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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