by Victor Davis Hanson
Times Literary Supplement
Persian Fire: The first world empire and the battle for the West by Tom Holland (Little, Brown: 418pp.)
We speak of the “Persian Wars” in the plural, because this first clash of civilization remains an ill-defined East-West, existential struggle, extending over a decade in Ionia, the Aegean and Greece proper. Ostensibly, the revolt in the 490s B.C. of the Ionian Greeks from their Persian overseers prompted the war. But after the initial, and rather small expedition of the Persian King Darius’ forces under the command of Datis failed at Marathon (490), further overt hostilities were only sporadic. Then ten years later, followed a second, gargantuan invasion by Darius’ son Xerxes, who assumed that his elaborate preparations would ensure that the Persians at last got it right. After all, the Persian Empire drew on somewhere between 50 to 70 million people and loosely extended over a million square miles. Xerxes’ logisticians in spring 480 may have marshaled 300,000 seamen and infantry to cross into Europe, with a fleet of well over 1,200 warships — a larger contingent than landed on Normandy Beach.
In contrast, the Greece they targeted was about the size of Alabama, with a population less than 3 million. If democracy at Athens was in its infancy, a paranoid and much smaller Sparta was more worried about policing its own helots than marching north to fight either Mede or Greek. So in Herodotus’ history there is something stirring in the scenes of a few parochial Greek city-states squabbling, arguing and voting, before finally mobilizing their meager forces to face an imperial horde beyond their very comprehension. If thousands of northern Greeks, right in the path of Xerxes’ steamroller, “medized” and joined the apparent winners, the most important — Athens, Sparta, Corinth — did not.
These die-hard Hellenes were to be rewarded very quickly for their courage and audacity. Despite Xerxes’ initial victory in breaching the pass of Thermopylae (480), and burning down an abandoned Athens, everything promptly went down hill for the Persian horde. His fleet, damaged earlier at the great storm off Artemisium, lost badly at the Athenian-led sea fight at Salamis. The next year the army under his surrogate Mardonius was crushed at Plataea, where the “Dorian spear” of the Spartans ensured the final defeat of these star-crossed invaders, so justly punished, in Greek eyes, by the goddess Nemesis for their imperial hubris. And by the end of 479 the Greeks were back on the offensive in Asia Minor, the Ionians largely free, and Persia eager for some sort of an arrangement that might preserve it a tenuous presence in the coastal plain of Ionia. To the ebullient Hellenes, the lessons seemed black and white: the Western invaded were poor, divided, outnumbered and free; the Eastern invaders rich, united, vast, and despotic. Both Herodotus and the veteran Aeschylus agreed that freedom was the key to the Greeks’ victory. In their own idiosyncratic ways they contrasted the spiritual power of Hellenic eleutheria(freedom) with the ennui and slavishness induced through Persian autocracy.
That notion of a democratic West in its vulnerable formative years threatened by a bullying Eastern totalitarianism was once pretty much thematic in most modern retellings of the Persian Wars. Recently, however, the rise of Achaemenid studies that sought to see the conflict from Persian eyes, coupled with postcolonial scholarship, which has detected Western bias in its monopoly of information about everything from Marathon to Islamic fundamentalism, has cast doubt on such traditional dichotomies. In a post-September 11 world of Americans in the Hindu Kush and on the Euphrates, and Europeans attempting to dissuade an ascendant oil-rich Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, historians have to tread carefully over this contemporary mine-laced ground when they talk of free Greeks fending off enslaved Persians.
Tom Holland is all too aware of that. So right off the bat in Persian Fire he assures us that George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” and its “rival forces of light and darkness [are] one that derives ultimately, not from Christianity, but from Zoroaster”. Our fundamentalist President, you see, has no clue that he is really more in spirit an Achaemenid than a Hellene. Holland also urges us to steer clear of the notion that the impact of Persia and Greece on history is “confined within rigid notions of East and West”. After all, he argues, monotheism and the notion of a universal state, democracy and totalitarianism can all trace their origins back to both warring sides of the Persian Wars.
Well, sort of. But if our present cultural baggage really does originate from Greece and Persia, then the Hellenic hybrid of this common strain proved the more infectious, since I doubt such criticism leveled at an Ayatollah, Saddam or Mr. Assad would survive publication in most of the East’s more contemporary satrapies. True, both cultures knew monotheism and totalitarianism and the dream of a universal state, but only in Greece were consensual government, the notion of personal freedom, and the culture of thepolis found. Monotheism appears all over the world at various times and places, but Christianity’s one god, a religion itself enriched by far older classical philosophical notions of Pythagoreanism and neo-Platonism, is still not quite like other monotheistic religions. So today’s globalized world and its protocols of free trade, intellectual property rights and religious tolerance do not seem to be grounded much in either an imperial Achaemenid past or Zoroastrianism.
