78 of 82 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2006
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. You wouldn't know it from reading Holland.
But I get a sense that all this is done with a twinkle in Holland's eye. As though taking such liberties were part of the fun available to the ancient historian, whose subjects (and their families) are many centuries past being able to take legal action. Holland's mission appears to be to make ancient history relevant, interesting, and most of all fun to a wide contemporary audience, and any peccadilloes of scholarly balance are a small price to pay for this bigger prize.
Holland makes the ancient world a very human, indeed an all too human, place. The portentous theme of East vs. West he handles with a light touch. In many other ways too he shows respect for the intelligence of the reader, who, while being fed heaping portions of gossip about our ancestors, is perhaps learning more than he or she realizes.
If you're interested in the history of ancient Greece, but are new to the subject, you could do a lot worse than reading this book.
98 of 112 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2006
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. Some of the best-known and best-loved stories of ancient Greece make PERSIAN FIRE at least as dramatic as RUBICON; Pheidippides, running the 26 miles from the battle of Marathon to Athens with word of a miraculous Athenian victory, only to die of exhaustion; crafty Themistocles, who at a crisis in Athenian affairs, sent word to the Persians to blockade the straits at Salamis, thus forcing the Greeks to unify and beat them; most famously and movingly, the death to the last man of the Spartan King Leonidas and his 300 men at the Pass at Thermopylae, a tragic strategic sacrifice that gave the Athenians breathing time against the Persian invasion; the complete destruction of all Athens' temples atop the Acropolis because Themistocles had convinced the Athenians to abandon their city to the Persians and fight from the sea; the panic-stricken embassy to the Oracle at Delphi, when the Athenians were at first told their cause was hopeless, and later cryptically told to depend upon "the wooden walls" - all these facts are commonplace to classical scholars, but they deserve to be retold again for an eternally new audience, for courage and sacrifice is never outdated. Holland brought tears to my eyes in his careful recreation of Thermopylae - but his book does far more.
In a time when cultures of East and West seemed farther apart than ever, Holland concentrates on explaining the mighty Persian culture which, from the time of the victorious Greeks to our own day, was mocked, denigrated, and underestimated. He makes a fairly clear argument that this kind of cultural misapprehension, after the famous Greek victory, led to an alienation between East and West which had not really existed prior to the Persian invasions, and which affects our understandings even today. He shows just why the Persian culture - in many ways, far superior to that of the more primitive Greeks - deserved respect for its own accomplishments, as well as how and why the Greeks came to blow up their honest victories and denigrate their Persian foes. All these points give PERSIAN FIRE a peculiarly modern resonance, as well as telling some of the greatest stories of antiquity with clarity and flair.
I have read Persian Fire twice and am still learning much about both the ancient Persians and Greeks and why their wars created a divide that still exists between Europe and Asia. Highly recommended.
Web Author - Ancient History
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 2006
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.
32 of 39 people found the following review helpful
This is an extremely well-written book that takes the reader back over 2500 years to discuss the first serious clash between east and west. The problem with writing about events so far in the past is that there are not necessarily many sources for events, and what we have are often quite contradictory. This particular situation is aided by the fact that there are several near-contemporaneous accounts written. Unfortunately, they often disagree with each other, often in very material ways. It is the task of the historical writer to sift through these various, and varied, accounts and attempt to give the reader as close to an accurate tale as is possible. The author succeeds admirably in this, and when he disagrees with certain ancient authors or modern interpreters, he gives his reasons for so doing. We have a truly exciting story of the defense of Greece from the invasion of the Persian Empire. The basic story is fairly well-known to most people, with the important battles (Marathon, Salamis, etc.) retold in every high school history text. This book goes beyond these events, and covers much territory concerning the founding of the Persian Empire, and early Greek city-states, and the inevitable clash that resulted from their proximity. It is a story of a turning point in history that, if it had turned out differently, the world we now know would be quite a bit different. For that alsone this book is well worth reading.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 2006
OK, Tom Holland gets my vote for fun and read-able history. Although he is not good enough for some of the other reviewers, he is a godsend for the regular guy. For example, he can take an historical event like the Battle of Salamis and rachet up the tension and drama to the point where you feel like you are reading about it in this morning's newspaper. That said, you need to know your Punic from your Peloponnesian War, your Samos from your Lesbos, and your Darius from you Xerxes in order to fully enjoy this account, In that sense Tom Holland's PERSIAN FIRE is probably too middlebrow for the scholar and too complicated for the novice. But boy O boy he he fun for the rest of us.
