It is just before dawn one morning in 547 BC. The Lydian king Croesus is taken from a cell in his capital, Sardis, and led to a great wooden pyre where he is to be burned to death in the presence of his conqueror, the Persian king Cyrus. As the smoke begins to curl around him and the fire’s first heat warms the soles of his feet, Croesus remembers a conversation he had, many years before, with the Athenian statesman Solon. They had argued about happiness.
Croesus – rich beyond compare, with a wife, sons and the lives of thousands under his command – believed himself the very happiest of men. Solon, by contrast, argued that happiness is measured within ourselves, not by external means; and that it can only be truly judged at the moment of our death. And now, perched at the top of his funeral pyre, Croesus struggles to comprehend how a few years have reversed everything he thought he represented – and whether he ever truly was happy at all.
This is Tim Leach’s debut novel and it’s a very impressive piece of work. Once again it was an automated recommendation and I knew nothing about the book or the story it told, but I fell in love with the cover design (these things are important, as I’ve said before). I found myself drawn into a cleverly-structured novel in which Croesus’ execution isn’t the spur for a straightforward chronological account of his life, but for a more nuanced series of vignettes. Beginning as a tragedy in the classical mode, sparked off by the hero’s hubris, it grows into something else entirely: a story about endurance, a search for happiness and, ultimately, the possibility of hope. I thought it was beautiful.
War is an infection that breeds in the minds of kings. Once caught, it may come on slowly or burn hot like a one-day fever. It will not die until it is treated with blood.
There is something ever so slightly detached and dreamlike about the writing, which is not a criticism. Historical fiction can take different forms and, while this doesn’t seek to offer a gritty, warts-and-all account of life in 6th-century BC Lydia, it does give a good sense of its historical context. Its strength is in the simplicity and elegance of the writing, which has the feel of a philosophical parable (in a similar spirit to The Alchemist or Knowledge of Angels, perhaps). Leach tells the story not as a succession of great events, but as a series of reflections on those events, which gives them a kind of archetypal power. For example, as Croesus and Cyrus face one another in battle, he shows us the horror of the slaughter not through descriptions of blood and gore but by emphasising the silent moment that immediately precedes it: that trembling instant of breathless suspension, when it’s too late to call the arrows back, but the dying hasn’t yet begun.
Both flights of arrows hung for a moment at the top of their arc. It seemed that they might remain there for ever. A cloud of wood and iron and feathers clustered thickly together in the middle of the sky, the weapons of two nations mingled so close together that it was impossible to tell them apart. Then the arrows fell.
There were several moments like this, where a turn of phrase, an image or an idea was simply expressed and yet immensely powerful. And the poignancy is increased by the fact that Leach’s Croesus is a very sympathetic character. He has done some brutal things because a king must protect himself; but he is not ruthless by nature. Instead he is a man trying to understand the best way to live, even though he is blinded (at first) by personal ambition. It is this tragic flaw that leads him to make the strike against the Persian Empire which will result in retaliation and, eventually, his own destruction. Like Cyrus, he dreams of empire: and it is fitting, perhaps, that he achieves it in the end not through the domination of arms but by a more subtle and more lasting means: the domination of trade, through the world’s first standardised gold currency. What more appropriate memorial could there be to Croesus?
There will be spoilers below, so if you haven’t read the book and (like me) know nothing about the historical Croesus, I suggest you skip this paragraph. It’s rather wonderful to just read the book as a novel, without any awareness of its historical accuracy. As far as I knew, Leach could have created the entire story himself: it certainly didn’t feel as if the characters were being forced along by historical fact, as it does in some novels. Indeed, he manages to make a story dictated by history feel as fresh and natural as if he plotted it himself. After finishing the novel, I turned to the trusty Wikipedia to see how much Leach had drawn from Herodotus, whom he’d mentioned at the end as his chief source.
And it turns out that he has been immensely faithful to what is known about Croesus, even though much of that is legend. The reception of the fratricide Adrastus; the accidental death of Atys; Danae’s leap from the tower; the words of the Delphic Oracle… all these things are based on historical record (though some of the records contradict one another – some, for example, maintain that Croesus died on the funeral pyre; others that he was saved and became Cyrus’ adviser, as this book suggests). I’m really going to have to read Herodotus. I’ve been meaning to for years, and now I find that all these wonderful stories come from him, such as the tale of the Persian army marching through the winter to take Sardis by surprise; or their capture of Babylon by diverting the Euphrates and entering the city through a drained culvert. And Leach has left me keen to find out more about Cyrus: both about the man, who seems to have been a remarkably just and tolerant ruler; and about his foundation of the Persian Empire, which of course plays so crucial a role in the great events of Greek history, at Salamis, Thermopylae and later at Issus.
The best novels are those which leave you bubbling with enthusiasm about a period which you previously didn’t know about, or didn’t care about. Leach’s book manages to do that by revitalising Herodotus’ history in this moving story of a man’s fall and redemption, which tackles the kind of questions that people are still asking themselves today: how to live well; how to be happy; and what exactly constitutes freedom. As a newcomer to this period of classical history, I found it completely gripping and, if anyone else is tempted to give it a go, I’d love to know what you think.