Aristotle and young Alexander


The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

I bought this novel when it was published back in 2009, and it’s been in my bedside bookcase for some time. I’d moved it there because one of the boxes on my BookBingo of the time was read a book with an author that shares your name and the Canadian author’s novel was the first that came to mind. It didn’t get read then, but it has been read now – and I loved it so much I ordered a copy of the sort of sequel (The Sweet Girl) immediately – I hope that won’t get ignored for so long.

Our narrator is none other than Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher.  Aristotle had hoped to succeed Plato as the leader of the Athenian Academy. As the story opens, he is on his way there, travelling with his wife Pythias and nephew Callisthenes.  They are going via Pellas in Macedon where Philip, an old friend, is now the ruler. Once there, Philip makes Aristotle an offer that is hard to refuse – to become tutor to his son, Alexander.  Aristotle watches the young prince as they go hunting:

Philip begins to tease him, offering him a skittsh horse, daring him to ride it. Ox-Head, the animal is called, for the white mark on its forehead. The boy turns it into the sun, blinding it, and mounts it easily. Philip, drunk, makes a sarcastic remark. From the warhorse’s back, the boy looks down at his father as though he’s coated in filth. That’s the coin I’ll carry longest in my pocket, the image I’ll worry over and over with my thunb.
I could help him, just like his brother. I could fill my plate. I could stay.

In taking on this task, Aristotle isn’t just tutoring Alexander, but his whole cadre of friends. Alexander doesn’t always behave like the eager student that Aristotle wishes for, he plays up, jokes, is late for lessons, he behaves like a spoilt brat. Aristotle is also helping Alexander’s older half-brother, Arrhidaeus, who is badly palsied and ignored. Aristotle can see the mind within, and tries to bring some enjoyment into the boy’s life by getting him on a horse, which Arrhidaeus loves. Alexander comes to join them:

Alexander looks up at his brother on my horse. “I can’t ask questions in front of the others. I can’t let them know I don’t understand. When I’m King they’ll remember and they won’t respect me.”
“Private lessons, then. I’ll arrange it with Leonidas.”
He nods.
“Can I clear up one thing quickly, before you go? My lessons are to make you think in ways others don’t. To make your world bigger. Not this world” – I wave a hand to take in the stables, the place, Pella, Macedon – “but the world in here” I tap my temple.

So Aristotle continues Alexander’s philosophical development, alongside his physical and warrior training. Alexander is longing to be blooded in battle, and frustrated that Philip won’t let him his temper often erupts in challenging ways. He will get his opportunity to lead soon enough, and learn to achieve a balance  – Aristotle’s ‘Golden Mean’.

Running in parallel is the story of Aristotle’s own family – of the trials of his wife Pythias, their struggles to have a child, and the malaise that affects her after Little Pythias, their daughter is born. It wasn’t an easy life for Pythias with Aristotle in Macedon – she’d been expecting to live in Athens.

Aristotle is ever the intellectual, always studying something or someone, capable of playing political games, yet he is no prude and relates things in an earthy but erudite manner. Right from the first sentence, we know his style:

The rain falls in black cords, lashing my animals, my men and my wife, Pythias, who last night lay with her legs spread while I took notes on the mouth of her sex, who weeps silent tears of exhaustion now, on this tenth day of our journey.

Lyons lets her Aristotle tell this tale with brio, not shying away from the gore of battle, nor the bedroom. I hadn’t expected to like Aristotle so much, but found him sympathetic and gentle as well as not suffering fools and having that top class brain. This was a fascinating way of, through his mentor, seeing the beginnings of greatness in Alexander and him becoming a fully fledged warrior ruler. The story ends with Aristotle leaving Macedon for Athens after his tutelage of Alexander ends – but an afterword gives a potted history of what happened next for them both.

I love historical novels that bring their subjects to life in this way, (much as Natalie Haynes has done for The Children of Jocasta, reviewed here).  Lyons has also made me want to revisit Mary Renault’s Alexander novels too, which I read as a teenager, to compare and contrast – although that’s not to take anything away from this fascinating and most enjoyable novel. (9/10)

Source: Own copy

Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean (2009. Atlantic Books), paperback, 320 pages.


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