Monday, November 25, 2019

Philippos, Amyntor, and Fathering in Dancing with the Lion

 As a coming-of-age tale, dynamics between fathers and sons play a crucial role in both novels, making Philippos and Amyntor deliberate foils. Some of this is laid out in Becoming, but in Rise, it occupies front-and-center.

File:Philip II of Macedon CdM.jpgPhilippos’s own father died when he was relatively young, 12-13 at most. In addition, he spent at least one, and possibly two, hostage-ships outside Macedonia. He had nothing approaching a normal childhood, even allowing for having grown up royal at a polygamous court. His father had two wives and at least seven children: six sons and a daughter, maybe more, as daughters weren’t necessarily recorded. His time as a hostage at the house of Pammenes in Thebes might have been the closest to normal he ever experienced, although later gossip implied that it wasn’t a fatherly relationship the young Theban general had with young teen Philippos.

Despite all that (or because of it), the thought he put into Alexandros’s education suggests deep concern not only to raise a son, but an heir who could survive the bloodbath of Macedonian inheritance. Even before Aristoteles arrives, Alexandros’s schooling was based on a southern Greek model. Later, after he returned from study, Philippos gave him increasingly important duties, yet always under guidance. This is the period covered by Rise. So if our instinct is to critique Philippos for being harsh, we must measure it against his own childhood, and his desire that his son survive. He wants to be a good father; he just doesn’t know what that looks like.

As a teen, Alexandros is often overconfident, thinking himself ready for appointments he’s not ready for. Philippos knows better, and does a masterful job of selecting tasks he can manage. Quite contrary to portrayals of Philippos as jealous and trying to hold back Alexandros, when looked at from outside the lens of later propaganda, Philippos fairly consistently sought to teach his heir the essentials of ruling. They had some spectacular blow-ups, but the evidence says they got along as often as not.

Yet there IS a darker side to Philippos: his tendency to violence when frustrated. Unfortunately, Alexandros frustrates him on a number of occasions (as does Myrtalē). I do want to note that this construction is fictional. Evidence that the real Philip of Macedon engaged in regular domestic violence is circumstantial and scarce, outside the “wedding incident.” But I took that event and built on it, given cultural assumptions of the time.

The ancient world permitted, even expected harsh discipline. If they didn’t have mass shootings or serial killers, compared to today, their world was “casually brutal.” Beating a slave for bad behavior or just a perception of laziness was not only allowed, but encouraged. Paddling children or using switches or canes was normal. Slapping a wife or mistress didn’t raise much comment. By no means did every adult male do such things, and there’s indication that beating one’s wife or children was stigmatized, but mostly as evidence of a lack of self-control. Not because the aggression itself was considered wrong.


In one key scene at the beginning of Rise, Alexandros starts to ape his father’s usual response when frustrated by his mother: he raises his arm to strike her. Yet he stops himself. He chooses not to become his father. It isn’t, however, a magic fix. We know that men who engage in assault came, themselves, from violent homes. Children learn what they live. Going forward, Alexandros will face the same choice on other occasions in his life, and sometimes, he’ll fail the test.

So the uncomfortable conflict at the heart of both novels is that Philippos does love his son, does want him to succeed, but finds him frustrating and difficult, and reacts with a brutality he always later regrets.

Yet while he may be the novel’s antagonist, he’s not the “bad guy.”

Making an abuser the bad guy is tempting. How could someone love his son, yet leave him with bruises (or worse)? To claim such a thing might seem to be making excuses. That’s where the tightrope walking begins. Philippos does bad things, which are acknowledged as bad things, yet he repents and tries to make up for them, usually awkwardly. He’s a bad father because he doesn’t know how to be a good father, and that’s his tragedy. He was a magnificent strategist, a wiley negotiator, and a visionary king…but a crappy dad.

Enter Amyntor.

First, Amyntor has a good ten years on Philippos, and four children older than Hephaistion. In short, he has more practice. Furthermore, he and Hephaistion are much alike, personality-wise, something underscored several times in both novels. Amyntor understands his youngest. So he’s presented as the “good father.”

But he’s not a perfect father. Those don’t exist. I’d remind readers of what set in motion events at the start of Becoming (book I): Hephaistion ran away from home.

He did so because he was a teen boy, stubborn and headstrong. Yet Amyntor made mistakes, too, which led to Hephaistion’s bad choices. Both are human. They’re doing the best they can, given their own limited perception of things. And I drew them so, because even well-intentioned, mature people can still screw up. The difference is in how they react. Amyntor doesn’t try to force Hephaistion to come home, quite aside from whether he legally could have. He doesn’t do so because he recognizes his son’s autonomy and respects it, even if he doesn’t agree with it. His reaction is sorrow and worry, not uncontrollable anger.

