How the East Was Won
By Jon Doll, For History 300
Review of Tom Holland, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (New York: Anchor Books, 2005)
When Islamic militants destroyed the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, many people in the West were left wondering, “Why do they hate us?” With Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, Tom Holland seeks to answer this question by tracing the uneasy relationship between the Islamic East and the Christian West to its roots, twenty-five hundred years ago. Persian Fire is the story of a collision between two cultures at the beginning of recorded history, the upstart Greeks, with their hodgepodge of city-states, versus the monolithic Persian Empire, whose hegemony seemingly had no bounds.
Holland retells a story that, while possibly familiar to those with an interest in ancient civilizations, is contextualized in a manner that offers fresh insight into this epic clash by highlighting the cultural, religious, and political differences between Persia and Greece. Holland sets the stage by showing how the Persian Empire evolved from a confederation of “horse-taming nomads” to the world’s first superpower (5). The architect of this Empire, Cyrus the Great, defeated the greatest powers of his time, including the Lydians, Babylonians, and Egyptians, and introduced a style of rule that emphasized tradition and stability. Holland shows that the cultural attitudes and religion of the Persians helped create social cohesion within the Empire and reflected the Persian sense of moral superiority with which it approached outsiders. This prejudice is embodied in the word anairya, or “non-Aryan,” which the Persians pejoratively used to describe foreigners (11). The Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, with its dualistic concepts of Arta (truth) and Drauga (the lie) lent a sense of divine authority to the Persian mission (32).
Far from the inevitable march towards world unification that Persia seemed to be embarked on, Holland describes the Greeks as a defiant and quarrelsome people who strove in vain to dominate one another. Holland shows how Sparta developed into the world’s first police state at the same time that Athens was consolidating its commercial power. Holland suggests that these city-states developed their egalitarian democratic institutions in order to survive annihilation from one another. Greek defiance is illustrated by the fact that when the Persian general Haspargus encountered the Greeks of Ionia, many of them fled rather than succumb to Persian rule (15). It was the remaining Ionian Greeks who, in rebelling against Persian rule, set in motion what Herodotus referred to as the Persian War.
With the stage set, Holland describes the Persian War, in which a small Greek force vanquished a much larger Persian army at the battle of Marathon, near Athens, in the year 490 B.C. Ten years later, wishing to punish the parvenu Greeks, Xerxes, the Persian king, launched a full-scale invasion of the Peloponnese. The Greeks, despite overwhelming odds, managed to escape annihilation: first by destroying the much larger Persian fleet at Salamis, and then by defeating the Persian army at Plataea. This surprising victory for the Greeks, whom the Persians viewed as a disunited and bellicose group of city-states, set into motion a series of events that culminated in no less than turning the ancient world upside down. For the Persian Empire, the failure to pacify a few insignificant “terrorist states” spelled its undoing. According to Holland, the Persian War marked the beginning of the end for the world-spanning Persian Empire, and the ascension of Greece (and its ideas and institutions).
Persian Fire, more than just a historical narrative, is an exploration of ideas. Holland tells the story of the Persian War in a straightforward chronology, interwoven with his own interpretation of events. In keeping with the style and substance of contemporary works by such old-world luminaries as Herodotus and Aeschylus, Holland focuses on the words and deeds of individuals, but allows his own perspective to fill the spaces between. Holland uses these “spaces” not only to explore the nature of politics and religion in the development of these two competing civilizations, but to encourage the reader to transpose these ideas into the modern day. The effect is a historical account that sounds eerily familiar. When Darius—who succeeded Cyrus the Great through treachery—appropriated the Persian deity Ahura Mazda to legitimize his claim, the reader sees a parallel in the sanctimonious use of religion in modern politics. Likewise, when Holland describes the fate of Themistocles, the “savior” of Athens, who was sent into exile for being, perhaps, too wise, the fickle nature of public opinion is rendered timeless.
Although Holland offers a compelling history, it ultimately falls short of its implied claim to explain modern-day animosities between East and West—to do so would require a book of much greater scope than he offers. The strength of Persian Fire lies in its novel approach, linking the past with the present through ideas that are as relevant today as they were in the past. The result is far richer than a lot of historical non-fiction, and makes the book much more accessible to readers who might otherwise be put off by stuffy scholarly writing.