Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist (1986) is set in ancient Greece at the time of the Persian invasion, that is, in 479 BCE. The soldier is a mercenary dubbed “Latro” and the mist referred to is his propensity to forget events older than about half a day. He does recall his parents and his childhood home, but not his real name.
Wolfe’s framing narrative is that he has translated writings from “archaic Latin” (with one section in “passable Greek” by someone else) that have been found on some ancient scrolls. His trick is that he imagines that Latro, who speaks but does not write Greek (and is presumably an early Roman), gives names of people and places in translation:
In dealing with place names, I [GW] have followed the original writer, who sometimes wrote them as he heard them but more often translated them when he understood (or believed he understood) their meanings. “Tower Hill” is probably Corinth; “the Long Coast” is surely Attica. In some cases, Latro was certainly mistaken. He seems to have heard some taciturn person referred to as having Laconic manners (Greek Λακωνιεμόϛ) and to have concluded that Laconia meant “the Silent Country.” His error in deriving the name of the principal city of that region from a word for rope or cord (Greek σπάρτον) was one made by many uneducated speakers of his time. He appears to have had some knowledge of Semitic languages and to have spoken Greek fairly fluently, but to have read it poorly or not at all.
Since we are also to suppose that the texts were written every night, and often abbreviated or short, there is little explanatory material for those unfamiliar with the general situation, though GW does provide a Glossary (which one should use warily given that he doesn’t want to give everything away).
General situation at opening of the novel
Aftermath of the battle of Plataea (“Clay”), 479 BCE. Defeat of Persian troops led by Mardonius by combined armies of Sparta and Athens (“Thought”), led by Pausanius, regent of Sparta (“Rope”). This battle, along with the Persian defeat at Salamis (“Peace”) is usually described by historians as crucial in the history of Greece. However, realize that there was not as such a “Greek” army, and that for example Thebes (“Hill”) fought on the side of the Persians.
Latro has received a head wound. He forgets, but his wound heals and he still forgets. It is gradually revealed that his memory loss is due to the involvement of the gods, specifically Demeter (“Great Mother”) who he seems to have wronged. It is never exactly made clear why.
The main sources one can use to decode Wolfe’s references are: Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny, Thucydides, The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854 = DGRG), the Greek-English Lexicon (Liddell and Scott). Additionally, Plutarch’s Lives, Pindar The Odes, and The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd Edn. = OCD3). Mary Beagan’s The Elder Pliny on the Human Animal is also invaluable if you love Pliny, and covers one of the more interesting books in his Natural History, ie., Book 7.
Wolfe draws on Herodotus, but note that his History concludes before this novel opens.
Many of the classical texts are available at the Perseus Project, an invaluable online source of original texts, but usually in older (out of copyright) translations. More modern translations are often available elsewhere.
Here then are some explanations of the places, people and events as we find them in the opening chapters of the book. Where Wolfe has provided explanation in the Glossary this is indicated in red. Text from the novel is indicated in blue.
Asopus and the Battle of Plataea
Asopus–A God of rivers, the father of numerous nymphs. Live coals are discovered in the beds of his streams, which are also called Asopus.
Clay–A small city near Hill, allied with Thought. It gives its name to the battle in which Latro was wounded.
Asopus, whom Latro calls the “river-man” (p. 6) and the “Swift God” (p. 7) is both the name of a god and the name of the important river next to the battle scene that just precedes the opening of the novel.
River of Boeotia, flowing through the southern part of this country, in an easterly direction, and falling into the Euripus in the territory of Attica, near Oropus. It is formed by the confluence of several small streams, one rising near Thespiae, and the others in Mount Cithaeron. Its principal sources are at a spot just under the village of Kriakúki, where are two trees, a well, and several, springs. In the upper part of its course it forms the boundary between the territories of Thebes and Plataeae, flowing through a plain called PARASOPIA. (Strab. ix. p.409.) It then forces its way through a rocky ravine of no great length into the plain of Tanagra, after flowing through which it again traverses a rocky defile, and enters the maritime plain of Oropus. In the upper part of its course the river is now called Vuriémi, in the lower Vuriéndi. Homer describes it as “deep grown with rushes, and grassy” (βαθύχοινον,λεχεποίην, Il. 4.383). It is frequently dry in summer, but after heavy rains was not easy to ford. (Thuc. 2.5.) It was on the banks of the Asopus that the memorable battle of Plataeae was fought, B.C. 479. (Hdt. 6.108, 9.51; Strab. ix. p.408, seq.;Paus. 5.14.3 ; Ov. Am. 3.6 33 ; Leake, Northern Greece, vol. ii. pp. 326, 424, 442, 448.)
