I studied ancient history in college and read a bunch of Homer in the original epic Greek dialect, from when grammar was a loose set of suggestions. When I decided that instead of writing SF, as I had been, I would put my degrees to use in fiction, there was never any possibility I would draw from anywhere other than Greece. But if not that tranquil Greece of Socrates and Plato, then what? There's the Iliad, of course, arguably the ultimate war epic and deserving of all the praise it gets. But it's been used to death, really, by authors of Historical, SF, and Fantasy alike.
No, my starting point could only be Thucydides. If you only ever read one book on Greek history, it should be Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War (abridged is fine; I understand). The Greece you'll read about there is not the Greece of Platonic dialogues. It's a bloody, brutal world where disagreements between factions of one city turn quickly to open slaughter, where towns are emptied of life because they gave the wrong answer to a herald, and where there are no such things as morality or human rights, only what is most favorable and expedient for a given side. This was the Greece that appealed to me—well, creatively, anyway.
Given that you're visiting this site, you'd probably agree with me that however not-boring history is, there can be a certain something lacking in straight historical fiction. Hence, even though all my viewpoint characters and setting would be purely historical, I planned to have a far-future woman drop in from another dimension and change things. But just as I didn't want any over-civilized, stereotypical Greece, I didn't want your typical time-traveler, either, always thinking things out and fretting about the time-stream. Mine would be pure ass-kicking chaos, the kind of girl your parents would ban from the house if you brought her home.
As for ancient characters, there was only ever one choice for a protagonist. Most people familiar with ancient history know the name Demosthenes as that of an orator of the fourth century BCE. But another Athenian named Demosthenes lived a century earlier and served as an elected general (yes, Athens elected its generals—which makes more sense when you consider that every male citizen of fighting age was in the part-time army). Thucydides provides the primary record of this Demosthenes' existence. He doesn't really give him much attention, but the few mentions suggest Demosthenes was ahead of his time as a strategist, conscious of notions like surprise and ambush and taking advantage of terrain at a time when battles generally were fought by lining up and pushing, with the gods bestowing victory on the worthier city. One of Demosthenes' attempts to be clever ended in disaster, leading to a brief period of disgrace in which he was afraid to go home, lest the voters decide to exile him, as would later happened to Thucydides.
The historical Demosthenes avoided exile and erased his disgrace with a tide-turning victory at Pylos, where he made several hundred besieged Spartans surrender—even though Spartans never, ever surrendered. Ever. Years later, he would go on to co-command Athens' ill-fated Sicilian Expedition, an operation conceived by the much more famous Alcibiades. With very good reason, Demosthenes was not pleased with the assignment. During the expedition, he was captured by Sparta's Syracusan allies and executed on the spot with his fellow (also more famous) general Nicias, essentially winding up 'dead in a ditch.'
My Demosthenes, armed with help from above, could avoid that fate and shape the war to a far greater degree. The aforementioned Athenians, Alcibiades and Nicias, would make appearances. But I would need a Spartan viewpoint. Who better than Styphon, who according to Thucydides was the Spartan to whom fell, after the deaths of two superiors, the unprecedented decision to surrender to Demosthenes? Poor Styphon; it's the only mention of him anywhere in history. And hey, maybe in a brief aside I could even kill off Socrates so those dialogues that Plato gave us never happened...
My original draft of Athenian Steel ended with a Greek army assaulting the young Roman Republic, but on the advice of a literary agent (currently managing the biggest Historical Fantasy series in the world) I cut back the plot and pushed off Rome to Book III. I didn't think there was such a thing as 'too epic,' but I guess there is. Some of the material from that original ending was too good to go to waste (in my humble opinion) so I turned it into a novella with the subtle and intellectual title, Roman Annihilation. You can get it free on Amazon or at my website linked below. In the latter case, you'll also get a free Mythological Fantasy novel and a short story about an ancient Athenian in space which was a bit of a precursor to Athenian Steel.
It's been loads of fun giving the 'other Demosthenes' a do-over, and I have much more in store. He might not exactly enjoy it, but at least I can guarantee he won't wind up dead in a ditch.
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P.K. Lentz is author of Athenian Steel, the sequel to which, Spartan Beast, is due out shortly. Get three free SF&F ebooks by joining his newsletter at www.ironage.space. Signing up will also get you an alert when the full-length Athenian Steel is free for a day or two (including later this month), so you can be ready for Book II. In addition, you'll get access to a 50% preview of Spartan Beast prior to publication and exclusive related bonus material afterward.