Hellenic Traders

The four Hellenic Traders books.
The four Hellenic Traders books.
I recently discovered Harry Turtledove’s “Hellenic Traders” series (written under the pseudonym Turteltaub).

The four books follow two cousins from Rhodes who sail around the eastern Mediterranean selling luxury goods between 310 and 307 BC. In the first book (“Over the Wine-Dark Sea”) they sail to Italy with peacocks, in the second one (“The Gryphon’s Skull”) they try to sail to Athens with the skull of a dinosaur but end up getting mixed up in the infighting amongst the Macedonian generals who took over after Alexander the Great instead, in the third one (“The Sacred Land”) they sail east, to Cyprus, Sidon and Jerusalem, and in the last one (“Owls to Athens”) they travel to Athens.

Turtledove’s style is — as usual — very repetitive. The good thing about this is that you really get Ancient Greek culture hammered in with sledgehammers (he has a Ph.D. in Byzantine history and is clearly very knowledgeable about Ancient Greece). After reading the books, you’ll never confuse opson and sitos, you’ll know exactly how much water to mix into the wine depending on the occasion, and you’ll know much more about the sexual mores of Ancient Greece than you ever wanted to know. I’m sure I’ve learnt much more from reading these books than from the obligatory high school course in Greek culture (“oldtidskundskab” in Danish). The bad thing is you get utterly fed up with the same (at first vaguely amusing) lines being repeated ad nauseam; you might have to skip these bits to stay sane unless you have the memory span of a goldfish.

The last book doesn’t feel like the last book of the series. They’re dropping hints about travelling to Alexandria (the capital of Egypt) the following summer, Menedemos’ love life is in a crisis, and according to the history books, the Siege of Rhodes happened just two years later. Did Turtledove really intend to stop after four books, or did his publisher call an end to the series?

PS: The series has been reissued as e-books under Turtledove’s name, but you’ll pay more for these than for second-hand copies of the original hardcovers (linked to above).