431 BC. Greece is torn apart by war. The city states split into two leagues: one headed by the militarized Sparta, the other by the sophisticated Athens.
Alethea, a young Spartan woman, leaves her home to accompany her brother on the military campaign. Taken prisoner by the enemy and enslaved in an Athenian household, Alethea’s heart is set on revenge. However, her feelings are complicated as she is drawn to her abductor’s amiable cousin, Eucleides.
Efigenia, a child bride and Alethea’s new mistress, struggles to navigate in a society dictated by men. The rigid norms she lives by are consuming her little by little. Can the arrival of the Spartan help her break loose from her chains?
City of Bronze City of Silver is a tale of bloodshed and vengeance, oppression and love, set against the backdrop of an ancient civilization steeped in myth.
Saga Hillbom is the author of three historical novels. Her other works include A Generation of Poppies and Today Dauphine Tomorrow Nothing.
”If you like A Song of Ice and Fire, you will love City of Bronze, City of Silver. I say this as a long time fan of the series who actually found myself enjoying this book quite a lot more. It has the same level of deep, complex character development and intrigue fraught with gray morality, yet it’s joined by stark and unapologetic feminism in a historic Greek setting. The more discomfiting aspects of life in the past aren’t sugar-coated, but shown in the full truth without being glorified. Alethea, one of our main characters, is a tough and resourceful woman of Sparta, easy to love even as you question her decisions, a sharp contrast to soft-spoken and well-read Eucleides and meek, quiet Efigenia. Themes of freedom, equality, and the conflict of desire and duty abound as the three characters navigate their lives and the changes brought by the war between Athens and Sparta. The story is a slow burn, spending long paragraphs setting the scenes as Athens goes through several historic events, but the wait is worth it as subtle details weave through every paragraph. The stakes only get higher as you read on, joined by a heart-warming romance that blooms despite all opposition. Without giving too much away, the ending both broke and warmed my heart, yet despite the pain left me with a feeling of satisfaction as I read the last line. I don’t often read historic fiction, as few catch my eye, but this one is well worth the read. ”
/ Elizabeth Rose
Thirteen years later
‘It is time you were married,’ Myrrene stated, pacing the room, massaging her cheeks with freshly churned olive oil and fragrant herbs to give them a lustrous appearance and smooth the skin stretching tight over her high cheekbones. Despite the brackets of wrinkles that had begun to emerge around her eyes, Myrrene did not look her forty-five years; there was something timeless about the way she carried herself, and her eyes were as sharp as a hawk’s.
‘Yes.’ Alethea lingered two steps behind her mother, unwilling to let her curiosity show.
‘What say you—’ Myrrene turned around, her eyes pinning Alethea’s grey ones. ‘—what say you of Crysanthos? Chrysanthos son of Teleki. His family is respected, and I should think you’d count yourself fortunate to be wed to a man so close to you in age.’
Alethea supressed the urge to crinkle her nose. ‘Is he not a little…lacking in spirit?’
Myrrene chortled at the look on her daughter’s face. ‘Lacking in spirit? Chrysanthos is well-known for his endurance, for lasting days without sleep or food—whether there are men who face battle with more eagerness is irrelevant, as long as he faces it. You are too fussy, my dear.’
Chrysanthos with the cascading mass of blond, sun-kissed hair which he stubbornly refused to braid back, rose-petal lips, and skin dappled with no more than two or three faded scars. Crysanthos who, had he lived anywhere in the world but in Sparta, might have indulged in his vanity like a cat licking its glossy fur-coat. Crysanthos who fought only beca
se he had to, who fought as good as his kinsman but still preferred the idle game of flirtation. Too soft. Will he make an honourable husband? Prettiness won’t win any victories in battle.
‘I believe I haven’t seen him in months, perhaps years. Is he still the same?’
‘You’ll have to find that out for yourself.’ Myrrene proceeded to rub her forehead furiously with the scented oil, as if trying to erase every shadow of a crease. Alethea felt a sting of irritation at her otherwise so pragmatic mother’s fear of an aging face. ‘And if you can’t find solace in his looks—which I think you will, if you’re human—then take some satisfaction knowing you’ll have what most young women and men in this polis would cut off a finger to have.’
