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.
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.
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.
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.
on 22 November 2006
I could not put this book down. It's all here: the towering influence of the Iliad on daily life after 600 years, the arguing Athenians and how democracy happened almost by chance, the first Marathon, the curious habits of the Spartans such as educating girls, Leonidas's hesitation before Thermopolae, the rising tension of the Hitler-like threat from the east, and of course by implication, why Bush is loosing in Iraq, what is behind Iran making the bomb and how Putin has recast modern Russia on the model of Xerxes's Persian empire. It's well told, relevant today and truly facinating.
on 24 January 2006
There is a lot to understand and learn before you can properly begin to appreciate the importance and scale of the Persian Greek wars.
Tom Holland does not assume that his readers are historians. He gives a detailed, yet pacy background of the main players individually and the contries they represented. In other words we get an excellent "how we got to this point" lead in.
Allied with this he does not assume his readers are idiots, the historical information is blended with feeling and colour that has to have a level of assumption, but never goes off the rails.
By the time we get to the battles that made up this war we are well positioned to follow the complicated actions and the personalities involved and this makes the book all the more enjoyable.
I had never read Greek history although I had an interest. this was the perfect starting point and from here I have gone on to read books on the Spartans, Persians and Alexander.
If you want a fast paced, accessable yet intelligent outline of the war that set the stage for so much of World history that followed, there is no better book than this.
on 3 August 2007
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.
on 28 June 2007
This is the story of the world's first major empire and its collision with the West. The Persian Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, stretched from deep into Egypt to the steppes of southern Russia and from modern-day Turkey to India. The Great King held sway over millions of subjects and saw it a duty to extend the benefits of Medo-Persian civilisation to the world, starting with the barbarians of Greece. The great stories receive a brilliant retelling - the Athenian triumph at Marathon against all the odds, the epic defence of Thermopylae by Leonidas of Sparta with a small company centred on his famous 300-strong bodyguard, the naval triumph against a vastly superior Persian fleet at Salamis and the final battle at Plataea where the cream of the Persian army perished against the fighting machine of Sparta.
These great stories occur in the latter part of the book; to get to them, you have to wade through the first part, where Mr. Holland sets the scene in detail, occasionally perhaps too great detail, and one (this one anyway) has to force oneself to push on. He delves into the early history of Greece and Persia in considerable detail. In the case of the Greeks especially, it becomes difficult, in a procession of strange Greek names, often quite similar, to remember who was who and who did what. Politics between Greek city states were also every bit as Byzantine as those of the later Greek empire of that name. However, if nothing else, it is a salutary reminder that, while technical means and capabilities have increased enormously, humanity hasn't changed at all. The book, while written with style and a nice, dry wit, occasionally tries to be too self-consciously literary. But these are minor quibbles. This is a book well worth reading.
on 19 February 2016
I am more of your A.D. sort of man. Artaxerxes and/or the Achaemenids are all very well, but some, like myself prefer the naughty Ménage à trois of Sasan's Persia, the Eastern Roman Empire and the hardy peoples of Armenia (or the Hephthalites) making an almighty fuss, (which makes it a foursome I suppose). This is a period of history that is little covered in the west by comparison to the time of the Ancients.
If you're a B.C. lady or gentleman scholar, this work will soothe your quest for further knowledge at rather a breakneck speed but does have such and such competitors for this more popular, apparently, era of study. I certainly value this book as it quite obviously sets the stage for the centuries that followed and does this well enough. As one of the hoi polloi though, barely educated in fact, I enjoyed it well enough but the subject matter lacks bite. Mea culpa.
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.