In 480 B.C.E., Xerxes, the King of Persia, led an invasion of mainland Greece. Its success should have been a formality. For seventy years, victory--rapid, spectacular victory--had seemed the birthright of the Persian Empire. They had swept across the Near East, shattering ancient kingdoms, storming famous cities, putting together an empire which stretched from India to the shores of the Aegean. Xerxes ruled as the most powerful man on the planet. Yet somehow, astonishingly, against the largest expeditionary force ever assembled, the Greeks managed to hold out. Had the Greeks been defeated in the epochal naval battle at Salamis, not only would the West have lost its first struggle for independence and survival, but it is unlikely that there would ever have been such an entity as the West at all. Historian Holland combines scholarly rigor with novelistic depth and finds extraordinary parallels between the ancient world and our own.--From publisher description.
I came to Persian Fire with a decent background in the overall theme, and I read Herodotus in tandem with it through much of the book, but Holland's treatment enhanced everything I had absorbed prior because he approached the subject with a regional theme. It would be difficult to comprehend the foreign policy of the United States in the latter half of the 20th century without a fairly comprehensive background in the history of the Soviet Union; yet most historians of early fifth century Greece provide scant attention to the foe that most defined their political culture, the Persians they referred to sometimes pejoratively as "the Mede." Holland's work is superior from the get-go because he takes the regional approach most period treatments gloss over.
For those who want to delve right in to the Greco-Persian conflict, patience is in order as Holland sets the stage with an extremely well written background history not only of chief Hellenic city-states Athens and Sparta, but most importantly the origins of Persian rule -- and all of that takes us -- sometimes breathlessly with the gusto of a great author in love with his subject -- to an account of Mediterranean geo-politics on the eve of the conflict. I got more of the sense of the ancient world at the time from Holland than any other single work I had read previously.
Unlike many contemporary historians of the ancient world like Kagan, Holland deliberately avoids trying to fit the themes and the conflicts of 2500 years ago into today's foreign policies, but -- remarkably so -- he does manage to interpret the actions of the key players into the sometimes Machiavellian power politics characteristic of states throughout recorded history. No other work I have encountered brings marble figures like Themistocles and Aristides to flesh-and-blood life, warts and all, the way Holland does in this book.
A great read, in every way. Lots of material and not a boring spot in the story. I'll probably re-read it again someday. If you have any interest at all in the ancient Greek world, don't miss this one!
At 372 pages of actual text, it may seem a bit of a slog, and yet it is far from it. Holland's captivating prose carries the reader from the peaks of the Zagros to the crags of central Greece, flashing the author's extensive vocabulary while still allowing for the occasional colloquialism; I can't remember the last time I read a historical work that employed modern profanity without sounding sophomoric, and yet Holland somehow pulls it off.
This book serves the needs of both novices and seasoned scholars alike; providing a wealth of background material leading up to that fateful first showdown between east and west, it weaves a vivid tapestry replete with fascinating characters, exotic peoples, and monumental events of a time gone by which have had lasting ramifications all the way up to the present day.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
The book begins with the conquests of Cyrus and the establishment of the Persian Empire. A vast area from India to Egypt to Asia Minor was consolidated under Persian rule in a short period of time. Ancient kingdoms such as Egypt and Babylonia were made part of the new empire. Reading this section I learned a lot about what I don't know about the people and places that made up the Persian Empire. At the same time I got a start on a topic that merits further reading. I found the description of the Persian religion particularly fascinating. Xerxes saw himself as the embodiment of the Truth set on earth to eliminate the people of the Lie, including the Greeks.
The author's discussion of the development of Sparta and Athens adds some new insight to those topics. The life of the Spartans at all times sacrificed the individual for the group. They ruled conquered tribes who provided the Spartans with the necessities of life. The Spartan men spent their life either in training or in battle. The male rite of passage was to use a dagger to sneak up on and murder one of the serfs or helots. Athens had Solon the lawgiver. After a long period of tyranny democracy was developed by Cleisthenes to make good his victory over Isagoras for political power in Athens. These Greek politicians were much less idealistic than the Founding Fathers.
