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4.5 out of 5 stars
Persian Fire: The First World Empire, Battle for the West
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72 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on 26 May 2006
Last summer I was carried away to the far distant Roman republic in Holland's 'Rubicon', and enthralling as that book was, the author has excelled himself with 'Persian Fire'. This is partly because, unlike 'Rubicon', where he compressed centuries of events in to one modest book, 'Persian Fire' is far more narrow in scope, and hence moves forward with much greater narrative thrust.

If, like me, your knowledge of the titanic battles between Persia and Greece in 5th Century BC is scanty then you are in for a treat. I found myself unable to put this book down, greedily devouring chapters as if it were a novel. In 'Rubicon', the sheer breadth of the book meant it was easy to become lost in the labyrinthine twists and turns of Roman politics, and often I had to remind myself of the identity of a character. In 'Persian Fire' however, the key events are dictated by a much smaller cast, and are all balanced around a central fulcrum: the great invasion of the west by the east. This gives the book incredible dynamism.

If I were to make one minor cavil, it would be that occasionally Holland tries too hard to make the story relevant to contemporary concerns. The book is littered with modish language and modern references which it would be much better without. Anyone with a passing interest in the subject will be enthralled with this narrative, without constant, obvious comparisons to the functioning of modern superpowers. And can we really be sure that buzzwords like 'spin' and 'bling' will make any more sense to future generations than anachronistic slang from the 1920s does to us? I think not, but that is only a slight blemish on an otherwise outstanding work.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 10 September 2012
This is a superb piece of popular story-telling, where almost everything is done to reach out to the general reader, including pandering to what may "sell well" - sex, violence and gossip, in particular. The story is well-woven and the style is the usual, engaging journalistic Tom Holland style: easy to read, very accessible, occasionally witty and very entertaining.

First of all, the author cannot stop himself from "treating" us to his biases in his preface, with the worn and tired "clash of civilisations" theory brought to the rescue to justify a rather ridiculous parallel between modern times and what happened over 2500 years ago. Needless to say, there is simply nothing common between Ousama Bin Ladin, his bunch of terrorists, religious fundamentalists, regardless of which religion we are considering, and the United States, on the one hand, and the Empire of Persia, his rebellious Ionian Greek cities, and the hundreds of European Greek cities, on the other hand. Such a grossly superficial comparison is what is called an anachronism, and it is one of the worse mistakes that a historian can commit. Fortunately, Tom Holland only comes up with this in his preface

The second issue has already been mentioned (by Laura on Amazon.co.uk). Despite its title, this book is really about what Peter Green called "the Greco-Persian Wars". This is the title of his book, first published in 1971 I think, and which remains one, if not THE main reference on this topic, despite its age. Interestingly, someone comparing the two books will find numerous similarities between them. So, Tom Holland's book is NOT about the Persian Empire, which only gets a couple of chapters to set the scene, but about the struggle of a handful of Greek cities against what was the unrivalled superpower of the time. Those wanting to learn about the Persian Empire in more depth will simply have to read another book (there are quite a few).

More important, however, is the fact that this book is "story-telling" but NOT history, for a number of reasons. One is that Tom Holland picks and choses his interpretations, and sometimes even speculate, without justifying or even explaining his choices and how they may make sense. One reason for this is to "juice up" his story, to make it more appealing and alluring. This, however, is what an author writing historical fiction does, but you do not expect it from someone who portrays his book as history.

Moreover, Tom Holland sometimes behaves like an investigative journalist of the Sun, rather than the historian that he portrays himself to be. One example is that of Isagoras, who supposedly "pimped" his wife to Kleomenes, the King of Sparta. As Peter Green mentioned in his own book more than 40 years ago (and as Mr Holland knows perfectly well since he has read this book to write his own), this allegation reeks of the kind of slander and propaganda that Athenian politicians (and the pro-Persian Alcmaeonidae in particular) used against each other. Then there is the death of King Kleomenes himself, with Holland insinuating that his two brothers, one of which was the soon to become famous Leonidas, might have had a hand in his demise. This is both incredible and pure slander: there was no reason for the two brothers to "bump off" their elder sibling and, assuming that Leonidas was power hungry and eager to replace him as King, assassinating Kleomenes was not even necessary since he was thoroughly discredited already. Assuming he was killed, as opposed to the official "suicide version", it is much more plausible that this might have been instigated by the other Spartan royal family since Kleomenes had been responsible for discrediting and exiling Demaratos (who sided with Persia as a result).

