Persian Fire by Tom Holland

Posted: April 1, 2016 by Arushi in Book Review
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In 480 B.C., 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. In the space of a single generation, 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. As a result of those conquests, Xerxes ruled as the most powerful man on the planet. Yet somehow, astonishingly, against the largest expeditionary force ever assembled, the Greeks of the mainland managed to hold out. The Persians were turned back. Greece remained free. 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.

Tom Holland’s brilliant new book describes the very first “clash of Empires” between East and West. As he did in the critically praised Rubicon, he has found extraordinary parallels between the ancient world and our own. There is no other popular history that takes in the entire sweep of the Persian Wars, and no other classical historian, academic or popular, who combines scholarly rigor with novelistic depth with a worldly irony in quite the fashion that Tom Holland does.


Persian Fire – in extremely approachable language – tells the history of the Persian wars, between the East and the West. The start of one of those wars is what the movie 300 is based on. But the battle of Therompylae is not the only or even the first war between the Persian empire and the Greek city states.

This book is not just that of the wars though, but rather gives a detailed history of each nation – Persia, Sparta and Athens – along with a good general, if not as detailed, description of all of the other players involved – Ionia, Medes, Corinth, Thebes, Babylonia just to name a few.

It is not an East vs West book, nor does it try to portray any one side as better than the other. In pure reading, what it does the most, is give the reader information to form his or her own opinion. No one person is seen as good and no one else is purely bad. In the fashion of reality, every facet possible of every person involved is shown, clearly depicting the many facets of humanity.

Oppressive regime led to the rise of Persia under Cyrus. A great king and yet his sons found death and the rule of Persia went to Darius, who in turn raised to the throne his son, and Cyrus’s grandson, Xerxes. Sparta became a military state to survive class differences and the breakdown of their society. Leonidas became king of Sparta after the death of his older half-brother, a king, whose death could have been suicide, or it could have been murder. Athens became a democracy to survive similar problems as those faced by Sparta, to somehow forge itself into a nation that would live on, in spite of its aristocracy and their petty fighting. And yet, Themistoceles, one of the foremost Athenian leaders during the Persian wars, ended his days as a prized Persian vassal.

These things all seem so dissonant with each other, yet, they have webs of interconnections that one can see only after reading this book. The rise of Cyrus and then Darius in the East were not affected by Greece, yet they did impact Greek cities in multiple ways. Cyrus’s mocking words, “Who are the Spartans?” might have had a huge impact on a city that saw itself as a power to be reckoned with. Perhaps such words impacted Leonidas when he stood against Cyrus’s grandson. Perhaps not. But this book gives us the information needed to speculate.

Athens, where for the first time, power was vested in the people. It became a demokratia (Demos – people and kratis – power) in a manner where the founder of democracy chose to be forgotten so that his city might consider democracy old. A notion that would give this revolution an antiquity which would then turn to legitimacy.

Yet all of these things did not happen during the Persian wars, but definitely had a hand in them. For it was the belief that they fought for themselves, their soil, and their freedom, that gave the Athenians courage to fight at Marathon. Their victory was the first time someone had defeated Persian forces.

This books flows from one city to another, one nation to the next, time and history being narrated in a fashion not only clear, but with a touch of wry storytelling. The history of the states as well the people involved, guesses of their thoughts, everything came together to make the book as vivid for me as the movie 300 was, perhaps a touch more. The scope is so broad, yet this book does it justice.


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