The Persian Boy By Mary Renault
Reviewed by Michael Walker
Mary Renault is a renowned writer of both fictional and non-fictional accounts of ancient Greece who has been hailed as one of the greatest writers of historical novels ever to turn her attentions to the ancient world. No wonder that she has received such praise, for Renault combines a savvy writing style with a deep knowledge of the time period she writes about. The Persian Boy is one of three novels that she has authored concerning the life of Alexander the Great. This book is unique in that it tells the story of Alexander from the voice of Bagoas, a Persian eunuch (gelded male) who at the age of fifteen is given to Alexander as a peace offering. Bagoas was indeed a real person -- history will attest to that much -- and although it is difficult to know exactly what his relationship with Alexander was, it is pretty safe to assume that they were lovers.
Renault begins her story when Bagoas is captured by his father's enemies and taken to be sold as a slave-courtesan; such was common practice in ancient Persia as attractive young boys were as much an object of sexual desire among noblemen as women, and eunuchs would have their place in a king's harem along with the royal concubines. As this story is told by Bagoas in the first-person, the reader receives much insight into his life from the age of ten when he is castrated and sold into slavery up into his early adult years with Alexander. The story of Bagoas as the lover of the Persian king Darius -- to whom Bagoas is sold to originally -- continues for several chapters before Alexander is even introduced into plot as central character. Therefore, this book can be seen as both a fictional biography of a great king and the story of an equally great boy-courtesan. Renault is not only sympathetic to the plight of Bagoas, but is pragmatic and realistic in rendering his homosexuality and that of Alexander and his other patrons. Truly, from her research Renault has encountered male homosexuality in the ancient world as it really was and addresses it as such. She shows Bagoas and Alexander both as two young men who are desperately searching for love in their lives and her renderings of Bagoas as a gay adolescent are especially uncanny and realistic. In one chapter, Bagoas considers murdering Hephaistion, a general and lover of Alexander's out of jealousy. (Hephaistion is, like most of the main characters in the novel, a person who really existed and who was most likely also one of Alexander's lovers.)
From a gay literary perspective, one thing I really admired in Renault's story was her ability to tell what is essentially a gay love story and show no bias nor judgment of the situation as even many other "gay-friendly" writers might. She simply tells things as they did in all likelihood occur and the fact that Alexander -- as the greatest leader of his time -- could be openly gay (or bisexual) while commanding his army is refreshing and truly indicative of how a different social setting can put homosexuality in another context. Renault, who wrote this novel in 1972, probably never considered it a "gay novel" at all but a piece of historical fiction where the primary characters happen to be gay. Her commitment to rendering the historical facts involved accurately is admirable, as is her ability to include no small amount of history in the story without ever making it dry or boring. It's very easy to find yourself liking both Bagoas and Alexander and identifying with their world and lives, despite how different these lives may seem from anything anyone of our own times might experience.
As I noted before, this is only one of three novels by Renault on Alexander's life, not to mention that she has also penned a non-fiction biography of him (The Nature of Alexander). The Persian Boy only chronicles seven years of Alexander's life, but includes more exposition on Bagoas. It is worth saying that while fiction, this book may be the only readily-available work on Bagoas, aside from some dusty volume you might be able to muster up in a university library. In fact, given the reluctance of most text-books to include homosexual material (and many high school history teachers to mention what the book excludes), this novel may be the only place where young readers will ever encounter Bagoas, which is a shame because history is shaped by those close to world leaders, no matter their sexuality or age. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone, but especially to someone who is already curious about Alexander the Great or his time.
Michael is the Science Editor of Oasis. He may be reached at MCWalker@hotmail.com. His homepage is at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/1277/