Monday, July 24, 2017

Persian Fire: The First World Empire and The Battle for the West

Along with Mastering the West I also had the opportunity to purchase Persian Fire:  The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland (again, a used book store purchase!).  The title, as you might suspect, suggests a history of the Greco-Persian Wars.

I am no stranger to this time period.  I have a number of works on these time frame (the originals, of course, from Herodotus and Plutarch as well as 20th Century narratives) and am reasonably familiar with the time frame and the events.  I got the book, not expecting a great deal of additional new knowledge but rather a good read.

I did get the good read.  I also got a lot of new knowledge.

Holland actually reaches back into the history of each of the main players - Persia, Sparta, and Athens - and charts  the development of each state to their fateful meetings.  The Persian narrative was by far the most interesting, probably because it was the least known by myself and took the view of the Persian Empire as its own entity, not as the "barbarian over-reaching nation" we have left from Greek history.  For Athens, he gives a wonderful discussion of the history of Athens and its oligarchs up to the point of 507 B.C. where democracy is really and truly established for the first time - and shows it for the novelty that it was (democracy at the time of the Battle of Marathon was only 17 years old- no wonder the Athenians felt is was something worth fighting for).  Sparta is portrayed with all of its characteristics, both good and bad (so many authors seem to focus on one or the other).

But Holland's gift lies not just in the history but in his narrative.

He writes as if writing a fictional novel.  Seen from the King of Persia's view, the extension into Europe was the logical next step.  His descriptions of the battles left me on the edge of my seat - even thought I already knew the outcomes.  Will the Athenians hold true to the alliance/  Will Sparta march to Plataea?  You can hear the crash of shields at Marathon and the muffled "whump" of wicker shields breaking at Thermopylae and the snapping of oars and hulls at Artemisium and Salamis.

In the end, you walk away with the very real sense of what a miracle it was that the Greeks held the day - and thus the ideas that Western civilization came to be based on.  Without Marathon and Thermopylae and Salamis there is no Plato, no Aristotle, no Socrates, no Euclid, no Alexander of Macedon and his Hellenization that spread Greek and Greek culture across the Near East.  It would have been quite the other way around:  Persian thought, the worship of Ahura Mazda, and a legacy of of submission to autocratic authority (Would the ideas we hold as the foundation of Western culture have arisen?  Possibly, but who knows where or what they would have looked like.)

This is a book well worth your time, be it as a historical work or as a narrative work.  You will leave it with the sense of what a close-run thing history can be at times and how in a very real sense all of use - at least every part of the world that enjoys the fruits of Western thought - are indebted to a people long ago, whose ideas and ideologies we would find repugnant today, but who felt that liberty and freedom was something to be cherished and fought for.

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