Zeus of Ithome
The true story of a people's struggle to free themselves from three centuries of slavery
A finalist in the 2014 Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction
Published by Crooked Cat, November 2013.
Scroll down for a Summary, Excerpts and Reviews
Greece, 373 BC. For three centuries, the Messenian people have been brutally subjugated by their Spartan neighbours and forced to work the land as helot slaves.
Diocles, a seventeen-year-old helot, has known no other life but servitude. After an encounter with Spartan assassins, he is forced to flee, leaving behind his family and his sweetheart, Elpis.
On Mount Ithome, the ancient sanctuary of the Messenians, he meets Aristomenes, an old rebel who still remembers the proud history of their people and clings to a prophecy that they will one day win back their freedom.
A forlorn hope, perhaps. But elsewhere in Greece, there are others too who believe it is time that the power of Sparta was broken.
The Setting: Southern and Central Greece in the third century BC. The Messenian people in the South-west of the Peloponnese peninsula were conquered by their Spartan neighbours 300 years ago and have been kept in brutal subjection as 'helot' slaves ever since, despite several revolts. Sparta currently dominates Greece, but other states resent its pre-eminence.
Diocles: A Messenian helot slave. Seventeen years old at the start of the novel, he has known no other life but slavery.
Aristomenes: An ageing Messenian rebel who lives a solitary life on Mount Ithome, the ancient sanctuary of the Messenians. He still remembers the proud history of their people and cherishes dreams of rebellion.
Elpis: Diocles' sweetheart. He hopes to secure their Spartan masters' permission for them to marry.
Epaminondas: A Theban general and politician (a historical character). He has no love for the Spartans and wants Thebes to challenge their dominance over Greece.
After an encounter with Spartan assassins, Diocles is forced to flee to Mount Ithome, leaving behind Elpis, his family and everything he knows. He falls in with Aristomenes, who is planning to travel to Delphi to seek advice from the oracle.
The pair travel north, but when Aristomenes is wounded in an encounter with some brigands, Diocles must go to Delphi alone. There he meets Epaminondas, who helps him evade capture by Spartans and invites him to Thebes to learn military and political skills. As war brews between Thebes and Sparta, he finds himself in Epaminondas' bodyguard, facing his old masters on the battlefield.
Soon the time will be right for Diocles and Aristomenes to return to Messenia and begin their revolt in earnest; and for Diocles to be reunited with Elpis, who has faced challenges of her own in his absence.
This is the very start of the book, where Aristomenes walks up Mount Ithome to commune with his god.
The old man made his way slowly up the winding path to the summit of the mountain. It was not yet dawn, and the faint glow in the eastern sky provided scant illumination to guide him. But it was enough. Though the path had been here for centuries, in recent years it had been his feet alone that had kept the grass from reclaiming it. They knew the way, even if his eyes could not see it. Gradually, the ground about him turned from black, to grey, to brown, and out of the gloom emerged his own long shadow, looming in front of him like the silhouette of some great god. The path began to level out, and soon he could see in front of him the columns of a ruined temple, pink fingers against the dark blue of the sky. He was tired from his long climb, but this sight raised his spirits, as it always did. He lived a solitary life: often months would go by between encounters with other human beings, but he did not feel alone here.
This was a poor home for a god, he observed sadly as he sat down to rest upon a cylinder of fluted marble that had once been the base of a great pillar. Like most of the others, that pillar now lay in fragments scattered around the small summit plateau. Plants grew over them, thrusting roots into many deep cracks. Nevertheless, he had no doubt that Zeus Ithomatas still lived here. Where else would Zeus of Ithome live but upon Mount Ithome itself? Certainly not in the mean, shabby little temple where he was now worshipped in the valley far below. His very name proclaimed his union with this mountain. His power was still strong here: why else would the Spartans forbid their helot slaves from visiting the ancient home of their great protector? He could feel the god’s presence, particularly now, in the stillness of dawn, before even the birds had broken the silence with their song. It seemed to fill the air around him, to seep into every pit and crevice of those ancient stones. And he knew that the god was aware of his presence also. Zeus Ithomatas was listening, waiting.
Here, after encountering assassins of the Spartan 'Krypteia', Diocles is fleeing for his life
Above the olive grove, the mountain’s lower slopes were scattered with trees and scrub that would afford some cover if he could get to them without being seen. He came to a dip in the ground, the valley of a small stream. Perhaps it was deep enough to conceal him? As he crossed the stream, he glanced back once more: he could not see the Spartans, so they could not see him. He made a sharp turn, following the stream uphill and out of the grove, hoping that they would continue to comb the lines of trees around the base of the mountain.
The slope was steep, and he tired rapidly. His pursuers would be fitter, stronger, faster. If they followed him up the mountain, he was as good as dead. But he could hear perplexed shouts below – for now, at least, they had lost him.
