Women feature prominently on Pearseus. But what was their place in the antiquity that inspired the book?
An abridged version of this piece was posted on Bravebird Publishing.
Women in history: truth stranger than fiction
“People ran around her, shouting and screaming. Sol could not move under the weight of the guard and raised her head to seek her brother. As she did, a second arrow passed so close to her eye that its feathers scratched her eyebrow. Blood flowed from the wound, half-blinding her. In the distance, a man nocked a third arrow to his bow. Her second guard lunged at him, followed by other men with drawn weapons. Her eyes widened at the sight of her brother’s young body lying on the ground, life oozing out of him, while her mind desperately tried to make sense of it. A growing pool of blood formed under his body, soiling the ground.”
The world of Pearseus, my epic fantasy series that takes place on a remote planet, is one largely ruled by women. The story is narrated through its protagonists, who include Sol and Styx. Sol is a supreme political manipulator who manages to reach the top through her intellect, cunning and persuasion. She uses her power to grow the city of Anthea into one of the main powers on the planet.
The second main faction is led by Justice Styx. She is a woman who will stop at nothing to grab and hold power, and guilty of the most horrifying crimes, defending her actions through her unshakable belief that they are for the best of her people.
Finally, the First, the planet’s indigenous population, worship a deity called the Lady and follow the teachings of an oracle called simply the Old Woman.
Although these larger-than-life characters are fictitious, they do have their real-life counterparts. The main story arc of Pearseus follows that of Herodotus’ description of the wars between Greece and Persia in the 5th century BC. I grew up less than half an hour from Marathon, the scene of the final battle between the two, and read as a child Herodotus’ tale of the mad Persian king Astyax, who committed the unspeakable crime of having his General’s son murdered and fed to his father during a banquet. A deed as evil as any described by the Grimm brothers centuries later, and with an equal impact on my young imagination.
Sol, on the other hand, is an amalgamation of Solon, Athens’ first law-giver, and Peisistratos, a cunning politician who usurped power and used it to end decades of civil strife. His reformations lay behind Athens’ classical glory, helped by Solon’s wise laws. Solon is considered a hero of classical Greece, but only after growing up did I realize the lengths to which he went to ensure his triumph over his political opponents. Our heroes invariably do not shine quite so bright when examined closely.
Could any of these characters have been women in reality? Sadly, the prevalence of women on Pearseus bears no resemblance to everyday life in antiquity. In Athens, women were little more than property. They had no voting rights, nor were they allowed a life outside the home. As soon as a girl reached puberty, she was locked up until she got married. After that, a woman’s place was at home, raising her children and taking care of her husband. What would get people arrested nowadays, was common practice back then.
Strangely enough, it was the prostitutes who enjoyed freedom. Much like the famous courtisanes, their 19th century French counterparts, or the Japanese geishas, these were women of exceptional beauty, skilled in oratory and philosophy. In the deeply chauvinistic Athenian society, men freely fraternized with them at the famous symposia, or dinner parties, before returning to their home and loving wives.
Prostitutes were highly educated, had the right to possess property of their own and often escorted kings and philosophers. Their clients included legendary Pericles and Socrates; cities built temples in their honor and showered them in gold. This, in a city where it was considered a deadly insult to the husband if his wife was caught even conversing with another man.
While researching Pearseus, I was surprised to find out that there was another outlook to women. Sparta, thinly disguised as Scorpio in my books, was a nation of warriors that practiced a policy of unprecedented equality. Girls were encouraged to participate in sports, often naked, and were fed better (yes, girls were not even fed properly in other cities). What’s more, they were taught to read and write; a practice that led a baffled Athenian to observe: “teaching women to read and write is as ridiculous as feeding a snake more venom.”
An enlightened Sparta and a misogynous Athens – could this be true? Women in Sparta were allowed to own property, argue in public and even take a second husband if their first one was away at war for too long. In Athens, they could not even leave their home unescorted.
Before you consider Sparta a great city to live in, and wonder just why Athens got so popular, you have to consider that any deformed child was left on the mountain of Taigetos to die of exposure or be eaten by the beasts. At the tender age of seven, boys would leave their home and move into military schools. They would train as soldiers for the next ten years, then move into barracks. Only once they reached the age of thirty did they become full citizens and the right to a household of their own. As an Athenian observed, “life in Sparta is so unbearable, that it’s no wonder they’re so eager to end it in battle.” Obviously, he was not thinking of the lives of Athens’ wives at the time.
Still, all things considered, the lot of women was better in militaristic Sparta, and I think that makes sense for a city in a constant state of war against its neighbors. Likewise, in a world where humanity starts anew with less than 5,000 people and almost immediately sets up its ancient habit of picking wars, I cannot imagine there being an opportunity for Athens’ misogynous practices, and I had no qualms describing a world where men and women fight side by side and rule the world as equals. Sol and Styx are strong, driven women who are ready to do whatever it takes to reach their goal.
As for real antiquity, despite its romantic reputation, it only serves to remind us how far we’ve come. When it comes to woman’s tumultuous place in society, truth is once again stranger than fiction.