Reviewed by Max Dunbar
The Altar of Pity: Martin Millar’s Athens
‘I’ve tried setting a novel in ancient Athens before,’ writes Martin Millar, in the afterword to his new book, ‘but it never really worked, and I abandoned those earlier efforts.’ But an interest in classics is one of Millar’s drivers as a writer and it permeates all his work. Thraxas’s fantasy city state, with its assemblies, chariots, praetors and triremes, is clearly based on ancient Rome and Athens and even includes a great orator, Cicerius, who in his combination of arrogance and rectitude, is Cicero to the life. When Millar himself makes an appearance in the contemporary traveller world of Love and Peace with Melody Paradise, he is trying to kickstart a TV show called ‘Young Socrates’ and spends much of the book trying to heal a sick tree by regaling it with light Roman comedies.
Like most of Millar’s books, The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is short and plain. He once said that his writing process has a ‘nice and big stage’ where all complex adjectives are replaced ‘ with words like ‘nice’ and ‘big’, which I’ve liked ever since I was told not to use them at school.’ But although this new book comes in at less than two hundred pages, there’s a hell of a lot going on. The story centres around the comic playwright Aristophanes, who is about to produce a play that he hopes will finally win him the big award at the Dionysia festival – and, also, sway public opinion against the war with Sparta. Millar makes Aristophanes like all his male heroes – selfish, venal, prone to obsessive envy and lust, fond of food and wine and materialistic treats, and likeable despite all these flaws.
Ranged against Aristophanes are politicians and weapons manufacturers, who have a strong interest in keeping the war going. They cut off his funds and do their best to sabotage his pro-peace production. The bad guys even enlist Laet, a goddess of chaos, who comes to Athens and wreaks discord wherever she goes: when Laet walks through the agora, prudent men gamble away their life savings, families try to roast sheep in the main bedroom and burn down the street. In an effort to help Aristophanes the goddess Athena sends reinforcements in the form of an Amazon and a nymph, Metris, who like Vex in the Kalix books, is more interested in exploring the city than saving the world. Aristophanes also has some dubious assistance from the brilliant hetaera Theodota, and hapless young poet Luxos.
The war has sucked life out of Athens, gloom and penury pervade the city: it’s a signifier of how bad things have got that even the taverns are empty. Like Tyrion Lannister, Millar sees the broken things of life: remember the disabled beggar in Melody Paradise, or the shitty run-down community college where Kalix and Vex take their exams. His Athens is full of awesome architecture and marvellous parties but Millar doesn’t gloss over its patriarchy, its slaveholding or its rigid class system. The point of narrative despair in Buttercups and Daisies comes when the warmongers sabotage the Altar of Pity, a temple for the dispossessed and marginalised: Millar’s work is an altar of pity. (One thing the writer does admires about the city state, however, is that it developed a version of the universal franchise, way before the Abrahamic civilisations: ‘It was a brilliant innovation, and a step forward for the world,’ Millar says, and it strikes me how many of his heroes are people from deprived backgrounds trying to beat the system at its own game – Cicerius, Makri the escaped Orcish gladiator, Luxos the poet, even Thraxas himself.)
All this bad feeling puts pressure on Aristophanes to produce the most entertaining play of the festival: desperate and war-weary Athenians expect nothing less. Millar plays on the fact that classical dramatists operated in conditions where there was far less reverence for the stage than there is now. Like the Tudor playwrights, Aristophanes knows that, no matter how sophisticated his comedies, he must include such crowd favourites as giant bobbing phalluses, and naked young women prancing across the stage: the drunken Athenian audiences will pelt him with raw onions if his play drags. (This point is also acknowledged by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld books, where tragedians of the main cultural city have to adapt their performances to the tastes of the peanut-throwing Librarian: ‘Since a roasted peanut is a dangerous and painful item when hurled with pinpoint accuracy, directors in Ankh-Morpork had long ago taken the hint… it was considered that plays like ‘The Blood-Soaked Tragedy of the Mad Monk of Quirm (with Custard-pie scene)’ were far better than being deaf in one ear for five days.’)
Millar grounds his novel in time and place, and wears his learning lightly – you need to be a classical scholar yourself (or at least have access to Wikipedia) to know that Lysistrata turned out to be one of Aristophanes’s most successful plays: here he suggests that the play was written by Theodota, although produced under Aristophanes’s name. There are cameos from mythical warriors, comic poets, even a squabbling young Plato and Xenophon. And if Millar himself was a character in this novel, he would be Socrates – ambling around in shabby clothes, drinking amphoras at all the key parties, and quietly doing all the noticing.
Martin Millar, The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies. (Piatkus: London, 2015), 978-0349407142, 192pp., paperback.