In a world where the East rubs up against the West he can fill in the historical blanks that still bedevil us to this day. And today it still seems to me that we are living in the same battle of the past (East) versus the future (West). PERSIAN FIRE sets todays headlines, in some respects, against a 2500 year old backdrop. As we might watch the CBS news, the Athenians, in the shadow of their burned and gutted Acropolis, would watch the young buck playwright, Aeschylus, stage THE PERSIANS one year after the exhausted Greeks had won the war and returned to the abandoned Athens.
Spartans, that weird and long-haired race of warriors, get their fair share of exposure but lose some of their mystique in Holland's re-telling of Thermopylae and the Spartan king's last stand.
The bottom line is that I like my history books to try and be as exciting as the actual events they describe. Tom Holland fits the bill perfectly. This stands with RUBICON, his earlier effort, as one of my favorite history books. For the scholarly historians, well, I just want to reassure them that this book will push me toward a deeper exploration of ancient Greece, not drive me away. And for that, a tip of the helmet is due to Tom Holland
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 14, 2006
With great verve, Tom Holland brings long past history to life in this retelling of the first epic clash between east and west. The long-forgotten Persian Empire is given some deserved attention, and the winding histories of both Sparta and Athens are recalled in amusing fashion. (A few of Holland's points are necessarily speculation, but he makes this clear in his fine footnotes.) The unlikely story of how a few Greek city states in a backwater corner of the globe were able to turn back the largest, most glittering invasion force history had ever seen remains vital and thrilling. It also has contemporary relevance, as Holland astutely points out. My only quibble with this book is: for Pete's sake, do you mean to say that neither this erudite author nor his editor know what a sentence *fragment* is? The book is littered with them. See for example the beginnings of many paragraphs in the chapter on Athens; my wording isn't exact but they tend to read something like: "A point which was driven home with great force." This is not, you will note, a complete sentence, though it is passed off here as if it were one. I can't believe such an otherwise well-written book is so often marred in this fashion. But, anyway, I do recommend the book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2012
Holland is one of the best popular historians writing: while up to first rate scholarly standards, he can speak to lay readers with graceful clarity and intelligence. It is a unique combination of gifts, especially when you compare it to the dry writing of most academics. This book was particularly welcome to me because, having read Creation by Gore Vidal over 20 years ago, I have been looking since then for a history book that could explain and analyze, from an academic point of view, what the great novel portrayed.
This book is about the collision of at least 3 worlds. First, you have the Persian Empire, the first multi-national fighting force that sought to exploit (and to a degree, respect) the attributes of its innumerable ethnic groups rather than impose the domination of one on them by force. This was the work of Cyrus the Great, who transformed a mountain nomad tribe that raised horses as tribute to whoever dominated them at any given time, and is a defining moment of administrative genius: rather than simple repression and exploitation, he united opponents to the brutal Assyrian Empire under the same banner and forged a fighting force the world had never seen, its population at one time encompassing 40% of all living human beings. Holland offers a detailed and fascinating portrait of him and his successors, in particular the usurper Darius and his son, Xerxes. Second, there are the middle eastern peoples, which included the exiled Jews living in cosmopolitan Babylon, but also Phoenicians and Egyptians. It is a dazzlingly rich patchwork of people, virtually all of whom found places in the war machine.