PLATAEA or PLATAEAE (Πλάταια, Hom. Herod.; Πλαταιαί, Thuc. Strab. Paus., &c.; Eth. Πλαταιεύς, Plataeensis), an ancient city of Boeotia, was situated upon the frontiers of Attica at the foot of Mt. Cithaeron, and between that mountain and the river Asopus, which divided its territory from that of Thebes. (Strab. ix. p.411.) The two cities were about 6 1/2 miles apart by the road, but the direct distance was little more than 5 geographical miles. According to the Thebans Plataea was founded by them (Thuc. 3.61); but Pausanias represents the Plataeans as indigenous, and according to their own account they derived their name from Plataea, a daughter of Asopus. (Paus. 9.1.1.) Plataea is mentioned in Homer among the other Boeotian cities. (Il. 2.504.) In B.C. 519 Plataea, unwilling to submit to the supremacy of Thebes, and unable to resist her powerful neighbour with her own unaided resources, formed a close alliance with Athens, to which she continued faithful during the whole of her subsequent history. (Hdt. 6.108; Thuc. 3.68.) She sent 1000 men to the assistance of Athens at Marathon, and shared in the glories of that victory. (Herod, l.c.) The Plataeans also fought at Artemisium, but were [2.638] not present at Salamis, as they had to leave the fleet in order to remove their families and property from the city, in consequence of the approach of the Persian army. (Hdt. 8.44.) Upon the arrival of the Persians shortly afterwards their city was burnt to the ground. (Hdt. 8.50.)
In the following year (B.C. 479) their territory was the scene of the memorable battle, which delivered Greece from the Persian invaders. The history of this battle illustrates so completely the topography of the Plataean territory, that it is necessary to give an account of the different positions taken by the contending forces (See accompanying Map). Mardonius proceeded from Attica into Boeotia across Mount Parnes by the pass of Deceleia, and took up a position on the bank of the Asopus, where he caused a fortified camp to be constructed of 10 stadia square. The situation was well selected, since he had the friendly city of Thebes in his rear, and was thus in no danger of falling short of provisions. (Hdt. 9.15.) The Grecian army crossed over from Attica by Mt. Cithaeron; but as Pausanias did not choose to expose his troops to the attacks of the Persian cavalry on the plain, he stationed them on the slopes of the mountain, near Erythrae, where the ground was rugged and uneven. (See Map, First Position.) This position did not, however, altogether preserve them; but, in an attack made by the Persian cavalry, a body of 300 Athenians repulsed them, and killed their leader Masistius. This success encouraged Pausanias to descend into the territory of Plataea, more especially as it was better supplied with water than his present position. Marching from Erythrae in a westerly position along the roots of Mt. Cithaeron, and passing by Hysiae, he drew up his army along the right bank of the Asopus, partly upon hills of no great height and partly upon a lofty plain, the right wing being near the fountain Gargaphia, and the left near the chapel of the Plataean hero Androcrates. (Hdt. 9.25–30.) Mardonius drew up his army opposite to them on the other side of the Asopus. (See Map, Second Position.) The two armies remained in this position for some days, neither party being willing to begin the attack. The Persians assailed the Greeks at a distance with their missiles, and prevented them altogether from watering at the Asopus. Meantime the Persian cavalry intercepted the convoys of provisions proceeding to the Grecian camp, and on one occasion drove away the Lacedaemonians, who occupied the right wing from the fountain Gargaphia, and succeeded in choking it up. This fountain had been of late the only watering-place of the Greeks; and as their ground was now untenable, Pausanias resolved to retreat in the night to a place called the Island (νῆσος), about 10 stadia in the rear of their present position, and halfway between the latter and the town