Persian Fire: The First World Empire, Battle for the West

by Tom Holland

Paperback, 2005



Call number




Little, Brown (2005), Paperback


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.… (more)

Media reviews

The New York Times
Thanks for such a fascinating essay. It sparked much contemplation, which I will pursue.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Garp83
In February 2006, I read the Iliad for the first time as an adult, for no other reason than my own entertainment. I was at once bitten by the ancient Greek bug and set out to obtain the classical education I somehow missed in high school and college. I pursued this by taking a few Teaching Company
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audio courses, reading primary sources of the ancients -- Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides -- as well as the best popular and scholarly books I could find to elucidate the various eras of ancient Greek civilization. One of the latter certainly is Tom Holland's Persian Fire.

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!
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LibraryThing member Feicht
I've just finished reading this book again for the second time through. In doing so, Tom Holland has cemented his place atop my list of favorite historical authors. He excels in giving an almost novelistic description of events which took place some 2,500 years ago; no mean feat, considering this
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gulf in time which may seem to irrevocably distance the events in "Persian Fire" from the modern day.

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.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
A great read about the Persian Wars. Its best part are the finely written introduction chapters on Persia, Athens and Sparta. The battles themselves are actually not given as much space as I had expected and wanted. The worst part is the preface with its fearful stench of the Bush years and the
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false parallel between the West and the East. The Greeks didn't do battle for some pasty-faced Englishmen, the Persians didn't want to eradicate civilization.
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LibraryThing member wildbill
The story of the Greco-Persian wars is one of the great tales from history. At the time they were fought the Persian Empire comprised a large majority of the civilized world in the West. The city-states of Greece would have been a rather small province of the Empire if they had been conquered.
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Western Civilization would have been much different if the Greeks had been conquered and lost their freedom. The story has been told many times but this author by telling the tale from the Persian point of view brings a new perspective to well known people and events. The book is full of interesting details which help to bring the people and events of that time alive for the reader. The author plays no favorites and shows the reader the warts and all of the heroes on both sides. The violence and cruelty that were the daily fare of the dealings between the people of those times provide good reasons for the author's sometime cynical attitude toward humanity.
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.
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LibraryThing member cmbohn
Greeks vs. Persians, 5th century BC

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
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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.
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LibraryThing member SChant
Excellent. Really enjoyable history of the early Persian Empire and it's conflicts with the various city-states of Greece around 500BC. I'm not usually a fan of MilHist but the accounts of the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis were as exciting as any thriller!
LibraryThing member hmessing
Most ancient history books about the Persian wars of Greece are colored by the viewpoint of the victors, the Greeks. This author tries (and succeeds) to present more of what it would have looked like to the Persians. Historians might not like the amount of unverified speculation indulged in, it
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makes for a good read. It once again demonstrates to me just how absolutely remarkable the Greeks were in coming up with democracy, flawed as it may have been.
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LibraryThing member DrRex
A fictionalized but accurate account of the Persian attack on Greece and the battle between the forces of Xerexes and the Greeks, including the Spartans.
LibraryThing member Traveller1

The narrative approach dd not work for me. I found it slow and tedious, lacking interest.
LibraryThing member furriebarry
Enthralling and relevant history of the Persian/Greek war focusing on the Persian Emperor and the Athenian contribution.
LibraryThing member miketheriley
I read this after I read Rubicon (by the same author). It began with Persia, but ended up being a book about the conflict between Greece and Persia. It was interesting looking at the narative from a different angle. I found it a bit hard going in places, but that may just have been my unfamiliarity
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with the peoples names. The final third was more familiar as it dealt with the war with Greece.
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LibraryThing member santhony
I picked up this novel after reading Holland’s Rubicon, due partly to my preference for the author’s narrative style of presenting history, and partly due to the intriguing subject matter.

Much has been written of the Greco-Persian War, but almost exclusively from the Greek perspective. While
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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.
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LibraryThing member moncur_d
interesting approach, good on persian context and not in awe of the Greeks' later cultural legacy
LibraryThing member kaitanya64
This book is well-written and interesting, but as a non-specialist I found the chronology a bit confusing. To complete his project, the author has to jump back and forth in time to cover events that are happening simultaneously in different places, and without much background on the period I found
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it sometimes hard to keep up. If you decide to tackle this as a non-specialist, I would suggest reading through a couple chapters on the period from a standard textbook first. But the time period is so important it's definitely worth the work.
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LibraryThing member milocross
A Christmas gift from my eldest who really knows what I love. I was started by the time period and his general project, to scrape away all the hadniths, etc. that have attached themselves to Islam over the centuries and get us back to the original bones of a very controversial religious, his
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historical context and value. A brilliant and courageous piece of research, written with occasional irreverence, as is Holland's style.