Then there is the author's tendency to caricature in order to "improve" his story. So the Athenians get portrayed as a bunch of troublemakers, each of which believing that he is the smartest of all whereas the Spartans get caricatured as a pack of savage wolves trained to kill that only iron laws can keep in check. There is just about enough truth for them to be acceptable, but they are more the kind of portrays that you expect from George R.R. Martin in Game of Thrones rather than from a historian. A fourth example is the allegation that Spartans' daughters were given by the fathers to other warriors to be sodomized. This, as Tom Holland admits in a footnote, comes from a much latter Roman source writing six or seven hundreds of years after the alleged events, and known to be very untrustworthy and fond of gossip and slander, something that Mr Holland fails to mention. Needless to say, this allegation is simply incredible.

You should be aware that there are numerous other cases where Tom Holland has essentially been writing a piece of historical fiction rather than a history of the Greco-Persian wars. For those wanting to spot them, a comparison between this book and that of Peter Green or of George Cawkwell (the Persian Wars) is rather edifying.
Having mentioned all this, the story telling is great. At times, it reminded me of something out of Pressfield, although this is not at all what a history book should be. The campaigns and battle were mostly both gripping and well told. There were, however, some problems, even there.

The most glaring example is that of the battle of Salamis. Tom Holland mentions the 200 strong Egyptian squadron that sails to block the western strait between the island of Salamis and the mainland, then he moves on to describe the Greeks' feints and then the battle. However, at no time does he mention what happened to this rather massive Egyptian squadron which was only a few miles away and which, if it had attacked, might have changed the outcome completely. So even there we have a bit of a problem...
To the extent that this book tells a superb story (much better than the Shadow and the Sword which I somewhat generously rated three stars!), it is worth four stars, but this is rather generous. As a history book, this is probably not worth more than two stars and I can therefore not recommend it.

For those wanting to read a real history book about these events, you might want to try one of the following:
- The Greco-Persian Wars, by Peter Green, which still remains my favourite and the bets I have come across up to now, despite its age
- The Greek Wars, by George Cawkwell - the failure of Persia, which tells a more balanced story from both the Greek and the Persian point of view and goes from the Persian conquest of Ionia to Alexander the Great and the end of the Achaemenids
- From Cyrus to Alexander: History of the Persian Empire, by Pierre Briant, which is a massive and very scholarly book centered on the Persian Empire, NOT on the Greeks, and which shows, in particular, to what extent Greek perceptions and propaganda (starting with Herodotus) have distorted the picture we have of the so-called "Barbarians" ruled by tyrants...
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 10 May 2007
In contrast to Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire, which often lurches toward the more vicarious macho thrills afforded by blood-and-guts descriptive writing, this is well-written, thought-provoking history which is accessible for non-history buffs. It deals in equal measure with the origins of Persian expansion in the middle east, and how the nascent Greek societies were, in contrast to their foes, politically riven, frequently at war with each other, but brilliantly inventive when it came to military tactics.

Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea - the four major actions which put paid to the Persian plan to invade Europe - are described in major detail, and thankfully the Spartans' last stand only warrants a paragraph or so, giving the reader more scope to examine the wider Greek strategy for the entire 480/479 campaign. Great stuff.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 November 2005
After two chapters describing how the Achaemenid Persian Empire grew until it stretched from the Aegean to the Hindu Kush, Holland focusses on the attempt in the 5th century BC of the Persians to add the small city-states of Greece to their Empire. It is one of the marvels of history how these city-states, rent by external and internal rivalries, managed in the end to preserve their independence, like so many Davids against one Goliath. The very different cultures and institutions of Persians, Spartans and Athenians are very well brought out, and Holland paints a vivid picture of this amazing struggle. His long set-piece descriptions of the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea are quite superb (though I wish the maps, to which one has to refer frequently, were fold-out end-papers instead of being scattered throughout the book). I would not have wishes these passages to be any shorter; but I cannot say the same about other passages, where descriptions, in a somewhat journalistic style, strike me as excessively wordy and repetitive - piling Pelion on Ossa, as it were. But this is a minor cavil about a book which tells a stirring story.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
This book is an excellent read with a few reservations. For a synopsis and insight into this important time in history you could go no further for a clear and insightful window into the times. The beauty is the way Tom Holland gives you the twin track insight into to empires that come together to influence a lot of what we take for granted today in the west.

The beauty of his 'storytelling' brings history to life and the individual characters in this real life story vividly to the front of your mind and imagination.

One reservation may be that at time the dwelling on finer detail slows the overall pace where often you find yourself reading for hours to 'find out what happened next'.