of Plataea. The spot selected, improperly called an island, was, in fact, a level meadow, comprised between two branches of the river Oeroë, which, rising from distinct sources in Mt. Cithaeron, and running for some space nearly parallel with one another, at length unite and flow in a westerly direction into the gulf of Corinth. (Hdt. 9.51.) The nature of the ground would thus afford to the Greeks abundance of water, and protection from the enemy’s cavalry. The retreat, however, though for so short a distance, was effected in disorder and confusion. The Greek centre, chiefly composed of Megarians and Corinthians, probably fearing that the island would not afford them sufficient protection against the enemy’s cavalry, did not halt till they reached the temple of Hera, which was in front of the town of Plataea. The Lacedaemonians on the right wing were delayed till the day began to dawn, by the obstinacy of Amompharetus, and then began to march across the hills which separated them from the island. The Athenians on the left wing began their march at the same time, and got round the hills to the plain on the other side on their way to the island. After marching 10 stadia, Pausanias halted on the bank of the Moloeis, at a place called Agriopius, where stood a temple of the Eleusinian Demeter. Here he was joined by Amompharetus, and here he had to sustain the attack of the Persians, who had rushed across the Asopus and up the hill after the retreating foe. As soon as Pausanias was overtaken by the Persians, he sent to the Athenians to entreat them to hasten to his aid; but the coming up of the Boeotians prevented them from doing so. Accordingly the Lacedaemonians and Tegeatans had to encounter the Persians alone without any assistance from the other Greeks, and to them alone belongs the glory of the victory. The Persians were defeated with great slaughter, nor did they stop in their flight till they had again crossed the Asopus and reached their fortified camp. The Thebans also were repulsed by the Athenians, but they retreated in good order to Thebes, being covered by their cavalry from the pursuit of the Athenians. The Greek centre, which was nearly 10 stadia distant, had no share in the battle; but hearing that the Lacedaemonians were gaining the victory, they hastened to the scene of action, and, coining up in confusion, as many as 600 were cut to pieces by the Theban force. Meantime the Lacedaemonians pursued the Persians to the fortified camp, which, however, they were unable to take until the Athenians, more skilled in that species of warfare, came to their assistance. The barricades were then carried, and a dreadful carnage ensued. With the exception of 40,000 who retreated with Artabazus, only 3000 of the original 300,000 are said to have escaped. (Hdt. 9.50–70.) On the topography of this battle, see Leake, Northern Greece, vol. ii. p. 335, seq.; Grote, History of Greece, vol. v. p. 212, seq.
As this signal victory had been gained on the soil of Plataea, its citizens received especial honour and rewards from the confederate Greeks. Not only was the large sum of 80 talents granted to them, which they employed in erecting a temple to Athena, but they were charged with the duty of rendering every year religious honours to the tombs of the warriors who had fallen in the battle, and of celebrating every five years the festival of the Eleutheria in commemoration of the deliverance of the Greeks from the Persian yoke. The festival was sacred to Zeus Eleutherius, to whom a temple was now erected at Plataea. In return for these services Pausanias and the other Greeks swore to guarantee the independence and inviolability of the city and its territory (Thuc. 2.71; Plut. Arist. 100.19–21; Strab. ix. p.412; Paus. 9.2.4; for further details see Dict. of Ant. art. ELEUTHERIA.）
6.108: [At the time of the battle of Marathon, 490 BCE] The Athenians went beyond the boundaries the Corinthians had made for the Plataeans, fixing the Asopus river as the boundary for the Thebans in the direction of Plataea and Hysiae.
