Read this exclusive guest post from Nicholas Guild, author of The Spartan Dagger, about how he came up with the plot for his latest historical novel, and make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of the book!
When I was a little boy, I had a collection of toy soldiers and, as little boys will, I created an elaborate fantasy around them, imagining them to be a society of brave and noble warriors. I always called this society “Sparta.” At the age of eight, I was not yet a student of ancient history, so I have no idea how I happened to hit upon that name.
The Spartans have generally been much admired, both in antiquity and later, and while it is true that they were brave and capable soldiers, there is another side of them which is not nearly so admirable.
The problem that molded the Spartan character was the fact that they were surrounded by a peasant population called the “Helots,” who vastly outnumbered them and whom they held in the most brutal subjection. Thus, they developed a military culture in which the only virtues were courage and loyalty to the state.
The boys—and even to some degree the girls—were separated from their parents and put through a hideous course of training that turned them into superb human specimens and something just short of psychotic. At times, they were starved, forcing them to steal food; if they were caught, they were severely punished. Thus, they learned that lying, cruelty, and the capacity for treachery were virtues.
Truth to tell, the Spartans were genuine bad guys. They were the Nazis of the ancient world.
But then, sometime in the late 3rd or early 2nd Century B.C.E., a Spartan king named Nabis freed the Helots. When I read this, I found myself wondering: “What is going on?” Granted, Sparta by then was—and had been for some time—on its last legs, but such an act was completely out of character. A generous, humane Spartan king was almost a contradiction in terms.
But then again, although we know a great deal about its military and political history, the social history of Sparta during its last hundred and fifty years of independent existence is largely a blank. We simply don’t have any information about what the status of the Helots might have become.
We do know that after her defeat at the Battle of Mantinea in 362 B.C.E., Sparta was no longer a great power in Greece. Her population had been declining for some time, and with it, the number of soldiers she could field. So, what if King Nabis, for some underhanded reason of his own, was simply acknowledging that the Helots were not, and possibly had not been for some time, any longer under Spartan control?
Suddenly it occurred to me that here was the germ of a story.
I asked myself: What would it have taken for the Helots to have won their freedom? They had the numbers but almost no experience of war. Who could have shown them the way?
The historical novelist has a certain responsibility to the known facts of history. He can’t simply make up an alternative version. Thus, he finds his story between the known facts. He creates a fiction, but it should be a fiction that could have happened.
There are plenty of blank spots in our knowledge of antiquity, so there could have been a Helot rebellion about which the historians were silent.
So, what do we have to assume about the personality and motives of a man destined to lead the Helots to insurrection and freedom? He would have had to be an extraordinary figure, a natural warrior, and he would have had to learn the warrior’s trade somewhere outside of the Peloponnese—somewhere the Spartans were not in control.
Thebes nicely fills that role. Thebes revolted against Spartan control around 383 B.C.E. and carried on a series of wars against her, culminating in Mantinea. A Helot would naturally have sided with Thebes.
And then, after the war between Thebes and Sparta was over, this would-be leader of a slave revolt would have had to be prepared to run the enormous risks of returning home to continue the struggle. He would have needed a powerful motive.
In other words he would have had to be a man very much like Protos, the protagonist of my new novel, The Spartan Dagger.
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Nicholas Guild was born in Belmont, California, and attended Occidental College and the University of California at Berkeley. He taught at Clemson and Ohio State before turning full time to writing fiction. He has published a dozen novels in both the thriller and historical genres, several of which were international bestsellers, including The Assyrian, Blood Star, and Angel. Guild now lives in Frederick, Maryland.