That’s where he steps away from Philippos. He’s the “good father” because he’s emotionally mature. Anger is a fear reaction, and Philippos learned young to be terrified. When threatened: attack. Amyntor responds to the world in a wholly different way, and teaches his own children the same, plus a few strays: Ptolemaios and Alexandros.

The irony, of course, is that his political acumen isn’t terribly high. If not as clueless as his son thinks, he’s an isolationist by policy, unconcerned (and thus, ignorant) of wider Greek affairs of state and their ramifications. So Hephaistion comes to Pella to learn politics from Philippos. But in the end, it’s Alexandros who learns the greater lesson from Amyntor, who models what fatherhood should look like.

For victims to escape the cycle of violence, they have to know there are other options. Amyntor (and Hephaistion) represent those alternatives for Alexandros.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Eros, Philia, and Love Magic

Some readers have asked why, even after the boys become lovers, I persist in referring to them as “friends” in the novels? Am I trying to hedge regarding their sexual relationship?

Not at all. I’m trying to highlight a more equal partnership.

The ancient Greeks thought about love differently than we do, sometimes starkly so. They had several different terms, something that modern writers (such as C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves) make more of than they should. After all, we also have a plethora of terms. We can love, like, desire, crush-on, fancy, adore, appreciate, hold dear…all of which have varied connotations just like their Greek counterparts.

So the difference isn’t with the variety of terms, but with how they categorized them.

Eros—best translated as “desire”—is often described with terminology reminiscent of disease. It makes one weak, helpless, unable to sleep, unable to eat, unable to concentrate; one burns with desire like a fever. All descriptions we’d recognize today. But these aren’t good things, not a state one wants to pursue, especially for men.

Self-control (sophrosunē) was the aspired-to ideal, which eros upended. Therefore, eros was a PROBLEM for Greek men.

In the first novel, Becoming, Hephaistion wrestles with the eros he feels for his friend, mostly by trying to ignore and sublimate it. Because he’s almost three years older than Alexandros, and matured early, he’s more sexually aware, if not necessarily all that sexually experienced. By the end of the first novel, they do get their act together.

Yet in the second novel, Rise, they must negotiate the division between eros and philia. Yes, philia is often translated as friendship, but this is where modern definitions can oversimplify HOW the ancients used terms. We tend to view friendship as existing on the edges of other, more important relationships: familial or romantic. But to the Greeks, philia was considered the higher love, topping mere sexual desire (eros). So for them, romantic love existed on the edges of friendship! Philia exalted those who felt it, made them better. Eros might, instead, drag down those who suffered it, driving a man mad. In turn, he sought to make the object of his desire share his insanity. The Greeks virtually invented the notion of “crazy for love.”

We see the distinctions between eros and philia most clearly in Greek love magic.

Popular assumption rarely associates “magic” with the Greeks. Aren’t they the inventors of philosophy and rational thought? Well, yes, but magic was HUGE all over the ancient world. And then, as now, affairs of the heart occupied a lot of it.

It’s largely men who use aggressive, sometimes violent spells to compel women (and occasionally other men) to submit to them sexually. Setting aside for the moment whether any of this actually worked, it’s the language of Greek love spells that concern us. Here’s an example: 

“Seize Euphemia and lead her to me, Theon, loving me with crazy desire, and bind her with inescapable bonds, strong ones of adamantine, for the love of me, Theon, and do not allow her to eat, drink, obtain sleep, jest, or laugh, but make her leap out…and leave behind her father, mother, brothers, sisters, until she comes to me.” (SM 45, trans. C. Faraone)

This is quite typical, and hardly respectful to Euphemia (or the other female targets of these spells). Theon wants to transfer onto her the desperation he feels himself. We could romanticize this, but shouldn’t. Too much of the violent and jealous language of modern romance narrative is rooted in Greco-Roman models. Stalking and controlling behavior isn’t romantic; it’s creepy. “He ravaged her mouth,” or “He rammed into her hard,” isn’t love language. “Ravage” means “to cause severe damage to.” That’s not my idea of a good kiss. Greek men like Theon who cast these aggressive love spells (called agogē or “drawing” spells) wanted to ravage their victims, not woo them. We might want to rethink common Romance tropes that arise from these antique, misogynistic models: compelling a woman, not courting her and inviting her agreement, equal to equal. These are not empowering for women (or men) today.


What Hephaistion and Alexandros share certainly involves desire (eros), but is more respectful. If each are occasionally guilty of manipulation because they’re young and insecure, it’s important to them that they’re in it together, and by choice. As they assert on the beach at the end of the first book, Becoming: “Friends first.” “Friends always.” They aren’t casting coercion spells on each other. Hephaistion does visit a magician near the end of Becoming, but to find a spell to fall OUT of love, not to compel Alexandros to his bed, because he loves his friend more than he lusts for him. The young magician he visits is initially confused by his request, then praises him for such a noble aspiration.