Alethea’s cheeks burned and she cursed the blush. ‘And you honestly think Crysanthos will be content with me, when he could have all those finger-less youths if he wished?’
Myrrene shrugged, plugging the flask of oil with a piece of cork, and arched a dark eyebrow. ‘I’m certain you will find a way to please your husband, Alethea. You’re light on your feet, both in dancing and racing, and your eyes aren’t displeasing to look at. That will have to do.’
Always the matchmaker. Alethea had no doubt that it was her mother, not her father, who had suggested the union; Myrrene was skilled in making each party see only the best in the other. If she wished, she could have convinced a king to marry a beggar, or a snake to befriend a goat.
Once they had parted, and Alethea had ventured to the garden to clear her thoughts, she caught herself reconciling with her fate quicker than the stubborn part of her might have wished. Though he was not the man she would have picked, her fate could have been far more unpleasant, and there were worse men to be tied to. Her mother was right in one thing: Crysanthos was enduring, and famous for it. That was some comfort.
Summer was budding, fresh in its cradle. The fig trees had begun to bear fruit, although the figs would not be ripe for almost another month. Now they were small and hard under the lush green leaves. Behind them, Mount Taygetus dominated the skyline. Streams trickled from the rocky mountainside, pouring out in the Eurotas.
Alethea cocked her head, squinting at the sun bleeding through a thin veil of clouds, bathing the grass beneath her feet in white gold. The day was yet young, but the sun would soon rise to its full height as Helios drove his chariot across the sky, and the heat would blaze down on her scalp.
Helios…Apollo…her thoughts immediately carried to Apolonio; he was never more than a heartbeat away in her mind, pulled into the light at every chance. It had been thus since they were born—Alethea could not remember further back than their fifth year, but she could not fathom a time when her mind had been hers and hers alone. Always, always there had been a fragment belonging to him. Like a splinter, it would not go away, but Alethea only took pleasure knowing there was someone so deeply entwined with herself that not even the Gods themselves could undo the knot if they tried. It was strange to think that he had existed a whole year without her, that they were not the twins she so often imagined.
He already knows about my marriage, of course. Mother and father would have spoken to him first, or sent a messenger. Would Apolonio be pleased? There was no telling, but she had often seen him lingering by Crysanthos’ side. Where there was a sun there was bound to be a dark-haired shadow, and Apolonio appeared to have accepted this role long ago.
He can tell me whether I shall be happy, whether I ought to dance or weep. He knows the man who is to be my fate better than I do.
The dusk lay heavy over the military barracks as Alethea strode towards them, the brown cloak swept tightly around her shoulders in an attempt to make herself scarce. Although women were no rare sight in the dark of night at the barracks, this provided no comfort, for it was equally common that they fared badly at the hands of the soldiers. Alethea had no intentions of being one of those who came with longing in her eyes to visit a husband or a son, and left with torn clothes and bruised thighs after stumbling across one of his comrades. I’d rather slit the brute’s throat—but that would be inconvenient. For the army, for myself.
She mumbled a prayer to Artemis under her breath, and it seemed that the chaste goddess of the wild and moon was feeling charitable, because no hands sticky from wine sought to grab her wrist as she sneaked through the network of barracks as quiet as a mountain lion hunting. Halting outside one of the buildings, she pressed against the wall and waited.
A few minutes passed before a familiar figure emerged from the barrack and closed the distance between them with long steps, gathering her into the warm harbour of his arms. Alethea made no resistance; she knew his ebony locks, she knew the scent of cloves and leather; she would have known him in pitch dark and in the Asphodel Meadows. Moments later, as they withdrew from the clinging embrace, she caught a glint of unease in her brother’s cat eyes.
Apolonio chewed on his lower lip before speaking. ‘You are well?’
‘Well enough. And you, brother?’
‘Yes. I would have a word with you—it concerns your marriage.’
Alethea’s brows knitted. ‘What can be said of it? It’s a fine match.’ She frowned harder as she watched the unmistakable blush rise on Apolonio’s cheeks, the same blush she so often found herself trying to disguise regardless of the emotion that caused it. The sun had not yet risen, but the dusk was lifting and she could discern every contour in his face.
