The Fox

by M.N.J. Butler

Reviewed by David Maclaine

The Fox is a moving novel about a young Spartan prince of dubious parentage who forges his own identity as a devotee of the austere law of Lycurgus which made Sparta the warrior culture history remembers. The novel begins during the last years of the long war between Athens and Sparta, which led to victory only because the Spartan admiral Lysander compromised his nation’s traditional values, accepting Persian pay-offs so he could maintain a fleet large enough to offset the brilliance of the Athenian leader Alkibiades.

Those two heroes of an older generation loom large in the life of Prince Leotychides, who narrates the story late in life, describing his coming of age in a traditional Spartan “flock.” There he becomes a firm believer in the uncorrupted values of the communal fellowship. His upbringing, joys as well as hardships, and the varied characters of his close companions are depicted in loving detail during the novel’s slow build-up. Informed readers will guess long before the narrator does that he is the illegitimate child of a Spartan queen and the exiled Alkibiades. His struggles to win a place for himself and uphold his nation’s values lend genuine tragedy to Sparta’s fall from power.

The Fox is, I believe, one of the ten best novels ever written about the Ancient Greeks. It is also long out of print and in urgent need of reissue. Until then you may need to use the Interlibrary Loan system. The novel, just under 500 words, is not a rapid read. The author is fond of those compound adjectives Greek favors, but shuns the use of hyphens, a choice that tends to slow the pace. Numerous characters fill the tale, some of whom have both names and nicknames; the challenge of tracking them reminded me of reading Tolstoy. But so too did Butler’s love of the characters and the culture that shapes them, as well as the deep significance of the novel's theme and the moral vision at its heart. (1995, 505 pages)

More about The Fox at

The Fox appears on the list of The 36 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Greek History

Other novels set in ancient Sparta:

The Isle of Stone by Nicholas Nicastro (2005), about two Spartan brothers who, despite their testy relationship, must fight alongside each other during the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens. See review or more info at

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield (1998), about the suicidal Spartan effort to hold the pass at Thermopylae against a much larger Persian army in 480 B.C. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Wreckage of Agathon by John Gardner, (1970), about a seer and his apprentice imprisoned because of their supposed involvement in a rebellion against the Spartan tyrant Lykourgos. See review or more info at

Nonfiction about ancient Sparta:

Spartans: A New History by Nigel M. Kennell (2009). More info

The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge (2004). More info

The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan (2003). More info

The Spartan Military at

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