Deciding to write anything set in ancient Greece immediately brings an author face to face with two literary and historical giants: Herodotus and Thucydides. Writers whose works have been in print (or available on parchment or papyrus) for two and a half thousand years. Writers who detailed the events and personalities central to the upheavals and dramas of the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. How can any 21st century novelist hope to compete with them? Where the scope for telling a story in either period that won’t be hemmed in by real life facts and events?
An obvious answer is don’t even try, and thankfully there’s room for manoeuvre between the effective end of the Persian Wars in 478 BCE, where Herodotus wraps up his History, and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE which is Thucydides’ main focus. There were ancient histories written that covered this roughly fifty year period, but these are now lost in the mists of time and the ashes of the Library of Alexandria.
The fact that these works didn’t survive doesn’t mean nothing much was happening throughout these decades. We get enough information from Herodotus and Thucydides, as well as from archaeological and fragmentary sources, to indicate this was a fascinating period in its own right. Athens was rebuilding after the devastation of the Persian invasion and sack of the city. Athenian democracy, an innovation not even a century old, was still being tried and tested, and progressively reformed. Now that peace had returned, Athenians turned to commerce and culture, to athletic and dramatic competition. We can see this reflected in the surviving works of the great playwrights and philosophers, as well as in the glorious pottery and statuary of the era.
Though this peace was always precarious. The Greek islands and city states of Asia Minor had accepted Athenian leadership through the Persian Wars as the price of their salvation. Now that this threat was no more, dissatisfaction with Athenian oversight grew, especially as the tributes to Athena, that had paid for ships and troops in wartime, still had to be delivered now there was peace. On the Greek mainland, ancient rivalries between the great cities had been set aside as the Persians advanced. Now these tensions resurfaced, foreshadowing the strife to come between Sparta and Athens.
individual Athenians bore the scars, mental and physical, of decades of war when every citizen was also a soldier. Their fledgling democracy faced the threats of rich men’s self-interest and would-be oligarchs’ ruthless plots. Inscriptions and scraps of records hint at all sorts of trouble that could easily provide a motive for murder.
So there’s any amount of inspiration to be found for mystery fiction in these decades, as well as plenty of opportunity for inventing plausible explanations for historical puzzles where the sources we still have offer no answers. (Unless one of those lost histories turns up in the sands of Egypt, but I’ll deal with that if it happens.)