Alexias, a young Athenian of good family, grows up just as the Peloponnesian War is drawing to a close. The adult world he enters is one in which the power and influence of his class have been undermined by the forces of war, and more and more Alexias finds himself drawn to the controversial teachings of Sokrates.
Among the great thinker's followers, Alexias meets Lysis, and the two youths become inseparable, wrestling together in the palaestra, journeying to the Olympic Games, and fighting in the wars against Sparta. On the great historical canvas of famine, siege, and civil conflict, their relationship captures vividly the intricacies of classical Greek culture.
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Portrayal Unbridled Lust of a Bacchanalian? NOT!
In the top five.
Philo a slave by war that after witnessing the deaths of his father and his lover and his mother being carried off as a victor’s prize, he is sold into slavery as a boy for hire. His salvation is his mind, who Socrates’ deems worthy, and entreats a wealthy acolyte to buy the youth and free him. Having done so, the wealthy benefactor employs him as a scribe; an occupation fitting for a foreign freeman. At the end of the book, he has a great speech in which he foreshadows Christ's rejection as the ultimate example of excellence and good being pulled down and killed by the masses so that we are all level and equal. Edwards portrays this soul with great sensitivity.
I am an unrepentant fan of Mary Renault when she writes in the historical first person prospective. I have read all her historical based books in my youth. Now that Audible is slowly making her historical works available in audio format I am thrilled to rediscover these literary treasures. In this work she has not disappointed me.
This book invites you into a first person view of what it was like to be born into, grow up, find love, participate in cities life in war and peace, and in victory and defeat. In this view the best ideals of the philosopher Socrates are modeled in the fully developed characters. Our heroes Alexias and Lysis model idealized male love in a pre-Christian era. They also model being able to love women, marriage, and rear children. All of this is set in the cultural morals, superstitions, beliefs, practices, and customs of classical Greek pre-Christian culture. As to her portrayals of war, nothing is more up close and personal then taking a human life with a sharp weapon. The wounds and death throws are described in the clinical detail of a medical professional. The author was, at one point, a nurse by profession. So she brings a gritty sense of reality to death by war and violence or death by starvation and privation.
This book is one of Ms. Renault best textured and multi layered books. The main characters are well fleshed out. You can read/listen to it to compare and contrast different political models and provide a critique of the best and worst features of democracy. It offers a Socrates inspired course in how to assess the character of men using politicians for fodder examples of bad character. Darn, if I can’t see the points when I apply these standards to today’s crop of village idiots seeking to lead us, or talking head commentators who stir up the public passions of the political mob for gain, while clouding or extinguishing the light of reason and compromise. The book provides excellent examples of the philosopher’s use of the socratic method of questioning and defining our terms in their never ending quest to find truth, beauty, love or “the good”. Philosophically truth, beauty, and love are all various aspects of “the good”.
The device the author uses to bring you through the womb of time into the third century BCE is the birth of our point of view storyteller Alexias. She sets about this much like a skillful bird builds a nest. She does not announce that this is a book set in at the end of the Peloponnesian Wars (about 429 to 404 BC) although it is clear that this is the framework that underpins it and upon which the nest will rest. However, it is not identified any more than a bird would say “In this oak tree and upon that branch I will build my nest”; if birds could speak. No she starts out adding little bits of domestic daub and wattle sticking together the bits and pieces of historical detail building a mosaic picture into the nest. In the first chapter we learn we are in Athens in springtime and the Spartans descend on the Athenian plain chasing farmers into the city polis of the walls of protection while the annual siege lasts. We learn that the Spartans a ruthless foe, burning the countryside farms with the exception of sacred places, like an olive grove or taking care not to deface an image of the gods. We learn that during this period, while the city groans under the weight of the increased population a plague breaks out killing our storytellers name sake uncle and his natural mother shortly after his birth. We learn that his father, Myron, a knight of the equestrian class, briefly considers having this weak premature child done away with through exposure but relents when he returns and finds his wife dead and the child suckling and thriving on a wet nurse. This daub is very clever as it immediately creates an empathetic bond between the audience and the protagonist first person viewpoint of Alexias, or your heart is stone. I could go on illustrating this daub and wattle mosaic nest metaphor approach but to do so would belabor what is the obvious about her style. It is painless history that carries you away into another time, place, and culture that is vaguely familiar yet strange, all at the same time. The domestic approach is familial, comforting, and form a portal through which we can view the cultural and historic oddities; embracing them as part of our modern identity. And that dear audience of this review is the genius of Mary Renault and why you should spend 16 hours and 35 minutes or 400 pages of your life getting to know her work through this audio book. The only thing the audio book missed was the glossary of terms the book version has.
A caution to modern day viewpoints: The classical Greek culture is very tolerant of sexuality in general. Although this book does present that aspect clearly and honestly in the two M/M pair bond heroes, it is done with taste and moderation to the sensibilities of its1956 copywriter audience. If you are seeking the unbridled lust of a bacchanalian portrayal this is not the audio book for you.
Barnaby Edwards is a British actor, writer, director and artist. He is known as a performer for the British science-fiction television series Doctor Who. He has also written, directed, produced or performed in over 80 Big Finish Production Company, “Doctor Who” audio stories. Alongside frequent radio and voice over work, Edwards has narrated over 40 unabridged audiobooks for Audible and others. His voice begins sounding old and solemn, perhaps even a bit stuffy, but can quickly morph into that of an excited youth, a pompous politician, or take on the hiss of evil incarnate. One can always rely on him for a good show.
The Peloponnesian War at its finest
- Clinton Kippley