Persian Fire is the history of the legendary clash between the Persian Empire and the various states that made up Ancient Greece in the 5th Century BC, a clash most well-known for the incredible defence of Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans held back the immense Persian army long enough to give their countrymen time to observe an important religious holiday. (The film 300, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, which comes out soon, is a fictional treatment of this event.)
I’d read Tom Holland’s previous book, Rubicon, about the end of the Roman Republic, and liked his approach to history. He really works at bringing the cultures, people, and events alive for the reader, and makes no apologies at taking a “narrative” approach to history, where he allows himself informed speculations where necessary. But where Rubicon was about a single culture, Persian Fire is about an archetypal clash between cultures: the immense, powerful empire of the Middle East, whose emperor ruled by (self-declared) divine right; and the tiny, squabbling city-states of the Greeks, with their peculiar experiments in political science (the new-founded democracy of Athens, for instance, and the almost communistic war-machine mentality of Sparta). In his introduction, Holland points out how this historic “first battle for the west” has taken on a new importance in light of current tensions between Middle-East and West, but thankfully the bulk of the book is free from any attempt at pointing out parallels between then and now, as there’s really not much of a lesson to be learned from comparing the two times, other than to say that human beings were wily, greedy, sneaky and violent back then, and not much has changed.
Far more interesting for me is that sense of how real the past feels when you start getting into the details. There’s the inevitable myth-breaking, as we learn that the modern Marathon race isn’t named after a 26-mile run by the celebrated Philippides who, after declaring the battle of Marathan won supposedly dropped dead, because in fact Philippides had just completed a two-day, 140-mile run to Sparta and back, and lived to tell the tale. In fact, the 26 miles was run by fully-armoured Athenian Hoplites who, having just seen off an attack from Persian forces on one side of the Athenian peninsula, had to dash to the other side to see off another. There are also snippets that just must be useful if you ever find yourself (you never know) in armed combat against a Persian army: the super-disciplined Spartans had a trick of pretending to break and run from the front, an act they kept up till their opponents started cheering and chasing after them, whereupon the Spartans would snap back into perfect formation and spear their suddenly demoralised foes. Throughout the book, the Spartan Hoplites come across as the closest the Ancient world had to a modern tank.
Most affecting of all, though, is the moment the Greeks finally rout the Persian army and walk, victorious, into their abandoned camp. The Spartan general, Pausanias, seats himself in the Emperor Xerxes’ immense palatial tent and orders the Persian cooks to prepare him the sort of meal the Emperor would have eaten while on campaign. When all the luxruious foods are laid out before him, he sets beside them a single bowl of black Spartan broth of the sort he and his fellow soldiers eat even while at home. “Men of Greece,” he says, “I have invited you so that you could appreciate for yourselves the irrational character of the Mede [i.e., the Persians], who has a lifestyle such as you see here laid out before you, and yet who came here to our country to rob us of our wretched poverty.”