The Gates of Athens tells the story of ancient Athens from Marathon to Thermopylae through four of the city’s most influential political and military figures. Its democracy is threatened not just by the military might of the Persian empire, but by the machinations of its own citizens.
The novel begins with one of them, Xanthippus, joining his fellow warriors as they leave Athens to confront the Persians at Marathon. The key characters and backstory are introduced through his eyes. I found it a bit challenging getting to know them while on the march. Still, the drama and the horror of the fighting is brilliantly depicted.
After Marathon, the four men return to Athens to a hero’s welcome but they are soon divided by ambition and conflicting interests in ways that resonate today. Through Xanthippus’s eyes we see how corruption, charisma and factionalism all challenge the institutions that are supposed to protect their democracy.
Of course, it’s simplistic to view the great events of history only through the prism of today, but I wonder if it can really be coincidence that there is passing mention of prorogation and a soldier passing out while waiting for inspection by a tardy Xerxes as the Persian emperor prepares to go to war. There is even a man who gains the power he craves and realises that, actually, it’s pretty hard work, and a bit boring.
Despite these events, and personal betrayal, Xanthippus remains passionate in his desire to fight for his city and for the principle of democracy as the Persians once again threaten the destruction of Athens. The lack of deference of the Athenians is contrasted throughout the book with the absolute power and rigid etiquette of Xerxes and his court. In the sea battles we see the difference between the free, trained, motivated Athenian rowers and the slaves worked to death in the Persian ships. There are also some nice comic moments contrasting the discursive speech of the Athenians and the famously laconic Spartans.
For me, the political machinations are what makes The Gates of Athens, but the strength of Conn Iggulden’s writing is that you can find what you want in it – vivid battle scenes, rich depictions of daily life, plot twists and drama. This is the first in a new series and I’m already looking forward to the next book.
I received a copy of The Gates of Athens from Netgalley.
View The Gates of Athens on Goodreads