SIMONIDES of Keos, an award-winning poet, was born in 556 B.C. and dies 88 years later. The Praise Singer is Simonides' life told by himself at the age of 83.

The text bears Renault's distinctive fingerprints: the reflective first-person voice, the desire of the main character to understand his own and other people's behavior, and a vivid, living sense of the past.

From Thespis' invention of modern tragedy to the unsolved murder of Kimon at the 64th Olympiad, Simonides witnesses it all. He also complains, like any old man, about youth's lack of discipline. However, his real ire is directed at writers. All this scribbling on wax, it will destroy men's memories! For Simonides straddled the transition from oral to written composition, and it's a change he finds harder to bear than the political transition from kingship to democracy.

The historical Simonides did indeed live through the events chronicled in The Praise Singer . Most of his work is lost to us, but other men's opinions of him are not. He enjoyed high regard long after his death. Even today we know him from his epitaph for the fallen heroes at Thermopylai:

Tell him in Lakedaimon, passer-by, that here,

obedient to their word, we lie.

A few other phrases survived: "Expect the unexpected" is probably the best known. In his lifetime he was most famous for his song-poem, "The Lament of Dance." Considered lyrical, sophisticated and precise by the Greeks, Simonides is a prefect choice to tell us of the turmoil preceding the golden age of Athens.

Two themes weave throughout Mary Renault's books. One is the importance of physique (looks) as a part of an individual's identity.

Thus, the first half of The Praise Singer concerns Simonides' acceptance of his ugliness as well as his talents. Renault uses his relationship with his handsome brother and father to explore the idea, ignored in our time, that a face may be destiny. (Alexias, a character in The Last of the Wine must also wrestle with the impact of his physical appearance on people.) Mary Renault's continued insistence on looks as an instrument of fate and identity separates her from other writers.

The last of The Praise Singer focuses on Renault's other theme, the effect of personality on politics. In this case, the man is Hipparchos, who throws the best parties, promotes the arts, and picks the handsomest men for his lovers. Initially, he wears power lightly, leaving the day to day decisions to his plodding but intelligent brother, Hippias. Simonides, as an esteemed artist, is often in Hipparchos' company, and over the years the poet observes desire degenerating into demand and elegance corrupting into fashion. Drawing upon his knowledge of such other rulers as Polykrates and Pisistratos, Simonides becomes aware that the fate of Athens is no longer secure since Hipparchos has become dissolute with pleasure.

Ancient Athenians would tell us what happened was decreed by the gods. We might say it was unlucky circumstance. Politics and beauty collide when Hipparchos falls violently in love with Harmodios, a stunning young horseman whose ideas are in opposition to those of the tyrant. Simonides is more sensitive than his contemporaries to the danger lurking in Hipparchos' actions. The poet's forewarning of doom proves ture: Harmodios and Aristogeiton publicly slaughter Hipparchos in 514 B.C.

Thucydides relates the dramatic tale of Harmodios and Hipparchos in Book Six of History of the Peloponnesian War . At the time of that historian's writing the event was already 100 years old. Mary Renault follows Thucydides' account faithfully.

The Praise Singer can be read as an ancient adventure story. In fact the author is often presented as someone who serves up the classics hot and tasty. It's mistake, however, to assign Mary Renault to the category of fictionalized history - the suburbs of literature. What she is really offering us, by way of contrast, is a profound comment on the emotional shabbiness of 20th-century life.