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Persian Fire

Tom Holland

The First World Empire and the Battle for the West

(Doubleday)

If we are perfectly honest, we will admit that most history is pretty boring. Not, mind you, that the actual events themselves are boring—but the vast majority of historical books and treatments present the material in the least interesting way possible. From a very early point in their careers, historians internalize a passive third-person narrative voice that enables them to achieve the dispassionate, well-balanced, and thoroughly objective tone required of modern history. It is unfortunate that many historians are unable—or unwilling—to reconcile the demands of writing in an accurate and conscientious manner with those of writing a compelling story. 


This is not a problem with Persian Fire. When I first cracked the covers I expected a fairly dry recitation of the historical record relating to the Persian invasion of Greece in 490 and 480 BC. The facts themselves are such that even a poor retelling could not help but be readable. But thankfully, Holland has achieved something far more than merely a readable narrative. This is the rare historical narrative that actually succeeds as a literary achievement. Buoyed by crisp prose and a masterful juggling of copious historical detail, Holland manages to synthesize the scope and emotion of his classical sources without sacrificing an iota of historical stringency. It is to his immense credit that he manages not only to make varied and conflicting Greek accounts (beginning, of course, with Herodotus) mesh with current archaeological and geographical understanding, but also brings these conflicts and contradictions to the front of his story, giving his reader a glimpse not only of events but of the attitudes and cultures which form our only connection to this immensely distant era. An intimate knowledge of contemporaneous prejudices allows him to craft not only a concise sequence of events but a brisk sociological portrait as well.


It is this sociological element that gives the volume a large portion of its considerable gravity. The conflicts between Athens and Sparta, as well as the larger wars against Persia, are rife with rich ideological potentials that a less scrupulous author could easily exploit in service of a breathless, albeit distorted view of the period. Although Holland does not entirely avoid hyperbole—perhaps it is impossible to eschew hyperbole when discussing, say, Thermopylae—he does manage to avoid drawing the kind of simplistic conclusions that would lend themselves to simplistic interpretations. He is correct to observe that the war between Greece and Persia was the first volley fired in two-and-a-half millennia of almost perpetual conflict between warring notions of West and East. But the facts are much more ambiguous. True, Persia was an absolute monarchy ruled by a hereditary warlord, but the Greek city-states were hardly bastions of liberty. Athens was the world’s first democracy, but it hardly believed in universal liberty, let alone suffrage, and later dominated many surrounding states in a resolutely dictatorial fashion. The Athenian attitude towards women was by far the most restrictive of any state in Greece, condemning “respectable” women to a hidden existence similar to that imposed by the Taliban and other factions of Wahhibi Islam; and for those women whose virtue faltered, the only recourse was state-sponsored prostitution. Sparta, although far more egalitarian in their gender roles (even allowing women to train for—if not to actually serve—military service alongside men) could be legitimately termed the world’s first fascist state. Just as Athens legalized and codified the rules regarding prostitution, Sparta mandated pederasty, declaring all boys and unmarried girls above the age of twelve to be fair game. To be a kept lover for an older man was considered an honorable and lucrative position. Every Greek considered themselves superior to any alien barbarian, and furthermore, the citizens of each individual state considered themselves superior to those of each other city. This chauvinism proved to be a necessary bulwark for the fragile alliance in the darkest days of the Persian offensive, but it also set a precedent for European exceptionalism that has continued more or less unabated to the present day.


It’s a miracle that the city-states were able to set their differences aside for long enough to successfully combat the Persian threat. Even at the height of the conflict, Greeks remained split by internal rivalries and long-standing enmity. The Athenians considered themselves to be the wisest and bravest of all Greeks, and were for the most part unable to temper their egotistical streak to allow for a more conciliatory realpolitik rhetoric. (The fact that they had single-handedly demolished the first Persian expeditionary force at Marathon in 490 hardly helped matters.) Sparta was, if anything, worse than Athens, believing themselves to be the most disciplined and courageous warriors in the world, and treating even their allies with derision and contempt. The final stand of King Leonidas and his personal retainer of 300 elite Spartan infantry at Thermopylae is justifiably held as one of the great battles in military history—and, just as with the Athenians at Marathon, they weren’t about to let anyone forget it.


Anyone seeking to find clear-cut parables in the Greek world will have to settle for something far more ambiguous. The west did not reject absolutism out of hand when they defeated Xerxes, as even a cursory examination of history will reveal. What they did reject, however, was the notion that Europe represented nothing more than a backwater to Asia, subject to the whims of distant Oriental potentates. Up until that point, an unbiased observer could have been forgiven for dismissing Europe as, essentially, unimportant, having failed so far to produce anything to match the mighty cities of Asia, North Africa and the Near East. Ideals such as “freedom” and “self-determination” would perhaps have to wait another 2000 years or so until political upheaval in Western Europe created opportunities for social revolutionaries across the continent and, ultimately, in the New World. For the time being, Greece was happy merely to achieve the mastery of their own destiny.


With Persian Fire, Holland has crafted a narrative both meticulous and an enthralling, a triumph of scholarship in the service of literary expression. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to the author is that although the scope and reach of the book is positively encyclopedic, it reads with the acuity and propulsion of a novel. Although he quotes heavily from his sources, somehow the effect is never distracting or episodic, but merely engrossing. The many disparate voices never overpower the main thrust of the story, adding to its depth and scope without subtracting any momentum. For once, nearing the end of a weighty historical tome, I actually wished for the book to be longer, for the wonderful stories and anecdotes contained within to never cease.

Tagged as: tom holland
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