OWLS TO ATHENS
by H.N. Turteltaub
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Owls to Athens, the fourth installment of H.N. Turteltaub’s series about Greek merchants Menedemos and Sostratos finally sees the two Rhodians arrive at Sostratos’ beloved Athens. The majority of the novel takes place in Athens rather than the more peripatetic activities of the previous novels.
The two men take the goods acquired in the previous installment in The Sacred Land and attempt to increase their fortunes by trading them for goods and silver in the Western Aegean. Turteltaub has set up a perfect scenario to examine Sostratos’ past as a student in Athens. At the same time, Turteltaub can look towards the future as he makes Menedemos’ relationship with his father more difficult.
Sostratos’ excitement in visiting Athens is not limited to merely the knowledge that he will be able to visit old friends within Athens’ philosophical community, but also the fact that their visit would coincide with the Dionysia, a festival of plays. When they arrive in Athens, Sostratos discovers that he has changed enough that Athens is no longer the golden city he has remembered it as. He still enjoys the Dionysia, but upon looking up Theophrastes, his old teacher, he finds that commerce, his current life, has displaced philosophy in his way of thinking.
Menedemos, meanwhile, looks at Athens in the same manner he looks at all cities, as an opportunity to trade and commit adultery. The Dionysia precludes the former from taking place immediately upon their arrival in Athens, but it makes the latter easier, for in addition to the plays, the Dionysia is an excuse for a drunken bacchanalia. Given his own abilities, Menedemos winds up with the one woman in Athens who can cause the most trouble for him.
The novel follows much in the wake of the previous novels, with trade negotiations, sexual escapades, and philosophical discussions against a background of the wars which plagued the Hellenic world in the fourth century BCE. Menedemos and Sostratos again come into contact with the heirs of Alexander and again find themselves having to walk a narrow line between the freedom of their city and the sycophancy which is necessary to survive an audience with the generals.
Turteltaub alternates his narration between Sostratos and Menedemos, however the breaks are clear enough that there is not a problem in identifying which character is taking center stage at any given moment. Perhaps moreso than earlier books, both characters show personal growth in Owls to Athens. Sostratos, of course, learned how much he had changed since leaving Athens as a student. Menedemos begins to reevaluate his “relationships” with women in light of his father’s relationship with his wife, Baukis, and an extended affair while he is in Athens.
As always, the partners’ travels form a break for their more mundane life in Rhodes, which opens and closes the book. On Rhodes, Turteltaub continues to show Sostratos’ problems with his brother-in-law Damonax and Menedemos’ problems with his father. At the same time, Menedemos is shown having municipal success with his previous invention of the trihemiolia. Although Turteltaub gives hints of the men’s life in Rhodes, an entire book dealing with their off season would be welcome.
Owls to Athens demonstrates Turteltaub’s excellent research skills, honed before he, like Sostratos, turned his back on academia. His narrative skills help provide an entertaining and intelligent story to go along with that background and provide a good historical tale which spotlights the period.
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