Xerxes assembled a massive army composed of troops from all over his empire. This army crossed the Hellespont on two pontoon bridges and began the conquest of Greece. Athens and Sparta had executed ambassadors sent to them by the Persians and were to be slaughtered if they surrendered.
The politics amongst the city-states was chaotic. Themistocles rose to power in Athens and pushed the city to build a large fleet. The Spartans were defeated and massacred at Thermopylae but their story lived on and was the basis for a recent popular movie. The Battles of Salamis and Plataea drove the Persians from Greece and ended their attempts to conquer Greece.
The book is well written and the actions and emotions of the parties are conveyed with impact. The fear of the Greeks as the awaited the attack of the Persians was palpable. The ferocity of the combat is very real. The joy of the Greeks in victory deteriorates into squabbling and Themistocles dies in exile a subject of the Great King. It was left to a Macedonian youth born in 356 bc to write the final chapter in the struggle with Persia.
Finally finished! This one went on forever, mostly because I kept misplacing the book. But I'm done, and I have to say, I don't like any of these guys very much. I was honestly hoping for the Persians to beat up the Greeks (again), but of course, Sparta and all that. I really enjoyed it, but a little too much detail. I wanted to get on with the main event, but there was a LOT of build up and a lot of names to keep straight. I could have done with a glossary in the back to keep them all straight. And after the intro which ties in much of the conflict between Middle East and the West to this very conflict, I would like to have the author wrap it up again and tie it back into the present. Still, 4 stars.
Again, read it immediately following Herodotus or or (for those with better recall) if you have a good basis for Greek history and it will be thoroughly enjoyable. Otherwise, I would give it 2 stars.
The narrative approach dd not work for me. I found it slow and tedious, lacking interest.
Much has been written of the Greco-Persian War, but almost exclusively from the Greek perspective. While this may be partially due to a pro-Western bias, it is at least partly due to the fact that there are virtually no Persian sources from the period. Almost everything we know of the early Persians comes from the writings of their enemies, most especially Greek historian Herodotus. Imagine the Nazis winning World War II and writing its history. The Allies might not come off looking so good.
In any event, Holland has tried to write a more balanced history, while still being hamstrung by the lack of primary sources. He has probably done as good a job as could be expected, though there comes a point where educated opinion devolves into mere conjecture. To his credit, Holland does a good job pointing out where many of these instances occur.
The history begins with a brief recap of Mesopotamian empires, beginning with Sargon, through Akkad, the Assyrians and into the brief ascendancy of the Medes. The Persians are then identified as they burst onto the scene through the brilliant career of Cyrus in the sixth century B.C.
Once the story turns to the Greeks, primarily Sparta and Athens, Holland enters well trodden ground. However, despite having read numerous accounts of the period and its events, Holland has a way of presenting well known history in a new and interesting light. He succeeded in doing so with respect to the end of the Roman Republic in Rubicon and he does so here when presenting the Greco-Persian conflicts.
Whether you are a well read student of the era, or a newcomer, I can highly recommend Persian Fire and other historical works by this author.
Clearly, if the Persian Empire had overrun Greece the history of what we call the Western world would have been very different, although from 2,500 years way, exactly how different is hard to judge. The Persian Empire could have stretched into mainland Europe, Italy and further, with consequences for the Roman Empire as well as the impact on thought and societal development in Greece.
I think this is a great example of good writing as well as good history.
I will be fascinated to see what he tackles next. Bravo!
Holland establishes these ancient matters with contemporary models without losing focus on the epoch and not falling prey to any jingoistic east/west dynamics. In fact the heroes of this portrait, if we are to accept such, should be the Taliban of our own day and age. The Spartans were tough, as were the Persians. Thomas Hobbes understood the stakes. So does Tom Holland.