In Chapter One we met our hero, Hasdrabal Barca, and set up the inciting incident (that being the hint of a Greek uprising in Memphis) that will ultimately bring our protagonist and antagonist into direct confrontation. In Chapter Two, we get our first look at that antagonist.
“The sky above Saqqara burned white-hot, baking the sprawling necropolis like clay in the kiln of Ptah, the Creator. Stone and soil absorbed the heat, radiating it back in a dull imitation of the sun.” Even today, I recall wrestling with precisely how to introduce the villain, Phanes of Halicarnassus. I’d introduced Barca through the vehicle of combat; I couldn’t repeat myself so soon and introduce Phanes in the same manner, so I needed something else – something no less bad ass than splitting wigs. Something slightly insane and more than a little dangerous. Part of the Greek ideal was the need to remain physically fit; in a foreign land, far from the gymnasiums and wrestling pits of their native poleis, how might they accomplish this? Thus was this idea born: “Through this inferno a runner came.”
Taking a leisurely jog through the sprawling desert necropolis of Saqqara, beneath the afternoon sun, is comparable to running through Death Valley, CA. That, to me, was pretty bad ass, and that’s how we meet the first historical character in Men of Bronze.
Phanes of Halicarnassus is first mentioned in the third book of Herodotus’ monumental The Histories:
“One of the mercenaries of Amasis [Pharaoh Ahmose II], a Halicarnassian, Phanes by name, a man of good judgment, and a brave warrior, dissatisfied for some reason or other with his master, deserted the service, and taking ship, fled to Cambyses, wishing to get speech with him. As he was a person of no small account among the mercenaries, and one who could give very exact intelligence about Egypt, Amasis, anxious to recover him, ordered that he should be pursued.” – Herodotus, The Histories, III.4 (translated by George Rawlinson).
“A man of good judgment,” Herodotus calls him, and in later sections he paints Phanes as Greek cut from the same cloth as Odysseus: crafty, wise, and a man respected for his martial gravitas. Of course, Phanes and Herodotus hailed from the same polis, Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, in modern-day Turkey. I always thought perhaps Herodotus gave Phanes a bit of a shine – couldn’t have someone who very well might be his kin looking shabby in the eyes of his readers, could he? So I shied away from the vision of golden Odysseus and crafted my image of Phanes more in line with that of a homicidal Alexander the Great, his wisdom replaced with arrogance.
“Physically, that superiority was plain to see: a perfection of face and form that seemed somehow a blending of mortal and divine. Broad of shoulder with lean — almost feminine — hips, his powerful frame carried a layer of iron-hard muscle forged on the anvil of war. Dark eyes set deep into an angular face glared at the wasteland before him as though it were an enemy ripe for conquest.” You know who I saw, and continue to see, as Phanes? The actor Rufus Sewell. Clean-shaven, dark and handsome, but with a hint of depravity about the edges.
“Phanes crested a final ridge, the sun at his back, and beheld the panorama of the Nile Valley below. The sapphire ribbon of the river and the green of the cultivated fields stood in stark antithesis to the naked sand and rock of the desert’s edge. More striking, though, was the city rising like a mirage from the Nile’s bank.” Recall, if you will, when I mentioned how much writing historical fiction was like writing fantasy? It’s an exercise in world-building, but rather than create from whole cloth the historical fiction author selects shards of the past and assembles them in such a way as to appear accurate and seamless to the casual reader. This whole section, where Phanes looks out over the city of Memphis from the desert ridge, is just such a moment.
No map of ancient Memphis exists; hardly any descriptions save for mention of the sprawling Temple of Ptah, equal in size to the great temple of Amun at Thebes. I’m very visual when I create, and without a map or guiding image I was at a loss to describe the city. Previous attempts were anemic, as lifeless as an old rock; I focused solely on the Temple of Ptah. It wasn’t until I looked elsewhere for inspiration that I finally found an image: Stephen Conlin’s illustration of the Temple of Karnak at Thebes (pgs. 208-209, Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). I imagined it on a grander scale, with labyrinthine streets and broad squares, sphinxes and other monuments all about. My Memphis was situated on the west bank of the Nile, on “a broad plain eight miles long and four miles wide, and protected from the annual Nile floods by a complex system of dikes and canals”.
A valid criticism others have made of my work is that I love too much the art of description; a friend called it my penchant for “architecture porn.” I freely admit to this, and make no apologies. I enjoy using words to conjure an image. Perhaps less would be better, but I adore the lushness of a well-evoked scene: the colors, scents, feelings; the undercurrent of history of place . . . I think these things are important, and aid in making the fantasy of “historical accuracy” seem real. I mean, who doesn’t love this:
“It was a bustling metropolis before Herakles endured his twelve labors; impossibly ancient on the eve of Ilium’s fall. With each successive dynasty, Memphis grew in power and size, earning the appellation Ankh-Tawy, the Life of the Two Lands. By the year of Phanes’ own birth, the generations who had lived and died in Memphis could be tallied in the hundreds.”
