Manfredi's ancient world of Spartans and Caesar

MILAN Wed Apr 2, 2008 10:09am EDT

MILAN (Reuters Life!) - In one of his books, Italian archeology professor and novelist Valerio Massimo Manfredi recounts his elation of the moment when as a university student he started reading the Odyssey in ancient Greek.

"As soon as I read the Odyssey I left for a trip around Greece with a friend, almost without money and with lots of enthusiasm. The last five days we lived on bread and raisins that a man there gave us. It was great," Manfredi said in an interview at his house near Modena, in northern Italy.

"Reading the Odyssey allowed me to read the greatest novel of all times. After, I don't think much was invented."

Manfredi gained international acclaim in 1998 with his trilogy on Alexander the Great, which was translated into 32 languages.

The author of 13 novels, which have sold 7 million copies, Manfedi has also written screenplays. Two of his novels have been made into films, including "The Last Legion", starring Colin Firth.

Q: Your last novel, "The Lost Army", which will come out in English in October, is based on Xenophon's Anabasis, the tale of the 10,000 Spartans who fought their way home from the middle of the Persian empire in 401 B.C. Why did you choose this story?

A: When I read it for the first time in high school I was fascinated by their route. And as a young professor I found that no one had ever covered it all. Only partial reconnaissance had been made. So I made three great expeditions. I worked seven years on it and wrote a commented translation of Anabasis and a book called the Road of the 10,000 in which I reconstruct their route step by step.

Q: In The Lost Army for the first time you chose a woman, Abira, as the narrator. Why?

A: First of all because Anabasis is a wholly male story. Secondly because it's a long and narrow story. And Xenophon, as was characteristic at the time, writes in an extremely detached way. He's moved only a couple of times. Instead, because this story must have been emotionally extremely powerful, it deserved an emotional literary telling. So I believe a female point of view was more appropriate and allowed to filter from the outside a story of such extreme and also have a vision on all the collateral effects that Xenophon was not interested in.

As William Woodthorpe Tarn said, "If the feat of the 10,000 was extraordinary, that of the women who accompanied them was incredible." There were these young prostitutes that followed them, probably rented slaves, but from the few occasions in which they are described (in the Anabasis) there's room to believe that they had established a rapport with these young warriors, and that's beautiful and moving.

Q: Your next book, "Ides of March", deals with the last three days of Julius Caesar. What made you come back to a Roman theme?

A: I'm fascinated by the idea of this crucial moment for humanity with this man who could have changed radically the history of the world. Just think of his project to romanize Germany and the Middle East. This would have completely changed the history of Europe. Maybe we would not have had two World Wars. And think about a deeply romanized and Hellenized Middle East, what would Islam have been able to do?

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: A great idea first of all. An important idea. Literature proceeds by emotions, so a great story is important. And then write it in the best way possible. So you need a great culture and preparation and to have read and studied a lot.

Still to this day when I walk into a book store I can't explain it to myself, I keep saying, how did I do it? I convinced (publisher) Mondadori to publish a book I had not written. I went with an idea and met the publisher. He was quite irritated when he realized I was there to talk about just an idea. I understood I had only five minutes to convince him he could not miss this book. So I told him the plot like a screenplay. And when he asked me to sit down and offered me a coffee I knew I had him.

I could not believe it when I held my first published book in my hands. It's moving. Even today when the publisher gives me the newly published book I'm moved.

(Reporting by Mathias Wildt, editing by Paul Casciato)