Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland
Reviewed by Sean Badal
Tom Holland’s last book, Rubicon: The triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic, was an extraordinary tour de force through Pax Romana, compellingly mapping Roman history from Julius Caesar to Octavian. His was an invigorating and authoritative voice, presenting a take on the fall of the Roman Empire like nobody else. For anyone who’s ever waded through (or been forced to) Gibbons’ Decline and Fall, it was a breath of fresh air.
Holland does more or less the same in this sequel. To cut a (very) long story short, Cyrus the Great ascended the Persian throne in 550 BC, thereby establishing what came to be known as the Persian Empire. His son Cambyses II conquered the Egyptians in 525 BC. Darius I, who ascended the throne in 522 BC, extended the borders of the Persian Empire even further east to the Indus River. Later to be known as Darius the Great, he crushed a rebellion by the Ionian Greeks (499-494 BC) and then led an attack on the European Greeks. His forces were defeated by the Greeks in 490 BC. Ten years later his son Xerxes I launched an attack on Athens (It will be interesting to see what the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300, looks like. Slated for release in 2007, it is about the battle of Thermopylae, where once again, a small group of plucky westerners (this time the Spartans! And no, Michael Douglas isn’t in it) hold out against Asiatic hordes).
The city was sacked and the Persians burned all the buildings on the Acropolis, including the beginnings of a new temple constructed (ironically enough) to celebrate the defeat of the Persians ten years previously. The ruins are what you see when you climb the acropolis.
Now, allow me to digress a little. Many years ago, when I was at school, that whole Dunkirk thing was shoved down our throats. Plucky Englanders in their bobbing boats rowing across the channel to rescue stranded soldiers, whilst shaking their fists at the marauding Luftwaffe. It was, in my mind, a celebration of a great victory. Imagine my horror then, to later discover that it was actually a shambles in the wake of what was a pretty brilliant victory by the Germans.
Well, I kind of experienced the same sensation here when I got to the part where the Persians are actually in Athens.
Persians in Athens! In all my years of reading, I’d never actually come across this little-known fact. Marathon, yes. Thermopylae, yes. But the Persians actually stomping around the Acropolis, never (or if I did, it must have been in really small print). Try it, check out Encarta, or any other encyclopedia (except for Wikipedia!) and see if you can find the bit where the Persian soldiers are tucking into their pilaus against the backdrop of the smoldering ruins of the acropolis.
In Rubicon, Holland drew on historical parallels (sometimes quite brilliantly) to explain how the political world currently functions. Excuses for starting wars, unholy alliances, territorial ambitions, all rooted in the crazy world of Bush and Blair. In Persian Fire, he does something similar, although less successfully. As hinted at in the title, Holland explains how the delineations between east and west were actually defined, how our currents notions of oriental barbarism, indulgence and excess are rooted in the propaganda of that era. The problem is he doesn’t have much balanced material to go on, which is kind of paradoxical, since all our sources of reference are drawn from westerners like Herodotus, hence the anti-Asiatic slant in the first place.
Still, it’s a brilliant book and I can’t wait for Holland’s next, The Poison in the Blood – something about Troy.
Title: Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West
Author: Tom Holland