4 out of 4 stars
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The Fox by M. N. J. Butler is a historical fiction placed in classical period of the ancient Greece, when Sparta was one of the most successful city-states. Picturesquely situated in the present-day town Lakedaimon, Laconian region in the south, Sparta has undoubtedly been strategical power that balanced cultural influences and invasions of military powers from the East. Its law-obeying citizens subsisted within a traditionally rigid social structure. The strict Spartan’s ethical standards obeyed for many generations, created one of the most prosperous states at the time. Meaningfully compared to its neighbors such as Athens, Spartans excelled by the exceptional strength of army forces and sustainable economy even without endorsed monetary exchanges. The Spartans believed, that “the men would have to do great things to earn honors, and not just be rich.” Social structure of Sparta typically consisted of royals, private citizens, and obedient slaves, usually captured in wars. Remarkably, local women traditionally practiced competitive sports before a suitable marriage and had property rights as landowners. The independent Sparta city-state was a form of modern democracy, kept strong through voting system by enthusiastic acclamation. In Sparta, the executive council, a select group of twenty-eight presiding elders, was a group of aristocrats overseeing the king. Unparalleled, Spartan kingship was a system of two parallel dynasties, the Agiad and Eurypontidis families. These families vested by twin brothers, Hercules descendants. The elders voted for a king and his dynasty. Rather than obeying the royalty of the king, Spartan’s citizens treated them with respect and thought of them as fellow citizens.
Leotychides, pronounced [lɛ.o.tyˈkhi.des], was a son of the king Agis II of Sparta, from the Eurypontidis dynasty. His mother Timaia, a powerful woman of royal blood, understood the influences that her power and beauty can instill in Spartan’s politics. She could not, however, remove suspicion of infidelity to her husband in the minds of elders. Succumbing to the gossip and distrust, the elders would not want to risk a presumed foreign offspring on the Spartan’s throne. Even though king himself recognized Leotychides as his true son albeit, on his dying bed, vicious rumors of Timaia’s infidelity prevailed. Faced by the uncertainty of the true prince’s blood, the elder’s voted Agiad instead, as a new king of Sparta. This decision, based on the historical facts, was one of the most consequential for the crumbling of strength and inevitable defeat of Sparta’s dominance in the region.
When Leotychides was only seven years old, he decided to join the flock, a form of punitive Spartan army training. Except for the future king of Sparta, all other boys were bound to join this training in hope that they would become exceptional soldiers and athletes. Against his mother’s wishes, Leotychides left the comfort of his home to grow up alongside the other boys in a flock. He always did well, exceeding as an Olympian boxer and growing up as a man of a righteous character. It was then, that he heard a fable about the boy who hid stolen fox in his cloak. As days passed, the boy let the fox “gnaw through his innards” until his death, never even letting a cry. This story is central to the idea that Sparta’s ultimate destruction started from within itself, by mistakes instigated by its own people.
Through this novel, we follow a Leotychides’ personal growth of his honest character, a disposition that brought a certain hamletian tragedy to his life; he never demanded to be heard, much less to be given back his birth-right to the Spartan kingship. Rather, he accepted the decision of elders and continued to faithfully serve his country friends, and soldiers in his regiment. Powerless, he was unable to stop the grid and corruption of Spartan’s leadership. Overtime, a series of wars and ill decisions destroyed Spartan’s dominance in the region.
I enjoyed immersion in the history of Sparta, as presumably told by Leotychides. Even though there are no written documents left about his actual life, this historical fiction view on the ancient Greece is remarkably detailed and convincing. In this novel, Leotychides records his memories while in an exile in Macedonia. His recollections became extensive descriptions of the ancient troubled political turbulence, the wars, his own fears, and disappointments. He shares the deepest longing of a man who, even though growing up without the father, became a role model himself to many who befriended him.
The author’s knowledge and profound understanding of the ancient Greek society, of which there are so few records left, is astonishing. Detailed descriptions of situations, battles and presumed circumstances that led to actual historical events, are easy to believe. Glossary provided at the beginning of the book is a valuable tool to track the characters and their historical roles. I think this book will be very interesting for every scholar of ancient culture and history. Moreover, I recommend this novel to all descendants of Greece, who strive to understand the historical events and political pressures of the region. I found a few errors, none of which were distracting from the story plot. It would be better if the book pages are numbered, as it was very hard at times to keep track of places and events, even within the same chapter. I am rating this voluminous work with the 4 out of 4 stars certain that it will bring a delight to everyone interested in the history of Greece.
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