31 March, 2016

Over the Wine-Dark Sea, by H. N. Turteltaub. Book review

Tom Doherty Associates, 2001. ISBN 0-312-87660-2. 381 pages.

Over the Wine-Dark Sea is set in the Eastern Mediterranean in spring to autumn of 310 BC. According to the Historical Notes, one of the two central characters, Menedemos, is a historical figure, as is Antandros of Syracuse who makes a brief appearance. All the other characters who appear in the novel are fictional.

In spring 310 BC, Menedemos and his cousin Sostratos, two young merchants from Rhodes, are eager to put to sea for their summer trading trip to Great Hellas, the Greek colonies and city-states of Sicily and mainland Italy. Their ship, the Aphrodite, jointly owned by their fathers, is a merchant galley with forty rowers as well as a sail for propulsion. Unlike the broad sail-only trading ships, the Aphrodite does not need to wait for a favourable wind; the rowers can take her wherever her captain wants to go. But this also means she is expensive to run, as the crew have to be paid wages, and her cargo space is limited. So the Aphrodite carries luxury goods, perfume, silk, fine wine, dye, papyrus, ink – and peafowl, exotic birds from India that have never before been seen in Great Hellas. Menedemos and Sostratos will need their wits and a shrewd eye for a deal to cover their costs and bring back a profit. But as well as business risks and the ever-present danger of pirates and bad weather, several wars are raging along the Aphrodite’s intended route: between Syracuse and Carthage; between an obscure Italian tribe called the Romans and their neighbours to the south; and between the various generals who inherited parts of the empire of Alexander the Great after his death a decade ago and are now fighting each other in Egypt, mainland Greece, Asia Minor and the seas in between. One miscalculation could see Menedemos, Sostratos and all their crew dead or for sale in a slave market – and on top of this, there is Menedemos’ liking for other men’s wives...

Over the Wine-Dark Sea is a highly entertaining travelogue of the varied cultures and geography of the Eastern Mediterranean in antiquity. It doesn’t really have a plot as such – Menedemos and Sostratos travel from one island or port to the next, buy things, sell things, get into and (hopefully) out of trouble, and hope to return home safely and profitably. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing (after all, the same sort of comment could be made about The Odyssey). Their journey is colourful and varied enough, and the cousins’ contrasting characters amusing enough, to make Over the Wine-Dark Sea great fun to read. The cousins’ bickering is often witty, and there are a few knowing jokes, like the various Hellenes who solemnly opine that the obscure barbarian tribe called the Romans will never amount to anything much. The difficulties of managing a peacock, five peahens (and in due course a multitude of chicks) in the cramped confines of the ship form a running joke for most of the book.

Over the Wine-Dark Sea is also immensely informative about the ancient world. Each of the ports, harbours and towns is described, often with snippets of its history and layout. Different types of ships are described and named, along with their development over time and the various uses for the different types. Hellenic social conventions and customs are described and shown in detail; haggling over a business deal; the correct format for a symposion (a drinking party for wealthy men, a sort of cross between a dinner party and a stag do); the names of different courses in a meal; conventions about which hand to eat with and how many fingers to use for different types of food; sports activities at the gymnasion. All of these are restricted to men, of course. The confined life imposed on women is acknowledged (and Sostratos is sensitive enough to feel just a little bit uncomfortable about it occasionally), but women don’t get much of a role except as possessions for men to squabble over.

Both Menedemos and Sostratos are familiar with Homer and like to relate the places they see to the poetry – could the whirlpool they see in the Straits of Messina be the original Charybdis, could this or that island be where Odysseus encountered the Sirens or the Cyclops? Sostratos also has aspirations to be a historian and likes to collect obscure facts, such as two different theories about how the town of Rhegion got its name, or the correct way to wear a toga. All this information has an undeniable tendency to slow down the plot, and I can imagine that some readers might find it annoying, although I quite liked these obscure excursions. For readers who want to imagine what it might have been like to trade luxury goods around the Aegean and Italy in the ancient world, what items came from where, and how money and coinage worked, there is much to enjoy.

The book is written throughout in straightforward modern English (with American spellings). Some of the different cultures are given different accents or dialects to distinguish them from one another; one region of Greece drops ‘H’s, Macedonia has an archaic dialect, and a slave girl kidnapped from Cisalpine Gaul in the distant north of Italy is given an Irish accent and turn of phrase to emphasise her foreignness.

A brief Historical Note outlines the historical events that form the background to Menedemos’ and Sostratos’ journey, and there is a very useful note at the front about weights, measures and units of money. This is well worth bookmarking, as the characters refer to these units constantly and it is very useful to be able to flip back quickly to see whether a minai is a small fortune or small change. An excellent map at the front is very useful for following the Aphrodite’s journey.

Colourful and entertaining account of the episodic adventures of two young traders shipping luxury goods around the Eastern Mediterranean in 310 BC.