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