He pressed desperately on, zig-zagging to keep trees between him and the olive grove below. A few hundred yards ahead was a ruined wall of massive limestone slabs: if he could reach that without being spotted he could hide behind it and catch his breath. With the last reserve of energy remaining to him, he sprinted up the hill towards a gap in the wall. He reached it on the verge of collapse and fell into a ditch beyond.
After a few seconds Diocles stood up cautiously and looked over the wall. He could see nothing. The pale light in the sky was fading, and night would soon cloak him from the Spartan eyes entirely. But how could they not hear this pounding heart and the gasps for breath of his poor, despairing lungs? Sure enough, he caught the sound of falling rocks and shouts coming closer: they may not have seen him, but they knew that he had come up the mountain.
He turned to follow the ditch behind the wall: perhaps, once he had rounded the flank of the mountain he could double back towards the village and seek refuge in Elpis’s house? But before his exhausted legs could make even one more step, suddenly a hand closed over his mouth and he felt himself falling backwards. Then there was an explosion of light, and all was still.
In this passage Diocles and Aristomenes are trying to cross the Gulf of Patras to get to the town of Naupactus.
As they approached a boatman, Aristomenes whispered: “I will try to haggle with this man. We will need our money to buy a gift for the oracle at Delphi.” Then he addressed the boatman with a smile:
“Good sir, how much will you charge to ferry us across the straits to Naupactus?”
“Across the straits, two obols. It will cost you three to go all the way to Naupactus.”
“Will you not take a poor old man and his grandson across for one obol?”
The boatman scrutinised Aristomenes with contempt.
“For one obol I will take you halfway across. You may swim the rest, and have a wash into the bargain. I will not charge you for that.”
Diocles expected Aristomenes to explode with anger. Instead he merely replied courteously.
“I am sorry to have troubled you sir. I shall talk to some of your colleagues over there.”
The boatman shrugged. “As you wish. You will get the same price from them. Even two obols a trip is barely enough to put bread on the table around here.”
“You surprise me. I would have thought that with such a fine boat as this you would dine on meat more often than not.”
“Meat? There are not enough travellers wishing to cross to allow us such luxuries. Once or twice a year, on feast days, if we are lucky.”
“Then might you be interested in this fine fat hare?”
Aristomenes produced the hare with a flourish from his bag. The boatman squinted at it thoughtfully.
“Hare is good eating, that is for sure. But such a skinny animal will not go far between my six children. Nevertheless, as a favour, I will take you across the strait for your one obol plus the hare. It will provide me with a nice snack for tomorrow.”
“I am sorry sir. I will see if some of your colleagues have smaller families who might like to dine on meat for an evening.”
“Wait. I see that you have an injured leg. As a gesture of kindness, for the hare plus one obol I will take you all the way to Naupactus, to save you the trouble of the five mile walk along the coast.”
Aristomenes and Diocles looked at each other.
“Shall we accept this gentleman’s generosity?”
“It seems a shame that, despite his kindness, his family will not be able to eat meat tonight.”
“You are right, Diocles. But wait. Two hares would surely be enough to feed the family would it not?”
At this, Diocles produced a second hare from his own bag.
“All right. You will make a pauper of me, but I will take you to Naupactus for two hares.”
“And no obols,” said Aristomenes pointedly.
At Delphi, Diocles enters the temple of Apollo to ask advice of the oracle
The priest led him into the main chamber of the temple itself, which was painted with scenes from the Greek myths and lit by many lamps, and thence into another small room. This was only dimly lit, and was bare apart from a painting of Apollo himself upon the facing wall. There was a grid in the floor at the far end of the room, through which a pale light shone, helping to illuminate the painting. Most striking, though was the powerful smell that pervaded the room. There were hints of smells that he knew – of laurel, and of barley – but they were mingled within an all-pervading, intoxicating aroma that was like nothing he had ever experienced before.
“What you smell is the breath of the earth itself, escaping from fissures deep in the rock, here at the very centre of the world. Those fumes help the Pythia to commune with the god and to see the future. She sits below us in the forbidden chamber, the adyton. It is time now for you to ask your question. You must speak slowly and clearly, and loudly, so that she may hear your voice through the grid.”
In a trembling voice that somehow did not sound like his own, Diocles spoke the words that he had memorized:
“What must the Messenians do in order to achieve their freedom and to win back their country?”
There was a long pause, and then an eerie ululating sound, like the far-off call of some strange bird, began to emerge from the adyton below. As it became louder, it resolved itself into what seemed like words, but in no language that Diocles had ever heard. After a few seconds the word-sounds dissolved again into a tremulous wailing, which slowly faded away into silence.
