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THE PERICLES COMMISSION by Gary Corby: Book Review

After a wonderful trip to Greece two summers ago, I’ve become interested in all things Greek, both ancient and modernThe Pericles Commission has only increased my interest.

Gary Corby’s first novel tells the story of how democracy came to Athens. The world’s first democratic city state didn’t have a smooth beginning.  In fact, it took 130 years from the first written constitution (about 590 b.c.e.) until the time that Athens finally became a one citizen (read male), one vote democracy (461 b.c.e.).

The novels opens in 461 with the murder of Ephialtes, an Athenian lawmaker who has just successfully pushed through reforms to bring democracy to the city-state. Three days after the laws are passed, he is shot by an arrow and his body falls in front of Nicolaos, son of Sophroniscus; apparently there were no last names in ancient Greece.

Nicolaos, a young man just out of his army training, isn’t certain what he wants to do with his life, but he is sure he doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his father, a sculptor. When Ephialtes’ friend, the renowned politician and orator Pericles, comes upon the scene a few moments later and offers Nicolaos a commission to find the person or persons responsible for the crime and who are thus imperiling the new democracy, Nico accepts.  To revert to traditional rule, Nico thinks, would mean he would have no chance  to rise in society and he would be “doomed” to be an apprentice to his father.  He would do anything, try anything, to avoid that.

Pericles believes that the Council of the Areopagus conspired to kill Ephialtes.  The only problem is that his own father, Xanthippus, is a member of that Council.  There is no government police force or investigative body in Athens; the family or friends of the victim must investigate the crime. And there are no jails, either; the punishment is execution, fine, or exile.

Ephialtes was married but also had a mistress and an illegitimate daughter. His hetaera, Euterpe, is a voluptuous, sensual woman who attracts every man she meets, but it is her daughter Diotima, a priestess-in-training to the Goddess Artemis the Huntress, who is intriguing to Nico.  She is as determined as he is to find the murderer of her father.

Gary Corby’s first novel is a delightful piece of writing. His greatest skill, I think, is incorporating the history of Athens, which probably isn’t well known to most readers outside Greece, into the story.  His explanations of marriage customs, funerary details, and daily life more than two thousand years ago are clear and fascinating.  Things that are so commonplace now, at least in the Western world, were unthinkable then–one person, one vote; marriage by choice, not via law; education for men and women;  all those things were unknown at the time of The Pericles Commission.

Corby gives a brief history of Athens at the beginning of the book, followed by a list of the characters and whether they are historical figures or not.  So skillful is he in his writing that without that list a reader would think that all the characters actually lived in ancient Greece.

You can read more about Gary Corby at his web site.