Alternatives to 300, part 2: Democracy

A few days ago, I wrote about the graphic novel Three as a more historically accurate alternative to Frank Miller’s 300. Today, I want to draw your attention to Democracy, a graphic novel published this year, written by Abraham Kawa, based on a concept by artist Alecos Papadatos, with colours supplied by Annie Di Donna.

The story is set on the eve of the Battle of Marathon, in 490 BC, and much of it deals with the background to the democratic reforms in Athens following the rule of its tyrants Hippias and Hipparchus, the sons of the previous tyrant Pisistratus (who died in 527 BC). There are flashbacks to even earlier times, including Pisistratus’ arrival in the city on a chariot flanked by a women dressed like Athena. The main character is Leander, the son of a prominent Athenian, and we see the events in Athens unfold through his eyes over the course of some 200 pages.

When Leander and his father visit the market, the latter comments about how the city is in the grip of fear. Leander is sent on business to the Chersonese and returns to Athens on the same day that Hipparchus is assassinated (514 BC). That unleashes unrest and a struggle, during which Leander’s father is killed, and their house is set ablaze. He ends up in Delphi, where he again meets Hero, runs into the pragmatic Cleisthenes, and learns that things are not always as they seem. Against a background of social unrest, the authors paint an image of what life may have been like in Athens in the years leading up to the Battle of Marathon.

The art style of the book is great. There is no attempt at rendering anything in a very realistic way, and I think it works fine, with easily distinguishable characters drawn in hard outlines. There are no straight lines drawn using rulers; everything seems natural. The colours are pleasing, too, with some shading creating a more three-dimensional look to everything; each panel pops off the page. The writing is fine, clipped and to the point.

I also like the inclusion of the gods in the story. Athena appears a few times to Leander, for example, and also shows up at the very end when the Battle of Marathon is underway. There is also a sequence, on pages169 through173, in which Athena and Apollo have a discussion and make references to more modern times, complete with a few panels that seem to echo the sirtaki from Zorba the Greek (a supposition shown to be correct after reading Papadatos’s commentary). It suggests that the gods are timeless and omnipresent.

There are a few things in the book that are perhaps contentious, and a few that are wrong. When Leander and his father enter the Agora (at a time when Hipparchus was still very much alive), we are shown Athenians complaining about Scythian archers, who also pop up later in the story. There’s a lot we don’t know about these supposed Scythians, who are thought to have served as a kind of police force, though they might not have been Scythians, and they might not have even been archers! They are common on Attic pottery between 530 and 490 BC, though textual evidence dates from the fifth century BC.

Furthermore, you cannot write a story that involves Pisistratus without running into some difficulties. On page 93, Leander remarks that the tyrant had been ousted twice. That is indeed the story told by Herodotus, but it was probably not true: it is a common story motif for a man to fail twice and only to succeed on the third try, and what Herodotus writes about Pisistratus fits that scheme perhaps a bit too comfortably. The authors might not have wanted to engage with the scholarship on this account, but it’s a missed opportunity, I think, to just take Herodotus literally.

Likewise, there are a few issues with the way that Solon is portrayed. On page 95, Cleisthenes describes him as a ‘dreamer’, who opposed violence. That is quite different from the words used in the fragments attributed to Solon himself, where he comes across as belligerent when necessary. Similarly, Cleisthenes claims that Solon and Pisistratus were opposites of each other, and that Solon’s reforms were there to benefit the poor masses. The latter is quite a contentious interpretation, since Solon’s reforms were, I think, largely intended to stave off troubles among the aristocratic leaders of Athens, to prevent stasis (factional strife) and the emergence of a tyrant from among the upper echelons of society. The notion that Pisistratus rose as a tyrant thanks to the support of the common masses was once common in academia, but I don’t think many would actually still hold that notion to be true today.

Leander, our protagonist, falls in love with a girl called Hero. This a reference to a story in which a priestess of Aphrodite, Hero, who falls in love with Leander, who has to swim across a strait every night to make love with her. This eventually angers the goddess and one night she causes the light that guided Leander to Hero to be extinguished, causing the young man to lose his way and drown. When Hero discovers his dead body, she commits suicide. The story is retold in the book, despite the fact that it probably dates to the Roman era.

Leander is also presented as an artist, and later becomes a potter. That wouldn’t be much of a problem, except that he seems to come from a relatively well-off family. His father’s estate isn’t big, but it’s clear that he’s fairly important in the council and the family has at least two slaves. It seems unlikely that someone from a reasonably good family would ever want to be a painter – ‘artists’ in ancient Greece were considered banausoi (Romans would refer to them as fabri), people who worked with their hands and therefore low in standing. No doubt we are to assume that his inheritance was taken from him.

There are also a few instances where equipment and clothing are off. On page 63, there’s an armed warrior standing guard at a treasury at Delphi, and his breastplate and Corinthian helmet are coloured grey, giving the impression that they are made of iron rather than bronze. The same is true for the warriors on page 68, and I don’t think those leather shoulder straps are historical. There are also a few times where the clothes don’t look quite right, such as the short, puffy sleeves of Athena’s dress on pages 104–105, but those are minor complaints. The Spartans, seen for the first time on page 113, have brooches and shields that bear the lambda – a symbol they wouldn’t start using until the second half of the fifth century BC. Their helmets, too, seem to be made from iron (e.g. page 162).

Finally, I have one reservation about the book as whole. In trying to create what seems like the anti-300, the team involved went perhaps a bit too far in the other direction, emphasizing the unique characteristics of Athens and thereby reinforcing the traditional view of ancient Greece as a country of extremes, with militaristic Sparta on the one hand, and democratic Athens on the other.

All in all, though, I really enjoyed the book and I recommend that you pick it up. The story is interesting and well told, and it gives an idea of the kind of context in which Cleisthenes’ reforms managed to take root. I also really enjoyed the reconstruction of Late Archaic Athens, drawn as a bustling city full of life.

And speaking of Athens: you can look forward, I hope, to next week being the Week of Theseus, right here on the Ancient Warfare blog!

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