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Ancient Greece, modern Italy: violent parallels

Author: Lucinda Byatt
Newspaper: Historical Novels Review
Date: Feb 21 2018

Alessandro Barbero is a historian and the author of several major history books. He also writes fiction, winning the Strega Prize in 1996, and then setting his second novel – which has strong echoes of Alessandro Manzoni’s classic novel, The Betrothed (Simon & Brown, 2016) – in sixteenth-century Venice.1 The Athenian Women (Europa Editions, 2018) explores the raw underside of politics and society in ancient Greece, inspired by parallels with modern Italy and undoubtedly other societies, too. Here, the literary premise is a play: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. As the men of Athens gather in the theatre and are alternately incensed and faintly amused by Aristophanes’ daring play, staged in 411BC, a violent assault is taking place only a short distance outside the city: on stage, the actors dressed as women seize power and devise a provocative means to end the war with Sparta; in real life, a trio of elite young men hold two young girls prisoner and subject them to a horrific ordeal.

What drew the author to the period of the Peloponnesian Wars, I asked, and to Aristophanes? Barbero told me that, having been a teenager when he discovered Aristophanes and the historian Thucydides, the former remains his favourite classical author. “However, I’d never have set a novel in that period, if I had not read Luciano Canfora’s Il mondo di Atene (The Athenian World, 2011), which made me realise that the fragility of Athenian democracy, the gulf of hatred between rich and poor, and the ease with which political tension could degrade into terrorism closely resembled the political situation of Italy while I was growing up, in the Seventies.”

Italy experienced a period of violent political and social turmoil during the so-called “Years of Lead” (Anni di piombo). Privilege and abuse were often closely intertwined. A horrific episode of sexual violence, which has never been forgotten in Italy, was the gang rape known as the Circeo massacre that took place outside Rome in 1975. As Barbero stressed, “The idea for the novel took shape when I realised that a crime of this nature could easily have occurred in the political climate of fifth-century Athens.”

Even though Athens invented democracy (the aged Pericles is among the audience watching Lysistrata), its population needed to be constantly on their guard against the rich oligarchs who plotted to impose their rule by sowing terror. Glicera and Charis, two naïve but resourceful daughters of humble farmers, are tempted to visit a rich neighbour’s son, Cimone, in his father’s country house. Their reception has been carefully planned and even the house slaves have been sent to the festivities in the city. The events that ensue are directly inspired by the Circeo massacre.

The narratives of the female slaves offer another point of view on this society: particularly that of Andromache (the name given to her after she was captured during the war against Sparta). I suggested to Barbero that her story might merit a sequel, but he replied: “I like writing about different things, so I would never continue a story.” The structure of the novel carefully interweaves the performance of the comedy with the assault on the girls, the humour of the first contrasting the horror of the second. Yet very little is known in fact about the performance of Greek comedy. As Barbero highlights, “This is one of those areas where the historical novel is particularly appropriate as a means of re-creating the past: given that our knowledge is so limited, it is entirely justified – and stimulating – to ll the gaps using the novelist’s imagination.”

After sixteenth-century Venice and the classical world, I was intrigued to hear about the setting for Barbero’s next novel. Clearly, it would be different. “For some time,” he replied, “I’ve been tempted by the idea of writing a novel set in New York around September 11, 2001, but I don’t know whether I’ll ever actually want to write it.”

Lucinda Byatt is a translator and historian. Visit her at


1. Alessandro Barbero, Master Pyle’s Bella Vita and Other People’s Wars, 1995, was awarded the 1996 Strega Prize for Fiction; The Eyes of Venice, trans. Gregory Conti, 2012. The Athenian Women is translated by Anthony Shugaar.