It tells the story of Nikeratos, an actor who finds himself caught up in the action and drama of the times, particularly concerning Syracuse and Athens. It's a brilliant portrayal of Greek society, beliefs and attitudes, and is one of my favorites among her novels. You can read a brief synopsis here, but I highly recommend reading the whole thing for yourself. It repays attention.
I've chosen this excerpt to illustrate Greek attitudes towards the theater, and towards their gods: but in particular, because it illustrates Mary Renault's ability to paint a scene with words, to penetrate beyond the obvious to the inner attitudes of her characters and the world they inhabited (very foreign to our modern eyes and way of thought). Nikeratos and his friend and fellow actor, Anaxis, have traveled to Delphi to present a play (not yet selected by their sponsors) at a festival there.
Ask some poet to describe the awe of Delphi, and some philosopher to explain it. I work with the words of other men. I looked back down the valley, the olives winding and falling mile on mile to a rock-clipped blink of sea. Beyond a vast gulf of air were the highlands of Mount Korax, cloud-patched with sun and gloom; westward the iron cliffs of Kirphis; above us reared Parnassos, more felt than seen. Its head was hidden by its knees, the rock-towers of the Phaidriades, which themselves seemed to gore the sky. Truly, Apollo is the greatest of all chorus-masters. The town, with his temple in the midst, is tiny as a toy in all this vastness; yet all those titan heads stand around that and look towards it. They are the chorus round his altar; if he raised his arm they would sing a dithyramb. I don’t know any other deity who could bring off such a show. At Delphi, you don’t ask how they know it is the center of the earth.
I looked up the great steeps of the Phaidriades, which stand behind the theater like a skene reaching to heaven. “Look!” I said. “Eagles!”
“My dear Niko, they are as common here as doves. Do let us get to the inn while they have something left to eat. If this is your first visit, you need not tell the world.”
Next morning we looked over the theater. We were pleased to find not a bit of obsolete equipment anywhere; after the big earthquake of five years back, they had had to refit completely. There was still scaffolding round the temple, and the roof a makeshift of pinepoles and thatch; Apollo and the Earth Snake kept up their ancient war. We shouldered back through the town under the tall proud statues, past the treasure houses for the cities’ offerings, Anaxis waiting patiently while I tipped the guardians and gaped at all the gold. He squeezed past sightseers and guides and pilgrims, soldiers and priests and slaves, temple-sweepers with brooms and whores with fans; stalls selling lamps, ribbons, raisins, books of oracles, and sacred bayleaves for lucky dreams. Looking up and about, I thought it was like dwarfs playing on a stage designed for titans. I suppose it was still a small, solemn place when Xerxes’ army came to lift the gold, and they asked Apollo what to do. “Get out,” he said, “I can take care of my own.” They still show the rock-peak he hurled down on the Persians, blazing aloft the Phaidriades and yelling through the thunder. I bought, for keepsake, a little gilded bronze of the god drawing his bow. A pretty thing. The old statue in the temple, that is an Apollo to shoot straight. But the shops don’t copy it now; they say it is crude, and art must move with the times.
Presently came a slave to meet us, bidding us take wine with our choregos.
We were led to a fine painted house beside the Stadium, and saw at once that our sponsor was a syndicate. Three were Delphians; but by watching whom everyone looked at first, we guessed it was the fourth who was putting up the money. He was one Philiskos, an Asian Greek from Abydos. What with his clothes and his ivory fly-whisk, and Delphi being as full of gossip as a winter hive of bees, we added two and two. This was King Artaxerxes’ agent, playing host to the conference with Persian gold.
While sweets and civilities went round, we discussed the play. The citizens of Delphi weren’t mentioned from first to last; it was the delegates who must be pleased. It was my turn to direct and choose a role, and I had proposed Hippolytos with the Garland. It was as good as settled, when some little man, who I’ll swear only wanted to go home saying he had spoken, said it might give offense to the Athenians, by showing King Theseus in the wrong. We both assured them it was revived in Athens about one year in five, and was the surest hit in repertory. Too late; the damage was done, the panic started. At a peace conference, it went without saying that everyone would be looking for slights and insults. Helen in Egypt might affront the Pharaoh; Medea, the Corinthians; Alkestis, the Thessalians. Once or twice I stole a glance at Anaxis, meaning, “Let’s leave them at it; before they miss us we’ll be in Thebes.” But he had set his heart and hopes on this production. When I whispered, under cover of all the dickering, “Try offering them The Persians!” he looked down his nose and would not laugh.
From mere boredom I started dreaming, and dreams bring memories. Next time they paused to scratch their heads, I said, “Why not The Myrmidons?”