Third come the Greeks, who represented a poor, fractious backwater of over 700 city states, virtually all of whom were in a state of near-incessant war. Of the Greeks, the Ionian colonies (in modern day Turkey) were conquered and then co-opted by the Persians. Unfortunately, Darius reduced this unique culture to a smoldering ruin when crushing a rebellion. It was there that philosophy first fluorished and its potential will never be known. Then there are the Spartans, who lived under a kind of military socialism, its nomenklatura being aristocratic generals. Finally, there are the Athenians, who were experimenting with democracy (the first one!), emerging from a long period of class struggle and backwardness, and developing a literary culture for an audience beyond elite courtiers. Of course, hundreds of other city states are included, but they are essentially petty kingdoms at war.
Once Xerxes ascended to the throne, he set his eyes on Europe. His father had failed there (at Marathon) and Xerxes wished to distinguish himself with the glory of conquest. To counter the threat, for the first time in their history, the Greeks more or less united: with Spartans as military leaders and the backbone of the fighting force, the Athenians converted their fighting forces into a sea power after a rancorous democratic negotiation. A number of remarkable leaders emerged, including Themistocles, a demagogue and genius of military strategy; and Leonidas, the Spartan king who knew his life was forfeit at Thermopylae in order to buy precious time. Against overwhelming odds - perhaps 10 or more to 1 in men - the Greeks held back and then beat the Persian military.
Holland goes into great detail about the military tactics and technologies, the story of which is the core book and 2/3 of its content. While war interests me less than culture, Holland masterfully weaves details and issues into the narrative as they arise. For example, when the Athenians have to evacuate their city, Holland offers a wonderful sub-chapter on the cloistered, repressed status of women in Athens, as they had to WALK the streets to leave; this was a scandal to aristocrats.
The book ends on a wonderful note that plays on Greek mythology: the goddess Nemesis, purportedly the mother of Helen with Zeus (think Iliad), moved to exile or destroy virtually all of the heroes that emerged. Themistocles was ostracized and exiled to Persia, where he became a traitor and satrap in charge of Ionia and Pausanias, who had adopted an oriental bias for opulence that offended his Spartan subjects, was starved to death. These are the kind of details and skillful storytelling that make this book so memorable. It pulses with life and ideas.
The theme of the book is that this war was what saved the West, what enabled Athens under Perikles to lay the greco-roman foundations of what would become European civilization. I must admit that I find this to be a dubious claim, similar to the one that Europe would have been Muslim if Charles Martel had not held out at Poitiers. Persia had reached its apogee, if only because it was so large that incorporating EUrope was all but impossible to conquer, let alone maintain. Perhaps western civilization would have emerged under a different form - we can never know.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2012
Herodotus, one of Europe's first historians, wrote the initial accounts of the Persian wars, pioneering the methods of disciplined inquiry. Thus the crucial episodes in the forming of European identity were accounted for by some of the earliest attempts at rigorous historical analysis.
The battles of Marathon and Thermopylae are known to everyone as seminal conflicts of the ancient world, but how many non-scholars know of their true significance? Holland gives a solid exposition in his book, taking the device of narrative history, and not quibbling too much about the incompleteness or other scholarly reservations.
The manner in which the Persians under their mighty Emperor Xerxes came so close to conquering the Greeks, should give sharp thought to those who cannot conceive the fundamental directions of European history occuring in any other way (the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1529 is another such moment).
Overall, an excellent modern piece of narrative history, that gives me fresh impetus to seek out Herodotus's account.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2013
I was keen to learn more about the Persians and the Greeks and this book carefully goes through the facts. Unfortunately, possibly in an effort to popularize the book, the author over-uses superlatives (which are then superseded by contradictory information), surmises beyond the data about the personal motives of individuals and groups and leads off with how the September 11, Twin Towers terrorist attack is best understood by studying the "first" battle between the East and the West. I found the feuding and cooperation of the peoples living in what we now call mainland Greece fascinating and the successful empire building by the Persian leaders impressive.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2007
In his new book, "Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West", Tom Holland performed something of a miracle. Working with the limited original documents that still exist, and extracting material from contemporaries of the events, Holland gives us a very clear picture of the events leading up to and including the clash between the Greeks and Persians. The sweep is enormous, and the cast of characters fascinating. The illustrations and maps that pepper the pages are a big help. This is a must read for anyone interested in history and culture.