Gate to the Sea

by Bryher

Reviewed by David Maclaine

Gate to the Sea is said to take place in the aftermath of Alexander the Great's death, though there's nothing in the text to date the story. It's a slender volume - more novella than novel - about the Greeks of Poseidoneia, a town on the Italian coast later known as Paestum, who have been conquered and enslaved by their Lucanian neighbors. The city seems actually to have suffered two different conquests, but the story Bryher tells would fit at any time within a span of several centuries. The Greek world was largely comprised of city-states founded on the shores of regions whose interiors remained under the control of non-Greek natives, and the eventual fate for most of their citizens was the fate suffered by the Poseidoneian survivors: enslavement by neighbors of a hostile culture.

Bryher's favored focus is the lives of ordinary people on the fringe of historical events. Gate to the Sea is the most evanescent of these glimpses at the people who live through historical events mostly made by others; the characters in the novella seem ready to crumble beneath any mishandling. There's an old, ailing couple who have already begged the priestess for hemlock. The priestess of Hera who must consider that request is herself on the brink of dismissal from her post, and she has watched the annual celebrations of the goddess among the surviving Greeks dwindle and decay. But there is, just possibly, a chance for these shattered slaves and for the emblems of their gods, brought by a visitor of questionable sanity. Does he know where the city's sacred medallion was buried? Can the slaves avoid betrayal and escape with it? Against a backdrop of loss and melancholy their story of slender hope offers a poignant glimpse at the fate that came to one Greek city after another, the piecemeal process that eventually brought an end to the wide-flung world of Magna Graeca. (1958, 118 pages)

More about Gate to the Sea at

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

Other historical novels by Bryher:

Ruan (1960), about a boy in sixth century Cornwall who runs away to become a sailor. See review or more info at

Roman Wall (1954), set during the Roman period in what is now Switzerland. More info

The Coin of Carthage (1963), set during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. See review or more info at

Nonfiction about slavery in the ancient world:

Greek and Roman Slavery by Thomas Wiedermann (1981). More info

Slavery in Classical Greece by N.R.E. Fisher (1993). More info

Slavery in the Roman World by Sandra Joshel (2010). More info


Paestum Greek Temples, photos, a brief history of Paestum (once Poseidonia) and tourist information at

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