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Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West Paperback – June 12, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

After chronicling the fall of the Roman Republic in Rubicon, historian Holland turns his attention further back in time to 480 B.C., when the Greeks defended their city-states against the invading Persian empire, led by Xerxes. Classicists will recall such battles as Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis, which raises the question: why do we need another account of this war, when we already have Herodotus? But just as Victor David Hanson and Donald Kagan have reframed our understanding of the Peloponnesian War by finding contemporary parallels, Holland recasts the Greek-Persian conflict as the first clash in a long-standing tension between East and West, echoing now in Osama bin Laden's pretensions to a Muslim caliphate. Holland doesn't impose a modern sensibility on the ancient civilizations he describes, and he delves into the background histories of both sides with equally fascinating detail. Though matters of Greek history like the brutal social structure of the Spartans are well known, the story of the Persian empire—like the usurper Darius's claim that every royal personage he assassinated was actually an imposter—should be fresh and surprising to many readers, while Holland's graceful, modern voice will captivate those intimidated by Herodotus. (May 2)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Dramatizing ancient history--that is, amplifying the historical record's often fragmentary evidence with unknowable detail and inferred emotion--is always a gamble. Done well (think Herodotus), the long dead come alive, and readers are inclined to overlook their suspicions about what liberties the author may be taking with the story's veracity. Done poorly, one risks profaning history and literature alike. In dramatizing the Persian Wars--Athens' most glorious hour and the beginning of its decline into imperialism and hubris--Holland acknowledges the risks and strides boldly forward. The result is an ambitious contemporary retelling of an epic tale that, framed as a conflict between East and West, quietly subverts certain other recent histories' parallels between empires past and present. It has its awkward moments, mostly due to a predilection for melodramatic phrasing; for better or worse, its parallels to modern events are subtle and often implicit. But ultimately, one suspects that Holland's engaging narrative would do Herodotus proud--and it may even prompt readers to find out for themselves. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (June 12, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307279480
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307279484
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (124 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #39,938 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

73 of 77 people found the following review helpful By Paul Vitols on December 10, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This very readable popular history of the 5th-century BC Persian Wars with Greece combines careful historical detective work with a sometimes breezy tone.

I enjoyed this book probably about as much as I enjoyed Holland's "Rubicon"--which is to say, quite a lot. It is solid, credibly researched history as it might be presented by a tabloid journalist: cynical, gossipy, and salted liberally with salacious or incriminating nuggets about its many characters. It is intended for a general audience, not an academic one, and it succeeds very well.

The book has an unusual but well-considered structure. Holland starts off by describing the societies of the protagonists, devoting his opening chapters to Mesopotamia, Iran, Sparta, and Athens. He does an excellent job of showing how different these worlds were from each other, and gives a strong flavor of how their inhabitants thought and behaved. That done, Holland moves on to the wars themselves, with accounts of the campaigns leading to the famous battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis, which we are now in a position to appreciate much better, knowing something of the outlook and worldview of the different players.

Holland's drive to tell a seamless story has him solving all kinds of problems of conflicts in the sources, drawing canny conclusions from wispy or contradictory data. Only occasionally does he draw attention to his reasoning; mostly it is part of the work underlying the flow of his story. And his story does flow.

Sometimes I found that Holland had laid the cynicism on a bit thick. While of course the ancient world, including among its heroes, had its share of scheming, selfish, greedy, backstabbing blowhards, some of the people must have exhibited more noble qualities at least sometimes.
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97 of 111 people found the following review helpful By Suzanne Cross on June 4, 2006
Format: Hardcover
In his excellent 2003 book, RUBICON, Tom Holland showed that he has a unique ability to take a highly complex situation in ancient history (in Rubicon's case, the career of Julius Caesar and the death of the Roman Republic) and make it not only clear and credible to the well-read history buff, but understandable to the reader who knows nothing about ancient history. RUBICON was a well-balanced history that read with the drama of a novel. After its well-praised reception, Holland turned to his latest book, PERSIAN FIRE, in which he trains his academic mind on the equally dramatic Greek drama of the Persian invasions in the late fifth century - an invasion pregnant with implications for the rise of a democratic Athens as well as its eventual fall.

Like RUBICON, Holland's classical background makes him a natural to explain the peculiarly complicated relationship between Darius and Xerxes, the Persian Emperors who cast hungry eyes at the west; their two invasions, and the eventual triumph of the unified Greeks after many hair-raising challenges.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Studying ancient Perisa is a rorschach test for historians. Because of the vast importance of the empire, and the very difficult and scanty evidence we build our theories upon, the arguments and positions we chose to make and take usually tell us more about ourselves than they do about the facts behind the material.

Was Darius a murderer who lead an assasination squad? A patriot who wanted liberty or death? A forerunner of Asoka or Washington or bin Laden or Alexander? Dig into the backgrounds and philosophy of each historian arguing for each position and you'll find that the arguments are based as much on their ideation as on the facts.

Holland falls into the same traps that all the rest of us do, and in the course of the book you learn a lot about his feelings about the nature of war, the values of modern humanism, and the troubled relationship of the classically trained with Heroditus along with a lot of difficult, often questionable, assumptions about what the material really means. You will, in the course of that, get some good information about Persia and Greece and the conflicts that birthed the idea that East is East and West is West. (For further commentary on that idea in a more modern context, check out "White Mughals" by William Dalrymple.)

But, for all the difficulty and questionable calls, when the book shines it shines brightly, and gives a very readable introduction to some really difficult material. My recomendation would be to read it at the same time as the first several chapters of Josef Wiesehofer's "Ancient Persia" in order to get the most out of both books -- which do a good job of balancing each other out towards a sustainable view of the subject.

Also, be sure to read and think carefully about all the end-notes. Much of Holland's best and most honest insight is found there, rather than in the main text.
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