Thursday, May 15, 2014
Tom Holland - Persian Fire
There are some corners of the history profession where clarity of expression seems to be a sin. Then there are others where style often over-whelms substance. Tom Holland falls nicely in the middle. His writing is clear and direct. Indeed sometimes it feels like you're reading a novel and not a history book but he doesn't get carried away. Underneath the style is solid research.
If you want a good introduction to the clash between the great Persian Empire and the Greek City States then I can't recommend another book. It works particularly neatly as a companion to Herodotus's 'Histories', which is - of course - the original attempt to tell the story of these events. As Holland explains in his preface that this was the first clash between the cultures of East and West, perhaps even the creation of those concepts. Herodotus's desire to understand the causes of this conflict was the seed from which 'History' as a subject was to grow.
The issue with history of course is at some point you need to draw a line on how far back you go looking for causes and origins. The line is sometimes arbitrary and sometimes it is a line agreed by the historical profession. Holland, wisely, goes back and outlines how the Persian Empire emerged. He then introduces us to Sparta and Athens and their rivalry (and that of the other Greek City States). All this background then helps to make sense of the actual events leading up to the great - and almost mythical - battles : Thermopylae, Salamis, Marathon, Plataea etc.
Sometimes what actually happened during those battles is hard to pin down. Accounts are sketchy, contradictory and dusted with bias and justification but Holland explains them well, trying to take a reasonable path through the difficulties and helping guide us - via endnotes - to other historical works which can put other versions of the events together. It's a great introduction to the period and - another mark of a successful history book for me - it makes you want to read more and wider on the subject.
It's always tough with books you really enjoy to put a blog together that does it justice. It's easier to write critical reviews. Especially as I can't claim to be any kind of expert on this. I'm nothing more than an enthusiastic amateur. Plus with my pretensions of writing big books on meaty subjects this kind of annoyingly well-written, researched and interesting book just depresses me. It sets a standard I'd like to aim for but which feels horribly out of my reach.
So to cut all this short. If you've seen 300 or - even worse - 300: Rise of An Empire and you want to have a vague idea of what the 'real' story was behind those events or if you just have an interest in history I'd recommend this book highly (and 'Rubicon : The Triumph and The Tragedy of The Roman Republic by the same author too). Tom Holland's a historian who writes like a novelist without skimping on the scholarship, which is harder to do than it looks. Much harder.