9.15: [At the time of the battle of Plataea, 479 BCE] There he [Mardonius] laid waste the lands of the Thebans, though they sided with the Persian part. This he did, not for any ill-will that he bore them, but because sheer necessity drove him to make a stronghold for his army and to have this for a refuge if the fortune of battle were other than he wished. His army, stationed along the Asopus river, covered the ground from Erythrae past Hysiae and up to the lands of Plataea. I do not mean to say that the walled camp which he made was of this size; each side of it was of a length of about ten furlongs [stades, about 200 yards].
9.36 This Tisamenus had now been brought by the Spartans and was the diviner of the Greeks at Plataea. The sacrifices boded good to the Greeks if they would just defend themselves, but evil if they should cross the Asopus and be the first to attack.
9.37 Mardonius’ sacrifices also foretold an unfavorable outcome if he should be zealous to attack first, and good if he should but defend himself. He too used the Greek manner of sacrifice, and Hegesistratus of Elis was his diviner, the most notable of the sons of Tellias. This man had been put in prison and condemned to die by the Spartans for the great harm which he had done them. Being in such bad shape inasmuch as he was in peril of his life and was likely to be very grievously maltreated before his death, he did something which was almost beyond belief; made fast in iron-bound stocks, he got an iron weapon which was brought in some way into his prison, and straightway conceived a plan of such courage as we have never known; reckoning how best the rest of it might get free, he cut off his own foot at the instep. This done, he tunneled through the wall out of the way of the guards who kept watch over him, and so escaped to Tegea.
9.41 Artabazus thought it best that they should strike their camp with all speed and lead the whole army within the walls of Thebes. Here there was much food stored and fodder for their beasts of burden.
9.49 They [the Persian cavalry] spoiled and blocked the Gargaphian spring, from which the entire Greek army drew its water. None indeed but the Lacedaemonians were posted near the spring, and it was far from the several stations of the other Greeks, whereas the Asopus was near; nevertheless, they would always go to the spring, since they were barred from the Asopus, not being able to draw water from that river because of the horsemen and the arrows.
[Switching to the Robin Waterfield trans.]
9.50 Under these circumstances that Greek commanders met with Pausanias on the right wing to discuss various matters, including the loss of the army’s water supply and harassment by the Persian cavalry. There were other items on the agenda because these events were not the only or even the main problems facing them: they had also run out of provisions, and the retainers of theirs who had been dispatched to the Peloponnese to bring them fresh supplies had been cut off by the cavalry and could no longer get through to the Greek camp.
9.51 The upshot of the commanders conference was that they decided to move their forces to the island, if the Persians refrained from joining battle that day. This island is located in front of the town of Plataea, 10 stades away from the Asopus and the Gargaphian Spring, where they were based at the time. It is a kind of inland island: a river — the River Oeroe, which the locals all to be the daughter of Asopus -divides further upstream on its way down from Cithaeron to the plane and the two branches of the river remain separate from each other for about three stades before merging again. So they decided to move here, because then they would not only have plenty of water, but also the cavalry could not inflict the casualties on them that they could when they were able to come straight at them. They decided to make the move during the night, at the time of the second watch, so that the Persians would not notice them setting out and also so as to avoid having the cavalry on their heels harassing them. They decided as well but once they had reached this new site – the island formed by the splitting of Asopus daughter Oeroe and she flows down from Cithaeron-they would dispatch 1/2 their troops to Cithaeron under cover of darkness to meet up with the retainers of theirs who had gone to fetch supplies and were trapped on Cithaeron.
9.52 After they reached these decisions, the whole of the rest of the day was taken up with the constant burden of cavalry attacks, until the horseman disengaged late in the afternoon. Night fell and the time agreed to departure arrived. The bulk of the army broke camp and left, but they had no intention of going to be appointed place: as soon as they started out, all they wanted to do was get away from the Persian cavalry, so they headed for the town of Plataea. On the way, however, they came to the temple of Hera, which stands in front of the town, 20 stades away from the Gargaphian Spring, and took up a position in front of it.
