Monday, October 6, 2014

Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland

A titanic tale, only adequately told
Tom Holland’s 2005 book Persian Fire is a historical overview of the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC, in which an alliance of Greek city-states fought to repel the invading forces of the Persian Empire. Holland begins his narrative roughly 150 years before the war, setting the stage by examining the events that led up to the conflict. Athens is ruled by a rapid succession of quarreling tyrants—mobsters, essentially—until one of them, out of pure self-interest, comes up with the bright idea of democracy. Elsewhere in Greece, Sparta has developed a bizarre, proto-fascist military culture of super soldiers based on a sort of egalitarianism of violence. Meanwhile, a group of mountain tribesmen in present-day Iran coalesce to form the Persian Empire. After conquering the kingdoms of Media, Lydia, and Babylon, this first superpower expands its territory to encompass all of the Middle East and Central Asia before deciding to set its sights on Europe. The Empire’s great kings Cyrus and Darius are dispatched by Holland rather quickly in favor of their descendant Xerxes, under whose leadership the Persians would face the Greeks at the storied battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea.

The war between Greece and Persia is no doubt a fascinating historical event, worthy of in-depth examination, but is Holland the right man for the job? Although this is meant to be a synthesis of existing information, palatable to a trade audience, Holland doesn’t make it easy for the general reader. His prose is often confusing, and never comfortable. American readers may find themselves wishing for a glossary to translate his British vocabulary choices. It’s obvious that he’s done a great deal of research on the topic and probably ate, breathed, and slept the Greco-Persian War for months if not years. The problem is that he writes as if he expects his audience has done the same. The general reader my find himself floundering in a quagmire of proper nouns, begging for Holland to toss them a vine, while scholars on the subject would be better served by the original source material.

The most disappointing thing about Persian Fire is that the title and subtitle lead one to believe this will be a more Persian-centric view of the conflict. Instead, as usual, the Athenians and Spartans get much more ink than their Eastern counterparts. For the most part, the Persians are defined as they’ve always been. (Who were the Persians? The ones who fought the Greeks.) Persia may have been the “First World Empire,” but what cultural legacy, if any, did they bestow upon Western civilization? I’ve read elsewhere that their legal code was quite ground breaking and influential. Did they have literature? science? mathematics? You wouldn’t know it from reading Holland’s book. He does a pretty good job of depicting what life was like for the citzens of Sparta and Athens, but when it comes to the Persians he’s all about political maneuvering and troop deployment. Persia is a goliath destined to be slain by the panhellenic David, and little more.

Any book on this subject should appeal to two types of readers: military history enthusiasts and those fascinated by the ancient world. Persian Fire aims straight for the former faction, to the neglect of the latter camp. In some of the battle scenes Holland vividly captures the clash of sword on steel and the stench of blood-soaked sand, but in between the violent altercations the text is frequently as dry and lifeless as a collection of names on a map. For all its detail, it might make a good reference, but as a reading experience it all too often feels like work.

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  1. Besides Vidal's Creation, are there other books that give Persian perspectives on Persian affairs, including but not limited to the pesky Greek campaigns?

    1. The only author I can think of is Harold Lamb, who wrote a lot of pulp fiction stories set in the Middle East and Central Asia, including some with Persian protagonists. There might be a couple stories in the collection Swords from the Desert. Lamb also wrote at least two novels with Persian heroes, Cyrus the Great and Omar Khayyam, neither of which I've read. Lamb wrote adventure fiction—his work is not as "literary" as Vidal's—but he did spend time in Persia, studied its history, and spoke the language.

    2. Thanks for replying! But ouch, what a dearth of material in English ūüėĘ