When I began to research the story that became THE LAST HERO I found a wealth of information to work on. Some of it came from ancient legends which had been passed down over the centuries, like the story of the Trojan War, immortalized by Homer, or the murder of Agamemnon by his wife and her lover Aegisthus and the revenge of his son Orestes, as retold in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. To the Greeks of the classical era, these stories were history, not myth, and subsequent excavations by archaeologists have proved that they do have a basis in fact.
Pursuing the archaeological evidence I found that it reveals a fascinating story. There is no doubt that the city of Mycenae existed. Once only the Lion Gate was visible but now the ruins are there for all to see. Grave goods have shown that it was indeed a rich and cultivated society, where the royal dead were buried with masks of beaten gold over their faces. What interested me particularly was the evidence that over a period of years, after the victory over Troy, the city suffered partial destruction and re-building. Some time around 1200 b.c. a house belonging to an oil merchant outside the walls was burnt down and about the same time parts of the city and the palace were destroyed and rebuilt, with some of the walls being strengthened and a secret passageway constructed to a spring which fed a cistern. Was this evidence that the city had been attacked and expected the attackers to return?
Even more evidence came from excavations by Professor Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati at the site of Pylos, on the west coast of the Peloponnese. Here, legend had it, was the palace of King Nestor, who plays a large role in the Iliad; and excavations proved that it was so. A magnificent palace once stood on the hilltop of Epano Englianos, 17km north of the modern town of Pylos. It had columned courtyards and a throne room whose walls were decorated with beautiful frescoes. There were storerooms full of fine pottery and olive oil jars labelled to show their different flavours. Most interesting of all were the many clay tablets inscribed with writing in two different scripts, which had only been found before in the ruins of Knossos, the city of the Minoans on the island of Crete. Neither script had been translated and they were given the names Linear A and Linear B. Eventually, in 1952, Michael Ventris and John Chadwick succeeded in deciphering Linear B and discovered that it represented an early form of Greek. This sparked a great controversy. Did this mean that the MInoans, hitherto believed to have been a different race altogether, were also Greek? Or had the Mycenaeans conquered and colonized Knossos? Arguments raged among scholars, but what interested me was the information the tablets revealed. Most were simply records kept by the palace administration of taxes received and supplies dispensed but in the highest, and therefore most recent deposits, the tone changes. These tablets record orders that suggest Pylos was preparing for an attack. The number of available chariots is to be recorded, and chariots repaired where necessary. Ships are to assemble and watchers are to be sent to various points along the coast. We even have the names of the men in charge. ‘To the headquarters of Klymenos near Metapa, the Count Alectryon with 100 men’ etc etc. Most significantly, bronze vessels are to be requisitioned from the temples to be melted down for weapons.
These tablets were found it a layer of ash, left from the fire that razed the palace to the ground. The preparations were unavailing.
Who were the attackers? Tradition suggests a tribe called the Dorians, who believed themselves to be the descendants of Heracles. This, I decided, would be the basis for my novel.
The characters who people the story are not myths. They are not descended from gods or nymphs, though they believe their ancestors were divine. They are human beings with all the strengths and faults of all humans. They loved and suffered and hoped and feared as we all do. Their existence is attested by the records. We even know their names. Alkmaion was the son of King Sillos and the grandson of Thrasymedes, who fought at Troy. His cousin and rival, Antilochos, would have been the heir instead of him, if his grandfather had not died in that war. The royal family of Mycenae are all recorded as the descendants of Orestes. Even Alkmaion’s lover, Alectryon, was a real person, as I have shown above, though their relationship is a product of my own imagination.
In short, THE LAST HERO has as much historical validity as novels about Roman Emperors or Queen Boudicaa or Viking invaders. We may not have as much documentary evidence for it as we do for the Wars of the Roses, but the Myceneans were as real as Edward lV or Richard lll and they loved and fought with the same intensity as the men and women who lived through both World Wars. Conditions change, but human nature does not.