9.53 So they[the Greeks] established themselves by the temple of Hera. Now, when Pausanias saw them leaving the camp he assumed that they were going to be appointed place, so he instructed the Lacedaemonians to collect their gear as well and follow the others’ lead. Most of his officers were prepared to obey Pausanias, but Amompharetus the son of Poliadas, who was the commander in charge of the company from Pitana, declared that as long as he had any say in them after he would never bring shame to Sparta by retreating from the “strangers”. In fact, he was puzzled by what he saw going on, since he had not been present at the earlier discussion. His refusal to obey orders made Pausanias and Euryanax furious, but they found even more disturbing the prospect of abandoning the Pitanate company (which they would have to do, if Amompharetus remained stubborn, in order to comply with the plan they had agreed with the rest of the Greeks), because they would then be abandoning Amompharetus and his men to their deaths. These considerations led them to keep their men where they were well they tried to persuade Amompharetus to change his mind.
9.54 So Pausanias and Euryanax with trying to win over Amompharetus since the Lacedaemonians and that Tegeans had been left behind on their own. Meanwhile, the Athenians had also not moved from the post, because they were well aware of the Lacedaemonians tendency to say one thing and plan something quite different. Once most of the army had decamped, they sent one of them men on horseback to see if the Spartiates were making any effort to set out, or whether they had absolutely no intention of leaving, and also to ask Pausanias for instructions.
9.57 At first Amompharetus refused to believe that Pausanias would go so far is to leave him and his men behind, so he insisted that they stay put and not desert their post. But when Pausanias’ troops were some way off, but he saw that they really were abandoning him, so when his company had collected their gear he led them at a slow pace towards the other column, which had opened up a gap of about four stades and had halted on the River Moloeis, at a place called Argiopius (where there is also a sanctuary of Demeter of Eleusis), to wait for Amompharetus’ company. They were waiting so they could go back and help Amompharetus and his company if they actually refused to leave the post and stayed put. Just as Amompharetus and his men met up with the rest of the Lacedaemonians, the Persian cavalry attacked in full force. The cavalry had been following their usual practice, but found the position the Greeks had occupied the last few days deserted, so they kept riding forward until they caught up with them, and then they charged into the attack.
9.59 With these words he [Mardonius] led the Persians at the double across the Asopus and after the Greeks, who he believed were trying to run away. In actual fact it was only the Lacedaemonians and that Tegeans that he went for, because the knolls blocked his view of the Athenians, who had headed for the plain. As soon as the officer in charge of the remaining units of the invading army saw the Persians setting out in pursuit of the Greeks, they gave the signal for the men to join in the chase, and before long an undisciplined and chaotic mob of shouting soldiers was running as fast as they could after the Greeks, convinced that they would make short work of them.
9.60 As soon as the cavalry began to attack his men, Pausanias sent a messenger on horseback to the Athenians with the following message: “Men of Athens, the main battle is about to begin, and the outcome will decide whether Greece is to be free or enslaved. We Lacedaemonians and you Athenians have been betrayed by our Allies who ran away last night. It’s clear what we have to do from now on, then: we must fight back and defend each other to the best of our abilities. If the Persian cavalry had started out by attacking you, it would of course have been our duty, along with that Tegeans (who are still with us and have not betrayed Greece), to come and help you. In fact, though, they have come in full force against us, so you should come and support us, since we are the ones who were particularly hard pressed. If for some reason you can’t come yourselves please send us your archers. We know that you are totally committed to this war. And so that you will not refuse this request.”
9.61 On receiving this message, the Athenians wanted to go and provide all the help they could, but when they were on their way they were set upon by the pro-Persian Greeks who’d been deployed against them. This attack put them under so much pressure that they found it impossible to go and help the Lacedaemonians. So the Lacedaemonians and Tegeans were left without any support. Including light armed troops, there were 50,000 Lacedaemonians and 3000 Tegeans, who had remained close to the Lacedaemonians throughout. They preceded to perform sacrifices, since they were about to join battle with Mardonius and as much of his army as was there, but the omens were unfavorable, and many of them men fell, with many more wounded, while the sacrifices were taking place, because the Persians formed their wickerwork shields into a barricade and continuously rained arrows down on the Greeks. In this situation, with the Spartiates under heavy pressure and the omens unfavorable, Pausanias look towards the Plataeans temple of Hera, invoked the goddess, and asked her not to let their hopes prove to be false.