Clearly those wanting a more focused and purist approach to history might not take to the style, but for me it merely served to prompt me to buy his other books.
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91 of 102 people found the following review helpful
on 23 October 2005
In this chronicle of the rise and fall of the Persian Empire Tom Holland emphasises thought-provoking parallels between past and present East/West confrontation. But readability does not depend on scholarship, political acumen and a sweeping sense of the larger historical picture alone. The reader is spellbound, as frail but wily Greeks outwit the Persian hordes and their gold-bedecked Great King. This is the stuff of camp-fire tales, told with the immediacy of an eye-witness: the stench, terror, tumult and unpredictability of swaying fortunes in the legendary battles of Thermopylae and Salamis have a cinematic reality. Narrative flow is maintained by Holland's ability to bridge facts with intelligent and imaginative supposition - a far more impressive bridge than Xerxes' short-lived two-mile pontoon between Asia and Europe. The tale is told with a telling mix of passion, humour and conversational persuasiveness. We are left in no doubt that European history would have taken a different course if the Persians had won in 480BC.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 8 December 2012
Telling the story of a military campaign from the fifth century BC was always going to be a difficult assignment, given that there is a lack of primary sources and secondary sources are in conflict. However, going against popular consensus, Tom Holland has actually surpassed Rubicon for sheer narrative drive.

As with Rubicon, which invited parallels betwixt the collapse of the Roman empire and the potential implosion of the United States' empire, Persian Fire solicits another contemporary analogy, addressing as it does the attempt of a global superpower to crush two upstart "terrorist states." Regardless of whether that analogy can be sustained or not, Persian Fire is a dramatic read, taking us through the origins of the Persian empire and its clashes with the west, including the main battles and the tactics used therein.

The first third or so of the book was rather dry, dealing primarily with the internal politics and backstabbing that characterised the building of the Persian empire but once the scene changes to Sparta, the dramatic pace steps up. Certainly, anyone interested in the true story that inspired the graphic novel and film "300" (which mythologised the last stand of the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae), will find much of interest in this book.

Whilst Rubicon gave us a fresh perspective on familiar material, Tom Holland has taken on a much more demanding task with Persian Fire, masterfully illuminating an ancient war that could be argued to have set the stage for the next two and a half thousand years of European culture. The slow scene-setting in the first third of this book aside, Persian Fire is highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
For a review about the book itself, its subject and content I refer the reader to any of the positive reviews that you will find on this page. This is a review of the 6-CD Audio book.

Andrew Sachs and Tom Holland are a marriage made in heaven. Finding myself doing a lot of motorway driving and finding both the radio and my CD collection tedious, I decided to have a go at audio books, starting off with Holland's Rubicon, which I had simply not found the time to read in printed form. Having loved that I bought Persian Fire on audio.

As with Rubicon, Sachs is the perfect vehicle for carrying Holland's richly enjoyable prose. The story is a complicated one, far from linear, and you have to follow it closely, which means that it is probably more suitable for the house than the car. But even in this abridged version there is no sacrifice of clarity. Sachs and Holland carry the reader along on the adventures of a world which eventually culminated in the division of east and west.

Sachs has a lovely speaking voice, reads the book at an even speed, and clearly enjoys the pace, liveliness, vibrancy and dry humour of Holland's writing. He becomes part of the text, never imposing himself upon it. A triumph.

My only regret is that the CD cover doesn't have a mini-booklet with maps. Mini booklets are common with opera and classical music CDs, so it's an easy enough add-on, and because the geographical scope of Persian interests and the location of individual battles are so important, I would really have valued a couple of maps to show me where things were taking place.

As I said in my review of Rubicon, if you're a driver and new to audio books you may worry about how intrusive they will be whilst you're negotiating obstacles. Speaking for myself, I found that I simply edited out the audio book when I needed full brain activity to deal with traffic conditions. It meant going back to the beginning of the particular track, but that didn't matter very much.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Holland is one of the best popular historians writing: while up to first rate scholarly standards, he can speak to lay readers with graceful clarity and intelligence. It is a unique combination of gifts, especially when you compare it to the dry writing of most academics. This book was particularly welcome to me because, having read Creation by Gore Vidal over 20 years ago, I have been looking since then for a history book that could explain from an academic point of view what the great novel did.