How often, if ever, you have seen this play depends upon where you live. It is a favorite in Thebes and well liked in Macedon. In Athens it is hardly ever revived; no sponsor likes to take the risk. Ever since Aischylos’ own day, some people have always disapproved; and you never know when they will get on the judges’ board. Demagogues have proclaimed that the love of man for youth is a relic of aristocracy (a politician will say anything, if it strikes where he wants to hit), and the last thing they want to hear is that the play is noble. They would rather those great avowals did not ring on so in the heart.
Today, however, it turned out to be just the thing. Having looked at it backwards, sideways and upside down, they could not find a single slur on anyone’s ancestors, gods or city.
We went our way, stuffed full of Persian sweets and almonds, cursing the waste of time but satisfied with the outcome. Anaxis was content with his roles. I, being protagonist, would do Achilles; but Patroklos has some lovely lines, and so has Briseis later. Krantor would do Odysseus and the other odd parts. “And,” said Anaxis, “I suppose Apollo in the prologue?”
Walking as we talked, we had come out on top of the theater seats, and were gazing over the temple roof at the mountains. I said, “No, I’ll take Apollo myself.”
Anaxis raised his brows. “Do you want to? It’s a very quick change. Don’t forget Apollo is flown on; you’ll have the harness to get rid of.”
“I’ve a fancy for it. One’s not in Delphi every day. Call it my service to the god.”
That evening we were summoned back to meet the chorus-master, the flute-player and the skene-painter. The painter, Hagnon, was an old friend from Athens. Between rehearsals, I stayed to chat with him while he painted trophies-of-arms on the reveal and Greek tents on the flats. From time to time he would shout for his man to bring him ladder or paint, or shift his scaffolding, complaining that the fellow was never at call. He was lanky and spindle-shanked, with a straggling yellow beard; once I caught him staring at me, and it stirred some memory I could not place; but it was clear he would stare at anything rather than work, and I thought no more of it. Hagnon had had to take him on at Delphi, having come to do murals in a private house and getting this contract afterwards.
Rehearsals went smoothly. The chorus of Myrmidons were fine well-built men and could sing as well. I found a saddler to make me a flying-harness. The crane-man weighed me for the counterweight; finding him skillful, I only did my fly-in once with him, and rehearsed the prologue from the god-walk.
I enjoyed working on The Myrmidons. I had steeped my soul in it when young, and it still moved me. I have heard Patroklos better done—Anaxis had technique enough to sound young, but fell short of charm—still he did bring out the character’s goodness, without which nothing makes sense.
Delphi was filling up every day. Delegates were arriving, and, as Anaxis told me, all kinds of agents to watch the delegates, sent by the opposition in their various cities, their secret allies in rival cities, the interested kings and tyrants, and I don’t know whom. I was more amused by the high-priced hetairas who had come in from other towns and set up house to the rage of the Delphi girls; they would make a better audience than all these peace-traders. Leaving Anaxis to smell about, I went walking on the thymy hillsides or through the olive groves, hearing for chorus the cicadas and mountain birds, while I ran over this speech or that. One day Anaxis came bustling up to say that the envoy of Dionysios had come at last, and bettered our hopes by being some great personage and the tyrant’s kin. My mind was on the placing of a breath-pause, and the name went straight out of my head.
At my request, Hagnon was painting the masks for the principals; the local mask-maker was fit only for chorus work, but Hagnon worked wonders with his carving, as a good painter can. He had done me a fine Achilles, and was working on Patroklos. The Apollo was not yet carved.
Ever since Lamprias died and his widow sold up his things, I had kept the mask of Pheidias hanging, in a box like a little shrine, on the wall of my room in Athens. Remembering Phigeleia, before every contest I would wreathe it and make some offering. There was no good reason why I should have brought it with me—one can always find a friend to mind one’s things when touring—yet some reason had seemed good, and it was on the table at my lodging. That evening, when the lamp was lit and the shadows moved with the flame, it seemed to look straight at me with eyes inside its eyeholes, as if to say, “Nikeratos, you have brought me home. Dionysos’ winter reign at Delphi is past and gone. Have you not heard my music on Parnassos? I should like to smell skene-paint again.”
It gave me a start. I sat down at the pinewood table, chin in hand, as my father had taught me to do before a mask, when one wants to think oneself into it.
“Glorious Apollo,” I said presently, “are you sure? Wouldn’t you like your face to be more in fashion? You could have anything—a solid-gold wreath, jeweled earrings—it’s nothing to the backers here. And they’ll be at the dress rehearsal.”
A night breeze blew in from the heights of Korax; the lamp flame quivered; Apollo looked at me with dark lidless eyes. “At Phigeleia,” he said, “you promised to give me something. Have I asked for anything before?”
In the morning, I took it to the light. The paint was dull and worn, but the carving perfect. Hagnon was in the theater, touching up; I opened the box, and asked him what he thought.