Here, Diocles and Aristomenes are returning to Messenia by ship to begin their revolt in earnest, and Diocles sees his homeland again for the first time.
As morning passed into afternoon and Diocles sat eating bread and olives in the bow of the ship, they rounded a promontory, turning north at last on the final leg of their trip. On the horizon, dusted with the first snows of winter, lay the unmistakeable ridge of Taygetus, somehow seeming greater and more imposing from far away than it had ever done from an ox cart winding its way slowly up the mountain’s massive flanks, bearing the harvest of Messenian fields to Sparta. He was glad to see it again, this first reminder of home, yet he was also glad that, for better or worse, he would never make that journey again.
At Aristomenes’ instruction, the crew partially furled the sail, slowing their progress to a crawl, lest they arrive at their destination while it was still light. Anxious though he was about the trials and uncertainties to come, the last few hours on the ship passed interminably for Diocles, and when at last the sun passed out of sight over the hills to the west, he willed the line of shadow upwards until it swallowed the last pink-tinged morsel of Taygetus. Only then could he welcome the night that would shepherd them home.
"...Well-crafted and with an engaging narrative, Zeus of Ithome is interspersed with a detailed historical backdrop ... a well-researched novel intertwined with a heartwarming story that I would recomment to students of ancient Greece or any historical fiction reader interested in theis period." Lisa Perrat, Historical Novels Review.
"... the atmosphere of the time and the characters were convincing, the story draws you along nicely and the action is all pertinent to the plot ... I recommend it as a good read." Chris Huck, National Association of Writers Groups LINK Magazine.
"... a brilliant story waiting to be told. Combine this with Tim’s writing style and you have one engrossing read. I don’t often want to read books again but this one will be added to the list.
Any fan of historical fiction as a genre will love this and if like me you’re interested in the history this will excite the taste buds." Dave's Book Blurg.
Sample Customer Reviews on Amazon (see book on Amazon UK for full list)
"Excellent, first class quality read. The author captures a real sense of time and place."
"This is a book with a wealth of classical history wrapped up in wonderful fiction. I really enjoyed T. E. Taylor's writing style - very engaging narrative interspersed with superbly detailed narrative backdrop. The Messenian landscape came to life, as did the other surrounding states as Diocles journeys around them. Though acknowledging it as a work of fiction, I felt I learned a lot about Ancient Greek culture and daily life, those details so well meshed within the story. There are many characters in the tale which kept me on my metaphorical toes, all well portrayed - some very likeable and some less so, making for a good balance. It's very easy to care a lot for Diocles and his mentor Aristomenes, the development of their characters so well rounded that I found Aristomenes' ageing very poignant.I read the initial taking up of arms as though looking over the shoulder of an untried Diocles: that raw youth who matures a lot in the ensuing few years. Towards the end of the story, I was still reading over Diocles' shoulder, but he was, by then, a vastly more competent and well trained soldier. The battles are well depicted, yet are not overtly bloody. There's an endearing general naivety about Diocles at the beginning which isn't really lost at the end- even though he has become such an important leader in the interim. This wasn't a book that I read quickly (and I am quite a fast reader) since I felt I'd miss too much if I didn't pay close attention.If you enjoy reading about ancient times, I really think you'll find a lot to like in Zeus of Ithome."
"I have just finished reading 'Zeus of Ithome', and I loved it. For me, both at school and University, Greek Ancient history finished with the end of the Peloponnesian War. This book has got me interested in the whole confused period of the 4th century, and particularly Thebes. I’m glad to know that Epaminondas was such a sound guy, and it's a pity there weren't a few more like him. But the most important thing for me was that it put the spotlight on the helots, slaves for centuries, but finally gaining their freedom, so that they could stop being Spartan slaves forever, and be free, to devote their time to fighting their enemies, as all free Greeks did at this time! I grew very fond of all the fictional characters, who fitted into the context so well. 'Zeus of Ithome' has that most important quality, which the best historical novels have to have: it really could have happened. The book is totally accessible to readers who have no knowledge of ancient Greek history, as it has a very helpful glossary. In fact it serves as an excellent introduction to the subject. Thanks for the pleasure this book has given me!"
"This is a terrific story, with pace, characters to care about and a wealth of fascinating information about a period in time I knew nothing about. It made me want to visit Greece and fish out maps and history books to see what happened next."
"Both highly enjoyable and educational, this historical novel provides the reader with a vividly imagined version of the rebellion by the enslaved Messenian helots against their Spartan overlords. I came to this book with no knowledge of the real events which inform the narrative; I finished it grateful for such an imaginatively engaging introduction to a stirring chapter in ancient history.The author successfully combines the gripping and moving personal story of the escaped helot Diocles with a fascinating evocation of the political and cultural world within which his young hero exists. Often humorous, humane throughout, this is a page turner with a difference."
