LOS ANGELES - Novelist Karen Essex remembers when she encountered the name "Aspasia," a courtesan in ancient Greece, while reading Plutarch in graduate school.
"Plutarch suddenly starts talking about Aspasia as Pericles' mistress," Essex said, mentioning the Athenian leader.
Aspasia "had the respect of the most intelligent men in an Athens in which women weren't even citizens and were completely sequestered. It was very titillating, and just a tease, because Plutarch mentions her, and that's it."
Where Plutarch kept mum, Essex has filled in the blanks.
Her fourth historical novel, "Stealing Athena," expounds on the power of art and the strength of women who exercised free will even when they had the fewest rights.
But "Stealing Athena" seems uniquely relevant, as historical novels gain popularity and powerful women are again very much in the public eye.
"Stealing Athena" parallels the lives of Aspasia and Mary Elgin. Aspasia witnesses the Parthenon being built; Mary watches it being taken down by her husband, Lord Elgin, who, in a still-contested move, lugged the marbles that bear his name back to England.
Both women flout traditional roles and both suffer for it.
"Women made virtually no progress from ancient Greece to post-Enlightenment England," Essex said. .
Essex isn't so convinced of women's progress in post-millennial America, either.
"There's this resurgence now of the discussion about whether women should work or not if they have a child," Essex said. "I don't know about you, but I've been through two graduate programs and I have to feed myself and support my daughter. There's been a real shortage of men who want to give me money."
Essex made it through an interdisciplinary program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., before which she worked as a film executive in Los Angeles, where she'd moved to pursue costume design.
After realizing that she'd "forgotten to be a writer," Essex got a master's degree in fine arts from Goddard College in Vermont in 1999 and sold her thesis to Warner Books.