I will be fascinated to see what he tackles next. Bravo!
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LibraryThing member whjensen
Recently read this after finishing Herodotus' Histories. Read in conjunction with Herodotus, I feel this is a solid 4 star book, adding flavor as well as a historical check to some of Herodotus' eccentricities. However, I feel that some times, Holland goes astray and people who have not had the
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pleasure of reading the Histories or the Salamis by Strauss may not get an accurate picture but rather a twentieth-century person looking back. Except at key moments (such as the Battle of Plataea), Holland tends to gloss over the spiritual aspect of the Greek side while focusing on the Persian spiritual battle. Is his intent political commentary about overreach by the United States? Most likely, but he does injustice to the source by ignoring the gods of Greece.

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.
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LibraryThing member pierthinker
A fan of history, but never really into the ancient world, this was my first serious book about the Persian and Greek empires of the 5th century BC. Tom Holland writes with passion, authority and immediacy. This reads more like reportage than history. He clearly states the chronological narrative,
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but also brings alive the key figures involved, thus painting a rich picture of life and politics in this ancient world.

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.
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LibraryThing member TrgLlyLibrarian
Fascinating! Holland writes his history dramatically, almost like fiction. I caught myself forgetting whether is was a true story.
LibraryThing member jonfaith
I Bought Persian Fire in Heathrow returning from Morocco. We had spent the night before with my wife's brother in Reading. Having returned from the dually (you know what I mean) arid Marrakesch, we were greeted with a bounty of Czech pilsners. The following morning I was half-pained and entirely
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groggy. I bought this upon entering the airport. It was only then that we discovered that our flight had changed gates and we literally dashed for 45 minutes until we arrived for our flight, dripping with exertion. I started to read as we underwent the 33 trials of boarding a plane bound for the United States.

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.
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LibraryThing member waldhaus1
The story of Persia attempt to conquer the Greek city states: Athens, Sparta and lesser known cities. A lot of detail about things from long ago. The battle of Thermopylae is a highlight. Amazing detail about Persia crossing off the Hellespont. A map would have been helpful to keep things straight.
LibraryThing member Kristelh
Reason read; shared read, war room challenge, I would like to know more about ancient history as it relates to the Bible. This book is set in the middle east and looks at the first world empire in the fifth century. It is a clash between Greeks and Persians.

The Persian Wars were sparked when
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Athens and Eretria sent aid to the Ionians in their revolt against Persia in 498 BCE. Persian anger was further stoked when Persian envoys demanding Greek submission to Persia were murdered by Athens and Sparta. The Ionian Revolt ended in 493 BCE.

Assuming that Ahasuerus is indeed Xerxes I, the events described in Esther began around the years 483–482 BCE, and concluded in March 473 BCE.

These 12 Achaemenid Rulers Led an Empire;
Cyrus; He famously allowed the Jewish people to return to Judea, thus ending the Babylonian captivity, and issued a general proclamation of freedom of worship and religious tolerance.
Cambyses II: took on Egypt
Bardiya: Cyrus made Bardiya satrap of the eastern provinces, while Cambyses II became king. According to later sources, shortly before his own death Cambyses II had Bardiya executed out of jealousy but kept it secret.
Darius I The Great: became king after his horse neighed first. He divided the empire into twenty satrapies and appointed governors with wide powers to oversee them, created a bureau of royal inspectors, set up a chancery with many branches, established a universal currency, built a system of royal roads and canals, instituted a new tax system, and built numerous temples and palaces throughout the empire. Darius I is also the first King of Persia known to have been a firm believer in Ahura Mazda, the supreme deity of Zoroastrianism.
Xerxes I: probably the king that married Esther
Artaxerxes I
Darius II
Artaxerxes II
Artaxerxes III
Artaxerxes IV
Darius III
Artaxerxes V

As Kings of Persia, they ruled over the largest empire the ancient world has ever seen, which stretched from the Indus River in the east to the Balkan Peninsula in the west. The Kings of Persia were able to draw on enormous resources from all across this vast empire and exert influence far beyond their borders.

I listened to an audio version and it would have been helpful to have also had a hard copy. I have to say that my knowledge of ancient history could you more work.
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Runciman Award (Winner — 2006)


Original publication date


Physical description

448 p.; 9.13 inches


0316731021 / 9780316731027
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