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Newsday, 25 June 2006

PERSIAN FIRE: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, by Tom Holland. Doubleday, 418 pp.

The ancients, too, had their ancients. The Romans could look for inspiration back to the Greeks - who were, in turn, fascinated and mystified by the Egyptians. And the Egyptians, too, must have felt like latecomers. They had adopted and refined the innovations of an earlier civilization: Mesopotamia, where some forgotten genius first conceived the idea of scratching marks into clay so that information could be stored and retrieved.

But it was only relatively recently - not even 2,500 years ago - that anyone had the bright idea of treating the past as something you could investigate, rather than just dutifully and uncritically record with strange feelings of awe. The man with the plan was a well-traveled and lively writer named Herodotus, a Greek resident of what is now called Turkey. He invented a new kind of prose he dubbed "historia" (borrowing for his own purposes an expression meaning "inquiry" or "research").

In "Persian Fire," Tom Holland has returned to the subject of Herodotus' pioneering effort - and done so in a way that the founding father of history would have admired. The subject in question is the Persian War, which nowadays looks like the original "clash of civilizations."

The regime ruled by the "King of Kings" in the East - an empire that had already swallowed the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and reached as far as India - was by 480 BC prepared to conquer the almost hopelessly disunited city-states of Greece.

One of them, Athens, had recently instituted a strange new political system called "democracy." Another, Sparta, had a rather Orwellian culture designed to produce the largest possible number of alpha males per capita. And there was Syracuse - sort of a Yuppie gated community avant la lettre.

This squabbling bunch was united only by prejudice against non-Greeks, who seemed to be saying "bar, bar, bar." (Hence, "barbarians.") They pulled together long enough to repel an onslaught of some 250,000 invading troops from the backward-looking East, home of the already-ancient principle that human beings were naturally servile. "You should submit to the strong man," an old formula there had it; "you should humble yourself before the man who wields power."

Indeed, while reading the first few pages, one expects a clear-cut set of parallels to be drawn between past and present - with Greece, as birthplace of democracy, being something like the original victim of Islamofascism. (Which would be plenty anachronistic, of course, but that's never stopped anyone from drawing an absurd analogy before.)

The parallels are not nearly that straightforward. When Holland does insert Iraq war references (such as "mission accomplished") or bits of political lingo, the effect is often sly and incongruous.

He calls the emergence of the hoplites in Sparta as a "revolution in military affairs" - a bit of contemporary Pentagon jargon that proves quite fitting. The hoplites were a new sort of combat force: a toughened, plebian infantry armed with shields who marched in compact, highly disciplined phalanxes. (As contrasted with the aristocratic methods of the old school, in which gentleman-warriors fought on horseback.) It was a "radical and lethal new form of warfare," albeit one much less technocratic than the push-button methods favored by the more recent "revolution in military affairs."

Holland is not Tom Clancy in a toga, however. Elements of military wonkery are always tightly linked to cultural and political history. His treatment of how domestic and foreign policy were intertwined in the city-states is smart and illuminating; and, like Herodotus, he makes every effort to understand the Persian empire on its own terms.

Instead of treating Darius and Xerxes as purely reactionary despots, he focuses on the role in their worldview of a (relatively) new outlook: the Zoroastrian belief in a single god who embodied, and demanded, the Truth. This brought with it "some radical notions: that foreign foes might be crushed as infidels; that warriors might be promised paradise; that conquest in the name of a god might become a moral duty."

Does that sound like Osama's worldview? Sure, but not his alone. Holland presents an extraordinarily complex and exciting story in a way that draws the nonspecialist reader along - then, every so often, reminds you of the present, in ways that are jarring. For the Persians were quite sure that they were on the cutting edge of the future: "History, in effect, had been brought to a glorious close," writes Holland. Their regime, stretching as far as the eye could see, "might be expected to endure for all eternity: infinite, unshakable, the watchtower of the Truth."

The end of history ... a new world order ... The past, as they say, is prologue.