Monday, December 29, 2014

Review: The Seven Wonders by Steven Saylor

An historical fiction review by  © 2014

I know Steven Saylor's "The Seven Wonders" came out in 2013 but my "to-read" stack has gotten so tall, I am a bit overwhelmed and only just now finally got a chance to read it.  (Listen to it actually, as I have the unabridged version from Audible.com) Several of us on Facebook's Roman History Reading Group had suggested to Steven that he go back and write more stories about Gordianus the Finder when Gordianus was a young man.  So, I was pleased to see that is exactly what he did with "The Seven Wonders."

Gordianus, the son of Gordianus the Finder (the elder) has just turned 18 and his old tutor Antipater of Sidon, an acclaimed poet, has invited him to go on a grand tour of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  But first, Gordianus the younger and his father must participate in a charade where they arrange the "death" and funeral of Antipater before the journey.  Even after reading the entire book, I'm still not sure why Antipater requested this.  But, the funeral is held and young Gordianus and Antipater, now calling himself Zodicus or Zeugma, slip out of Rome without being recognized.

The first stop is Ephesus where the pair will explore the famous Temple of Artemis.  While in Ephesus, Gordianus gets involved in a local plot designed to discredit local politicians who support Rome.

1st century CE Roman copy of
the cult statue in the Temple of Ephesus
Image courtesy of
 
Pvasiliadis, Wikimedia Commons
Of course, Gordianus solves the mystery using his own natural instincts coupled with lessons in investigation that he learned from his father.  Then, Gordianus and Antipater move on to the next wonder where another mystery awaits.

So the book is like an anthology of short mysteries with the overarching narrative of a travelogue.  Each little mystery is intriguing but what I enjoyed the most was the intricate description of each wonder in the condition it must have been in during the 1st century BCE.  Saylor describes each structure so vividly I felt like I had personally visited it and seen it for myself.

As it turns out, Antipater of Sidon was a real Greek poet that lived either during the second half of the 2nd century BCE or, according to Cicero, in Rome during the time of Crassus and Catulus.  Some scholars think Cicero confused Antipater of Sidon with Antipater of Thessalonice.  But, for the purposes of this novel, Saylor uses Cicero's Antipater of Sidon. Antipater of Sidon, along with Philo of Byzantium, Strabo, Herodotus and Diodoros of Sicily are attributed with developing the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

In the book, though, Antipater credits Alexander the Great who he said developed the list to prove that his kingdom encompassed the greatest structures in the world.  Antipater also explains the sacred significance of the number seven.

However, as I read the book, I must admit I became baffled when Gordianus and Antipater reached the Great Pyramid and proclaimed they had seen all seven since they had not yet traveled to Alexandria and seen the Pharos.  But as it turns out, Antipater's Anthology never included the famous lighthouse as we see from his poem:

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, 'Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.'  — Antipater, Greek Anthology IX.58

So, Antipater counted the remains of the beautifully enameled walls of Babylon and the Hanging Gardens, only remembered from tales by the time of Gordianus, as two wonders.

I didn't miss out on a thorough description of the Pharos in Alexandria, though, because Gordianus and Antipater have their last adventure there.  I knew the lighthouse had three tiers but I had always thought the Pharos contained only one great mirror, not a series of mirrors that could be redirected to transmit coded messages from Ptolemy to his subordinates as well as guide ships entering the harbor.  But I have never read the original descriptions by Arab authors that are said to be the most thorough and consistent.

The Pharos depicted on a coin from the reigns of Antoninus Pius
and Commodus.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Saylor's description of the lighthouse included Tritons on each of the structure's four corners that are depicted on extant Roman coins struck by the Alexandrian mint and a statue of Zeus at the very top.  In the novel, Antipater explains that it is definitely Zeus, not Poseidon, the god of the seas, because Zeus is considered the protector of sailors.

Gold armband, with Triton holding a Putti,
Greek, 200 BCE.  Photographed at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
So, like all of Steven Saylor's novels, "The Seven Wonders" taught me more fascinating details about the ancient world while thoroughly entertaining me.

It made me sorry I haven't seen the last surviving ancient wonder, though.  I postponed my trip to visit the Great Pyramid due to the political unrest following the Arab Spring in Egypt. But I will certainly have Steven's description in my mind if I finally get there.  At least I have seen the beautifully enameled creatures that once flanked the Ishtar Gate in Babylon at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and the remains of the famous Mausoleum of Halicarnassus at the British Museum (until I visited the British Museum I didn't even realize there was anything left of the Mausoleum!).

Vibrant Striding Lion from the Processional Way of Babylon
Neo-Babylonian Period 604-562 BCE Molded and glazed brick
Photographed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
by Mary Harrsch © 2009
There's also a replica of the Parthenon with a huge statue of Athena (not Artemis but close!) in Nashville, Tennessee that I found quite impressive several years ago.

Multistory statue of Athena in a replica of the
Parthenon in Nashville, TN.  Photo by Mary Harrsch.
 I think even Antipater of Sidon would have agreed, too!