Tom Holland is a peculiar and special kind of historian. A wildly successful popular historian and writer, he, like I, dreamt of doctorate aspirations before foregoing such plans because of his being sick and tired of being poor and wasting away years to learn things that one already acquired at a master’s level. Turning his attention to fiction writing before embracing his love of the classics, Holland mastered what we may call narrative or popular history.
Herodotus is the giant titan among ancient historians. While Diodorus Siculus may be the most monumental of ancient historians, Herodotus is the one giant that most people throughout the West—and the world—have some recollection of. He is, after all, the “Father of History.”
But Herodotus is an intimidating figure to read through. For one, Whig prejudices abound that assert—wrongly, nowadays thanks to increasing archeological discoveries—that Herodotus blew smoke and told wild, fanciful, tales. True, most modern historians still squint their eyes at some of Herodotus’s pronouncements, many of his fanciful stories have some basis in historical and archeological facticity thanks to the last forty years of archeological discoveries. At the same time, the sheer size and asides of Herodotus also puts off many readers. For a book that is about the Persian Wars, Herodotus has a lot to say about things seemingly unrelated to the Persian Wars. Lastly, the greatest sin of Herodotus in our increasingly anti-Western and multicultural world is the East-West dichotomy, pitting the liberty-loving Greeks against the tyrannical and burgeoning barbarian Orientals. But as all real classicists know, that is a very misleading portrait of Herodotus who actually is quite benign in his representation of the Persians and is more concerned with understanding the question of justice (tisis) in the world through his analysis of the Persian Wars (as I’ve written in this essay on Herodotus).
Tom Holland, thus, enters to fill the gap for those who shrink from the prospect of reading Herodotus but are nevertheless intrigued by this monumental moment in our history which still influences culture today.
Holland believes the East-West dynamic is still alive and kicking. And who can deny that except the most idiotic multiculturalist who thinks Islam is nothing but a victim of White, Euro-American, colonialism and imperialism? Holland’s Preface begins with a story of a friend of his who wanted to substitute the usual political indoctrination classes students take with coursework on the Crusades and the differences between West and East. The other teachers mocked this teacher, until September 11, 2001, came and a new interest in the “clash of civilizations” took root.
Persian Fire is an easy read unlike Herodotus. Holland does an admirable job in presenting the quick backstories of the rise of Persia, Sparta, and Athens, the principal players in this drama. We meet the usual cast of heroes: Darius, Xerxes, Aristagoras, Leonidas, Themistocles, and Aristides, among many others.
The Persian Wars are engaging to us, the latent children of the West, because it is the classical underdog story. By all rights, Athens, Sparta, and the other Greek city-states that stood up to Persia should have been overwhelmed. The Greeks had no record of success against the Persians. Although Rome Total War and 300 give the impression that hoplites were invincible, far from invincible the hoplites were. The Ionian hoplites had been devastated by the light, fast-moving, Persian armies when Darius overwhelmed them. There was little reason to suspect anything different in invading Greece. Additionally, the Ionian fleet had been decimated by the Persian Navy, led by the Phoenicians, and the specter of the Ionian defeats loomed large over the Greeks during the struggle against Persia.
Daring and luck contributed to the Greek victories. While popular imagination, thanks mostly to the poetry of Lord Byron and recent films like 300, lionize the Spartans, Holland’s history subtly reveals a more different story. A story that the Athenians well-knew, especially as recounted by Thucydides during the leadup to the Peloponnesian War. While the Spartan contributions at Thermopylae and Platea were important, the true decisive battle—Salamis—was a victory for Athens and her allies. As Holland states, “[Salamis was] as fateful as any in the history of warfare; for upon it rested the future course not merely of the battle, not merely of the war, but of Europe and Western civilization itself.”
Holland’s talent for easy reading is his greatest gift. The book flows gracefully despite the assortment of endnotes accompanying it. For those daunted by the prospects of climbing the mountain known as Herodotus, the highway known as Persian Fire is a far easier journey to complete. While one may not learn anything not already in Herodotus and other ancient chroniclers, Holland’s masterful narrative of the Persian Wars makes Herodotus accessible to the 21st century.
It behooves me to not make mention of another popular British historian who covers much the same ground, though in a far more limited fashion. Anthony Everitt’s Athens deals with the Persian Wars in the first half of that narrative. While Everitt’s work is more comprehensive, in the sense that it covers Athens from founding to demise in the Peloponnesian War, Holland’s writing is far more graceful and superior to Everitt’s. Persian Fire is the better book, not just for reading, but also for knowledge.
Anyone who is eager to learn the real history behind 300, the historical drama that we like to recreate or reimagine in video games set in antiquity, would do themselves well to read Holland’s blockbuster and thrilling account of the Persian Wars. It is still enduring over 15 years since its publication. And it remains, in my mind, the eminent popular history for those who are too daunted to read through Herodotus. But if one does graduate from Holland to Herodotus, it should be noted that Holland has authored the most recent Penguin translation of Herodotus.
By Tom Holland
Abacus, 2005; 464 pp.