It makes me giddy, even now. But beauty must be paired with the commonplace in order to evoke the proper feeling, that Memphis is a “working” city and not just a sterile monument:
“The broad, dusty road swarmed with traffic. Men caked in grime trudged home from the quarries. Carts and wagons rattled over the hard-packed earth, laden with produce bound for the evening market in the Square of Deshur. Donkeys brayed and struggled. Oxen stumped along, led by brown-skinned children armed with frayed reeds. All around, flies rose in thick plague-like clouds, seemingly fueled by the combined stenches of rotting fish, dung, and rancid oil.” Yes, less is more, but no one can deny they see precisely what I need them to see after reading the fairly lengthy description of Memphis. Sadly, nothing remains of the city, today, save for a collection of foundations and stones, a sphinx and other colossal statues, and a recumbent image of Rameses the Great.
“Phanes had never seen a society so enamored of death . . .” This is me projecting a 20th-century attitude back in time. It took me quite a while to realize the ancient Egyptians weren’t enamored of death; like us, they were obsessed with the idea of eternal life, eternal youth. That’s the genesis of their elaborate funerary customs: the Egyptians wanted to live forever.
“The Greek garrison strangled Memphis with a noose of arrogance and greed, tightening it daily.” The why behind historical Phanes’ desertion has always vexed me. For all intents and purposes, the Greek mercenaries were a protected class in Egyptian society – they had their own city, Naucratis, as well as several garrisons along the desert’s edge; Pharaoh favored them over the temperamental native troops and installed a garrison in his capital of Memphis. But something happened. Something never explained. Such a gap in our knowledge is like crack to a writer, so in the absence of evidence I constructed an elaborate plot to overthrow Pharaoh and install a Greek king on Egypt’s throne. It’s not as terribly far-fetched as it sounds; as a template, I used the rebellion of Petubastis III (which ended in defeat).
“It wasn’t superstition or piety that drove him to seek guidance from the gods, but tradition.” This is an observation lifted from reading Herodotus. The Greeks loved their oracles. Originally, Phanes planned to wait till the Apis Festival to launch his attempted coup, when Pharaoh would be in the city. From my original draft:
“Come the Apis Festival we will be in control of Memphis. After that, once the Delta is ours, we can take our time conquering Upper Egypt.”
“The foundation of a Hellenic empire. Glorious. You expect little difficulty gaining outside support once Memphis is ours?” Lysistratis glanced sidewise at his commander.
“Polycrates of Samos and Hippias of Athens have agreed to supply troops once we’re in control of the Delta. Others will follow suit. They think I will be a puppet through which they can rule.”
“Their mistake,” Lysistratis said.
But, I wanted something more “Greek”. Thus, when we see him in Memphis he’s waiting to hear from the last of the oracles, the Pythia of Delphi.
“Phanes openly leered at several of the women on the street, their linen skirts sheer, their bare breasts slick with sweat.” Or, as a friend put it: “We’re Greek frat boys on holiday!”
“From the Saqqaran Road, they crossed the broad, red-paved Square of Deshur at the western entrance of the Mansion of Ptah, where the Alabaster Sphinx glowed in the setting sun.” The Alabaster Sphinx (see picture above) is one of the last surviving artifacts from historical Memphis, carved between 1700 and 1400 BCE. It is thought to depict one of the pharaohs of the 18th dynasty; though it bears no inscription, its facial composition suggests Amenhotep III.
“The chariot passed beneath the twin colossi of Pharaoh flanking the gates leading into the fortress enclosure of Ineb-hedj, the White Walls.” Ineb-hedj is one of the many names Memphis has borne since its foundations were laid, and is its earliest attested name (from an inscription found in Sinai in 2012, dating back at least to the 32nd century BCE). Like several of the city’s older names, I recycled it and applied it as the Egyptian name for the fortress of the garrison of Memphis.
“The antechamber of the throne room at Memphis recalled the glory of an age long past, an epoch when Pharaoh’s shadow stretched across the known world.” Here begins MOAR ARCHITECTURE PORN!
“Callisthenes of Naucratis paced in a tight circle, his stubby fingers twittering with a finely carved jasper scarab that lay on his breast.” Of all the characters I’ve created, I find I most identify with Callisthenes. He was meant to be the Everyman: a tubby, out-of-shape armchair warrior whose conscience forces him outside his comfort zone. He witnesses injustices and finds he can no longer keep silent. I never really explored his connection to Phanes beyond a few lines on how Callisthenes’ father thought it might be good for business. But if I could claim a mulligan and do it over again I’d make the two men brothers. Phanes the elder, indulgent of his younger sibling’s Egyptian-loving ways and blind to the disillusionment growing in Callisthenes’ breast.