Yet after such mandatory throat clearing, Holland, in fact, presents a sober and balanced narrative — as engagingly written as Peter Green’s jaunty Greco–Persian Wars (1996), as reliable as John Lazenby’s meticulously sourcedDefence of Greece (1993) and as sensible as Barry Strauss’s more recent Battle of Salamis (2004). Holland has a sense for the golden moment, is a widely read intellectual, shows a keen wit — and the result is an engaging story that the general public will find worth relearning. Still, his professed rationale in presenting yet another narrative of the war in an already crowded field is not quite clear at the very beginning, since he neither offers any really novel interpretation nor cites previously neglected ancient evidence about the war. His method of presentation is traditional and, in fact, purely Herodotean.
First, as in the Histories, we get an excursus on the Persians, then the Spartans, then the Athenians and at last the fighting between 490 and 479. It may be the best way to organize diverse material, but also suffers the same weakness as Herodotus’ work itself. Thus Holland has fewer pages devoted to the climactic and riveting Salamis campaign than to the initial, and often dry and poorly documented story of the growth of the Persian Empire. In almost all major controversies, whether army numbers, Greek strategic thinking, or controversial incidents such as Pheidippides’ run or Sicinnus’ staged betrayal of the Greeks before Salamis, Holland follows the consensus of sober classicists.
Instead, his justification for this new take is apparently threefold. First, as a classically trained non-academic he writes far better than most of those who know more than he about the ancient world, and so livens up even old myths as scholars cannot:
Both had returned to Sparta, and their tomb could still be seen on a promontory south of the city, its immense stone blocks raised on earth as red as Menelaus’ hair. Helen herself, ‘that radiance of women’, had been altogether more aureate than her husband: not only had she been a blonde, but even her spindle had been fashioned out of gold. Had Cyrus known that the Spartans worshipped at the shrine of such a woman, sensual and pleasure-loving, he would no doubt have been confirmed in his contempt for their ridiculous pretensions.
Second, unlike most earlier treatments, Holland’s Persian Fire is grounded in a
blood-and-guts reality, one that becomes quite graphic in its description of battle. The effect is to remind us that the war was blood sport, not a chess game — as in this final scene at Thermopylae:
Feathered with arrows, slathered with gore, they fought to the very end. Even when their swords shivered, they used the hilts as knuckle-dusters, or else fought with their teeth, their fists, their nails. Only when every last Spartan and Thespian lay dead, the dust blood-soaked, the corpses piled high, could the struggle be reckoned over, and the pass the Great King’s at last.
And third, he has taken the pulse of modern popular culture and can be informal without being too breezy or unscholarly. Hence his chapter subsections are not quite over the top, but instead evoke contemporary resonance, both low and high: O, Brother Where Art Thou?, The End of History, The Great Game, A Low, Dishonest Decade, Sucker Punch, or So Near, So Far. And the text has asides about and allusions to everyone from George Bush to William Golding and Iris Murdoch. Thessalians are “cattle barons”; Eupatrids’ “nose[s] wrinkle” at the “stinking laborers”, and the tragic drama “The Fall of Miletus” is “agit-prop”, while Hipparchus a mere “playboy tyrant”. In his concluding chapter, “Nemesis”, Holland notes the irony that followed the Persian Wars. The two bookend heroes, the Athenian Themistocles of Salamis and the Spartan Pausanias of Plataea, were both exiled and accused of Persian sympathies. The old Greek unity did not last a decade, as the “Hellenic League” evolved into an Athenocentric “Delian League” on its way to ending up as a full-fledged anti-Spartan “Athenian Empire” — a split every bit as final as the old Soviet-American alliance to defeat Hitler morphing into the Cold War nuclear stand-off.
Half a century after Plataea, the Greeks committed a long drawn-out collective suicide in the twenty-seven-year Peloponnesian War. For them, the defeat of Xerxes still remained the “good war”, a brief moment when right was all on their side, might on the other — and the former proved the stronger. If the “defence” of Greece was waged for autonomy and freedom, 150 years later, mostly unfree Greeks under Alexander the Great would go east themselves bent on plunder and land, the slogans about repaying Darius and Xerxes about as believable as Alexander’s preposterous “Brotherhood of Man”. Tom Holland captures the previous age in a riveting story, well told.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson