This review has also appeared at Speak Its Name.
The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes opens on that fateful day on the plain of Chaeronea, when Philip and his golden son wipe out almost all of the Sacred Band. Almost all, for although badly wounded, Nikanoras still lives, much to his shame. Alexander finds him and has his wounds tended.
From that desperate opening scene, we flash back to Nikanoras’ childhood. ‘Nikki’ is the only son of the aristocrat Saliuikos. His mother Thessenike is a cold, uncaring woman, essentially leaving Nikki to be raised by his sister Euridises, who is almost 10 years older. As he enters his thirteenth year, Nikki believes that, like his father, he will one day marry, have children, and take his place as one of Thebes’ statesmen.
But much to his surprise, Nikki is turned over to the care of his father’s old friend Arybos, who will be the boy’s erastes as he is trained to take a place in the Sacred Band. This is quite a shock to the young man, who finds the idea of being a soldier and an eromenos to the old man rather repulsive. He doesn’t understand what could have brought about this drastic change of circumstances.
Unbeknown to Nikki, Arybos knows a dark secret that could destroy Saliuikos and his family. He holds Nikki’s father under his thumb, determined to take everything from Saliuikos, including his wife Thessenike, who is Arybos’ collaborator. Nikki’s only consolation is his sister Euridises, but soon Thessenike finds a husband for Nikki’s sister and sends her away. Her new husband, a powerful general, forbids Nikki from ever seeing his sister.
As a member of the Sacred Band, Nikki is expected to take a lover from one of the other members of the troop. From their very first meeting, Meleagros is enamored of the young Nikki, and sets about wooing him. It takes some time, but Meleagros finally finds a way to get Nikki to accept him as his lover. Nikki is quite cool at first, this isn’t the kind of relationship he expected to have, but as the years pass and he becomes increasingly isolated from his family, Nikki comes to realize Meleagros is the only only one who truly loves him. By they time they reach the plain of Chaeronea, the two twenty year-olds have a bond as strong as any other in the Band.
The story comes full circle to that battle on the plain against Philips forces. Held ransom like the other aristocratic Theban prisoners, Nikki is surprised when his freedom is paid for. Returning to Thebes, he finds a much different city, occupied by Macedonian mercenaries. He finds no welcome in his own home. The only one happy to seem him is Meleagros’ repulsive brother. Nikki finds himself more isolated than ever. While the ending is a bit of a surprise, you’d have to work very hard to convince yourself that it’s a happily ever after one.
There’s a really powerful plot line to this book, one of Shakespearean proportions. Indeed, Nikki is a brooding, indecisive Hamlet, whose ‘uncle’ Arybos plots to do away with his father and marry his mother. Only, Thessenike is less of a Gertrude and more of a Lady Macbeth. There’s also an almost Oedipal relationship between Nikki and his sister. Unfortunately, all this potential is let down by the storytelling. It never really grabbed me.
The problem, for me, was in the telling. The third-person narrative tells us everything. While Nikki remains clueless, we’re given all the intimate details of how his erastes and his mother plot against him. The evil plans, and the fact that Nikki is helpless to do anything about it, is hammered on repeatedly. I think the author was trying to create a sense of drama, but for me it had the opposite effect. The story really plodded along, as there was very little left to discover. I never really connected with Nikki. Meleagros is actually the more engaging character, but over the course of the book he’s all over the map emotionally, which left me a little confused as to his true self.
Having read Eromenos by Melanie McDonald not long ago, this book drives yet another nail into the coffin of the whole romantic notion of the erastes / eromenos relationship. It points out just how young - thirteen - the boys were when they entered into the arrangements, and that they often had no choice in the matter. I hope they never try to convince me Alexander was straight, because I don’t think I could cope with having any more bubbles burst.
Given the poor storytelling, this is a three star read at best.