Obviously, Athens in the 5th Century BCE was a very different world to our own. There are also some striking similarities, which is one of the reasons that so many of us find the Classical world so endlessly interesting.
Personally, I’ve always found Athenian drama fascinating, both tragedy and comedy, as reflecting on human nature, and as commentary on the politics and society of the day. I’m a great fan of comedy that looks at our own era’s governance, from Yes, Minister to The Thick of It. So as I’ve been thinking about writing a historical crime novel, off and on, over the years, my ideas have always centred on the theatre, and around the great Athenian drama competitions.
Every drama needs a protagonist; a word that’s come down to us from this era, literally meaning ‘the first actor’. So before I started writing, I had to decide who would be at the centre of this story. I soon decided this must be someone centrally involved in the drama, in every sense. Not an onlooker, not someone from the audience. Not someone brought in to solve the crime, because such officials simply didn’t exist. There were public slaves to keep order in the centre of Athens, and law courts where citizens could pursue private prosecutions, but there was nothing approaching a police force, or detectives for a murder victim’s family to call on. So if our protagonist is going to solve a mystery, he’ll need to be someone with a wide range of contacts and a lifestyle that takes him all around the city, to see things and to encounter people, to find the connections that he’ll need to make.
Enter Philocles! As an aspiring playwright, he’ll be paying close attention to the politics of the day, as well as always keeping his eyes and ears open for things he can work into his writing. He’ll be well-placed to do that, sitting in the marketplace as a writer for hire, since Athenian playwrights mostly needed a day-job, then as now. He must be able to turn his hand to writing speeches for the courts, drawing up wills and contracts, and composing poems to celebrate great achievements and to commemorate the dead. So he’s going to know a lot of people. Once he has a commission to write a play for the Dionysia, he’ll have a well-born and wealthy patron with connections in the upper echelons of society. If he comes from a more modest family of craftsmen, he’ll have his own, different friends and relationships among the Athenian working classes.
Our protagonist will inevitably be a ‘he’. While scholarly views on Athenian women have changed markedly in recent decades, it remains a fact that women’s lives centred on their households, while men engaged in work, trade and politics in the marketplaces and the public assemblies. But Athens wasn’t only full of Athenians. The city housed a substantial population of resident foreigners; citizens of other Greek city states and travellers from far beyond. Give Philocles a connection with that community and he’ll have another circle of contacts and sources of information.
Enter Zosime, his girlfriend from Crete, who’s not subject to the same social pressures and legal restrictions as Athenian citizen women. That also means she’s ideally placed to reflect the views of other Greeks of the time, who weren’t nearly so impressed with the Athenians as they were with themselves.
So our story begins with Philocles and Zosime walking home from a play rehearsal, only to stumble over a dead man sprawled at their gate…