The Mask of Apollo
First edition, 1966
|Cover artist||Claire Williams|
|Publisher||Longmans, Green & Co, London; Pantheon, New York|
Published in English
|ISBN||978-0-09-946941-4 (Arrow paperback UK 2004 edition)|
The Mask of Apollo is a historical novel written by Mary Renault. Set in the ancient Greek world during the 4th century BC, the novel is written as the first-person narrative of a fictional character, Nikeratos (or 'Niko'), an actor. Throughout his professional life and his work in Syracuse and Athens, Nikeratos meets several historical characters and becomes a witness (and sometimes a marginal participant) in the political conflicts of Syracuse.
Involved from early childhood in the theatre, the Athenian-born Nikeratos grows into a successful actor through his performance in tragedies. During his formative period, he meets the philosopher Plato and Dion, a respected politician from Syracuse and brother-in-law to the city's tyrannical ruler Dionysios the Elder. Nikeratos frequents Plato's academy and grows to appreciate his wisdom, though he also discerns that Plato and Dion are somewhat more idealistic than practical in their views on humanity and government.
Nikeratos sails for Syracuse as part of a theatre troupe, but upon arrival receives the news that Dionysios. their patron, has just died. Nikeratos chooses to remain in Syracuse despite the dangerous political climate and as a result meets and makes a favourable impression upon the city's new ruler, Dionysios the Younger. While Dionysios is not the brutal tyrant his father was, he is still a young, dissolute and politically inept ruler, and Dion invites Plato to serve as a teacher to Dionysios; the two hope to mould him into a philosopher-king based upon Platonic ideals.
While Dionysios wants Plato's approval, he makes only half-hearted efforts to reform either his own luxurious lifestyle or the Syracusan government. Part of this is due to his own nature, but other factors also inhibit reform, such as Syracuse's large and oppressive mercenary force, who are necessary to counter Carthaginian aggression, and the Syracusan people themselves, who have become politically enfeebled under Dionysios the Elder's long rule. As a result, the somewhat-elitist Dion is eventually exiled due to the machinations of his populist rival Philistos, a loyal but corrupt supporter of Dionysios.
During these years Nikeratos enjoys a prosperous and successful career acting in Syracuse and mainland Greece. He becomes a lifelong friend and mentor to a promising young actor named Thettalos while keeping informed about events in Syracuse and Plato's life there.
When Dionysios confiscates Dion's estates and gives his wife to another man, Dion returns with an army and captures most of Syracuse while Dionysios' loyalists hold out on the island citadel of Ortygia. In the ensuing fighting Syracuse is brutally ravaged before Dion finally gains the upper hand; Philistos is killed by the vengeful citizenry and Dionysios flees to live out his remaining years in exile. But while Dion is initially welcomed as a liberator by the Syracusans, his attempts at reform prove unpopular and he is eventually assassinated and succeeded by Callippus, an ambitious and unscrupulous pupil of Plato.
In the novel's final chapter, a dozen years after Dion's downfall, Nikeratos encounters the young Alexander the Great and wistfully rues that Plato never had the chance to tutor Alexander, who might have pursued Plato's social ideals with far greater success than Dionysios.