Friday, 22 September 2017

Stories from Greece and Rome

This isn't one book - I've recently read three which are set among the Greeks and Romans.

The Beautiful One, by Frances Thomas
The story of Helen of Troy is a powerful and enduring one - she must have a claim to being one of the most famous women in the world, EVER. Yet she herself is curiously absent from her story; we see her always through the eyes of the men who desire her, fight over her, or eulogise her beauty. This book seeks to redress the balance by telling the story of Helen as a child. We see her living happily with her family, aware that she is beautiful because of the reactions of others, but seeing this mysterious beauty as something apart from her, something separate. She dreads marriage, but knows it's inevitable because of her position as a princess and a woman; there's a sense that she'd rather do something else, but there are no other options. She does have a romantic dream that perhaps one day she'll meet someone very handsome and there will be a coup de foudre... the reader shivers a little at this point, because, of course, we all know what's going to happen.

I became engrossed in the story - it's strange how this can happen, even when you really know how it's all going to end - and ancient Sparta seemed a perfectly real place. The legends - such as that of Leda (Helen's mother) and the swan - are really skillfully woven in; Helen hears them, finds them strange, but knows they must be true. My only quibble is that I hadn't noticed that this is quite a short book, and was quite startled when it stopped: I wanted to go on reading about Helen and poor Menelaus and the unfortunate Clytemnestra and all the rest of them. So I hope Frances Thomas will continue her story - which is suitable for teenagers and adults.

The Centurion's Son, by Lynne Benton
A fast-paced story set in fourth century Roman Britain (in Caerleon in Wales, to be precise). It tells the story of Felix, the son of a centurion. Twelve year-old Felix is puzzled and concerned when his father disappears without even leaving any food in the house. But there's much worse to come - his father is accused of treachery, and Felix is turned out of his home. Felix, certain that his father is innocent, is determined to clear his name and find him. 

The only person apparently on his side is a British slave girl, Catrin, who has mysterious powers - a sort of second sight. Together, the two friends manage to unravel the mystery and restore the centurion's good name - but they have to go through danger and heartache on the way.

This would be an excellent book to use with young pupils (7-9 or thereabouts) 'doing' the Romans; it's an exciting read, and it also tells you a great deal about the Romans and how they lived and ruled. There are some nasty moments, though - one in particular. But then I'm sure there were lots of nasty moments in Roman Britain!

Mark of the Cyclops, by Saviour Pirotta
Back to Greece for this one, which is the first of  series and is aimed at a similar age group to Lynne
Benton's - both are perfect as background reading for children at KS2 studying the Greeks and Romans; the stories will engage young readers, and will also unobtrusively tell them an enormous amount about the civilizations they're learning about.

Mark of the Cyclops is a detective story. Like all good detective stories, there is a detective and a sidekick. The detective is a clever slave boy named Thrax, and his sidekick - his Doctor Watson - is the narrator of the story, a young scribe called Nico. They're both delightful characters, with the potential to develop in future books. When they travel to a wedding with their master, an engagingly awful poet, they are asked by her mistress to help clear the name of a slave-girl who has been accused of breaking a valuable vase. A mysterious figure with the mark of the Cyclops on his face seems to keep cropping up... what can it all mean?

The story's very enjoyable - but I was particularly struck by the amount of detail Pirotta includes about life in Ancient Greece - what they ate, what they wore, how they travelled.

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