‘You know he’s my comrade in arms. You know my affections sometimes…sometimes take the upper hand of me?’
‘I did not.’ Alethea folded her arms across her chest, more puzzled with every passing second. ‘For all I know, and may the gods help me if I can’t tell my own brother’s sentiments, for all I know you’re more sensible than that. But cease this…this talking in riddles!’
Apolonio mirrored her arms. ‘I’ll tell you bluntly then, since you’re dear to me, that his love exceeds that of women, and he has no desire to wed you. His eyes are fixed on another.’ As he spoke, the blush changed from pale peach to burning crimson.
Alethea swallowed several times, frozen to the spot. His eyes are fixed on another. Another. ‘You?’ she pressed forth, almost choking.
‘I wish fate hadn’t had it so.’
‘But it is, isn’t it? Crysanthos enjoys the fruits of our family to the fullest, doesn’t he? Me he takes for a suitable façade, and you he takes to warm his bedroll!’ Alethea hissed. Apolonio’s lips parted, but she proceeded before he had a chance to speak. ‘I thought you’d left pederasty and such relations behind you two, three years ago!’
‘I did! This is different, this is…haven’t you known love?’
‘I doubt I will know it, now that my husband-to-be is certain never to love me. I would have doubted even if he had loved me.’ She shook her head. ‘You can’t carry on, unless you wish my honour damaged.’
Pain flashed in Apolonio’s face. His lips twitched and he caught her hands in his, holding them steady. Despite the shock and humiliation rumbling inside her, Alethea could not help but marvel at how warm they were in contrast to the crisp chill in the air, and hated herself for it.
‘I would never wish for such a thing—don’t you know me better? This will be the end of it, I swear by Zeus, and no one need ever know. I had to tell you, though. I couldn’t bear it if you discovered the true nature of his love by some slip of his tongue.’ His hands clutched hers tighter. ‘I hate to see you so dismayed.’
Alethea tilted her head to meet his eyes. Though they had been of the same height for most of their youth, Apolonio had grown a half head higher than her the past couple of years, his squared shoulders had broadened while hers had remained slim. At least I’m still the fastest one. ‘You do dismay me,’ she whispered. ‘We all have a role to play, for the good of the polis, but I can’t play mine properly if my husband drools after another. You swear this will be the end of it?’
Once the promise had been pronounced, the conversation lightened, and the cramped feeling in Alethea’s chest eased as if someone had loosened the screws on bars of iron locked around her ribs. A small crisis had been averted. Apolonio had regained his senses, and with some luck, there would be no gossip to pass around.
Alethea retrieved a small loaf of olive-specked bread from the deep pockets of her cloak and tore it in two, offering half to her brother, ‘I thought you might be hungry.’
‘Always,’ he rewarded her with that familiar half-smile, then took a generous bite of the bread. ‘We stole a chicken from a heílote yesterday, but it was too bony to feed more than one man.’
‘Perhaps they should feed themselves a little less and their chickens a little more.’
‘One can always dream. You ought to return home—morning is approaching.’
Alethea nodded. The birds had begun to chirp where they sat on the branches of olive trees and cypresses. The entirety of the hēbōntes would be summoned for morning drills within the hour. She reached up and gave Apolonio a peck on the lips. ‘Take care, brother. And remember what you swore to me.’
‘I will.’ Then he turned and was gone once more.
Like every time she laid eyes on her sister, Alethea involuntarily recalled the day she had last seen Delina in their home, the day before the younger girl was taken to the temple of Artemis to serve the goddess of the moon and the hunt, the goddess of the young and their purity. Almost seven years had come to pass, and with each year, Alethea’s relief grew like a flower no longer barred from the sun. She rarely gave voice to it, yet she could not doubt Delina’s painful awareness of how her presence had cast a shroud of gloom over the oikos. The dreams, the hallucinations, the screams. The odd turns of speech and the ever-present burden of caution—these were the burdens lifted from her family’s shoulders when she accepted the cloak of a venerated priestess. She had done it willingly, though, and the temple was not only a sanctuary to Artemis but a sanctuary for her own dwindling thoughts.
