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Literature / Over the Wine-Dark Sea

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Erinna: Tell me about the voyage. Even if I am a widow, I'm a respectable woman so I hardly get out of the house, except to festivals and such, but you — you get to go across the sea. You know I'm jealous.
Sostratos: You have less to be jealous of than you think. If you feel crowded and closed in here, imagine spending a night at sea aboard an akatos, where most of the men don't even have room to lie down to sleep.
Erinna: But you see something new every day, every hour.

This is a sea story by Harry Turtledove about Rhodian traders in the Hellenistic era. It concerns the voyage of the trading ship "Aphrodite" to Italy ("Great Hellas") and back and their adventures along the way. The main characters are the cousins Menedemos the captain and Sostratos the purser.

This is the first of the "Helenic Traders" series. Further books are:

  • The Gryphon's Skull
  • The Sacred Land
  • Owls to Athens
  • Salamis

The series's title is a reference to The Iliad, where Homer uses the famous piece of description "wine-dark sea" several times.

Over the Wine-Dark Sea contains such tropes as:

  • Action Survivor: Sostratos, especially when he takes a small group inland to trade at Jerusalem, risking attack by bandits.
  • Asskicking Leads to Leadership: And all the warlords around them are trying to gain said authority by this manner.
  • But I Read a Book About It: Sostratos often knows strange trivia about cities that he had never seen before in Real Life.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Sostratos has this toward his sister, Erinna.
  • Bazaar of the Bizarre: Every port's "Agora" where they do business. Lots of interesting things can be found here.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Menedemos is Captain Smooth, Diokles is Sergeant Rough.
  • Chain of Deals: What else is an Intrepid Merchant looking for?
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Polemaios, nephew to Antigonos, who switches sides to Kassandros and then again to Ptolemy. He ends up being made to drink hemlock for his trouble.
  • The Captain: Menedemos.
  • The Casanova: Menademos.
  • The Consigliere: Antandros is this to his younger brother Agathokles, Tyrant of Syracuse, and negotiates with the heroes after they deliver grain to Syracuse. He takes this role despite being the eldest simply because he has a more laid back nature.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Both Menedemos and Sostratos are a bit of this. Both have totally opposite views of life. And both have to live on the same ship with each other.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: This is a story in which the heroes own slaves and think Greeks are better than anyone else, among other things. The author does NOT go out of his way to make Ancient Greeks look like a perfect society. Sostratos at least feels occasional sympathy for slaves, though.
  • Do Not Taunt Cthulhu: Menedemos several times reminds Sostratos that a sailor should watch what he says while at sea, because that is the wrong time to annoy the gods.
  • The Dutiful Son: Sostratos is very conscientious and gets along well with his father.
  • The Empire: Lots of powerful people want to have this, which makes life difficult for unfortunate merchants.
  • Family Business: The merchant galley Aphrodite is owned by the fathers of Sostratos and Menedemos.
  • Friend on the Force: The Rhodian Navy collectively. And the Rhodian navy always gets its Pirate.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Sostratos, sort of. He is a quite nice person but he doesn't relate well to sailors.
  • Global Currency: Averted. Everybody uses silver drachmas but each mint has a different value so a bargainer like Sostratos who has a great knowledge about such matters has quite an advantage over those who think that a drachma is a drachma.
  • Good with Numbers: Sostratos is this. This is what makes him able to compete with all the bargainers in the Mediterranean.
  • Home Base: Rhodes.
  • Honest John's Dealership: They have many bargaining matches with local buyers and sellers all along the voyage.
  • Father Neptune: Diokles the Oarmaster.
  • Folk Hero: Alexander the Great is already this, though only dead for about ten years.
  • Handsome Lech: Menedemos.
  • Hired Guns: They transport some of these. One tries to steal the peacock eggs and gets marooned because when someone steals from his shipmates you can be pretty sure that It's Personal.
  • Historical In-Joke: A few. For instance, Sostratos comments on Italian cities that "none of them will ever amount to anything". Of course the reader knows that a certain one of these cities will prove him wrong.
    • Sostratos remarks at one point that nobody would behold a land of ice and snow and call it a Greenland.
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: Sostratos has this problem.
  • Intrepid Merchant: The basic theme of the book.
  • Jerk Jock: Menedemos.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Menedemos.
  • Jumped at the Call: Deconstructed. The intrepid heroes hear that Syracuse is starving under a Carthaginian siege and needs grain. Menedemos decides to go because it sounds exciting and will pay a lot of money. Sostratos hates the idea but Menedemos overrules them. Neither apparently give a hoot about the beleaguered citizens of Syracuse. After all, an Intrepid Merchant has an honest drachma to make, doesn't he?
  • Literary Allusion Title: To the Homeric epics.
  • Little Hero, Big War: Lots of wars are taking place or imminent; the heroes mainly want to stay out of the way unless the money is good enough.
  • MacGuffin: The peacocks which they have to sell.
  • Magnetic Hero: Menedemos.
  • Merchant City: Rhodes. Other cities too.
  • My Girl Back Home: The families of Menedemos and Sostratos. Especially that of Sostratos who has a closer relationship with them.
  • Not-So-Safe Harbor: Any harbor they put in at.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrats: The Mooks of the various warlords who bicker around them.
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: Sostratos feels that way toward Menedemos who can command a ship, inspire men and almost runs well enough to go to the Olympics. While Sostratos is mainly Good with Numbers and with reading. The first(and occasionally the second) of which help the sailors get paid but never get noticed.
  • Overused Running Gag: The peacocks which they carry and which are such a bother.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Towards Rhodes in particular and Hellenic culture in general. Not towards Macedonians.
  • The Philosopher: Sostratos has ambitions of being famous as this one day. Right now he is busy being an Intrepid Merchant.
  • Pirate: They are in constant fear of these. The heroes do not think of them in a romantic or heroic way and, in fact, several times express their desire that all pirates be crucified.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Macedonian Marshalls regularly come across as this, treating with our merchant protagonists on fair terms despite their power imbalance.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Menedemos and Sostratos respectively.
  • The Republic: Rhodes is a respected naval and mercantile power that is democratic for its time; one of the few city-states to maintain its independence amid the troubles around. It is also the home of the heroes.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Sostratos refuses to sell the griffon's skull, believing it should be taken to the philosphers in Athens for study.
  • Sibling Team: The brothers Agathokles and Antandros jointly rule the city of Syracuse with Agathokles, the younger, taking the lead.
  • The Smart Guy: Sostratos is skilled at math and loves philosophy and history.
  • The Stoic: Sostratos seems to be this in the literal sense of the philosophy he tries to follow.