Tom Holland introduces Persian Fire, his amazingly great book about the war between the Persian Empire and Greece, by pointing out that questions about these factions, these ways of being, and these cultures are still relevant today. Osama bin Laden interpreted East-West relations in the light of the Crusades; those Crusades had distant roots in nothing less than the first world empire under Xerxes and its almost-successful attempt to take the nascent democracy of Greece as it had taken so many other lands. Holland points out that great odds defied are always exciting, but even more so when the odds are stupendously high: Greece, at that point, was a ragbag bunch of city-states addicted to fighting each other. To wealthy, cultured, and enormously mighty Persia, the outcome must have looked like a foregone conclusion: the inchoate project of democracy shattered, much that made Greece distinctive gone, Greece’s legacy to Rome altered and diminished.
So how did it happen that a little terrorist fringe state of the Persian Empire fought back and won? Read Holland’s book. He’ll tell you, as if he’s sitting on the edge of his seat and recounting the world’s most interesting story (with footnotes and end notes.) He’ll explain how the Persians went from being a nothing little tribe in southern Iran to being the first enormous world power, over Egypt and Israel and dozens of other wealthy and powerful countries. (Hint: tactical use of religious tolerance.) He’ll tell you about voting in Athens, and the unbelievable weirdness that was Sparta (you should read how proud they were of their disgusting food), and the oracle at Delphi and how that actually worked.
And all of that is fascinating. But it pales in comparison to the moment when the Persians come down like the wolf on the fold, and all the stories Herodotus has to tell us about that. There’s King Leonidas with his 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, for instance: Xerxes sent to tell him that if he would surrender the pass, he would make him king of all Greece. “So lay down your weapons!” the messengers said. “Come and take them,” said Leonidas. Really. He really said that. And he and his tiny band of warriors held that pass against one of the greatest military forces ever assembled, and held it, and held it, and were finally beaten only by treachery.
Tom Holland tells these stories brilliantly, both as history and as narrative. The only thing that even briefly annoyed me was that he kept talking about privileges (such as voting) that were extended to “all citizens,” such a change for them and so broad-based, and didn’t take the trouble to spell out that citizenship was severely limited. (Only about 30-45,000 of Athenian citizens out of 300,000 people could vote: adult freeborn males who had completed their military training and owed no disqualifying debt to the state.) Perhaps he thought we’d all know that, but I for one found it a little difficult to keep in the forefront of my mind. But this is such a minor complaint that I hesitate even to make it. The structure, the prose, the coruscating interest of the topic, are all such that I absolutely recommend it to everyone who’s even slightly drawn to it. And I am certainly going to read more of Tom Holland’s books.
I got the recommendation for this, years ago, from Jenny at Reading the End. Read her review, partly because Jenny’s reviews are always worth reading, and partly because she gives an outstanding usage of “sodomy” that ought to be more widely adopted. Thank you, Jenny!