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Dubious facts and modern assumptions about ancient heroes
on 13 November 2016
This history of the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th-century BC is fundamentally misconceived, as becomes clear in its introduction, where the author reassures the reader of the topical relevance of his story by purportedly tracing back to it the present conflict between the U.S. and Islamic fundamentalists. Herodotus, easily the most important source of our knowledge, is alleged to have been drawn to his tale through wondering why “the people of East and West find it so hard to live in peace.” This is simply not true: Herodotus said he was interested in “the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks.” It has long been popular to claim historical legitimacy for that self-fulfilling concept, “western” culture, by tracing it back to the Greeks, but personally I think it greatly overdone. The Greeks would have considered Holland’s real forbears as at least as barbaric as the Persians and I suspect in most respects they would feel much more at home in the traditional Moslem countries of the Mediterranean, with their similarities of family structure, food, dress, beliefs about gender, fate, sex, hospitality etc. than in the US. This matters because Holland’s story is skewed throughout by his fundamental assumption.
Being based mostly on Herodotus, Greek Fire is eminently readable with lively character sketches and anecdotes and the most interesting facts well marshalled. Holland's frequently colloquial language will also appeal to many, though personally I found it gave the narrative a gratingly modern and anachronistic flavour. This is popular history and I would accept it on its own terms if only it did not misinform so often. Hundreds of examples could be listed, but to do so would be to bore most while wrongly suggesting to the seriously interested that this is a history whose conclusions are worth lengthy consideration. Two very different ones will suffice.
According to all the ancient sources, the Persian King Cambyses was succeeded by someone pretending to be his dead brother Bardiya, but, when the ruse was soon after discovered, the impostor was killed and his throne taken by Darius the Great. A few modern historians have speculated that perhaps the assassinated King was genuinely Bardiya and his impostorship was made up after the event to legitimise the rule of Darius, who might not have had the royal blood all the ancients believed he had. This revisionist view is that presented by Holland, though the grounds for it are extremely weak (anyone interested should read the scholarly and thorough demolition of it in the article on Darius in the Encyclopaedia Iranica). Holland is obviously entitled to believe and present any theory he likes, but to foist it as undisputed fact on unsuspecting readers hoping for historical truth is unforgivable.
Describing the upbringing of the Spartan boy, which he unsurprisingly milks for its sensational value, he asserts that “at the age of twelve, he became legal game for cruising” and being “sodomized”, that there were “fines for boys who refused to take a lover”, and the experience of submitting “must have been” traumatic for “most young Spartans.” Each of these phrases is a fine example of how Holland turns all that is known on its head and imposes on the ancient Greeks alien Anglophone assumptions. Actually, it was the men who were fined if they did not take up a boy. “Cruising” is a good example of why Holland’s use of current colloquial English also distorts. It surely suggests seeking out sex likely to be casual, the very opposite of the relationship between the Spartan boy and his lover, which was one of deep and lasting social and legal responsibility, and involved strictly no sex according to our most authoritative witnesses (eg. Xenophon), or very limited sex according to others. No one can possibly know that Spartan boys found being sodomized “traumatic”, since none are known to have been. If they had been, it is fairer to assume they would have experienced it as their other Greek counterparts did: Aristotle discusses the problem of boys liking it too much.
I don’t believe it is necessary for history books to be nearly this misleading to be widely popular, though I admit to thinking that in any case popularity could not justify the high cost in historical truth and understanding. If you want a lively account of these wars, why not simply read Herodotus himself, whose History is much better written and is the authentic voice of the ancient world?
Edmund Marlowe, author of Alexander's Choice, a schoolboy’s story, amazon.co.uk/dp/1481222112