Alethea took another step forward, lips curved. ‘How is my little sister?’
‘Well, thank you.’ Delina plucked at the flowers heaped in her lap, spreading them out as if to prepare the crafting of a flower crown. ‘What brings you?’
‘I suppose you’ve heard of my impending wedding?’ Even you must know by now. It’s been half a month.
Delina sat silent for a moment. The roundness of her cheeks, the soft jawline, the slightly up-turned nose, and her short stature made her appear younger still than her sixteen years. Only her eyes, which bore a striking resemblance to Myrrene’s hawk globes, testified to the sharp knowledge held in her head.
‘She’s displeased to lose another virgin to matrimony.’ Delina’s voice was as faint as a breeze, as if there was no air in her lungs to give it force. Yet she spoke with such austere certainty that the most seasoned war lord would not have dared question a single word. Her mouth was puckered as if sucking on an olive, lips pricked red. Alethea remembered how her sister used to pinch her lip with the tip of her nails whenever the voices in her head became too loud—perhaps she still did.
‘Artemis? She has more precious ones than me, I’m sure.’
A flicker of coldness crossed Delina’s face. ‘You will not be wed, for there are obstacles. Bloodshed.’
Curiosity rippled through Alethea’s body. ‘Because of me?’
‘No. Because fate wills it. Because hostilities among men never truly die, but spark again and again until all their sons have bled out in the plains.’
‘You mean Athens is growing too powerful, reaching for what is not theirs.’
Delina gave no answer. She had returned her attention to the garlands of flowers in her lap, entwining them with her thin, bony fingers. A few moments passed in silence before her frail voice cut through the air again like a brittle blade about to snap in two. ‘You ought to make yourself pretty for the festival. You still make yourself pretty?’
Alethea pursed her lips. ‘Not as often as our mother would like, and still they have a match for me. Perhaps Artemis will make me hideous, if she wishes to keep me in her realm.’ Such words were dangerously close to slandering the gods, and she regretted them the second they left her lips. ‘Forgive me. Will you come, too?’
Delina showed her teeth in a rare smile. ‘No. If people want to hear what I have to say—what the gods have to say—they can come here and I’ll receive them. They would think I spoiled their fun if I came to their feasts.’
‘You always say they.’
‘If I were one of them, I wouldn’t be here.’
No, no I suppose you wouldn’t. But many envy your lot, many want to be closer to the deities.
Alethea left her sister thus. As she walked back to the oikos, she tinged at Delina’s foreboding. Athens was hoarding wealth from her allies like a rat hoarding food, and Sparta’s soldiers were weary from training. A war would be a time of leisure in comparison.
The Hyacinthia was a festival to marvel at. The legend told the tragic story of Hyacinth, a prince of Sparta, whose beauty could have made the gods envious, or worse, could make them fall in love with him, a mere mortal. The young prince chose to give his affection to Apollo, and visited his sacred lands, indulging in everything the god would show him: the flowers, the magnificent cattle, the wide-stretched grounds. This brought the wrath of the western wind Zephyros, who also desired Hyacinth’s love. Hence, as Apollo threw a discus, Zephyros changed its course so that it struck Hyacinth’s temple, wounding him fatally. Though Apollo used all his powers of healing, the god could do nothing to save his lover, but transformed him into a flower, so that he might live on in another shape: the hyacinth.
The story was one of Alethea’s favourites; there was something utterly captivating about the infatuation of one divine with one earthly, and how something so trivial as a gust of wind could wreck every chance of happiness.
The festival lasted for three whole days. The first and the third were solemn in spirit, dedicated to mourning the death of the hero and making sacrifices to family members who were dead also. The second day, however, was like the golden yolk of the egg, so brimming with music and dancing that one had no choice but surrender to the mirth. This was no day for sorrow, but for singing the glory of the gods and the passion that was the heart of the myth.
