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Ancient Persia versus the Ancient Greeks – Tom Holland ties it all together again

Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West
Tom Holland
First published in the UK by Little Brown 2005 – Abacus paperback 2006

I first encountered Tom Holland by reading his previous non-fiction work, Rubicon, about the rise and fall of the Roman Republic, which I wrote about here enthusiastically in June of this year. About Persian Fire – which is about the titanic struggle between the Greeks and the Persian Empire of Darius and then of his son Xerxes (Thermopylae, Marathon, Salamis etc.) – I am, if possible, even more enthusiastic. The same virtues are present in this book as in Rubicon: narrative grip, convincing analysis, and a story of overwhelming importance to anyone who wants to understand the world he lives in and how it got to be that way. This is a story I desperately wanted to learn about much more thoroughly than my patchy reading in ancient history had previously told me, and Persian Fire made it extremely easy for me to do just that.

A standard rave review meme is that this superb book screwed up the reviewer’s everyday life, sleep patterns, holiday plans, etc., and if my experience is anything to go by Persian Fire triumphantly passes this test. I had all kinds of plans for this autumn, and they were severely deranged, given what a slow reader I am. The reading of other very good books was set aside. Big writing plans were postponed yet again. My living room remains the mess it was four months ago. And then even when I had finished reading Persian Fire I found that I did not then want to do, read or even think about anything much else, because I wanted to make sure that I had done my Samizdata review of it before it began to fade from the memory. So, if you read no further of this, read that this is one splendid book.

What people like Paul Marks or Sean Gabb would make of it, people who know this story inside out already, I do not know. I suspect that they would be impressed if slightly bored, and that they would nitpick details of interpretation but have no big complaints. But I am, I surmise, a more typical sort of educated person than those two luminaries, the sort who knows lots of bits and pieces about stories like this but nothing like as much as I’d like to. And I absolutely loved it. One of the many things I like about this book is that you get both the story from the Persian end, and the same story as experienced by the Greeks. Holland starts in Persia, with the formation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus, followed by confusion involving his sons Cambyses and Bardiya, confusion ended by the upwardly mobile Darius in 522BC.

During the very early pages of this book I did wonder how much of what I was reading was true and how much mere speculation, but in defence of Holland, he writes in a way that makes clear how sketchy the historical record is of those places and times. Great Kings like Cyrus and Darius lived in a place and at a time when (a) history was the history of the Great King, not of any distinct thoughts or actions of the riff raff they ruled, and (b) in which a routine method of celebrating a military victory was not just completely to massacre your defeated opponents but also to expunge everything they had ever said or done from the record of history, to make them as if they had never been. Which makes things hard for later historians.

Nevertheless, a convincing picture does emerge. I particularly liked the regular references to “Ahura Mazda” – the Persian version of God Almighty – and of the intimate relationship between Ahura Mazda and the Great King, their wishes and plans for the world being pretty much the same thing.

The “King of Kings” title is interesting. The point was that the Great Kings, Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes and the rest of them, although they would sometimes expunge entire cultures and peoples, would more typically install themselves at the top of traditional local hierarchies, rather as if a future conqueror of Europe were to announce that he was the President of France, Germany, Italy etc., the King of England, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, and so on. The jobs and their associated hierarchies remained in place. It was just that the top jobs were now held by the new man, the President of Presidents, as it were.

Philosophically, if it makes any sense to use such a word about such crushingly simple arrangements, groveling obedience to the King of Kings was not just a matter of political correctness, for without such obedience the very fabric of the universe was in jeopardy. Nature, the world, the very stars in their tracks, all depended upon the smooth running of the Empire, and on everyone doing as they were told, by Ahura Mazda as interpreted by the King of Kings. So, if thousands of wretched innocents had to be massacred, or if a hitherto trusted subordinate had to be sacrificed, this was not mere political expediency; it was doing the necessary to keep Heaven and Earth all in its proper place and correct alignment. No distinction could be made, in such a world, between What Is True, and What The King of Kings Says, argument with which is impossible. Doubt it and die. All else is The Lie. All were slaves of Ahura Mazda, and of the King of Kings.