He looked long in silence, frowning and biting his lips. I waited for him to say the usual things: stiff, harsh, primitive. But he looked up as if some pain had griped him, and said, “Oh, God, what was it like when men had certainty like that?”
“God knows,” I said. “I’ll wear it and see what comes to me. Can you repaint it?”
“Oh, yes, of course. I can touch it up and tone it down, till from in front you’d hardly tell it from a modern one. Listen, Niko. I’ll buy you a new one and paint it free. Just give me this and we’re square.”
“No, I meant can you do it as it was?”
He lifted it out, turning it in his hand and scratching the paint with his finger. “I can try,” he said. “God help me. Leave it with me.”
He put it by, and hauled his ladder along the skene. I gave him a hand, asking where his man had got to. “I turned him out, and good riddance. It’s quicker to work alone. Bone-idle, sullen, and drunk half the time. Niko, did you ever hire him?”
“Not I, by the dog.”
“When I paid him off, he said he supposed it was your doing.”
“Mine? What could he mean? It’s true, there was some look about him … What is his name?”
“Meidias … You do know him, then?”
I told the story. I daresay in those days it would have pleased me to see him now; you would think he had been a seedy, shiftless day-laborer all his life. Maybe I might still have known him without a beard; but I think it was his legs had jogged my memory. Who else would have believed that after all these years, having got where I was, I would stoop to rob him of his wretched pittance? I suppose it was what he would have done himself.
“Well,” I thought, “I’ve looked my last on him now.” Which indeed was true.
Next day Hagnon did not come to the theater. Someone said he was shut in his room and would not open; he did not sound sick; he must have company in bed. At evening, he met me in the wineshop. “The paint’s not set,” he said, “but come and see.”
He had propped the mask on a table with a lamp before it. I gazed in silence, while the eyes of Apollo Longsight, full of unplumbed darkness, stared out beyond us. We had served his turn. He had come back to his mountain lair, like a snake in springtime, to have his youth renewed.
My long quiet made Hagnon uneasy. “The room’s too small. I should have shown it you in the theater.”
I said, “Did you do this, or did he do it himself?”
“I’ll tell you what I did. I found it was a day for the oracle; so I sacrificed, and took this with me, and went down to the cave.”
I stared. He looked rather shamefaced. “It was just to get the feel. But one must ask something, so I asked which attributes the god’s face should show; and the Pythia answered—quite clearly, I could hear it without the priest interpreting—‘Pythian Apollo.’ So I went home and started work.”
“Apollo Loxias,” I said. Before, rubbed down almost to bare wood, it had seemed to show only the Olympian, balanced and clear. But poring in the faded lines of mouth and eye and nostril, Hagnon had found lost curves and shadows. A shiver ran down my neck. Here was the double-tongued, whose words move to their meaning like a serpent in a reed-bed, coil and countercoil; how can a man tell all his mind to children, or a god to men?
Presently I asked Hagnon what the Pythia had been like. He answered, “Like weathered rocks. She had lost her teeth, and under the drug she dribbled. But the fact is, I didn’t look at her long. In the back of the cave, behind the tripod, is a crack running into the darkness; and in its mouth is a seven-foot Apollo cast in gold, with eyes of lapis and agate. It must go back beyond the Persian Wars; it has that secret smile. I couldn’t take my eyes from it. But I heard what she said.”
I sent out for some wine, and tried to make him take the price of his time; but he said it would be bad luck. Before we drank, we both tipped our cups before the mask.
I asked him why, if these old forms moved him so, he still worked in the current style. “Just put me back,” he said, “in the glorious age of Perikles, and dose me with Lethe water, to unknow what I know. Once men deserved such gods. And where are they now? They bled to death on battlefields, black with flies; or starved in the siege, being too good to rob their neighbors. Or they sailed off to Sicily singing paeans, and left their bones there in sunken ships, or in the fever swamps or the slave-quarries. If they got home alive, the Thirty Tyrants murdered them. Or if they survived all that, they grew old in dusty corners, mocked by their grandsons, when to speak of greatness was to be a voice from the dead. They’re all gone now; and here are you and I, who know just what became of them. What will you do with that mask, Niko, when you have it on?”
“Well may you ask. At least I’ll play in Aischylos, which is what it was made for. Perhaps it will teach me something.”
The lamp smoked, and Hagnon trimmed it. As he pricked up the wick, there was a flicker on the face of Loxias, and it seemed that the dark side smiled.
I hope you enjoyed that excerpt as much as I enjoyed (and still enjoy) the whole book. I can't recommend her historical novels too highly. They've recently been republished in e-book format, and have never been out of print, as far as I know. You'll find them on Amazon.