MEMNON: A Retrospective

In the past few weeks, my sophomore novel, MEMNON (Medallion Press, 2006; Crossroad Press, 2018), has received a raft of four-and-five star ratings on Goodreads and a pair of excellent reviews — which, for a fourteen-year old novel is no mean feat.  Author Matt Larkin, in his review at Amazon, writes: “Evocative prose paints a living picture of the Classical world while the sudden, brutal violence serves to remind us never to look at history through rose-colored glasses.” While Scott Marlowe of Out of this World Reviews praises many things, including the battles: “I can only describe [them] as spectacular and right up there with some of the best battles I’ve had the pleasure to read in historical fiction (think Bernard Cornwell, surely one of the best of them all). Memnon gives Alexander such grief I imagine Alexander remembered their contests right up until his dying days.”



This recent round of praise has, in turn, made me a bit maudlin.  I can no longer recall the exact date I decided to write what would become MEMNON.  My best guess, based on a bread crumb trail of old emails, is sometime in late 2002.  I know by early 2003 I was actively working on it — even as I secured a literary agent for my first novel, MEN OF BRONZE; my new agent, in turn, sold that book to Medallion Press in early 2004.  And Medallion Press acquired MEMNON in September of 2004. But, where did this idea to write an anti-Alexander the Great novel come from?

That I do remember.  It had its genesis in an effort to go in a different direction from MEN OF BRONZE — to write a book less influenced by Robert E. Howard and more along the lines of Mary Renault’s THE PRAISE SINGER (which remains a favorite of mine).  The direct inspiration for the story, however, was Harold Lamb’s biographical novel, ALEXANDER OF MACEDON (International Collectors Library edition, Garden City, New York, 1946). Specifically, this passage (page 134):

[Barsine] reached forward and pressed the corner of the case.

Inside gleamed the precious things, set in order, the armbands, the miniature tiara and earrings, and all the personal jewelry of a woman, each piece inscribed with minute letters, The love of Memnon of Rhodes.  Alexander examined a bracelet of thin silver, put it back, closed the lid and gave her the case.

“You need not wear the bracelet of Alexander of Macedon,” he said, and went away, seemingly forgetting her secret from that moment.  But when, months later, he began his journey to the east, he did not take Barsine, the widow of Memnon.

Likely the scene was entirely a-historical, a gem from Lamb’s prodigious imagination, but it nevertheless sparked a fire in my belly.  The idea of a woman loved by Alexander the Great pining for a dead husband? That, my friends, had all the hallmarks of good Greek tragedy.  It clamored for a book. And I needed a book to write. Thus, I set out to learn all I could of this man, Memnon of Rhodes, and of his time. And, as Scott Marlowe points out in his review, there wasn’t much about him in the historical record prior to entering Alexander’s sphere of influence as an enemy.  Memnon’s birthplace was Rhodes, of course, but there was no mention of his father or mother; he had a prominent brother, Mentor of Rhodes, who served the Persian king in Egypt, and a nameless sister who married the Persian satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia (and a grandson of royal blood), Artabazus. There were tantalizing clues: Artabazus’s father had dispatched a man of Rhodes called Timocrates to Hellas, to distribute money and raise anti-Spartan feelings against the ever-campaigning Spartan king Agesilaus II.  This man might have been old enough to have two sons, and he might have forged a bond with Artabazus, the son of his benefactor.  But, there was nothing concrete.

memnon uk

What was known about Memnon of Rhodes, then?  He was, of course, mentioned in the “usual suspects” of Alexandrian history: the Roman-era authors Arrian, Curtius Rufus, Diodorus Siculus, and Plutarch.  But, Memnon is also mentioned in a few out of the way places, such as Demosthenes’ speech Against Aristocrates:

[157] Do you remember the immediate sequel, by which the trick was exposed in the very act? Memnon and Mentor, the sons-in-law of Artabazus, were young men, enjoying unexpected good fortune by their relationship to Artabazus. What they wanted was to govern the country peaceably without delay, and to win distinction without warfare and peril. Accordingly, they persuaded Artabazus to forgo his vengeance upon Charidemus, and to send him off under an armistice, advising him that you would bring Charidemus across with or without his consent: he could not possibly stop you. 

And in Economics by Alexander’s own tutor, Aristotle (who likely knew Memnon personally):

Memnon of Rhodes, on making himself master of Lampsacus, found he was in need of funds. He therefore assessed upon the wealthiest inhabitants a quantity of silver, telling them that they should recover it from the other citizens. But when the other citizens made their contributions, Memnon said they must lend him this money also, fixing a certain date for its repayment.

Moreover, there is an interesting reference to Memnon in Strabo’s Geography (Book 13, Chapter 1):

Memnon of Rhodes, who was at that time serving the Persians as general, made a pretense of friendship for Hermeias, and then invited him to come for a visit, both in the name of hospitality and at the same time for pretended business reasons; but he arrested him and sent him up to the king, where he was put to death by hanging. But the philosophers safely escaped by flight from the districts above-mentioned, which were seized by the Persians. 

This Hermeias, the tyrant of Assos, was Aristotle’s son-in-law.

All of these pieces added up, and they revealed a tantalizing glimpse into the mind and heart of the man who would oppose Alexander the Great — a capable and cunning man, a warrior, and a statesman (though I read a paper in 2013 or so that deconstructed the myth of Memnon of Rhodes, presenting him as a collection of tropes found in Greek literature rather than a real person, but my take on him makes for better drama).  The fantasist’s art came into play once I’d assembled these disparate pieces . . . I had to make them into a flesh-and-blood whole who could inspire such grief and longing in the heart of a woman.

Historical fiction is but fantasy in disguise, and MEMNON was no different.  The formula I used to bring the 4th century BC to life was this: for every three facts I could find about the world or culture at the time, I had license to create three more from whole cloth.  But, these creations had to fit with the facts. They needed the same patina of age, the same basic outline. There was a civil war on Rhodes, though no details were known; something kept Memnon from returning to Rhodes, though whether it was voluntary or a political exile is not known.  So, I built upon these layers of thin truths a house of fiction — one that looks real, smells and tastes real, that has an air of age about it, but is no more factual than Middle-earth or the Hyborian Age.

Alas, MEMNON was meant to be my “break out” novel.  But, the original publisher suffered through a series of internal convulsions in the months before and after the book’s release in 2006.  I was left to flog it as best I could without any support. As a result, sales plummeted which meant there would be no paperback edition in the States (it did better in the UK, with a nice paperback version from Transworld/Bantam).  Now, it’s available only as a remaindered hardcover in second-hand shops, or else as an e-book from Crossroad Press.


So, fourteen years on, to get good reviews and multiple stars warms my heart . . . even as it reminds me of what could have been.

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