For the novelist whose subject is the ancient world, perhaps the greatest pleasure of the writing is in trying to answer this question, navigating between the eerily familiar and the utterly strange.
There is much that is alien in classical civilisations – the acceptance of slavery and long dead religions, unusual rituals and unfathomable social structures. And yet for all the oddity on the surface, at its core it is a world that is still entirely recognisable. Ambitious and idealistic men seek to reshape the world with war, ordinary people wrestle with the eternal problems of love and loss, and philosophers ask, again and again, the simplest and most profound questions.
When I started reading my source text, The Histories of Herodotus , my attitude was much as it might have been had I been going into an aviary of exotic birds. I expected colour and spectacle, to be surprised and entertained. I did not expect to find much in common with the people who had lived more than twenty five centuries before me.
I was disabused of my foolishness within twenty pages when Croesus, then the richest man in the world, asks a question to a Greek philosopher, Solon. “Who is the happiest man you have ever known?” Croesus asks. The answer Solon gives was to shake an empire to pieces.
I had thought the obsession with happiness to be a most contemporary one, and yet here was a man, two and half thousand years ago, asking this most modern of questions. It seemed to be the beginning of a story that I had to know the end to. But the end did not exist. I had to write it myself.
That story has become a novel, and that novel will soon spawn a sequel, both revolving around that maddening, unanswerable question. What Croesus meant to ask, I think, was not “Who is the happiest man you have ever known?” What he meant, but was afraid to ask, is “What is happiness?”
It should be disheartening, that after thousands of years of asking we seem to be no closer to solving this great riddle. But for me, it is wonderful. If there is anything that unites us all, across the world and all through time, it is this, to be wrestling with that same question, over and over again.
My story is set at the very beginnings of history, yet I fancy you could go back further than that, to very beginnings of the human race. Think of the people who painted on the walls of the Chauvet Cave. By day they hunted wooly mammoths in the arctic wastes of Southern France (it was a lot colder there 30,000 years ago). At night they gathered in a cave around a fire, painting animals on the walls and telling stories to pass the time. Could it be that around the fire one night, a man asked a woman, with the first words, at the very beginning of language, that familiar question: “What is happiness?”
I'd like to think so.