There were horse races, also, and Alethea’s stomach fluttered with delight as she watched the four-legged creatures surge forward with dangerous strength. The chariots they pulled were simple, two-wheeled constructions, providing no safety. Muscles tensed under the horses’ sweat-soaked, shiny furs. Whites of their eyes showing, they galloped faster and faster each time the charioteer allowed the reins to slip between his fingers. The chariots barely touched the ground except for when the wheels bumped against a protruding stone. Careful now. Alethea slammed her palms against the wooden rail in pure exasperation as the horses drew close to the sharp turning-point. She had seen several vehicles overturned through the years, the drivers crushed to bone splinters and flesh beneath the animals’ hammering hooves. No such accident occurred this time, though, and the competitors crossed the finishing line unharmed.
‘Kreon should have allowed them to run their full speed! If he had, they might have won,’ Alethea said, her face still flushed from the heat of the race.
Myrrene shook her head. ‘You would be wise to pick another team to cheer for, daughter. Kreon may be a brave charioteer, but only a fool would let his horses run wild.’
‘He’s been overturned before and lived.’
The man of whom they were speaking—a stout figure with calloused hands and knobby scars like worms underneath his tanned skin—had stepped down from his chariot and was talking quietly to the distraught horses. Indeed, he had been overturned many times, or even pushed from his chariot by another competitor, and it showed.
After the horseraces, the people flocked towards the enormous tents where the evening banquet took place. Men and women alike were welcome, as long as they were free and honourable.
Alethea cast a sideways glance at her intended husband and her brother. Crysanthos and Apolonio were seated with their military comrades at another table, grins spread across their faces, dice rolling from their hands. With his golden locks and cheeks smoother than cream, Crysanthos certainly attracted the gaze of numerous girls and boys. They can’t help it, I suppose, but they know it just as well as I do: he doesn’t possess the qualities they really value. If one were to place a bow in his hand and a lyre in the other, they’d drop to their knees, mistaking him for Apollo come down from the skies.
Apolonio did not bear any striking resemblance to Hyacinthus, yet it was impossible to look at them together, knowing what she now knew, without noticing the familiar way their hands brushed against one another. Perhaps it’s not over after all. Or perhaps it’s just habit. It did not matter, Alethea concluded, for there was nothing she could do but pray that the other guests were too distracted by the festivities to notice.
She returned her attention to the plate in front of her as heílotes began bringing in the food. Roasted lamb and oxen dripping with grease, bread soaked in honey, olives, dried fruit to sweeten their tongues and wine to muddle their minds. Goats had been slaughtered; the blood had poured out, and now the flesh had been roasted on spits, the best parts sacrificed to and the rest served to the humans. Such elaborate dining was everything but customary in Sparta, and Alethea wondered how she would manage to eat it all.
The wine was pure and rich, undiluted, the bitterness of the grapes prominent on her tongue. Athenians would have furrowed their brows, claiming it to be a savage habit. One who drank wine without stirring it with water risked illness or even madness, they said. This was a small oddity of the Spartans, though, compared to their women: lithe and lustrous, their bodies as well-fed as those of their male counterparts, they drank and talked freely, knowing their rightful place was at the banquet and not hidden from public sight. The girls were brought up under similar conditions to the boys. They exercised and danced together, hunted and sang, breathed the fresh Laconian air. The women’s purpose was clear: to bear healthy, thriving children and thus contribute to the state and the army. A man’s battle was behind a shield, a woman’s was on a birthing chair, but they were equal in importance and prestige, and thriving children required thriving mothers.
Naturally, it would be no real festivity without dancing. Alethea’s limbs itched, yearning to begin. She had spent the hour before the banquet begun carefully arranging long bronze pins—one of them a gift from Apolonio, the top shaped like a mountain cat—so that they would keep the obsidian garlands of hair in place on her head, and had draped herself in the purest white cloth fastened by the shoulders with large fibulae. She had tied a string of leather a finger’s width above her waist, making the fabric fold thickly, and proceeded to massage her feet with a salve made from goat’s fat and herbs to soften the muscles. However, the fine peplos and the leather string were only intended for the rest of the celebrations, because the dance itself would be executed almost in the nude, as was custom.
