Persian Fire by Tom Holland
Book Review by Ursus
If I told you that you could profit from reading the historical treatise of a writer of vampire novels, you might look at me askance. But what if the novelist in question were educated at Cambridge and Oxford, and had written extensively on the classics? What if he were the author of the unforgettable Rubicon? Yes, indeed, Tom Holland is back. Having offered us the fall of the Roman Republic, Holland now enmeshes us in even grander topics.
The reader must first be conversant with a bit of political science theory. Shortly after the end of the Cold War, a Harvard political scientist by the name of Samuel Huntington predicted a coming “clash of civilizations.” The fault lines of future conflict, he declared, would not be economic in nature but cultural. The line between Western Civilization and Islam would prove in particular a contentious one. While his theory initially met plenty of naysayers, after 9/11/2001 some found it prophetic in retrospect.
The twentieth century and its "Western civil wars" over competing schemes of political-economy were a mere dalliance. The normal course of the world was defined by cultures – by groups of people sharing a similar history, language and worldview, all this usually cemented by adherence to a particular religion. Before the twentieth century, the East-West dichotomy had been construed as a clash between Christianity and Islam, culminating in the medieval crusades and the fall of Constantinople. The present now embraces the past, as East vs. West is once again a contest between citizens of Christian (and post-Christian) cultures, and those of the Dar-Islam.
But before the rise of Christianity and Islam, both East and West were a mesh of pagan cultures, none of which claimed an exclusive truth to be thrust forcefully on other peoples. The choice, instead, was to live as an allegedly servile subject of a multi-ethnic superstate, or to live amidst the alleged freedom of a parochial city-state. Western history qua history, the written documentation of facts as opposed to transmission of oral legends, was born in the shadow of the Greco-Persian wars. Thus, almost by definition, as Holland notes, the presumed antagonism between East and West is history’s oldest legacy. As the Islamic Caliphate sought inspiration from Persian imperialism, and Christianity was forged in the milieu of Greek culture by Hellenized Jews, history’s first epic battle may still prove relevant to contemporary times. Holland at least makes this claim in his introduction, and a rather nice marketing ploy it is. But if we are to give the current "clash of civilizations" any merit, we must bear witness to its presumed genesis 2500 years ago.
The problem though, historically speaking, is that Herodotus wrote entirely from the Greek perspective, while the Persians wrote little about themselves. The past 30 years has seen a critical archaeological inquiry into the Persian perspective, thus rescuing history from its Hellenic one-sidedness. The results are most intriguing.
Holland is furthermore the perfect choice to present us this reevaluated tale. I have never read his vampire novels (nor intend to), but his literary gifts are considerable. The majesty of his prose is unassailable. He has a writer’s eye for drama that many historians, in their dry and methodical way, often overlook. His penchant for cynical observations does objective justice to both sides of the conflict, never lending too much credence to the propaganda of its antagonists.
Holland’s first two opening chapters are themselves worth the cost of the book. He sketches the obscure differences between the peoples of the Near East, documenting the power that passed from the hands of Assyrians to Medeans and finally to Persians. The Assyrians were cruel despots; the Medeans mere opportunists. Cyrus the great of Persia was a different breed of imperialist altogether. He drafted what historians have termed the world’s first declaration of human rights. The cream of his foreign policy was an innocuous approach to the internal traditions of his subject peoples. As propaganda it was great incentive for client states to submit to his rule, but as policy usually matched propaganda Cyrus enjoyed a long reign over the world’s largest empire at the time.
The tenor of Persian policy changed considerably with the arrival of Darius. Darius had been a usurper, and like all opportunistic thugs-turned-rulers, he sought desperately for a higher truth to lend himself legitimacy. He found it in the off-color religion of Zoroaster, a mysterious prophet who had turned the pagan religion of the Aryan tribes into a Monotheistic clash between good and evil. Darius was now the vicar of the highest deity, defender of truth against the forces of chaos. Conveniently, this meant his enemies were now agents of cosmic darkness. As Holland notes, this did not per se initiate religious crusades, but the mingling of militant monotheism with imperial power set a dangerous new tone that would resonate centuries later:
Contained within it were the seeds of some radical notions: that foreign foes might be crushed as infidels, that warriors might be promised paradise, that conquest in the name of god might be a moral duty.
The Greek colonies at the western edge of Persia’s borders succumbed to the holy empire. Holland then traces, with his trademark articulation and wit, the background of Ancient Greece, and the rise of the peculiar states of Sparta and Athens, and the rivalry between them. The Greeks pretended to be everything the servile subjects of the Persia were not: free men living in free communities, with their own traditions and gods. Yet there is a tragic note of irony here, as Holland captures, in that the Spartans practiced the ancient world’s worst form of despotism on their helots. No doubt many in the Peloponnese would rather have seen a Persian beard than a Spartan red cloak! Greek freedom also often meant, quite honestly, nothing more than the freedom to fight petty turf battles with each other. Only the radical democracy recently instituted by Athens bolstered Greek claims of moral superiority over “barbarians.”
Regardless, Greek bungling in the affairs of Asia Minor brought mainland Greece in conflict with Imperial sensibilities. Persian ambassadors were sent to canvas the Greek city-states for submission. Athens and Sparta violated international law by executing the Persian ambassadors (The Athenians at least had the decency to place the ambassadors on trial before their democratic assembly. The Spartans, characteristically, simply threw the Persians down a well).
In the eyes of Persia, Sparta and Athens were two rogue states who operated outside international law and divine justice. The upstart Greeks saw themselves as free peoples defending themselves from a pretentious superpower aggressor. It would now not be amiss to note a certain parallel to contemporary dynamics - if perhaps an inverted one.
The rest of Holland’s works traces the gripping events from the Battle of Marathon to the aftermath of the final Greek victory at Platea, and of course includes the famous stand at Thermopylae. The Persian superpower had sent its large armies to the reaches of the known world; but the Greeks placing superior tactics and heavier arms to good work on their own rugged territory, fended off the superpower advance. A few generations later, Alexander, having locked all of Greece under his iron will, would knock down the edifice of Persian power and rebuild it in his own image ... only to have it later collapse in shards.
A clash of civilizations indeed! The reader will be left to his or her own good judgement as to how much ancient history guides the fate of the modern era. I do believe Holland at times deliberately overplays connections to make his book more relevant, and therefore more marketable. Nonetheless as someone sensitive to the confluence of culture and political history, I submit there is a kind of resonance here that we would be foolish to overlook. When I saw the Twin Towers crash on that fateful day, the first thoughts in my head were the words of Huntingdon's thesis which I had read in college only two years previously in a political science seminar. All of my personal forays into history since have lead me to the conclusion that somewhere just beyond the Western coast of modern Turkey is a flash point between civilizations. It has simmered frequently for 2500 years and shows no sign of abating.
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I have heard Holland’s next project is the Crusades. I hope this is untrue, for Holland needs to write a sequel to Persian Fire in the form of the overthrow of Persia by Macedon. Or for another seminal event in the East versus West litany, how about Rome's Punic Wars? Regardless of the subject matter, I shall read Holland's works. While he may perhaps stretch a point a bit too far, I know of few other authors that invigorate history with such prosaic majesty and biting wit.