This book is about the collision of at least 3 worlds. First, you have the Persian Empire, the first multi-national fighting force that sought to exploit (and to a degree, respect) the attributes of its innumerable ethnic groups rather than impose the domination of one on them by force. This was the work of Cyrus the Great, who took a mountain nomad tribe that raised horses as tribute to whoever dominated them at any given time, and is a defining moment of administrative genius: rather than simple repression and exploitation, he united opponents to the brutal Assyrian Empire under the same banner and forged a fighting force the world had never seen, its population at one time encompassing 40% of all living human beings. Holland offers a detailed and fascinating portrait of him and his successors, in particular the usurper Darius and his son, Xerxes. Second, there are the middle eastern peoples, which included the exiled Jews living in cosmopolitan Babylon, but also Phoenicia and Egypt. It is a dazzlingly rich patchwork of people.

Third come the Greeks, who represented a poor, fractious backwater of over 700 city states, virtually all of whom were in a state of near-incessant war. Of the Greeks, the Ionian colonies (in modern day Turkey) were conquered and then co-opted by the Persians. Unfortunately, Darius reduced this unique culture to a smoldering ruin when crushing a rebellion. It was there that philosophy first fluorished and its potential will never be known. Then there are the Spartans, who lived under a kind of military socialism, its nomenklatura being aristocratic generals. Finally, there are the Athenians, who were experimenting with democracy and emerging from a long period of class struggle and backwardness. Of course, hundreds of other city states are included, but they are essentially petty kingdoms at war.

Once Xerxes ascended to the throne, he set his eyes on Europe. His father had failed there (at Marathon) and Xerxes wished to distinguish himself with the glory of conquest. To counter the threat, for the first (and only) time in their history, the Greeks united: with Spartans as military leaders and the backbone of the fighting force, the Athenians converted their fighting forces into a sea power. A number of remarkable leaders emerged, including Themistocles, a demagogue and genius of military strategy; and Leonidas, the Spartan king who knew his life was forfeit at Thermopylae in order to buy precious time. Against overwhelming odds - perhaps 10 or more to 1 - the Greeks held back and then beat the Persian military.

Holland goes into great detail about the military tactics and technologies, the story of which is the core book and 2/3 of its content. While war interests me less than culture, Holland masterfully weaves details and issues into the narrative as they arise. For example, when the Athenians have to evacuate their city, Holland offers a wonderful sub-chapter on the cloistered, repressed status of women in Athens, as they had to WALK the streets to leave; this was a scandal to aristocrats.

The book ends on a wonderful note that plays on Greek mythology: the goddess Nemesis, purportedly the mother the Helen with Zeus (think Iliad), moved to destroy virtually all of the heroes that emerged. Themistocles was ostracized and exiled to Persia, where he became a traitor and satrap in charge of Ionia and Pausanias, who had adopted an oriental bias for opulence that offended his Spartan subjects, was starved to death. These are the kind of details and skillful storytelling that make this book so memorable.

The theme of the book is that this war was what saved the West, what enabled Athens under Perikles to lay the greco-roman foundations of what would become European civilization. I must admit that I find this to be a dubious claim, similar to the one that Europe would have been Muslim if Charles Martel had not held out at Poitiers. Persia had reached its apogee, if only because it was so large that incorporating EUrope was all but impossible to conquer, let alone maintain. Perhaps western civilization would have emerged under a different form - we can never know.

Warmly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Anyone who studied history at school knows the problem all too well: the subject may be interesting, but the presentation is often dull, dry and off-puttingly slow. At this far remove, two and a half millennia after the fact, with only the bone-dry original sources of Plutarch, Herodotus, Xenophon et al to sustain us, we might balk at reading another narrative history of ancient times. But Tom Holland's history of Persia's great war against the upstart rebels of Sparta and Athens is far more engaging than that and deserves to be on the shelves of every school library.

Holland takes the brave step of spending the first few chapters introducing the reader to the book's unfamiliar superpower, Persia, leading us down the Khorasan Highway and dealing with Cyrus, Croesus, and the rise of the Emperor Darius. It takes a while to reorient oneself, but the changed perspective makes our return to Athens and Sparta, in the third chapter, far more relevant - and from there, the pace of the book is relentless. You almost have to wonder if Zach Snyder had a copy of this book when he was directing his version of 300, so cinematic is Holland's scale.

My only reservation is the introduction's attempt to link in the subject to the last decade's preoccupation with middle-eastern terrorism. For myself, since we're talking about two entirely different sets of religions here, the link is somewhat tenuous and a more fitting parallel would be the Crusades, 1500 years later. But this is history as it should be presented: interesting, story-driven, both broad and focused at the same time. Highly recommended.
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