Eight other girls had also been chosen to perform the dance. Their hair was arranged in a manner identical to Alethea’s, and their eyes shone amber in the firelight. When the musicians picked up their lyres, running their slender fingers across the strings, Alethea took her place among them. At first, the music was slow and harmonic, then hands slapped drums and the rhythm quickened. The pink soles of the girls’ feet beat against the grass—which was still warm from the sun—synchronized like one being, and Alethea felt the music pump through her veins. The musicians sang of legends and myths, heroes and monsters, returning to names like Hercules, Perseus, Jason, Theseus, and Achilles. She knew their stories by heart, but never tired of hearing them told in intricate verse where the words entwined like lovers’ hands. Of course, Hyacinthus and Apollo were the main objects of the song.
When night had cast its dark veil over the sky and the moon became visible like a bright chip of bone, the music and the dancing subsided. The other girls and women had already retired, though the men remained to boast and talk long into the night, and Alethea had to return to the oikos. In spite of the freedom she had savoured during the celebrations, there was a certain line of decency which could not be crossed, and she was dangerously close by remaining at this hour.
Gripping one of the long, sharp pins that kept her curls in place but could serve as a weapon, Alethea treaded across the field sheathed in shadows.
‘I asked to sit at your table.’ Apolonio’s steps became apparent behind her, perfectly steady despite the slippery, dew-drenched grass.
Alethea offered a slight smile, though he could not see it. ‘Don’t you every year? And every year they say “no, you shall sit with your comrades”.’
‘So they do, but what kind of brother would I be if I didn’t ask?’ His steps grew longer until he had caught up on her pace and was walking beside her. Alethea inhaled his faint scent.
‘How is my betrothed?’ Her eyes sought his in the dark, exchanging a glance.
Apolonio snickered. ‘Enjoying life’s pleasures to the fullest, as is his nature. You mustn’t despair—he knows his place and will take it once the time comes.’
‘Yes, I know.’ At least I hope I know. ‘Delina said something a few days ago, something I’m eager to learn the truth of. That there will be bloodshed.’
‘Ah. Isn’t there always bloodshed somewhere or other?’
Alethea gave him a shove with her shoulder. ‘You know what I mean. What she meant. Bloodshed involving our people.’
‘I should think that’s not so much a prophecy from Artemis as it is plain truth. The gods speak in riddles, as you well know, but war is unavoidable. Any child could give that foreboding.’
‘You think Athens will give cause for reprimanding.’ Alethea’s lips twitched in a smile at the last word, and from the corner of her eye she could see Apolonio’s do the same. The cool moonlight danced on his hair, painting every glossy patch white as if it was chiselled from the finest marble.
‘I think they already have. I think our thirty years will be cut short to fifteen, or perhaps sixteen.’
Thirty years: that was the amount of time the peace treaty had promised, but the number had never truly been intended to keep both parties at bay, and the cracks in the treaty became more obvious every passing day. Like a thin sheath of linen wrapped around a wound where a blade had torn flesh from bone, it could not stem the old hostilities between the two poleis. The linen was soaked-through with blood now, and perhaps the only way to avoid death was to sever the limb and burn the stump.
‘The Megarians will demand it.’
When the news of the Megarian Decree had reached Sparta some time ago, citizens had raised their voices and named it a catalyst of the war they had been waiting for. Megara had fought against Athens at the naval Battle of Sybota the previous year; Athens’ revenge took the shape of a decree banning Megara from the agorá and the Athenian ports. They had claimed other, less provocative reasons, but no one in their right mind believed it. Now, the Megarians, devastated by the trade embargo, were seeking the help of their allies in the Peloponnesian League, which, of course, sat under Sparta’s leadership.
They had reached the winding path leading up to the oikos—a frugal building of mud bricks in two stories and with red clay tiles for roof, framed by the small garden terrace where thyme and figs grew—and Apolonio’s steps ceased.
‘Yes,’ Alethea said before her brother had the chance. ‘You must go back, or they’ll start looking. Promise me something, though.’
‘Another thing?’ His eyes twinkled with both amusement and caution.
‘Another thing, but not about Crysanthos. Promise me you’ll bring news of the war if there is any. Tell me what they say in the barracks but won’t say to their wives and older kinsmen. I would be prepared.’
‘That I can promise. Goodnight, sister, and give our mother my greetings. She’d do well to eat a bit more on a day of celebration such as this.’