.

This article from The Guardian sets out the upcoming autumn for the book trade.

“From Richard Osman’s first crime novel to Caitlin Moran’s new memoir, almost 600 hardbacks are due to be published on 3 September in a “massive bun fight” of new titles, as books delayed over the summer due to Covid-19 finally make it on to shelves.

Autumn is the busiest time of the year in books, with publishers bringing out their biggest titles in the hope of hitting the Christmas jackpot on what has been dubbed “Super Thursday” by the book trade. But this year, the closure of bookshops for more than two months due to the pandemic means that many of the titles held back over the summer are now due to hit shelves this autumn, with a series of what trade magazine the Bookseller called “mini-Super Thursdays” lining up across September and October.”

So all the shelf space and promotion in bookshops will go to big names between now and Xmas as desperate retailers chase what they hope will be guaranteed sales – and who can blame them in these circumstances?

Let’s be thankful for ebooks in the meantime, and hope for sales that see the paperbacks available at the earliest opportunity. If you’ve enjoyed the first two books, tell your friends, and maybe leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads? Every recommendation helps, and is very much appreciated, by me and every other author.

Finally, news about Philocles!

I’ve been saying for a while now that there’ll be news about a third book in this series soon. Well, here is that long-promised update, and thank you for your patience in the meantime.

So what’s been going on? Well, last year, and before Scorpions in Corinth was even published, Orion Books decided they had no further interest in this series. I’ll spare you the dispiriting details, and will simply say this had nothing to do with me or the actual books. As you’ll recall, readers and reviewers thoroughly enjoyed them!

Not so very long ago, that would have been that. However, new formats and new technology are offering new possibilities for readers and writers alike. Canelo is a publishing house that’s been making the most of these opportunities since 2015, offering an array of excellent fiction. So I am delighted to tell you they will be reissuing Shadows of Athens and Scorpions in Corinth on 24th September 2020. A new novel in this series, Justice for Athena, will follow on 15th October 2020.

These will be ebooks only for the moment. Canelo started with a digital-only list, and while they have been moving into print editions for selected titles, that programme, like so much else, has been affected by the commercial impact of the pandemic. Caution is the current watchword across the publishing industry until the situation becomes less volatile. Once that happens, we can all hope to see these novels as paperbacks on book shop shelves.

With regard to audiobooks, conversations are ongoing, and I’ll share any news on that format as and when I have it.

For the moment, let’s admire these dramatic new covers from Canelo. Tell your friends this is the ideal time to catch up with Philocles’ investigations before he finds himself hunting another killer…

What’s in a name? In this case, the name of a statue.

I came across this image of a statue that’s apparently known as ‘The ‘sullen’ kore’ (maiden). Even women made of stone can’t escape being told they should smile…

Since this piece is currently in the Acropolis Museum, I’ve dug out my ancient souvenir guide from a visit in 1986, to see if she was in there. She is indeed pictured, and she’s listed as the ‘The kore of Euthydikos’ from the dedication on the base of what was then presented as the feet of the same statue. Now, I have no idea if some later analysis has decided those feet don’t actually belong to the rest of this piece, prompting a name change. It’s not as if I’ll be travelling to Athens any time soon to be able to check.

Either way, the statue’s current name does come weighted with a lot of assumptions and implications. It’s definitely a reminder of just how much history is in the eye of the beholder.

Why am I looking at statues from the Acropolis? Come to that, why has it been so long since I last posted in this blog? Well, there’ll be more news coming to to explain all that very soon…

Bringing a laptop to a knife fight

As I’ve already mentioned, historical evidence about Corinth between the Persia and Peloponnesian Wars is fragmentary. One thing that does get mentioned is the city’s reputation for strife between rival political factions. Okay, that’s promising. Writing a murder mystery does require a certain amount of violence after all. Better yet, a crime novel set in the ancient world spares the author the complications of ballistics and calibres and other technical firearms stuff. As far as life in a classical Greek city goes, things become even simpler. No one’s going to cart a hoplite shield and spear around and expect to get away with a stealthy killing. This strife on the streets is going to be feet, fists and knives.

The novelist still needs to be able to write about this convincingly. How does an author do that research? Speaking for myself, I’ve studied a martial art, aikido, since 1983, and that’s proved extremely useful. No, you won’t read about Philocles or anyone else managing a faultless koshi nage or some other wholly inappropriate Japanese move. But for us to learn self-defensive techniques, and now that I am a third dan blackbelt for me to teach these things, we also learn about effective kicking and punching in our classes, to give students a realistic idea of what they might face. So that’s the first thing I have to draw on.

Secondly, occasionally, we get our movement or timing wrong. Accidents are thankfully rare, and injuries on the mat rarer still, but in the past thirty years, I have taken a couple of smacks in the face and other rather harder thumps than I was expecting. There is nothing quite like direct experience to enable a writer to realistically convey how that feels. Believe me, you don’t forget it, because you really don’t want it to happen again.