That’s philia. The love for another that wishes the best for them, not necessarily for one’s self. Eros is self-centered and self-involved, desperate, but concerned with power and social “face.” Philia acknowledges the autonomy of the Other in the equation.

Thus, philia comes closer to our modern notion of love. Returning to Greek love magic, we find philia charms used in what are clearly sexual relationships, but which are faithful, and most often employed by women. Erotic spells like that used by Theon above describe the victim as leaving her [or his] house, parents, spouse, children and “forgetting” about them, to rush to the bed of the man. They’re separating and controlling. By contrast, philia charms are about retaining a lover/spouse.
So my use of “friends” (philos) is preferable to “lover” (erastes) for Alexandros and Hephaistion’s relationship. It elevates partnership over desire and conquest. Equality over social hierarchy.

(The image, from Greek pottery, shows Aphrodite holding a iunx, or magic charm, used by women to enspell men to love them/stay faithful. It was whirled around on the strings and made a buzzing sound while the motion held the eye.)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Love and War

A persistent, annoying, misogynistic delusion says Romance readers (female or male, but especially female), or women more generally, can’t handle things like hard science fiction, political intrigue, and, especially, military matters. Our pretty little heads are incapable of understanding that “serious stuff.” All we care about are love affairs and fashion.

Hoo-boy, don’t get me started or I might skewer somebody. (Author at right, with a Macedonian sarissa.)

Funny story about SF author Catherine Asaro: she’s known for her hard-SF Romances, but what a lot of readers don’t know is she’s also Dr. Catherine Asaro, with a PhD in chemical physics from no less a school than Harvard. Some years back, on a now-defunct bulletin board, a male reader proceeded to try to mansplain how Asaro’s physics of space travel just wouldn’t work, and poor lady authors who want to write romance shouldn’t attempt a SERIOUS genre such as hard SF. Well, Dr. Asaro dropped into the convo, citing several of her own published articles in peer-reviewed journals, then proceeded to demolish fan-boy’s ignorant objections to her theories. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

Women do math and science, dammit—as demonstrated by my Kleopatra in the novels.

I don’t believe for one minute that women readers, as much as men readers wouldn't like to know a little about the military matters I describe in Dancing with the Lion, not just the hair and clothes (as I do detail in another blog).

When non-specialist modern readers imagine ancient Mediterranean armies, it’s usually the Roman legion that comes to mind. The Greek phalanx is similar…but not. A phalanx is a big rectangular block of infantry, usually 8-deep, that presented a “locked shields” front. Larger armies were made up of several phalanges (phalanxes) in a row. Armies were chiefly infantry as horses don’t do well in the rocky Greek south. So their armies had a lot of light troops, such as slingers, but little horse.
Yet Greek infantry was legendary. These “Men of Bronze” were sought-after mercenaries in Ancient Near Eastern armies, and would famously rout the Persians at the Battle of Marathon despite being outnumbered. Southern Greek cities also had excellent navies, although Macedonia didn’t, so I won’t address navies here.

Image result for hoplite armed potteryThe infantryman, or “hoplite,” was armed with a big-ass round, convex shield covering him from chin to knee; a bronze helmet; and—depending on how much money his family had—a bronze breastplate or a cuirass of fused, tough, glued linen with girdle plates; and maybe bronze greaves covering his shins. From the front, this presented a pretty solid defense. But if, in video-games, Greek soldiers all look alike, in truth, Greek armor varied a lot. Helmet styles differed vastly by region, and how much armor a soldier could afford also differed. Shield devices were personal (as in the image above). Put simply: THERE WAS NO ANCIENT GREEK UNIFORM. Individuality mattered. (Hoplite arming, image shows how the shield was held inside.)

Why the differences among real soldiers? They armed themselves; city-states didn’t provide equipment. So what they brought to the field was whatever they could afford. Also, the primary weapon of the Greek infantryman was the SPEAR, not a sword. Swords were secondary, used only after your spear broke. While Greek armies did have archers along with slingers and peltasts (javelin-men), Greek infantry viewed the bow as a coward’s weapon.

When Philip took over as king of Macedon, the army got a serious overhaul. First, Macedonia—unlike the south—had horses. In fact, prior Macedonian armies had been CAVALRY armies, with limited infantry. Philip reformed the infantry by lightening their armor and giving them the ultimate “pig-poker”: a 15-foot sarissa, or pike. It was about twice as long as a normal Greek spear, requiring one to wield it two-handed.

Then he shaped up the cavalry, arming them more heavily and deploying them in triangular “spear point” formations, which allowed them to shift direction quickly at a gallop. They carried the xyston, which wasn’t as long as a sarissa, but still formidable. Incidentally, ancient cavalry used neither saddles nor stirrups, only a saddlecloth.