Not that there were not rebellions of course . . . and there goes another minor quibble I have about this book, which is the somewhat excessive use of the “Not that . . .”, often followed by a further negative, to begin a paragraph that corrects an implied absolute offered in the previous paragraph. This gets a bit annoying.

Not that . . . I want to criticise too strongly, because this verbal tick is but an offshoot of the fact that Holland is so determined to keep his narrative thread in one piece. As I say, Holland held my attention throughout this book, and if that means the occasional rather obtrusive verbal knotting of the thread, then that is a price I am happy to pay.

As for his general writing style, well, let’s just say that although Holland turns out to be the same age as me, he goes out of his way to sound as if he is a bit younger, and about the same age as Tony Blair. Again, I am happy to pay this price, and greatly prefer this manner of writing to that of an earlier age of classical popularisers, whose assumptions, preoccupations and stylistic quirks were very different to what works best now. I think the difference between the way we now think about potentates, and the way they were thought about in, say, 1950, is that now, we are all rather more cynical, and less inclined to accept the elevated position of these people as a simple given. We are thus more intrigued by their . . . intrigues. How did they get their power? How did they keep it? How did they finance it? We also want to know more of the gruesome details of how battles were fought, perhaps because most of us have fought fewer actual battles ourselves, and don’t need as much of a rest from that kind of thing as our fathers and grandfathers did. But those are guesses, and maybe say more about how different I am from the tot I was in the 1950s than how educated people thought in those days compared to now.

Anyway, having got it established, Darius expands his empire in all directions, including in a westerly direction, and . . . enter the Greeks!

Persian Fire provides the best short account of the ancient Greeks – who they were, how they lived, what they valued and how they fought – that I have ever read. In particular, it provided me with a much clearer grip on the chronology of it all.

Most of the accounts of these times that I have read in the past have concentrated only on this or that aspect of the story, such as the emergence of Athenian democracy, how the Greeks fought, what happened when the Persians attacked, and in particular, this or that battle (notably Salamis). Holland, for me, tied it all together.

The emergence of Athenian democracy coincided precisely with the moment when the Athenians (a) united themselves, and (b) became a military force to be reckoned with. The phalanx that won so amazingly for them at Marathon was the direct result of the esprit de corps that their newly emancipated political status had given birth to. We’re all part of this! Even the Spartans, who did nothing but fight, and who famously presided (this I did know) over a brutally downtrodden slave class who did all the mere work, had their own elaborate rules about citizenship and kingship, etc., and your average Spartan warrior felt very much part of things. He was an engaged citizen, pumped full of ideological enthusiasm, rather than a mere serf. As for the Athenians, they all now had rights – well, every male citizen did – to property, to political participation and voting, to say what the hell they liked and to live however they liked. These were new ideas, never before seen in the world. And it turned out that people animated by these rights and liberties were better at fighting than the kind who were merely ordered into battle like cattle. The newly emerging Athenian democracy was quickly tested in battle in a typical local spat between them and the Thebans. Were Athenian farmer/hoplites willing to fight shoulder to shoulder for what they might feel, in the heat of battle, to be mere abstractions? Yes they were! The Thebans were smashed! (506BC)

Heavily dependent as Holland is on the few writers of that time, he only very rarely indulges in chunks of the especially important Herodotus, in great big typographically distinct gobs. But, following the Athenian triumph over Thebes, he does thus indulge, and so will I:

And so it was that the Athenians found themselves suddenly a great power. Not just in one field, but in everything that they set their minds to, they gave vivid proof of what equality and freedom of speech might achieve. As the subjects of a tyrant, what had they accomplished? Nothing exceptional, to be sure. With the tyrant gone, however, they had suddenly become the best fighters in the world. Held down like slaves, they had shirked and slacked; once they had won their freedom, not a citizen but he could feel that he was labouring for himself. [pp. 138-9]