"You might think that ancient Greece was too alien and complex a world to make a truly entertaining novel. But not to worry: Tim Taylor's lucid prose leads the reader painlessly into the midst of warring city states, slave rebellions and startlingly violent battles. It's pretty good fun, too. I finished the book entertained and, dare I say it, educated. An excellent read."
"This is an excellent story of a youth's journey to adulthood in ancient Greece. The setting is so well researched that I felt that while I was entertained by the tale I also learned about the time and place. I enjoy the added value of incidental learning from an author who I feel I can trust.The character development was skillfully handled, and I needed to know the outcome of the adventure for Diocles.The conclusion was a satisfying one, Always a bonus.Has Tim finished with Diocles? Is he going to have further giants to slay?"
"An ancient story of slavery is uncovered, and the ugly truth about the Spartan warriors is laid bare in this excellent historical novel.The true nature of the Spartans is revealed through the words of Aristomenes, who recounts the history of his people to Diocles, a Messenian slave, and they venture forth to seek guidance from the Oracle at Delphi for the liberation of their people from the Spartans.Diocles has a wooden carving of an eagle round his neck, the symbol of freedom, given by his sweetheart, Elpis. He does not fully understand the advice from the oracle at first, but makes a new friend in Epaminondas who embraces the idea of a Panhellenic League of free and independent states. But first, Thebes and the Boetian League must break the back of Sparta, aided by a revolt of the Messenian slaves.This is historical fiction at its best - explaining with lucidity the politics and military strategies in ancient Greece in a fast flowing style, which captures the simplicity of rural life in those days. And the bustle of political debate, the yells, catcalls and jostling between the factions put me in mind of parliamentary sessions nearer home...The Ancient Greeks were not ashamed to ask their gods for help before they acted. The survivors did not hesitate to show refreshing happiness and thankfulness for the lives of their comrades killed in battle defending their freedom. They thanked the gods for their sacrifices, followed by wholehearted celebrations of life, with wine and roasting meat.Thank you for this wonderful read, and I look forward to more from Tim Taylor."
"What a superb story. It's spell binding reading. Tim Taylor must have put hours and hours in researching his subject and then produced a most interesting and entertaining story. This really is the product of a fertile mind, I could not put it down."
"Tim Taylor takes a little known chapter of ancient Greek history (the revolt of the people of the Greek territory of Messenia against the Spartans in 370 BC) and weaves it into a human story in which his fictional characters interact with historical figures such as Epaminondas, Asopichus and Pelopidas. Messenia, in the south-west corner of the Peloponnese, had been under Spartan domination since 720 BC, apart from brief periods of independence following revolts in 625 BC and 464 BC. The novel opens in 373 BC, at a time when the power of Sparta is waning. Its teenaged protagonist, Diocles, has known nothing but a life of servitude. When his cousin, Leochares, is set upon on the way home from a banquet, Diocles instinctively strikes out at the assailants, killing one of them. Only then does he realise that the attackers are members of the Krypteia, a Spartan death-squad. An outlaw, he is forced to leave his home, his family and his sweetheart, taking refuge in the mountains and living on his wits, but promising to return, some day, as his people's liberator.The paucity of the historical evidence for the real historical events that lie behind the dramatic action of the book gives Taylor free rein for the exercise of his novelistic imagination. The most relevant source, on which he draws freely, is Pausanias's Description of Greece, written four centuries after the events themselves. The novel traces Diocles's journey through the Peloponnese and Boetia, to the Oracle of Delphi and on to Thebes, where he is befriended by some of the most powerful men of his day, and learns both the theory and the practice of the arts of war.Perhaps inevitably, given the age of the protagonist, the novel is as much a Bildungsroman as it is an epic tale of conflict and the struggle for freedom. Diocles learns as much about himself as he does about the harsh realities of the world around him. Perhaps the most touching dimension of this is to be found in the portrayal of his relationship with his mother, who he has always loved, but does not fully understand until his journey nears its end.There is an added poignancy, for those of us who have studied the Classical world, that comes from our knowledge of what Diocles and those closest to him, cannot know. The hard-won freedom of Messenia would last only a few decades, eclipsed not, as he might have feared, by a resurgent Sparta, but by the rise of a kingdom (Macedonia), and of a dynasty, of which he knows nothing.Zeus of Ithome is a superbly well-crafted historical novel, which shows the struggle of the individual against the tide of history but which, at the same time, through what it leaves out, reveals to us the ultimate powerlessness of the individual in a way that the ancient Greeks would well have understood. Even in the face of such powerlessness, they might have insisted, the struggles of the individual, whether the fictional Diocles or the mythical Herakles, have value in and of themselves."