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Literature / Thais of Athens

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Thaïs of Athens (Russian: "Таис Афинская") is a Historical Fiction novel written by the Soviet paleontologist and SF writer Ivan Yefremov and set around the time of Alexander the Great's conquests. The eponymous heroine Thaïs is a famous Athenian hetaera, whom history remembers for burning the Achaemenid Persia's capital to the ground and later reigning as queen of Ptolemaic Egypt. The novel takes these facts and fills in the gaps and gray areas between and around them with invented characters and events that Thais encounters in her journey across the Ecumene. The result is both a compelling story and an epic panorama of life in the Hellenistic world during the late fourth century BCE.

Although the novel was first published in Russian in 1972, it was only recently translated to English, almost forty years later.

The novel provides examples of following works:

  • Ancient Egypt: Thais stays in Egypt twice in the course of the novel: once as an exile, and once, as its queen.
  • Ancient Persia: Where she requests Persepolis be set on fire. The novel also treats the beginnings of Hellenisation of the region.
  • Badass Army: Alexander's Macedonian army (trained by his late father) is unstoppable at the beginning of his conquest, but is worn out and largely ineffective by the time they reach Persepolis.
  • Celibate Hero: Alexander avoids women, following a disastrous First Love (crushed by his Evil Matriarch of a mom). Thais is the only other woman he has ever shown any romantic interest in.
  • Cool Horse: Bucephalus, but also any horse ridden by the Macedonians and Thessalonians. Likewise, Boanergos, the stallion presented to Thais by Ptolemy and Leontiscus. Salmaach is decisively uncool, on the other hand.
  • Cope by Creating: The heroine falls into a deep depression after losing both her Best Friend Aegesichore and her lover Menedem in a single day. The only thing that keeps her afloat (until major changes in her life help her overcome it) is riding out into the wilderness and dancing for hours at a time.
  • Dance of Despair: The title heroine falls into a despair after her Best Friend Aegesichore and her lover Menedem are both murdered in a single day. The only thing that keeps her afloat (until major changes in her life help her overcome it) is riding out into the wilderness and dancing for hours at a time.
  • Dashed Plot Line: Skips of one to three years take place between most chapters, culminating in a nine-year skip in the middle of the last chapter.
  • Dead Guy Junior: In the novel, Thais names her and Ptolemy's (historical) son Leontiscus after the (fictional) Thessalonian cavalryman Leontiscus, who was her long-time admirer and was KIA shortly before her son's birth.
  • Death by Disfigurement: Combat fitness is a very Serious Business for Spartans.
  • Does Not Like Men: Hesione until she meets Nearchus. Eris, too.
  • Ethical Slut: Thais. Comes with being a priestess of Aphrodite (of sorts).
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Olympias is not depicted very favorably.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Customary among the Greeks. In particular, Menedem and Cleophrades die smiling. Eris lampshades this when she almost dies in Thais' arms after saving her from assassins.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: What drives Aeositeus to kill Aegesichore.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Pretty much every slave Thais has is happy with their fate (except Za-Asht).
  • Heroic BSoD: Thais suffers this after the deaths of Aegesichore and Menedem, Alexander, and Roxanne and Alexander's son.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Thais and Eris. Men come and go but those two stick together.
  • Historical Domain Character: Thais, Alexander, Ptolemy, Hephaestion, Nearchus, Cleitus, Aristotle, and Lysippos. Also, Thalestris... kinda.
  • Historical Fiction: While the novel is extremely faithful to history books (with one exceptionnote ), it has a number of clearly fictional plot lines, such as Thais' initiation in various ancient mysteries and her rocky romance with Alexander.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Thais with pretty much every man she is with, but especially Menedem.
  • Identical Grandparent: Kinda. In the Cretan ruins of Matala, Thais discovers an ancient mosaic depicting a woman who looks exactly like herself.
  • Initiation Ceremony: Thais goes through the Orphean initiation, the Atargatis cult rituals, and the "kiss of the viper" ritual.
  • Ladykiller in Love: Ptolemy's relationship with Thais.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Thais, a queen, a faithful wife, and a mother of two by the end of the book, and Eris, a gloomy Dark Action Girl (who is untypically chaste—but only because she was fed up with sex even before she met Thais). Which is an ironic reversal of Thais' darker and more aloof part in her duo with the classically heroic Aegesichore in the early chapters.
  • Light Liege, Dark Defender: The title heroine is a beautiful hetaira who relies on her social skills and insight to advance in life. Her slave Eris, meanwhile, is a Dark Action Girl — a failed priestess who would have been executed for breaking her oaths, had Thais not successfully negotiated for her life. Eris then becomes fiercely devoted to Thais, saving her from assassins on several occasions.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The format of the title may be a reference to Shakespeare's Timon of Athens.
  • The Matchmaker: Thais seems to view it as her lifelong mission to set up everyone she meets with their personal soul mate. The only time she fails is with Eris.
  • Mutual Kill: Aeositeus and Menedem. Technically, the former wasn't killed, only mostly paralyzed. However, as a Spartan, he requests others to euthanize him rather than live with the injury.
  • Myopic Conqueror: Alexander the Great is depicted as this; his life's goal is to reach the eastern edge of the world (which he believes to lie just beyond India, unaware of the rest of Asia), and he pursues it in the only way he knows how — by conquering everything between Macedon and India, with little regard to how the conquered lands will be ruled later.
  • Naked First Impression: Ptolemy's first meeting with Thais.
  • No Loves Intersect: For pretty much anyone in the book who isn't Thais.
  • No Name Given: The Delian Philosopher.
  • The Promise: Ptolemy's promise to become a king and make Thais his queen in the first chapter.
  • Rape as Drama: Part of Hesione's Back Story.
  • Rescue Romance: Not quite this, but Thais and Menedem get a Relationship Upgrade after he saves her life in the temple of Sobek.
  • Second Love: Spans the whole novel as a motif. Let's see...
    • For Thais: Alexander, after Menedem (even though she ends up marrying Ptolemy).
    • For Alexander: Thais, after an unnamed slave he fell in love in his youth.
    • For Nearchus: Hesione, after Aegesichore.
    • For Aechephile: the lilitu priestesses, after Eris.
  • Sex Goddess: Thais, as a side effect of being a priestess of Aphrodite.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Nearchus and Hesione.
  • Slave Market: Quite a few such markets appear, owing to the nature of the setting. One particular example would be where Thais purchases Hesione (a Theban girl who was Made a Slave after Alexander the Great's army sacked Thebes).
  • Super-Soldier: Individually, the Spartans are the strongest fighters in the book.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Alexander is prone to it.
  • Utopia: Examined by Ouranpolis. Thais views Greece (particularly, Athens) as this but grows increasingly disillusioned with it throughout the book.
  • War Elephants: Seleucus gathers a whole unit of battle elephants while campaigning in India. It never sees much action in the novel, but Thais gets to ride one in Babylon.