“The past is a foreign country,” or so wrote the novelist L. P. Hartley in 1953. Somehow I found that image very comforting. It is a place you can go to in your readings, your research and your dreams without actually physically being there at all. True, dwelling in the past is pure escapism but it is also the stuff of imagination.
The past has always fascinated me. I like stories and there is not a richer source of stories than the past. Reading history for me has always been about reading stories. Whilst you can find increasing number of sources about the more recent past, these diminish the more you go back into time, so much so that our ancient sources become very sparse. So the further back you go into the past the less likely you are sure of what actually happened. This is a wonderful place for a novelist to reconstruct the past at least provide alternative explanations for what we all know happened in a given period of time without actually changing any of the known facts. That is precisely what I have done in the Queen of Sparta.
The Queen of Sparta is set in the time of the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. Our main and sole primary source for this period is Herodotus, who is variously nicknamed, “the Father of History” and “the Father of Lies.” Herodotus describes how the Greeks led by the Spartans and Athenians beat this invasion and he gives detailed account of the heroic men who led these forces. As stories go, this is the stuff of legend and no doubt reflected in two recent popular movies, “300” and “300 – Rise of an Empire.”
However, what Herodotus also describes is a Greece in disarray with more Greek states joining the Persians than opposing and the Greeks virtually not only losing all the initial engagements but also making inept decisions. So how did these bungling, quarreling Greeks defeat a Persian Army, which according to Herodotus, was over two million strong?
Sadly, he does not answer this question. However, I found enough clues in Herodotus to construct a plausible answer, which I actually tested on leading Professors in two prestigious universities, and they found no fault in my logic. This answer was that a woman led the Greek resistance that stopped the Persian invasion. This is the basis of my story and most of the evidence for this story comes from Herodotus himself.
Herodotus describes Queen Gorgo as a bright young woman who is far more intelligent than the men around her. Raised in a warrior society where people are taught the virtues of obedience, she is the one who is always thinking “outside the box.” It is this type of thinking that the Greeks need to defeat the Persians. Queen Gorgo obliges by devising a strategy that repulses the invaders. She is a remarkable woman and unsung heroin of a bygone age.
But the Queen of Sparta, is not only about the Persian invasion. It is also about Sparta and its internal social contradictions that are bubbling under the surface. It is also about what happens when people unite to fight a common enemy, but when they have defeated that common enemy they turn on each other. This novel traces the period from the Persian invasion when the Spartans and the Athenians fight side by side to the origins of the Peloponnesian Wars when the two actually go for each other’s throats.
The novel is also a story of how cultures perceive each other and how they clash both physically and metaphorically – a problem, sadly that we still have to grapple in our modern times. But the novel tries to explain that this is not necessary. It is not always about ‘us’ and ‘them’ and at the end of the day there is more that unites than divides us. And central to that question is the ownership of history. Growing up in northern Pakistan, living next to the ruins of the ancient city of Taxila, which was once populated by Greeks and Macedonians, I believe that history is our common bond. We might see it is as a foreign country, but the past belongs to us all.
T.S. Chaudhry was born in Karachi, Pakistan. He has a Bachelors Degree from Cornell University, a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. A former Pakistani diplomat, he has been working for the United Nations on peace and security issues in Africa.
The Queen of Sparta is Chaudhry’s first novel. The story came to him several decades ago while he was reading Herodotus for his ‘A’ Level examination. It occurred to him that a case could be made for Gorgo of Sparta orchestrating the Greek resistance to the Persian invasion without essentially changing any of the facts presented by Herodotus. This is essentially an alternative retelling of a well-known tale.
He is currently working on a ‘prequel’ to the Queen of Sparta based on events leading up to the Battle of Marathon, called Fennel of Field.