Wine-Dark Fibs

This page contains a list of historical inaccuracies I'm aware of in my book The Wine-Dark Death. It's full of spoilers, so I urge you not to read further if you haven't read the book yet.

I think of this book not as “the way it happened” but as “a way it could have happened.” The evidence we have for ancient Greek history is astonishingly sparse, especially for the time period during which The Wine-Dark Death is set. The Greeks were all too busy philosophizing about the good life and sending each other into exile to bother keeping decent records of anything; it took the Romans, who just wanted to conquer the world and then pave it, to do that. So, for example, the only reason we date Thales’ life when we do in the sixth century B.C. is that Diogenes Laertius, a historian in the third century A.D., says that Apollodorus, a historian in the second century B.C., says—in a work lost to us—that that’s when he lived. This would be like somebody in the year 3714 reading something I wrote about what Martin Luther said, all in an effort to find out when the Second Crusade took place, in a world without the printing press and the Internet. So here’s a list of recorded historical events that might not match the events of The Wine-Dark Death—heavy emphasis on “might.”

Thales of Miletus, the world's first philosopher, was most likely born some time around 624 B.C. and died in around 546, which would make it difficult for him to have raised Aspasia, since she was born at the earliest in 470. The odds that the two were related are extremely low, especially since, between his death and her birth, the Persians slaughtered most of the male citizens of Miletus and enslaved the women and children, and the city was repopulated with whoever else happened to be around.

Though ancient historians credited Thales with predicting the date of first eclipse, that feat was probably first accomplished by his student Anaximander’s student Anaximenes’ student Anaxagoras, a century or so later.

The phrase “Whom the gods love dies young” was coined in a play about Trophonius and Agamedes by the playwright Menander, who wasn’t born until 342 B.C. The idea itself, however, had long been associated with the story of the two brothers.

The atomic theory Aspasia propounds to Socrates is first recorded by Leucippus and Democritus, a few decades after The Wine-Dark Death is set, but I see no reason they couldn’t have gotten it from her.

I have Aspasia explaining that bodies were laid out at funerals with their feet toward the door to make sure the soul left in the right direction, but we actually have no record of why this was done. I also invented the explanation of rigor mortis as the body’s attempt to keep the soul from leaving.

I have Kimon married to Old Thucydides’ sister. In fact, it was probably the other way around—Old Thucydides was probably married to Kimon’s sister. I changed this because making Sotiria Kimon’s sister along with Elpinice would have complicated things in unhelpfully problematic ways.

I’ve named Kimon’s son “Sparta,” but he was actually named “Lacedaemonius.” The Athenians called the Spartans “Lacedaemonians” (or occasionally “Laconians,” whence the English word “laconic”), but I figured that about four people who read this book were going to have any idea what that meant. Kimon had at least two other sons, and possibly as many as five.

If Little Thucydides was Old Thucydides’ grandson (which scholars suspect is the case), it was probably by Old Thucydides’ daughter, not by his son—which means that Little Thucydides would have grown up not in his maternal grandfather's house but in his father's house.

The lie detector with which Aspasia interrogates her slaves actually comes from ancient China, where they used dry rice instead of wheat.

Plutarch, writing in the second century A.D., gives us a thorough account of Kimon’s life; I haven’t changed any of the events he tells us about, but I have put some of them in a slightly different order. The idea of Pericles’ keeping Kimon on a short leash after his return from exile, while it doesn’t contradict any of the evidence we have, is also my invention. Plutarch says that the trees to which Kimon allowed anybody in his district access were fruit trees rather than olive trees, but the ancient Greeks saw fruit as a snack and olives as sustenance, so I changed them to olives so they’d make a greater impact.

It’s possible that only relatives were allowed to institute murder prosecutions and that Socrates would have had no standing to (threaten to) do so.

Plutarch is also the source for the idea that Polygnotus put Elpinice’s picture in the Painted Colonnade. This is highly unlikely, since the Greek art of the time, seven centuries before he was writing, was far more concerned with producing ideal types than portraying anything realistic; the only reason we know who fifth century portraits are supposed to depict is that they have names on them. However, the idea tickled me, and since an ancient historian believed it I went with it, expanding it so that Polygnotus also painted Kimon’s picture in Callias’ house.

The Spartans, after requesting the Athenians’ help putting down the serf revolt, did send the 4,000 soldiers led by Kimon back, but the reason isn’t stated anywhere. It was almost certainly for pro-democracy and pro-serf mutterings rather than barbs about the food, but the food is funnier. The Spartans’ black pudding was widely reviled, though, and the line about the guy saying he understands why Spartans don’t fear death is absolutely true.

Pericles was famous for never going to dinner parties or public events of any kind, so it’s highly unlikely he would actually have attended the war-dancing competition at which Aspasia overhears him talking to Lysicrates.

The custom of rich people lending their cronies money so they’d meet the property qualifications for elections was very common in Rome, but I haven’t heard of its happening in Greece.

Massage existed in the ancient world in the context of athletics—trainers would massage their athletes—but not, as far as I know, in other contexts, so Syra's massage of Aspasia is unlikely to have happened.

Aspasia’s extreme feelings about her husband’s exposure of their child are probably anachronistic. Greek babies weren’t even given names until at least a week after they were born, since they were so likely to die that people didn’t want to get too attached to them too soon. This suggests at least some such attachment—otherwise why take steps to avoid it?—but men had the absolute legal right to expose their children for any reason they wanted, and women, though they may have hated it, also accepted this as a fact of life.

I don't doubt that The Wine-Dark Death is riddled with further inaccuracies of which I'm unaware; if you want to point any of them out, I welcome corrections at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *