“Epic” doesn’t always mean good
Historical novels are a favorite genre here at Old Books by Dead Guys, and ancient civilizations are also a preferred area of interest, but it is rare that the two come together to make a great book. Below is a recap of some novels of the ancient world that have been reviewed here at this blog, including books set in ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Carthage. Click on the titles below to read the full-length reviews. While there are a couple masterpieces included in this list, sometimes even great authors set out to craft an ancient epic and end up delivering a dud.
Acté by Alexandre Dumas (1838) - 2.5 stars
This was the first historical novel by Dumas, who would go on to write dozens of them, if not hundreds. The story takes place around AD 54. Acté was a Corinthian woman who became the favored lover of Roman Emperor Nero. The romantic storyline, however, gets lost in a morass of non-fictional detail that chronicles Nero’s career and climaxes with his downfall. From the author of such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, this is a surprisingly dull affair, though it does feature a riveting chapter about a gladiatorial exhibition. Acté served as the inspiration for Quo Vadis (see below), a much better book.
Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert (1856) - 4 stars
After achieving fame and success with Madame Bovary, Flaubert did a literary 180 with this romantic epic set in ancient Carthage (in present-day Tunisia). During the First Punic War of the third century BC, Carthage hired many mercenaries to help them fight the Romans. Failing to pay those mercenaries, however, Carthage then suffered the revolt of its hired warriors. Salammb̂ô, the daughter of one of Carthage’s chief military commanders, becomes the object of desire for the leader of these mercenaries. The story takes a backseat to its opulent window dressing, as Flaubert loving describes the clothing, furniture, and decor of each scene as if he were writing a Carthaginian Sears catalog. To its benefit, the novel is also loaded with gore galore. Salammbô is a flawed novel, but a good read nonetheless.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace (1880) - 3 stars
According to some sources, this is the best-selling novel of the 19th century, but today’s readers will likely find this book inferior to its film adaptation of 1959. Judah Ben-Hur is the son of a wealthy aristocratic Jewish family in Jerusalem who, through misfortune and foul play, is condemned to a life of slavery. The lethargic pacing of the plot is far slower than the Charlton Heston movie, and the action scenes are comparatively anticlimactic. The story is a discordant mix of minute archaeological detail and supernatural mumbo jumbo, and author Wallace, a former Civil War general, too often settles for merely paraphrasing the New Testament. After much heavy-handed preaching, the book ultimately leaves the reader with mixed moral messages.
Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1895) - 4.5 stars
Inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s Act́é (see above), Quo Vadis (the title is Latin for “Whither goest thou?”) also depicts the reign of Emperor Nero, a ruler known for his insanity and brutality. Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician and military tribune in Nero’s court, falls in love with Lygia, the beautiful daughter of a foreign king. In the process of pursuing her, Vinicius discovers that she is a member of a new and mysterious religious sect, the Christians. Nobel laureate Sienkiewicz exquisitely captures the minute details of Roman life, whether he’s depicting an orgy, a gladiatorial battle, a crucifixion, or Nero’s burning of Rome. Though Sienkiewicz, a devout Catholic, implanted the novel with a strong religious message, the book is great reading for theist or atheist alike. As far as ancient epics published in the 19th century go, Quo Vadis may be the gold standard.
The Pharaoh and the Priest by Boleslaw Prus (1895) - 2.5 stars
Another ancient epic from Poland, published in the same year as Quo Vadis, but Prus has a much more realistic style than the hyper-romantic Sienkiewicz. The Pharaoh and the Priest is set in ancient Egypt in the year 1087 BC. Young Ramses XIII, heir to the throne of Egypt, has just reached the age to begin learning the intricacies of his nation’s administration. His father, Pharaoh Ramses XII, sends him on a mission to investigate the cause of Egypt’s declining revenue, diminishing population, and loss of arable land. Young Ramses learns that the priestly bureaucracy is undermining the Pharaoh’s authority for its own financial and political gain. What follows is a lesson in ancient Egyptian government that suffers from slow pacing and tedious detail. Prus wrote better novels set in his native Poland, including The Returning Wave (1880).
Creation by Gore Vidal (1981) - 5 stars
This is one of my all-time favorite novels. Set in the 5th century BC, Creation chronicles the adventures of Cyrus Spitama, a Persian ambassador who travels the known world rubbing elbows and matching wits with historical figures like Socrates, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Confucius, Themistocles, Pericles, and several rulers of ancient kingdoms in present-day India and China. All the while Cyrus engages in his own personal philosophical quest for the meaning of life. Rarely will you find a work that’s both as entertaining and as intellectually stimulating as Creation. Vidal also wrote a very good novel set in ancient Rome, Julian (1964), about the emperor of the same name, but I haven’t read it in many years and have not reviewed it.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011) - 3.5 stars
This isn’t so much a historical as a mythological novel. One of the characters, for example, is a centaur, and it occasionally goes into full-on Clash of the Titans mode. Mostly the story focuses on a homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, his dear friend from the Iliad. The latter serves as the novel’s narrator. Miller freshens the ancient Greek tales for a modern audience by making the mythical heroes less idealized, adding psychological depth to the characters, and staging scenes that vividly recreate life in the ancient world. I found the supernatural content rather annoying and wasn’t crazy about the way the story of the Trojan War is overpowered by the romance, but the book improves greatly in its second half when the Greeks finally sail for Troy. While this novel is no substitute for the Iliad, it is an admirable supplement to it.
What about the Aztecs, Inca, and Maya?
I wish I could include some great novels about the ancient Americas, but unfortunately I haven’t found one. I gave a mediocre review to Leonide Martin’s book The Visionary Maya Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque (2013) and a bad review to Graham Hancock’s novel of the ancient Mexica (a.k.a. the Aztecs), War God: Nights of the Witch (2013). Both are the first books in series I chose not to follow. The history of these great empires isn’t interesting enough, apparently, because the authors felt the need to resort to supernatural embellishment. Eduardo Galleano’s Genesis (1982) is a much better book, but it only touches on ancient myths before focusing on the Western colonization of the Americas. I’m still looking for a good epic of ancient Mexico or Mesoamerica that takes place before the arrival of the Europeans.