Author: John Gardner
First published: 1970
Locale: Sparta, in ancient Greece
Time: Sixth century b.c.e.
Agathon (AG-uh-thon), a philosopher and seer, originally a native of Athens but now living in exile in Sparta. Old, fat, and balding, Agathon is considered by some a wise man; by most, he is dismissed as a public nuisance who bothers decent citizens in the streets and rails at the established order of things. A philosopher in the Socratic mode, Agathon questions all conventions and refuses to accept the prevalent systems in society, politics, and thought. His sympathy with the oppressed Helots brings him into connection with their revolt against the Spartan tyranny, but in the end, Agathon is unable to translate his moral and philosophical feelings into practical, political applications. Still, the Spartan tyrant Lykourgos realizes that Agathon is implacably opposed to his own rigid and demanding system and imprisons the seer, hoping to break his will and demonstrate the supremacy of Spartan law. Agathon is reduced to remembering the events of his past, commenting on the problem of the present, and trying to pass along what wisdom he commands to his young Helot disciple, Demodokos. Aided by the Helot rebels, Agathon escapes but soon dies of the plague while in hiding.
Demodokos, called Peeker by Agathon, a twenty-year-old Helot who was picked out by Agathon one day in the street to be his follower. Although Peeker finds much that is irritating, even despicable, about his master, he is unable to break away from Agathon and travels with him loyally, even into the midst of the Helot conspiracy and then into prison. Peeker is young, skinny, and often embarrassed to be in Agathon's company; he is shamed by his master's deliberately rude, often boorish behavior, and he cannot grasp many of the philosophical meanings of Agathon's baffling riddles. Still, as the novel progresses, Peeker matures, growing in strength as Agathon weakens and becoming more compassionate as Agathon sickens. In the end, Peeker travels to Athens to seek out Agathon's wife, Tuka, and to continue his master's philosophical quest.
Tuka, Agathon's wife. Now in her sixties, she was once a beautiful woman and Agathon's childhood sweetheart. When Agathon becomes embroiled in the Helot conspiracy and his ongoing struggle against Lykourgos, Tuka returns to her native Athens, unwilling to become part of Agathon's destruction. She is strong-willed and obsessive to the point of madness, a jealous woman whose fits of anger and fury alternate strangely with gentle, harp-playing behavior.
Iona, Agathon's mistress, a leader of the Helot revolt and wife of Dorkis. In her sixties, she is a clever, determined woman, still holding to the intense beauty she had when younger. For years, she and Tuka conducted a running battle over control of Agathon; it has ended with neither of them winning. Although Iona has been Agathon's lover for years, she remains deeply devoted to her husband and to the cause of Helot freedom.
Dorkis, a Helot, friend to Agathon and husband of Iona. He is a pleasant, easygoing man in late middle age, seemingly mild in nature and perhaps even weak in character. He knows of Agathon's long-standing affair with his wife and seems to ignore it. Trusted by the Spartans as a loyal servant, Dorkis is actually a key leader in the Helot revolt and is known by the code name of Snake. When the Spartans finally discover and capture him, he is tortured and killed. He shows great bravery in his death.
Lykourgos, a tyrant and lawgiver of Sparta. A severe, one-eyed man in late middle age, he is remolding the Spartan state to be a military garrison devoid of artistic frills and intellectual curiosity. His set of laws is strict and inflexible, and his view of human society and the world leads inevitably to conflict with Agathon.