Aikido is a martial art that doesn’t meet aggression with aggression, but uses movement and an understanding of body mechanics to enable a student to avoid getting hit, and then to control an attacker with a variety of holds, pins or throws. These techniques for rendering an attacker incapable without injuring them are a major reason why over the years we have trained any number of police officers, fire fighters, nurses, paramedics, social workers and door staff. While we help them learn to stay safe, they share stories about situations they have encountered at work. Like the police inspector whose aikido skills saved his neck (not the word he used) when a violent drug dealer turned out to be immune to capsaicin, the active ingredient in the DI’s officially-issued pepper spray. So the third resource I have to draw on is that wealth of real-life experience of often inventive thuggery gleaned second-hand over post-training pints.

Lastly, those of us who study different martial arts always swap notes with each other, given half a chance. We invariably find common principles underlying our different approaches to what are the same essential challenges. I don’t only talk to blackbelts in other Japanese, Chinese and similar martial arts. Recent years have seen a great expansion of understanding and practise in HEMA – Historic European Martial Arts. I’ve had some fascinating compare-and-contrast conversations with experienced practitioners, as well as seeing some excellent displays at Living History days and in places like the Royal Amouries Museums in Leeds. All this enables me to make a fair assessment of the core skills that someone like Philocles would surely have had.

So what about a knife fight? We do also train against attacks with knives, swords and staffs in aikido. On the mat these weapons are wooden, but believe me, you still don’t want to make a mistake. We don’t only teach students how to avoid injury, but how to disarm an attacker safely as well. That’s far easier to demonstrate than it is to explain here writing, so if our paths should cross in real life, feel free to ask me about that. Meantime, you can rest assured that I know what I’m talking about when Philocles gets himself out of danger with a deft move – and I did check with an orthopaedic surgeon about the likely outcome for the person who tries to stab our hero. The stakes get increasingly high in Scorpions in Corinth.

Guides to Corinth, ancient and modern

Anyone writing a historical novel set in ancient Greece should pour grateful libations to the memory of Pausanias, a doctor from Ionia, who was an inveterate traveller in the 2nd century AD. That is to say, he lived roughly from 110 to 180 AD. The reigns of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius were (mostly) an age of peace and prosperity for the Roman world, and Pausanias took full advantage, travelling far and wide. He wrote a detailed guide for those who might follow in his footsteps, and his Description of Greece is a fascinating read.

He wasn’t in any sense a professional historian, as we would understand it, but he diligently notes down what the locals say about the origins and founders of their cities, as well as summarising more recent events. As was always the case in the classical world, he makes no distinction between what we would call myth and history. The sons of Zeus are as real as the Roman generals who later sacked Corinth as far as Pausanias is concerned. There is similarly no question about the gods’ existence, as he details the Sanctuary of Poseidon at the Isthmus. And he really goes into all the details of the temples and the statuary, the monuments and the stadium, as well as the pine trees that adorn the site. Whenever he’s learned some interesting story about a hero or goddess, he notes that in an aside, along with observations about local customs and traditions. As he walks up the road to Corinth, he tells us about the city gates, along with the stories of the people they commemorate. Then he walks on through the marketplace, describing the many shrines and fountains. His work offers us an entertaining insight into the people of the classical world, as well as a guide to its places.

Though I would have come badly unstuck, if I had relied on Pausanias alone. He was writing hundreds of years after my story is set, and pretty much the closest he gets to dating evidence is references to before or after the days of Homer. There’s no way to tell from his text when the buildings and temples he describes were actually erected. More than once I came across a place I thought I could use, only to discover it hadn’t been there when Philocles would have needed it. For that vital information, I am indebted to ASCSA, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Founded in 1881, their affiliated scholars and students have been digging in Greece for decades, most especially in Corinth and the wider Corinthia. Their work means there’s been a wealth of papers and reports available for me online, as I researched the setting for this book. Even better, with absolutely superb timing, ASCSA recently published their fully updated site guide to Ancient Corinth. If you plan on visiting Corinth’s archaeological sites, you really should buy it. Full of detail, descriptions, maps and dates, it’s been been invaluable for my purposes. All told, ASCSA has more than earned my gratitude in this novel’s acknowledgements. (I wonder if this is the first time they’ve had a mention like this?)

Lastly, but by no means least, I’ve been able to make use of something Pausanias could never have dreamed of – Google Earth. I have been to Corinth myself and it was most definitely memorable, which is one reason I wanted to set a story here, but that was decades ago, and I had no reason to fix particular views in my mind’s eye, or in our photographs. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I could (virtually) stand on the stage of the classical Greek theatre. I can turn through a full circle and see for myself the details of the landscape that Philocles and his actors saw as the backdrop to their performance.

So the sense of place in this novel has been brought to you by resources spread over nearly two millennia!