“Many are the dreams of the Hellene . . .” My original manuscript had a much shorter reply from the Pythia at Delphi:
“By guile, craft, and bronze
Will a great dynasty
Conquer the children of Ammon.”
But this was incongruous compared with the examples of Pythian replies found in Herodotus. Compare this with the First Prophecy of the Delphic Oracle to the Athenians (Herodotus, The Histories, VII.140):
Why sit you, doomed ones? Fly to the world’s end, leaving
Home and the heights your city circles like a wheel.
The head shall not remain in its place, nor the body,
Nor the feet beneath, nor the hands, nor the parts between;
But all is ruined, for fire and the headlong god of war
Speeding in a Syrian chariot shall bring you low.
Many a tower shall he destroy, not yours alone,
And give to pitiless fire many shrines of gods,
Which even now stand sweating, with fear quivering,
While over the roof-tops black blood runs streaming
In prophecy of woe that needs must come. But rise,
Haste from the sanctuary and bow your hearts to grief.
Thus, I tried my hand at writing Delphic oracles. I wasn’t comfortable with the form, as you can tell by comparing my offering with the actual translated oracle, and I think it’s lacking in suggestive imagery.
“Ujahorresnet, First Servant of Neith in Memphis, tapped the butt of his staff on the stones, a metronomic rhythm that kept time with his thoughts.” This section marks the appearance of the second historical figure, the priest Ujahorresnet. He was an interesting fellow who absolutely got the short shrift at my hands. His full bio is available at Livius.
If I wrote it today, I’d totally overhaul the backstory involving Barca’s wife, Ujahorresnet’s daughter. The idea he’d murder her, even if it’s justified by their cultural norms, is something I find hard to swallow a decade later.
“You teasing little whore.” Phanes laughed, slapping the young woman’s bare buttocks.” Yeah, I can’t add much to the chapter after this point. Does this sexual tryst enhance Phanes’ role as villain? Does it add anything to the story? No clue . . . but I’m told it’s still a better love story than Twilight.
“Barca himself leads these Medjay and he’s not a man to be trifled with. He stands high in Pharaoh’s counsel. That alone makes him a dangerous opponent.” Interestingly, my original draft goes in to a bit more detail regarding Barca’s past:
“Barca’s the son of a Phoenician trading family, powerful in both Tyre and Carthage. Control of the family interests fell to him after a storm claimed his father and elder brother. Barca was young at the time, just entering manhood; shrewd, they say, cunning, but altogether worthless as a merchant. Some time after that he vanishes from Sais. A year later, he resurfaces at Sile in the Eastern Desert, joins the Medjay, and rises to become Potasimto’s right-hand man. After the old bastard died, Barca assumed the title Overseer of the Eastern Desert with Pharaoh’s blessing. He’s commanded the Medjay for about five years now.”
“That’s it? How does a merchant’s son become a stone killer? What happened to drive him from Sais?”
“How does any man come to the craft?” Lysistratis said. “A dark soul, a bad turn of the Fates, a woman. It’s different for everyone.”
And, there was another version in my notes, in a file titled “Chapter Two-A”:
Lysistratis shrugged. “Barca’s the son of a Phoenician trading family, powerful in both Tyre and Carthage. When a storm claimed his father and elder brother control of the family fleet fell to him. He was young at the time, just entering manhood; shrewd, they say, cunning, but altogether worthless as a merchant.”
“How does a merchant’s son become a stone killer?”
“You remember Polydices of Phalerum,” Lysistratis said suddenly. “Leader of the Athenian delegation to Naucratis about twenty years back? Cousin of the tyrannos of Athens?”
Phanes shook his head. “Twenty years ago I was a green recruit fighting in Pharaoh’s ‘Grand Alliance’. Why?”
“Polydices made Barca the man he is today.”
Phanes frowned. “I don’t follow you?”
“The Phoenician killed him over a woman. Barca had a young wife, an Egyptian, who he apparently neglected. She took a string of lovers, Polydices among them. Their dalliance grew passionate and heated, and I believe there was some talk of a future that did not include her young husband. I was barely in my teens then, but my father knew Polydices – heard him say many times that the Athenian followed his dick like it were Aphrodite’s own oracle. Anyway, Barca grew suspicious of her and contrived to slip home one night when he was not expected. Caught the two of them together. The bastard slew them both and fled.”
Lysistratis nodded. “Then he slips off the face of the earth. His fleets were confiscated and distributed among his rivals; his property, too. You would think he was a nightmare who never truly existed. When he does resurface he’s serving as Potasimto’s right hand man at Tjel, in the Eastern Desert.”
At the time, I thought I was giving away too much information about Barca. Also, it’s two men gossiping like old women moments before partaking in a ménage a trois with a young Egyptian girl . . .
Thus, the chapter ends. Not a bad effort; in hindsight, parts of it were extremely ham-handed, bordering on amateurish, but with a sense of “heart”. I think early readers responded to that. Next up, Chapter Three and a mute kid who steals the stage.