9.62 Pausanias was in the middle of his prayers when that Tegeans precipitately started forward to attack the Persians, and then, just as Pausanias finished praying, the Lacedaemonians received good omens. Now that the situation was a last favorable, the Lacedaemonians proceeded to attack the Persians as well, and the Persians laid aside their bows and prepared to meet them head on. The first phase of the battle took place at the wickerwork barricade, until that was knocked down, and then a fierce battle raged for a long time around the temple of Demeter. Eventually the two sides ended up grappling with each other, as the Persians caught hold of the Greeks spears and broke them off short. In courage and strength the Persians and the Greeks were evenly matched, but the Persians wore no armor; besides, they did not have the skill and expertise of their opponents. They would rush forward and head of the main body of troops, one by one, or in groups of 10 or so, and attack the Spartiates, only to be cut down.
9.65 When the Persians were routed by the Lacedaemonians act Plataea, they fled in disorder back to their encampment and to the wooden stronghold they had built on Theban land. I find it surprising that although the battle took place by the grove of Demeter not a single Persian, as it turned out, either entered the precinct or died in there; most of them fell around the outside of the sanctuary on unconsecrated ground. Insofar as one may speculate about divine matters, I think the goddess herself kept them away because they had burned her temple in Eleusis.
Battle of Mykale:
9.97 With this design they [the Persians] put to sea. So when they came past the temple of the Goddesses [Demeter and Persephone/Kore] at Mykale to the Gaeson and Scolopois, where there is a temple of Eleusinian Demeter (which was built by Philistus son of Pasicles when he went with Nileus son of Codrus to the founding of Miletus), they beached their ships and fenced them round with stones and the trunks of orchard trees which they cut down; they drove in stakes around the fence and prepared for siege or victory, making ready, after consideration, for either event.
9.100 The Greeks, having made all their preparations advanced their line against the barbarians. As they went, a rumor spread through the army, and a herald’s wand was seen lying by the water-line. The rumor that ran was to the effect that the Greeks were victors over Mardonius’ army at a battle in Boeotia.  Now there are many clear indications of the divine ordering of things, seeing that a message, which greatly heartened the army and made it ready to face danger, arrived amongst the Greeks the very day on which the Persians’ disaster at Plataea and that other which was to befall them at Mykale took place.
9.101 Moreover, there was the additional coincidence, that there were precincts of Eleusinian Demeter on both battlefields; for at Plataea the fight was near the temple of Demeter, as I have already said, and so it was to be at Mykale also.
So the two battles took place on the same day; there were temples to Demeter at both. At Mykale the Persians cut down her grove, at Plataea the battle raged all about her temple. Additionally, Hdt. notes that the Persians burned her temple at Eleusis (“Advent”) . I’d be mad too!
Demeter is the grain goddess, of crops and vegetation, thus a basic source of life.
Eleusis was an important sanctuary of the grain goddess (Demeter and Kore) and it celebrated famous Mysteries for initiates. These might have included a symbolic “search” for Kore/Persephone (Kore = “the girl”; recall that she was taken by Hades to the underworld, and made to eat pomegranate seeds before leaving, so that she must spend some of the year (winter) down there. Her attributes are stalks of grain, torches, and scepters. As queen of the underworld Kore was also “awesome and dread” (OCD3) but not unreasonable.
Latro therefore offends Demeter and Kore and is punished by taking away some of his identity which will get him into difficulties. Demeter caused famine during Persephone’s abduction, thus sterility. OCD3 notes that Sicily was especially consecrated to the Two Goddesses, so perhaps Latro once encountered them there (I would love for him to be an early Sicilian!).
Asopus/live coals. Graves says that Zeus abducted and ravished Asopus’ daughter Aegina. Asopus found Zeus in the act, but the latter fled, giving Asopus the slip. When Zeus got back to Olympos, he pelted Asopus with thunderbolts, and lumps of burned coal are often fetched from his river bed. (see Apollodorus, 3.12.6).