In our present world, the kind of people who obsess about human rights tend also to be very concerned about what makes for peace, or in my case, for peace and trade, rather than effectiveness and honour on the battlefield, and this is especially the case in Europe. Accordingly, the way that political emancipation and military effectiveness went hand in hand in ancient Greece, although of course fundamental to the emergence of freedom-and-democracy (because battlefield prowess ensured that these institutions were able to survive), is not much talked about these days. In our time, freedom-and-democracy have enabled great wealth, in contrast to the Persian methods of our time, which have lead only to mass impoverishment, and as a result the greatest recent military confrontation of our time, the Cold War, was won by the side with the deepest pockets and the fattest cheque books. Oh, there was military spirit aplenty on our side, but central to the victory of civilisation against our Persians was that we could pay for scary hi-tech weapons and eventually, they couldn’t. Civilisation won the Cold War in the same spirit that it simultaneously equipped itself with colour TVs and microwave ovens. It paid the relevant specialists and gave them the tools they needed. But the Greeks didn’t outsource their fighting, even if the Spartans outsourced all their mere work. They themselves fought, and got to be very good at it, what with all that practicing they did on each other. They brought the same inventiveness and cooperative spirit to fighting that our civilisation applies to such things as the making of computer chips and writing of computer software.

And the Persians only began to work out what had hit them when it was too late.

As far as they were concerned, the Greeks were an insignificant mob of quarrelling anarchists, clearly rotten with The Lie. The western coast of what is now Turkey was conquered, and a small expeditionary force was sent to crush what remained of these tiresome people, in places like Athens and Sparta. And, at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) the Athenians give this relatively small force, but still a huge force compared to them, an amazing thrashing.

Because of the detailed way in which the Greeks had worked out how to fight in large and heavily armed teams rather than as just a mob of lightly armed individual warriors, they were, man for man, just plain better than the Persians. But the Persians, especially once Xerxes had, a decade after the Marathon setback, decided to take the expunging of these annoying little places seriously, had enormous – mind-bogglingly enormous – numerical superiority.

Two things took the force out of the sheer weight of numbers that the Persians then, under Xerxes, brought to bear on the Greeks. First, their huge army had to be fed. Even slaves have to eat. And this turned out to mean that any more than mild delays, even if concluded victoriously, could be very serious. As soon as the Greeks proved themselves to be more than a pushover, Xerxes was always fighting not only the Greeks, but time. Thus it was that Thermopylae (480 BC), where a mere three hundred Spartans famously impeded the Great King’s army for about a week, cost Xerxes not only untold thousands of dead, whom he could easily spare, but time that he could not. Pressed for time, Xerxes found himself obliged to attack, just as at Thermopylae, in places chosen by the Greeks, which basically meant narrow fronts where Persian numbers wouldn’t count, and where Greek man-for-man superiority did.

Soon after, at Salamis, the Athenians, having abandoned Athens to their enemy, defended, with the fleet that they had hastily constructed, a narrow straight against a vastly more numerous Persian fleet. Could the Athenians demonstrate the same front line – this time ship-for-ship – superiority that they had already achieved at Marathon and that the Spartans had so heroically displayed at Thermopylae? Yes they could! In what remains the biggest sea battle ever fought in all of human history, forty thousand of King Xerxes’s slaves perished, mostly by drowning.

Which, of course, was everyone’s fault except the Great King’s. Heads rolled, literally.

He abandoned Greece, leaving a relatively small force behind to do the necessary, under the command of Mardonius, upon which the Greeks inflicted yet another spectacular defeat, at Plataea (479 BC). It was one of those battles that was settled with one blow, the blow being from a rock that somebody chucked at Mardonius. It hit him on the head, and, the Persian soldiers being slaves who were utterly dependent upon their leader, with Mardonius died a huge number of Persian soldiers, and what turned out to be the the last Persian hope of subjugating what we now call Ancient Greece. Thus were the Ancient Greeks able to press on with constructing the political and cultural foundations upon which we still live. By the time they did what victorious coalitions so often do, namely descend into ruinous civil war, thereby doing to themselves what the Persians had failed to do to them, the opposite of the damage, so to speak, had been done. Western Civilisation was well and truly on its way.

