Tyrant: Valerio Massimo Manfredi

★★

Enthusiastically recommended by our guide on holiday, this is one of only a handful of historical novels set in Sicily. I eagerly sought it out on my return, hoping to fill the gaps in my knowledge. Before our trip I’d scarcely heard of Dionysius the Elder or of Syracuse’s dominance of the Greek cities in Sicily, which proves that I need to reread Tom Holt’s Walled Orchard and Mary Renault’s Mask of Apollo, both of which touched on this period.

Anyway, I was glad to have another chance to read Manfredi. I had a brief encounter with his Alexander series as a teenager, when a family friend realised that I was historically inclined and lent me the first volume. Unfortunately at the time I was fresh out of Mary Renault’s trilogy and would brook no challengers; but over the intervening years I’ve often seen Manfredi flagged as a key writer of classical-era historical fiction. He’s also a Professor of Classical Archaeology in Milan, so he sounded like a good chap to have on board for a journey into ancient Sicily.

Dionysius the Elder ruled Syracuse from 405BC until his death in 367BC, seizing power from an oligarchic council and establishing a personal tyranny which he bequeathed to his less successful son. History hasn’t been kind to Dionysius, as you can judge from his Wikipedia page and from the fact that Dante gave him the questionable honour of a cameo in Inferno. However, whatever his failings may have been, there’s no doubt that he played a significant role in keeping the Carthaginians at bay in ancient Sicily, thereby maintaining Greek (or, more accurately, Syracusan) dominance of the island. Manfredi’s aims in writing this novel were presumably to rehabilitate the reputation of this maligned historical figure, and to offer a popular summary of the related events.

Without already having some basic knowledge of the period, it can be difficult to leap directly into a serious history, with its dizzying names and campaigns. For a beginner, as I am, it’s helpful to start off with a novel, which makes you familiar with some of the key characters and gives you a framework by which to navigate more academic works. And, indeed, I’ve come away from the book with a much better understanding of classical Sicily. Part of the fun came from identifying ancient place-names with their modern counterparts, especially if I visited the town last week. (Every time they referred to the fact that the Temple of Zeus in Acragas – Agrigento – was almost finished, I sighed and said aloud, ‘It’ll never happen, you know.’)

Nevertheless, it can be very difficult to make a good novel out of good history, and perhaps this leads into a wider debate about whether (and which) professional historians are also successful novelists. For me, Tyrant wasn’t satisfactory as a novel, though it was a helpful and easy introduction to the personalities and events of the time. I’m not sure how far the translation is to blame for this. It’s always problematic when a novel has been transformed into another language, because essentially I’m not reading the book that Manfredi wrote and I can’t comment on how well the Italian version flows (presumably very well, judging by our guide’s affection for it).

In the English version, one is constantly conscious of reading a translation. For me, the style was an odd mixture of the dry and the flamboyant, interspersed with accounts of battles which felt like they had been rewritten from textbooks. The dialogue veered between modern slang and laboured reportage, and the characterisation was rather two-dimensional. We come to know Dionysius largely through the admiration of other characters and have little chance to establish our own opinions: his actions are usually filtered through his friends’ approbation or the writer’s own fascination. Being used to authors who delight in complex characters and who allow the readers to make of them what they will, I found it rather frustrating to read a book that was virtually peppered with signs for me to applaud the hero, to be impressed and to cheer him on in his fight against the blinkered Syracusan oligarchs.

This Dionysius is devastatingly handsome, irresistibly virile and much brighter than anyone around him. He marries two women on the same day and beds them both on the same night. He’s a brilliant tactician, unjustly overlooked in his youth by egocentric generals. And he’s a gifted inventor. In one episode his friend and future biographer, Philistus, returns from (a relatively short) absence to find that Dionysius has meanwhile invented the catapult, the ballista and the quinquireme. This actually gives a good feel for the writing and dialogue overall: note that the word ‘said’ is religiously avoided, which began to niggle with me. It begins as Philistus marvels at the quinquireme:

‘But that’s not all!’ added Dionysius… ‘Look, twenty-nine more galleys like this one, already under construction’.
‘Gods!’ exclaimed Philistus, speechless…
‘And it’s not finished here,’ continued Dionysius … They entered the courtyard and Philistus was even more bewildered and amazed: three gigantic machines had been assembled in the middle of the yard. … [The first is demonstrated.] ‘We’ve called it “ballista”. If it is aimed at an infantry formation, it can cause a massacre. If it hits the side of a ship, even beneath the waterline, it can sink her from a distance of one hundred feet. And take a look at that.’ … ‘We’ve called this one a “catapult”.’
‘You designed these as well?’ asked Philistus in astonishment.
‘I did,’ replied Dionysius. ‘I’ve been working day and night, first on the plans, then on scale models built by architects, and finally on these working models that you see here. They function perfectly. We’re building fifty of each. Himilco’s rams will seem like toys compared to these!’
‘You’re preparing for war,’ nodded Philistus.

Despite the way the story is told, the essence of the world that Manfredi has created is generally reliable. With regard to the section I quoted above, I have looked this up and it’s true that the quinquireme, the ballista and the catapult can be traced back to Dionysius’s time in their earliest incarnations; but it doesn’t follow that he personally invented each of them. And the Company, for example, intrigued me. It is a shadowy organisation which initially helps Dionysius to come to power and which then, having been thrown aside by him, waits patiently for years to exact its retribution. It sounded, of course, rather like the Mafia and I wondered if Manfredi was trying to give a bit of extra sicilianità to his story. And yet Wikipedia (that reliable resource) indicates that the Company did in fact exist and that it has been linked with explanations of Dionysius’ success and, later, his death. So it’s not the facts which are at fault for me, so much as the interpretation.

In that sense, the book feels like a PR machine, presenting the tyrant as effortlessly brilliant in physical and intellectual endeavour. Even his poetical efforts are indulged, even though in reality Dionysius seems to have overestimated his lyrical talent. In short, Manfredi has fallen in love with his subject. The unfortunate result is that Tyrant lacks the kind of atmosphere and subtlety that draws me in.

It’s an odd mixture, this book. On one hand I’d recommend it as a way to get a feel for Sicily in the classical period, simply because there doesn’t seem to be much else out there. On the other, I feel the story could be told in a more balanced and evocative way, which could bring the period to life without resorting to jarring contemporary colloquialisms. It would have been good to have had a few grey areas. I’d have liked the author to play more persuasively with the idea that Sicily might have been better off if Dionysius hadn’t become tyrant of Syracuse. And yet; and yet. This is only my personal opinion. I know Manfredi has many fans out there and I am sorry that I can’t join them in their enjoyment of this book.

I’ve just turned, with a sigh of relief, to the next novel on my list. As the days shorten and the weather cools, I feel that I’ve earned an indulgence. And at least I know that here I won’t have any argument with the writing style. A virtual hurrah for the first person who identifies it from the opening line:

From Venice to Cathay, from Seville to the Gold Coast of Africa, men anchored their ships and opened their ledgers and weighed one thing against another as if nothing would change.

Buy the book

7 thoughts on “Tyrant: Valerio Massimo Manfredi

  1. James says:

    Great opening so I looked it up and if the following is anything to go by “It began mildly enough, the awkward chain of events that was to upset the bankers so much. It began with sea, and September sunlight, and three young men lying stripped to their doublets in the Duke of Burgundy's bath” you may have to avert your eyes! Enjoy.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    You're more than welcome! Do please let me know if you have any other recommendations on this period – it does seem to be quite difficult to find good books on the Greek tyrants of Syracuse…

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