Persian Fire, a review.

‘A book as spirited and engaging as Persian Fire deserves to last… vibrant, bloodthirsty popular history, told with a rich sense of irony and irresistible narrative timing’ THE TELEGRAPH

I’m a history buff, and like all history buffs, I face friends, relatives and acquaintances who simply don’t understand the appeal. History is ‘boring‘, ‘useless‘ and the most common response is a crinkled nose and the disdainful ‘ugh! all those dates!‘ My response to all of this is usually one of the following:

1. the polite shrug approach (this says: I don’t agree with you but I won’t argue either.)
2. the complacent smile approach (this says: hmm, could this person be any more dense?)
3. the passionate stance
(WARNING: only to be attempted when one has a significant ability to argue effectively. BEWARE: you may end up sounding ignorant, and worse – arrogant.)

So imagine my utter delight when I find a book that brings to life my favourite subject, in a way that’s absolutely gripping. Tom Holland‘s narrative history of the Persian Empire will bring even the biggest history-hater to his knees. Narrative history is squarely back in fashion, and I’ll be the first to say, Tom’s doing it right.

For anyone who’s been enthralled by the movie 300 (starring Gerard Butler), and has an attention span that lasts longer than a goldfish’s, I strongly urge you to hop on your Vespa and scoot right over to your nearest library.

Granted, the book starts off a bit slow. In fact, first we get the back story of Persia pgs 1-62, which was good, then we get the back story of Sparta pgs 63-98, then another 45 pages or so back story on Athens. The amazing thing is, the way he writes, he shows that it is no new thing for the East and West to be in conflict. Such conflict dates back to these wars between Persia and Greece, if not farther to the Trojan War itself.

Holland succeeds in writing an account that is clear and uncluttered. His technique is to present his narrative as an uncontested succession of events, and leave the evaluation of sources and the scholarly reservations to notes.

He likes to cut and splice Herodotus‘s (ancient source) account when the chronology doesn’t suit his narrative purposes, but he explains what he is doing and the effect is often fresh and interesting.
The book itself seems to give a pretty balance view of the Persians and the Greeks, pointing out the strengths of each, as well as the stupidities and follies of each. It covers the rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus through the Persian Wars with Greece (under Darius and then Xerxes), and ends with the beginning of the Peloponnesian Wars in 431 B.C. It then gives a quick run through of what happens to Athens and Sparta up until the time that Alexander conquers both Greece and Persia (they both become subjected to other city-states and then to Alexander). This story presents us with one of the most important lessons of history: high aspirations can often lead to tyranny and a subsequent (very hard) fall. No wonder this was the lesson of practically every Greek tragedy we have. Nations, empires, get too big for their britches, try to do too much, and are brought low. Then, those who have done the defeating themselves become the new empire. The oppressed becomes the oppressor. And then again becomes the oppressed. Repeat for all of human history- Persia, Greece, Rome, China, Japan, Christianity, Spain, France, England, Russia, the United States…

This book is a must for ancient history buffs. These are the Persians! You know, the guys on the other side of the pass at Thermopylae! This is the other empire, the one the Romans could never quite defeat. This book is so full of the meaty stuff of history that I wanted a knife and fork. It didn’t hurt my opinion to find that Tom Holland still writes as fluently and beautifully as he did in Rubicon, his previous history of the end of the Roman Republic. If you love learning new stuff about old stuff, Tom Holland is your guy and this book ought to be your book. And those of you who’ve never read a history book in your life, go pick up your copy today!

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