I have offered a severely truncated summary of the story that Holland tells, in all its gore and glory, for two reasons. First, sadly, not everybody who reads this review will now buy this book and read it right through, even though almost everybody should (if they have not done so already). To all those busy workers, peasants and intellectuals, who, by way of classical learning, only ever read bleeding chunks of this story, such as I have just told, well, at least you have learned something.

But second, when you review a really good work of history about which you are extremely enthusiastic, you automatically find yourself summarising the story yourself. You cannot help yourself. And about this book I am very enthusiastic indeed.

11 comments to Ancient Persia versus the Ancient Greeks – Tom Holland ties it all together again

  • Having been educated in a time when the classics are deemed a waste of time and ultimately useless by those that decide the curriculums, I feel a bit hard done to. Whenever anyone talks about things like the Greeks (less so the Romans) and Persians, it is literally all greek to me. Having just read Plato’s Republic (A hard slog) I’d probably be quite relieved to plunge into this, it sounds like fun, real boys own stuff. Then I may feel up to tackling some Homer.
    Off to amazon I go!

  • Bob McHenry

    Roger Sandall, however, was less impressed with the book.

  • Julian Taylor

    You should read Homer but most of all you should read Herodotus’ The Histories, if only for an extensive report of Marathon and an excellent account of the battles of Salamis and Plataea.

  • CFM

    Bravo, Tom Holland. And bravo Brian, for passing this on. The more people that read this, the better. As Mandrill indicated above, the truly profound narratives of Western history are out of fashion at state schools, and have been for a generation.

    There was a time when study of the classics and the ancient languages was a large part of everyone’s education. The value and superiority of Western Civilization was beyond question in those times, and that fact provided the moral and intellectual strength behind our finest accomplishments. It also empowered the West to survive many grave challenges, both external and internal.

    But our people don’t know. And people can’t defend that which they don’t comprehend. Pericles, in his Funeral Oration for Athenian hoplites lost during the Peloponesian War (as recorded by Thucydides) told the citizens of Athens “Freedom is the posession only of those who are willing to defend it”.

    We’re doomed.


  • What CFM said, exactly.

  • The Dude

    I love ancient history – especially Roman Britain. Don’t know enough about Greek’s and Persians…

    I’m off to Amazon now…

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Great review, Brian. I would add that there appears to be quite a lot of interest in classical history in the movies and television dramas these days: Gladiator, Rome (the TV series), the BBC mini-series on the Romans, re-runs of I Claudius, not to mention that much-derided movie by Oliver Stone, Alexander. Maybe some people out there have figured out what a fascinating and crucial period of history the Classical period was. It is.

  • Richard Cook


    Also do not forget the movie 300 out in march (I believe). Even though its somewhat fanciful, its about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.

  • I just finished reading Stephen Pressfield’s “Gates Of Fire” this weekend and it’s an absorbing book.
    Huge amounts of background to the battle of Thermopylae and a wonderful account of the battle itself.

  • Thanks for posting this. I’ve placed my order with Amazon . . . three weeks from now, Canada Post willing, I should be able to start reading them (Rubicon & Persian Fire).

    I’ve also linked to this review: http://www.bolditalic.com/quotulatiousness_archive/003284.html.

  • Steve E

    Director Michael Mann has bought the rights to Steven Pressfield’s marvellous Gates of Fire, but the movie itself has been woefully slow in seeing the lights of day. Shame, as the novel is a fantastically, gritty view of wartime. Bit like Dispatches (Michael Herr’s book on Vietnam) set in Ancient Greece.