Elephants and Castles by Alfred Duggan

Demetrius Poliorcetes is one of the great characters of historical fiction.

A new age

Elephants and Castles is the punultimate novel written by Alfred Duggan, the erstwhile libertine, archaeologist and historical novelist. It covers the ups and downs of Demetrius I in the wars for supremacy amongst Alexander the Great’s generals.

Alexander’s campaigns against the east (especially Persia and India), opened up new influences to the Greek world. There were of course connections between these countries before Alexander but this sped up following his conquest.

Alexander died young and following his death, his generals fought amongst themselves for power. This was through a combination of military power and also soft power. This was the period when war elephants were first used in the Mediterranean and when war ships were built larger and larger.

Many of the generals built cities for themselves. Antioch and Alexandria both date from this period. The libraries of Pergamon and Alexandria had strategic roles in a cultural cold war to develop ever larger libraries.

The period also saw the emergence of new styles of art which married the oriental and Greek. Again this was not new, but it happened at a time when wealthy warlords were willing to pay a premium for political prestige.

It is a world that Duggan richly conjures.

Uniquely in historical fiction which loves walk on parts by historical figures, in Elephants and Castles sculpture of the time also has walk on parts.

A new man

Demetrius is a new man. He has a cynical contempt for religion and the gods. He holds himself aloof from the old values and moral codes of an earlier period. His moral code is one of immediacy. Faced with the uncertainty of life in a technologically militarised society, he lives for wine, women and culture.

Much of what we know about Demetrius comes from Plutarch. Plutarch wrote short biographies of famous Greeks and Romans and compared them together in pairs, one Greek and one Roman. Demetrius was compared with Anthony.

There is a family resemblance, especially in both figures debauches and their reign over paper empires. Most telling of all are the set scenes of feasts on board ship. Yet here the differences end. Anthony was a tragic figure, but Demetrius was too wily for that. He ended his days in a palace in the Seleucid empire  where he gorged himself to death La Grande Bouffe style.

At times Elephants and Castles can be a little dry compared to Duggan’s other books. Demetrius interest in strategy and contemporary thinking seems due as much to the underlying research (undertaken by someone else). Yet his character is strong. He is a Meursault of the Hellenistic age.

A complex book that would suit the full HBO treatment.

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