Messenia is in revolt, and the Messenians have been out-witting Sparta's crack troops. On the advice of Delphi, Sparta requests that Athens appoint a new Supreme Commander for Sparta's army. Athens intentionally selects an obscure schoolmaster unlikely to help Sparta win the war, Tyrtaios. Tyrtaios was born lame, has no military experience, and everything he has ever heard about Sparta makes it the last place on earth where he wishes to live.
The Spartan officer Agesandros is horrified by the "joke" Athens has played on Sparta in appointing Tyrtaios Sparta's Supreme Polemarch. But as the son of a notorious brawler and drunk, who gained Spartan citizenship only after a radical reform of the Spartan Constitution, his voice counts for little. Furthermore, while Agesandros is obsessively ambitious, his sister is married to a helot and his nephew appears to have joined the rebellion against Sparta.
The widow Alethea, the daughter of a Spartan nobleman, took refuge in Athens during the "Time of Troubles". She alone understands how Tyrtaios is suffering in Sparta. Yet when her growing sons fall foul of the authorities, she finds herself under increasing pressure to remarry, and Agesandros is the most obvious suitor.