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Book review and history lesson all in one

After a short hiatus caused by work, several projects and life events around town in general, I am back with a post that has both a book review and a short history lesson on Sparta. As most of you know Sparta was a city-state in ancient Greece. The city-state per se was known in antique Greece under the name of Lacedeamon, while Sparta was its main settlement in southeastern Greece which was named then as Laconia or Peloponnese.

The book entitled “The Fox” was written by M.N.J. Butler and is a historical fiction novel. It was first published in 1995 and then reissued in 2018 by the publisher CnPosner Books located in Oxford, United Kingdom. While you are reading “The Fox”, you immerse yourself in the Spartan culture, Sparta military and the life of Leotychides, the illegitimate son of king Agis 11 who ruled Sparta (along with king Pausanias) from 427 to 401 B.C. Agis 11 was Eurypontid king of Sparta while Pausanias was the Agiad king of Sparta. Yes Sparta was ruled by a diarchy, that is it had two kings, one from each of the royal families (Eurypontid and Agiad). With this arrangement, one of the king could travel and war while the other remained and acted as the ruler of Sparta. There is on the first book page a presentation of the two Royal Houses of Sparta with the Agiads and the Eurypontids. Following this is a long “Glossary of names and terms”. This glossary is essential to be able to read and understand “The Fox” as there are a multitude of real (marked by an asterisk) and fictional characters with their proper names, some nicknames and several places of interest and events in the 4th century B.C. of Greek history.

The title “The Fox” refers to the legend of a young Spartan lad who had stolen a fox and hid it under his tunic. While in class, the fox started chewing and clawing the young boy’s chest and abdomen. But the young Spartan, who wanted to prove his worth, never let out that he was in pain and never winced once. Only until he fell lifeless on the ground was the fox found along with the grave damage that he caused to the young boy.

The first part of the book starts with an aged Leotychides who is then a mercenary in the army of King Philip 11 (father of Alexander the Great) of Macedonia. Philip 11 asks Leotychides to record the events of his long life with a focus on the decline of Sparta starting with the siege of Mantinea (where Leotychides fought) and finishing with the defeat of Sparta at the hand of Thebes at Leuctra. As such the book presents a semblance of the memoirs of Leotychides.

The legend of the fox and the book “The Fox” is basically set and focused on the fictional life of Leotychides. That is not to say that Leotychides did not exist. He did indeed and is mentioned as the illegitimate son of Agis 11 although his wife Queen Timeïa loved her son and often called him by the name of his real father, an Athenian named Alcibiades. Here I would like to note that Leotychides learned about his illegitimacy at the age of three.  At age 7, Leotychides was sent to train, along with other young men and women (yes women were educated in Sparta in the warring tradition) in the agoge which is the equivalent of the educational system of Sparta  and as such presented a socio-military education and training. Unlike most school system of today, the children of Sparta were educated in music, literature, dance, singing and also fighting and warring. They were much less educated in philosophy, the arts and mathematics. While reading you follow Leotychides through the Spartan educational system, along with his “flock brothers” (classmates) from the beginning as a “tyro” (beginner), then becoming a “rhodibas” (from age eight to twelve), “meilleren” (from twelve to sixteen) then finally finishing as an “eiren” (between sixteen and twenty). The education, although varied, focused mostly on military training along with tactics, strength building and sword fighting.

Through this training you really learn what the word “spartan” comes from. “Spartan” refers to the courage shown by its inhabitants and to their strict, austere and disciplined upbringing and lifestyle. The laws of “Lycurgos”, the real to legendary law-giver of Sparta ruled predominantly in the life of Leotychides and reaffirmed the tale of the “fox” to which the title alludes . Leotychides suffered in silence throughout his lifetime from being not acknowledged by his true and basically adoptive father (except when this one is on his deathbed), through the renunciation of the crown to him by his uncle Agisilios or Agisilaos or Agisilaus who ursurps the throne, through all the battles, mock and real, all the insults and the injuries that he sustained. There is one point of interest which I want to put in here. When Leotychides was younger he sustained an injury to his ankle which became infected. A friend of his, at one point, stopped Leotychides and put a piece of molded bread on the festering wound. The wound healed eventually with this treatment. I assume that this was one of the first use of antibiotics use.

After his training, Leotychides then starts to participate in skirmishes and different battles, from the Corinthian wars through the end with the war between Sparta and Thebes. This last conflict brings about Sparta’s decline which started with its defeat at Leuctra. After this, Leotychides becomes a mercenary for hire travelling wherever he was needed.

The novel “The Fox” brings out a wealth of information on Sparta, its people, its militarized and austere culture. Battle scenes and skirmishes are very well written with vivid descriptions and emphasized people’s reactions to them. The novel, although very much character driven, is also historical in its presentation. It does present the political intrigue within Sparta during the reign of King Agisilaos along with all the loyalties, treachery, betrayals and murders of certain rivals. And there is of course the frequent mention of the archrival of Greece which was the Persian empire (remember the 300?). The characters of the book whether real or fictional are very believable, and the story line is fast-paced with the events and times action-packed.

With this review I want to give this excellent book a rating of 5 on 5. But I have to admit that it does have one flaw. The use of quotation marks leaves very much to be desired as sometimes the beginning or the end of a dialogue is missing quotation marks and might lead to some confusion. I found at least 20 of these dialogues with missing quotation marks.

But despite this drawback, I would still give this book a 5 on 5 because it appealed to me and to my love of Ancient History and its content was one of the most descriptive that I have read on Sparta. I would strongly recommend to all the lovers of historical novels, to the Hellenophiles and the general public to read this book because you will be enthralled with its evocative and totally absorbing account of a once great nation that was Sparta within Greece.

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Written by HistoryGal

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